My opinions towards the Pennsylvania system of municipal government are derived primarily from the experience of living most of my life in unincorporated areas mostly in Cecil County, MD & New Castle County, DE because I doesn't remember living in Baltimore County, MD. Living in such locations, municipal services were primarily handled either by a town or a city if you lived within the limits, or by the county if you lived outside of town or city limits. In Maryland & Delaware, as well as most other states in the US, the county is a much stronger governmental entity than Pennsylvania. For example, in Maryland, counties operate services ranging from police, fire & paramedics to school districts. Delaware counties operate Emergency Medical Services as well as police services outside of incorporated areas.
The idea of cities, townships & boroughs was confusing at first because I didn't understand the municipal structure. However, after I became familiar with how it operated, I began to question the usefulness of such a system in a region like Allegheny County. I understand that there are certainly positives to local government control, such as the perception of having local needs met at the local level by individuals who reside in that community. If you have a problem, you can talk to the local mayor. If there is a crisis, the local police department could respond quickly. If a road needs to be repaired, the local public works department knows exactly where it is and can repair it quickly. My children will be able to be educated close to home and presumably with others who come from similar families in the neighborhoods.
However, what really are the merits of this system & its related costs?
While it is great to have access to the local municipal building, do small local governments really generate more effective responses to concerns than larger governmental entities?
Allegheny County has more than its share of small municipalities (Haysville manages to squeeze 78 people into its vast expanse of.2 square miles) and economically depressed locations, such as many Monongahela Valley cities & boroughs. According to state law, these municipalities can't cease to exist only to be absorbed by another municipality or become administered by the county. I understand that many locations were incorporated due to a desire to achieve better public service than had previously been offered, or to gain the windfall from an industrial site. I recognize that these locations have long and often proud histories and distinct local flavor. But, I feel the redundancy present in this county of 130 municipalities does everyone a disservice.
I was driving to the Waterfront the other day and witnessed some form of incident taking place in Homestad. There were police present from Homestead, West Homestead & Rankin. If it were a very serious crime, the investigation would be handled by the Allegheny County Police. In another instance, Kilbuck Township approved a shopping center to be built on a hillside over Ohio River Boulevard. In the process of preparing the site for construction, part of the hillside collapsed onto Rt 65 and train tracks. Why did Kilbuck approve the project? To gain additional tax revenue. Though you could argue that local areas should control their own zoning because they have individual needs and are familiar with the area, is it fair to the rest of the populace to let local governments make their own zoning decisions on major projects based on the work of small zoning & engineering departments that could easily feel pressure from municipal leaders desperate for new sources of revenue?
It is apparent to me that there needs to be some degree of consolidation in this county. While it certainly will be resisted by many, it is just obvious that the status quo is not assisting this county in attracting new residents and businesses. Local governments prospered with the big mill sites and the high taxes that were paid. This allowed many governments to provide great services to residents. However, those days are gone in many places in Allegheny County.
What I propose as a way to complete consolidation of all services in Allegheny County:
1. Allegheny County assume zoning power over all areas outside the City of Pittsburgh. This will allow the county to form a uniform development plan that identifies industrial areas, agricultural areas, residential areas, commercial areas. Thus, growth could be attracted to focused locations, thus eliminating the need to get zoning approval and permits for any major project overlapping municipal bounds.
2. Eliminate the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office & combine its officers into the Allegheny County Police Department. Then, allow the County Police to sign contracts to provide law enforcement in municipalities that request it or have populations of under 10,000 residents.
3. Eliminate local EMS & Fire Agencies and have all services taken over by the county. This will consist of a county-wide, professional paramedic service as well as fire coverage to be two-tiered system. Professional firefighters will man half of the fire stations located throughout the county. They will be supplemented by volunteer firefighters. This will ensure a quick response to incidents but not become an albatross cost-wise because of a large volunteer-operated contingent.
4. All public works projects, including roads, snow removal, sewers, water delivery etc will be assumed by the county.
5. County Council will be expanded
—-In the future
1. All municipal governments will be consolidated to form Allegheny County
2. School districts will be formed with populations ranging from 5000-10000 students and should be done in a manner that seeks to maintain geographical unity but at the same time account for economic disparity, so that poverty does not become concentrated in one school district over another.
And finally, yes, I realize that these changes cannot be enacted without approval from the state government