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To Be, or to Disband? A Question Facing Shrinking Towns

One official in Pennsylvania wants to make it easier for municipalities to disincorporate.

Duquesne, Pa.
Downtown Duquesne, Pa.
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, has about 1.2 million residents, nearly 400,000 fewer than it had in 1970. Pittsburgh itself has enjoyed a recent resurgence in its reputation and economy, but the larger county region still has many relics of a more crowded municipal past. Towns such as Duquesne, Clairton, McKeesport and Wilkinsburg have all seen big drops in their population, which make it hard to afford all the government they still have in place. Some smaller jurisdictions are approaching the vanishing point. In Allegheny County as a whole, 40 of the 130 municipalities have fewer than 2,000 residents. 

That raises a troubling question for county officials in the Keystone State: What happens if and when a municipality decides it no longer has the means to support itself and wants to disband? Municipalities in Pennsylvania are allowed to merge with each other, but that‘s often impractical. Towns and cities that are struggling to hang on don’t want to assume the debt or budget problems of a community that’s in worse shape than they are. That’s one reason there have been only five municipal mergers in the whole state since 2000.

Thirty-eight states allow for towns to disincorporate, but the only option for Pennsylvania cities to do so is to enter the state’s Act 47 program for financially distressed municipalities. Disincorporation is seen as a last resort in that process, and it’s one that can take years of bureaucratic maneuvering.

So Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County’s executive, is trying to convince state lawmakers to allow municipalities to disband on their own, bypassing Act 47, and accept some form of county supervision. Right now, the proposal is limited to places in Allegheny County with 10,000 or fewer residents. 

Fitzgerald stresses that the process would be entirely voluntary. “This is not a takeover or a power grab,” he told a legislative committee. “A group of disgruntled citizens cannot make a community ‘go away.’” He thinks a town that opts to disincorporate could still take advantage of a county’s strong economic climate, while maintaining its cultural identity and, perhaps, providing better public services at a lower cost.

So far, those assurances haven’t been enough to assuage the Pennsylvania Municipal League, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Commissioners and the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, which all oppose the legislation. These are all politically entrenched organizations; Pennsylvania has more units of local government than any state except Illinois and Texas.“Municipal disincorporation is a very radical and uncharted response to the municipal fiscal stress we are witnessing in Pennsylvania,” says Amy Sturges, a lobbyist for the municipal league and township commissioners. “Our county governments, aside from Philadelphia, are not providing the array of typical municipal services. Rather than dismantling our local government structure, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania should invest in its local governments with a comprehensive approach and a policy objective of preventing municipal fiscal distress.” 

Allegheny County, meanwhile, is in a financial position for the first time in recent memory to actually help its fiscally distressed local municipalities. It’s already assumed police duties for one of its local jurisdictions. If sharing services isn’t enough and municipal consolidation doesn’t seem feasible, letting some of the county’s small towns dissolve might turn out to be an idea worth considering.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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