Demographic Decline May Force PA to Address Its Fragmentation Problem
The 2020 Census showed that Pennsylvania grew by 2.4% over the last decade, a modest level of growth compared to other parts of the country. Statewide growth is concentrated in an ever-smaller number of counties; and more than 60% of Pennsylvania’s municipalities experienced population decline between 2010 and 2020. For these shrinking communities, there is no time left to start addressing the challenges ahead.
More than 1,500 Pennsylvania municipalities have less than 1,000 residents, and more than 400 have populations under 500 people. Many of the smallest municipalities are trapped in a cycle of decline, lacking the resources to invest in their futures.
Being a small municipality in Pennsylvania comes with formidable challenges. The state devolves many responsibilities to its boroughs and townships, but many of these responsibilities become nearly impossible to meet with waning populations and tax bases. More than half of all Pennsylvania municipalities maintain no local police department, leaving public safety to distant state police offices. But municipalities remain responsible for much else, from the maintenance of key infrastructure to land-use planning and essential public services – and these are baseline tasks, far from sufficient to building a prosperous future, which requires the ability to attract and retain new residents and new businesses.
Being a place where people want to live and work requires continuous reinvestment that fewer and fewer local Pennsylvania communities have the fiscal capacity to manage. The proliferation of distressed communities is a consequence of the state’s extreme fragmentation – Pennsylvania is home to more than 2,500 individual municipalities. That number does not include over 1,800 public authorities and special-district governments that provide public services. Nor does it include the combined city and county of Philadelphia, 66 independent county governments, and 500 school districts that coexist in a confounding and overlapping patchwork of local government.
Long-term problems will not be resolved without structural reorganization of Pennsylvania local government, which could include mergers and annexations, among other policy options. So far, discussion of local government reform has netted little, as debates get bogged down in board disagreements over the role of government. Some fear that even the most minor reorganization of small municipalities will open the door to the creation of large new government bureaucracies elsewhere.
The state’s smallest and most distressed communities are being held hostage to fears that could be addressed with effective legislation. It’s in the power of the legislature to create incentives encouraging municipalities to reorganize themselves. State programs can reward local boroughs and townships that work together and bring about consolidations in cases where it makes sense to do so.
Similar results could be facilitated by encouraging greater implementation of Councils of Government (COGs), a tool that has been in place since the mid-20th century. COGs are voluntary associations of local governments that facilitate cooperation in key public services and are already in use in parts of the state. Alternatively, county governments could be given wider authority to take on responsibilities currently devolved to boroughs and townships. Inertia has ruled up to now because the state provides little incentive to pursue any of these changes.
Local leaders have repeatedly proposed legislation to address the situation of distressed municipalities. In the 1990s, Allegheny County Controller Frank Lucchino argued for new laws to allow Pennsylvania municipalities to disincorporate – something not permitted in Pennsylvania statutes. The step was necessary, he maintained, because many municipalities had functionally ceased to exist. The idea gained little traction, though it has been occasionally reintroduced since then.
Absent significant changes, it’s unrealistic to expect Pennsylvania’s shrinking communities to stabilize on their own. Ongoing demographic decline is compounded by historically low rates of international immigration – the primary source of population growth in the United States in recent decades – and now by declining rates of domestic migration within the country.
The result: many communities must manage their own decline. Population growth is not necessarily a requirement of prosperous and successful communities, but clearly, Pennsylvania’s many struggling communities must start doing things differently. Building competitive municipalities will require, for starters, reimagining the role of local governments. Major change is needed if many Pennsylvania cities, boroughs, and townships are to develop the more focused plans and investments that are currently beyond their capacity.
Christopher Briem is a regional economist at the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.