Pennsylvania continues to underwhelm on vaccinations, ranking 27th out of the 50 states in the percentage of our population that’s been vaccinated. In response to some recent dust-ups between the state and local officials about the roll-out, Governor Tom Wolf told the Inquirer that “you kinda have to scratch your head” to see where things might be going wrong.
But those of us who follow local government policy in Pennsylvania are not scratching our heads. We know at least one of the reasons why things aren’t going better: the near-total lack of government capacity below the level of state government.
One thing we’ve seen during the pandemic is a troubling lack of intermediate government that is capable of organizing at a regional level in Pennsylvania. For example, there are only six county Health Departments for all of Pennsylvania, out of 67 counties. Philadelphia’s Health Department, while far from immune from fair criticism for decisions they made in the last year, nonetheless played an indispensable role in managing the public health needs here, and it would be impossible to imagine what things would be like without them.
Delaware County doesn’t have a Health Department, and anecdotally, people say it’s been harder to get appointments there. There appear to be 25 different sign-up forms with different organizations in the absence of a single Health Department to coordinate it all, according to the county’s website.
“The County currently operates a total of 5 sites, located in Aston, Chester, Radnor, Springfield and Yeadon; however, there are currently over 25 active COVID-19 vaccination sites in Delaware County, including sites at Delaware County Rite Aids, Giants, Wegmans, etc. All current COVID-19 vaccinations sites can be found on this downloadable PDF and on this interactive Vaccination Site Map.
Critically, each organization has its own vaccine sign-up process. Review the information for each vaccine provider and sign up as each provider requires—either through their website or by phone. The “Pre-Registration Form” button above is for County-sponsored vaccinations only. If you pre-register with the County of Delaware, you can continue to look to other vaccine providers to try to register for an earlier vaccination date.
What a mess! And Delaware County is also one of the higher-resourced counties in Pennsylvania, with a greater population density that supports more medical facilities that can carry out vaccinations absent much government coordination. Now imagine what it must be like in some of the places in more rural areas of the state where the county population may just be a few tens of thousands of people.
Making matters worse, in nearly every county in the state, it isn’t the more regional county governments who are empowered to operate the main levers of municipal governance—it’s thousands of tiny no-capacity municipalities that mostly don’t have the tax capacity within their boundaries to provide many public services at any scale.
For these reasons and so many more, the time is right for the next Governor to make County government a thing in Pennsylvania, and increase our capacity to govern regionally, deliver high-quality, cost-effective public services, reverse our population losses, and meet all of the challenges of tomorrow.
Bigger County Governments with More and Better Services
Pennsylvania has 67 counties, each with an elected county government, but the real power at the local level lives with the 2,561 municipal governments and 500 school districts. Having such a fragmented local government system creates a few big problems that the next Governor should take more seriously than Governor Wolf and prior governors have.
The biggest problem with government fragmentation in Pennsylvania is their highly constrained capacity to tax and to provide quality public services. To see why, it helps to look at Pennsylvania’s only existing city-county government: Philadelphia.
Here in Philadelphia, I live in the neighborhood of Fishtown, along with about 15,000 other residents. If Fishtown were its own municipality, it would be in the top quartile statewide for local government population. Over 75 percent of municipal governments in Pennsylvania have a population below 1,500 people.
Compared to a lot of places, Fishtown could possibly hold up okay as its own local tax base, but why on Earth would we do that? Obviously it’s far from perfect, but our inclusion within the much larger tax base of the city of Philadelphia allows us to afford a much more varied menu of local services and a much higher-capacity local government than what we’d be able to cobble together relying on just 15,000 people to foot the bill.
Not all counties are very populous, but they’re more populous than municipalities are, and if all the dozens of municipal governments in a county stopped having their own budgets, and instead started pooling all their money and staff at the county level, more places would be able to finance a higher-capacity local government.
In some cases, the problem with the status quo is the services that aren’t being provided at all. Most counties don’t have a Health Department, and their constituent municipalities don’t either, so everybody’s stuck relying on the state and federal governments to get their act together.
