Blog Archives

What Are We Fighting For? #MuniCon

The New York Times published an excellent article (New Jersey’s Tiniest Towns Fight Push to Merge) on the push for municipal consolidation, particularly in New Jersey, but more generally, a push that is catching on nation-wide. In New Jersey, former Governor Jon Corzine signed a law in 2007 that would allow residents of towns to petition in order to start the consolidation process for their municipality. But almost no towns have consolidated since the bill passed — and the small town of Teterboro is now fighting against this.

Richard Pérez-Peña reports:

At 1.1 square miles, this town is smaller than Central Park — smaller even than Teterboro Airport, which spills past its borders. It has no schools, no police or fire department, far more aircraft than residents, and a bone to pick with the Census Bureau.The bureau estimates Teterboro is home to 17 people, making it the smallest municipality in New Jersey. But locals say the true population is at least 50, maybe 60.

Either way, many people wonder why it is a town at all, and a bill before the State Legislature would abolish Teterboro and split the pieces among its neighbors. That bill has stalled, but the idea is not likely to go away. And many other places across the state are ripe for the same treatment.

The town’s manager Paul Busch — who, by the way, earns a salary of $130,000/year — states that claims about savings from consolidation are unsubstantiated. But it’s a little hard to figure out how Mr. Busch can make that statement without a comprehensive long-term study that examines the costs and benefits of consolidating municipalities.

All in all, the pushback on consolidation — at least in New Jersey (but who are we kidding? The pushback is strong everywhere) — seems to be mostly political. As the Times reports, “The idea of combining entities often meets fierce resistance: it can cost local officials their jobs or political power, and many residents see it as a loss of autonomy or identity.”

So what are your thoughts on municipal consolidation? Do we really need these little fiefdoms? What are we fighting for? And with a conservative estimate of 60 people in the town of Teterboro, is each resident paying over $2,000 for just Mr. Busch’s salary (assuming each of those 60 people is a taxpayer — which I doubt)?

State Support for Distressed Cities — But Is it the Answer?

The New York Times covers the story of the many state-established programs that aim to help out financially-strapped cities. In the spotlight: Harrisburg, which just applied for Pennsylvania’s distressed cities program. The city will not be able to pay its payroll without funds from the program. Mary Williams Walsh writes:

The situation is particularly acute in Pennsylvania, where the flailing of a state capital has drawn considerable attention. Late last year, Reading joined the state’s distressed program. Ways to exit the program have often been elusive. Eleven municipalities have been in the state’s program for more than a decade. They were joined there five years ago by Pittsburgh.

Public finance experts say Pennsylvania’s “home rule” form of government, where tiny boroughs and townships have full municipal powers, make the problem knottier. If one local government takes the bitter medicine and raises taxes, residents can dodge the increase by moving a few blocks away.

Unfortunately, this has only encouraged the siphoning out of the cities, with residents moving to the suburbs in flocks. In turn, the cities’ tax bases have dropped significantly — making tax raises nearly inevitable. It’s an ugly cycle — one that affects every community at some point.

So is the solution state monetary help? Or can we do better? Municipal consolidation, anyone?

Municipal Consolidation Bill Stirring Discussions in State Capitol

The municipal consolidation bill, introduced by State Representative Tom Caltagirone earlier this year, has been fueling discussions recently within Harrisburg about how to best address the problems faced by fiscally-strapped municipalities. In the last few days, several legislators have considered the bill’s merits and its timeliness. After all, many of the Commonwealth’s municipalities are taking drastic measures to cut costs and avoid tax hikes. Municipal finance experts have warned us about the looming pension crisis for some time now, and the cost for maintenance and basic upkeep of our cities, boroughs and townships keeps rising.

Rep. Caltagirone’s bill (House Bill 2431) “calls for eliminating city, township and borough governments, and rolling them all into a county-run hybrid,” WFMZ reports. But the bill certainly has its critics:

Municipalities have lined up to denounce the bill, saying it would eliminate identities and create a government the likes of a big corporation. “I think local government works,” said David Sanko, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association Of Township Supervisors.

