Bill to consolidate Pa. government protested

July 19, 2010 6:38:20 AM PDT
A state lawmaker's proposal for Pennsylvania's counties to absorb municipal governments and be made responsible for local services is drawing fire from local government officials.

State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Berks, sponsored legislation earlier this year under which Pennsylvania's 67 counties would assume all responsibility for local services, including road repairs, police and fire services, and zoning. The proposed constitutional amendment would eliminate townships, boroughs and cities.

Caltagirone said he does not expect such a bill to pass but wanted to start a serious discussion about the cost and inefficiency of the current fragmented system of local government that includes some 2,566 municipalities.

"Take a place like Lancaster County, with 60 units of local government," Caltagirone said. "How many local government employees are there, and why shouldn't they all be under one health care plan? And think about bulk purchasing - wouldn't that save money?"

Pennsylvania's atomized system of local government also makes the state less business-friendly, he said, pointing to southern and western states organized at the county level that are growing and attracting business. A proliferation of local governments, he said, "adds a layer of bureaucracy, and a layer of cost."

Dozens of Pennsylvania townships, however, have passed resolutions "opposing forced local government mergers and consolidations." Local officials say municipal mergers are fine when they happen voluntarily, but the measure would put the county in charge of local government matters at a time when government closest to home governs best.

"We are in favor of finding cost-effective strategies for serving our community, but those efforts should rise from commonsense partnerships and not from a mandate from Harrisburg," Lancaster Township Manager Bill Laudien said.

The bill will get a hearing Aug. 18 in Harrisburg, and Caltagirone says he expects opponents to show up in force.

The Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors has suggested that townships across the commonwealth pass resolutions in opposition, and executive director David Sanko says hundreds have done so.

"Big government isn't better, and we have a singular example of this," Sanko said, citing Philadelphia's merger or city and county in the early 1950s. "I don't think anyone wants to point to that and say that's something to be emulated."

The financial plight of cities such as Philadelphia, however, is something Caltagirone cites in support of his bill.

"You've got distressed communities, they're landlocked with no more development, some of them are talking about eliminating police," Caltagirone said.

Sanko, however, says he doesn't buy that argument.

"If this is supposed to be a bailout of communities that overspent by going to their suburban neighbors and taking their tax base, that won't raise all boats - it will take them down," he said.