Other times, the issue is that local governments just offload the costs onto the state instead of providing a service locally, like in the case of the state police. Notoriously, half of PA municipalities don’t have a local police department, and rely on the state troopers for their local policing needs. As a resident of Philadelphia, I pay three times for police services: once for the Philly police, once for the state police, and a third time to subsidize state police activities in localities without a department. That’s not fair!
But there’s a clear solution here: make the county governments—not the state—be the backstop police provider, which would create some better governance incentives. And it would also help stop bleeding at PennDOT, where the troopers have been eating up a larger and larger share of the transportation budget.
Pennsylvania already has some unincorporated areas that don’t have a municipal government below the county level, and where the county is the local service provider of last resort. Thinking harder about the basic county services package for unincorporated areas presents an opportunity to think about building on counties’ basic service provider role, and regionalizing more of those core emergency services is a great starting point (more on this later.)
The biggest problem of all, which is rarely even acknowledged, is that the services most local governments can afford with such small tax bases are janky, low-capacity services that could be much higher-quality if provided by paid professional staff at the county level. Instead of relying entirely on volunteer fire departments, maybe you could afford a few employees. Instead of having a hundred different all-volunteer planning commissions within the county, maybe you could afford some more full-time staff for the county planning commission to review plans and run the permitting functions. This also applies to the elected officials, who in most parts of the state are volunteers with other jobs rather than full-time paid politicians.
People who want to see municipal government work, and deliver high-quality cost-effective public services should be appalled by this state of affairs. Empowering the county governments to take over more of the traditionally municipal government functions is a critical part of the solution.
Regional Tax Fairness for More Equal Regions
Some people like living in the city, and some people like living in more suburban settings, and any successful city or region is going to have a mix of different kinds of places. But the whole point of having a suburban government distinct from the city government is all about reaping the economic gains from proximity to the city central business district, while trying one’s best to avoid paying taxes to that city. It’s a purely parasitic relationship to the central city.
Prior to the 1960’s, Pennsylvania’s central cities still had annexation powers and could expand outward, swallowing up smaller townships and unincorporated territory. That system was better, because it meant that more people living roughly within the labor market catchment of the central city, and deriving benefits from that, would end up paying taxes to that city.
Philadelphia has more working in its favor than many places because of the Sterling Act (which allows the city to collect wage taxes from non-resident workers), and the fact that it’s the only city-county government in the state, which gives it a comparatively gigantic land area and tax base to draw from.
But other cities aren’t so lucky. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s second-largest city, is just one of 130 different towns in Allegheny County. Everybody would be better off if Allegheny County was the smallest tax-collecting unit of government there, just like how it works in Philly. Instead, hundreds of micro-governments use up much of the non-school tax capacity, leaving the County government needlessly under-resourced.
This matters for the state capacity reasons already discussed, but it also matters for tax fairness.
High-resource towns with in-demand school districts are able to effectively wall themselves off from sharing tax bases with nearby places with fewer resources due to the misguided Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which created a major barrier to desegregation and redistributive taxation or service provision across municipal boundaries. Combined with Pennsylvania’s other practices of locating the most important zoning powers at the municipal—rather than county—level, and the overreliance on local property taxes to fund public education, this is a system that is optimized for reproducing economic and racial segregation in housing and schools.
A system with 67 school districts instead of 500, where land-use planning and housing permitting were located at the county level, would go a long way toward creating a fairer landscape for taxation and provision of public services by breaking down some of those jurisdictional barriers preventing regional taxation and housing planning.
Challenges would of course remain, as we see even in county-level school districts like Philadelphia, where the elementary catchment system still does a lot of the same mischief in its interaction with real estate. But it’s not nearly as bad as it would be if some of the very in-demand school catchments were actually separate governments funded by the property taxes of those fortunate enough to be able to afford a home inside. Or with the zoning powers to set a very high minimum cost for housing. Sadly, that is how it works in the rest of Pennsylvania.