More than a dozen municipalities in Berks, and even more in surrounding counties have already adopted resolutions against House Bill 2431. “I think the larger the community becomes, the more difficult it is to stay in touch with your residents,” Sanko said, “just because of sheer volume.”

How should struggling municipalities deal with declining tax bases? What other solutions exist for this problem? Gerry Cross of the Pennsylvania Economy League, Central Division, will cover all of this and more in his informal talk on Municipal Finance at the upcoming RenewLV brown-bag session, held on Friday, August 27, 12pm (noon ) to 1:15. Come out to the Sigal Museum, new home of the Northampton County Historical & Genealogical Society [342 Northampton Street in Easton, map] and be a part of the discussion. For more information, visit our past blog post.

Call for Regional Coordination in Time Capsule Letter

Over the weekend, the residents of Emmaus experienced a wave of nostalgia when the Borough opened its 50-year time capsule. Buried on the Emmaus Triangle and opened at Community Park, the capsule included various treasures, such as copies of newspapers, government documents, and family photos. But one item was particularly interesting, especially because of its relevance to RenewLV’s mission of promoting smart growth principles in the Lehigh Valley.

A letter written by W.D. Reimert, Managing Editor of the Call-Chronicle Newspapers, covers some of the aspects of governance in his time that seem to directly contradict the presumed philosophy of efficiency touted in the 1950s. Forward-thinking Mr. Reimert wrote, “When it comes to community effort and government, we are still living in the dark ages. Every community is a law unto itself…This is inefficient, expensive, wasteful of time and energy.” The problems of inefficiency, according to Reimert, will be “eliminated by the coordination of essential services all along the line.”

Ahead of his time, Mr. Reimert recognized that poor planning and fragmented governance would lead to future ailments for Pennsylvania. These two issues are often cited as the main culprits behind disinvestment in the older communities and the continued loss of open space. Indeed, the Brookings Institution’s Back to Prosperity study cited these features as ones that contribute to the hollowing out effect that much of the state is experiencing currently. The older cities are being abandoned for life in the outer townships. And many of the valuable assets that are associated with Pennsylvania are being left behind. These trends have had a dismal effect on the state’s economy and have placed unnecessary burdens on the taxpayers.

But there is hope for reform, and the letter from Mr. Reimert speaks to the changes that will be necessary for ensuring a prosperous and thriving Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania. Most of the recommendations center on coordination of essential services – especially the water and sewerage utilities. Additional services that can be coordinated are “health services, street repair crews, planning bodies.”

Sadly, Mr. Reimert’s hopes that these changes would be fully implemented by 2009 have not been fulfilled. One salient example of this inefficiency is the 40 different publicly owned water and wastewater systems in the Lehigh Valley. A recent study showed that consolidation of these systems could save the region close to $56 million each year by the year 2020. And coordination would promote efficient use of the resources by encouraging development in areas with existing infrastructure. Yet we have yet to reach regional collaboration on this matter in the Valley.

Nonetheless, the hope remains that the vision of comprehensive coordinated planning in the Lehigh Valley will become a reality. Steps are being taken in the right direction. The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission has been essential in putting forward suggestions for the region that promote better planning of the land and the services. And RenewLV is working on various initiatives to ensure that regional collaboration will be achieved in the Valley. Renew’s mission to strengthen the core communities, preserve open space, and create a sustainable and equitable foundation for future growth encompasses the belief that coordination of the essential services will bring about a thriving Lehigh Valley.

But the residents of the Lehigh Valley need to contribute to this process. W.D. Reimert believed that these changes could not be achieved without “a great many persons … willing to provide leadership and imagination.” For this reason, I encourage you to become a supporter of RenewLV by visiting our Join Us page and submitting your information. You will become a part of the network of dedicated citizens working hard to ensure that this region will continue to grow in a coordinated and well-planned manner.