Regional Planning Would Mean Better Planning
Locating zoning powers—the chief regulatory authority over what can be built where—at the most micro level of government inhibits the possibility of any true regional planning in Pennsylvania in a way that is real and binding, even though many counties do have a planning commission that would be better-suited to carrying out the land use planning and permitting needs of their regions.
Giving extremely small governments the zoning powers effectively enables them to set very high minimum costs to live within their boundaries, by setting a high minimum amount of land that each household must be able to afford to buy or rent in order to live there.
This is accomplished through policies like single-family zoning with excessively large minimum lot sizes, maximum lot-occupancy rules, minimum parking requirements, and general restrictions on siting multifamily housing. Multi-family housing is an affordability hack for dealing with the problem of high land costs, which allows more people to live on a parcel of land by inhabiting smaller dwellings or using more of the empty space in the sky. One common way that exclusionary suburbs and city neighborhoods maintain their exclusivity is by inhibiting this novel solution to the land cost problem, and requiring that only one household may occupy each parcel of land—a practice called single-family zoning.
This set of practices has been proven over and over again to drive up housing costs, and has increasing come under attack by housing reformers, mainly on the West Coast. The Biden administration is now taking aim at local exclusionary zoning policies in their draft infrastructure plan, but it’ll take more state-level preemption of those policies to make a real difference.
Moving more of the land use and planning powers to the County level could be expected to boost housing production, and thus affordable housing, for a few different reasons. For one, there’s some recent academic evidence that jurisdiction size matters for a local government’s attitude toward housing production, with a population range between 100,000 to 1 million people apparently being the sweet spot for engendering more pro-housing outcomes. Smaller and larger jurisdictions exhibit lower levels of housing permitting, so moving the zoning and permitting authority to a more intermediate layer of government on its own could possibly be expected to juice housing production.
But more significantly, moving more land-use powers to the county level would make counties’ existing comprehensive plans much more relevant, especially if paired with new legally binding housing production targets from the state.
Counties are already required by state law to update their comprehensive plans every 10 years, but they still don’t really mean anything right now, even though municipal comprehensive plans and related zoning ordinances are legally required to be “generally consistent” with the county plans. Municipalities are also required to abide by state “fair share” housing laws in the Municipalities Planning Code that governs what most municipalities (excepting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) are allowed to do.
The fair-share system also means that municipalities must provide for all legal types of land uses allowed under state law somewhere within their boundaries, including multi-family housing and affordable housing. But that doesn’t stop municipal solicitors from employing all kinds of legal and quasi-legal tricks to get around these requirements, which usually aren’t ever challenged unless a developer files a lawsuit.
The big problem is that even though there are some good state laws and even better case law about all this, there’s still no proactive regimen through which the state keeps tabs on municipalities and holds them accountable for aligning with county plans or complying with state law in their plans and zoning ordinances. But that could change if more of the powers were moved to the county level and the state developed a more effective accountability system.
What the Next Governor Should Do
The problem of local government fragmentation isn’t a new topic in Pennsylvania, and every few years it still comes up for discussion because it is a really big problem, and yet nobody’s really come up with a politically-viable way to fix it.
The definitive study on this is David Rusk’s “Little Boxes” report for Brookings from 2003, which helped launch the last round of regionalist political organizing on this in Pennsylvania, with groups forming like Renew Lehigh Valley and Better York, which was where Governor Tom Wolf first cut his political teeth. Wolf even wrote a regionalist manifesto for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center back in 2000, but then proceeded to not really do anything of substance on this topic during his two terms as Governor.
Prior debates about the issue have failed to gain traction by focusing too much on less palatable ideas like consolidating or disbanding municipal governments, which makes the issue much more emotionally charged than it has to be. Nobody wants to see their own town admit defeat and dissolve, and this isn’t strictly necessary to make progress on the underlying problems.
A good example of an approach that went nowhere was a bill introduced by then-Rep. Gene DiGirolamo back around 2010 that would have slashed the number of local governments by some large and arbitrary number. While arguably a good idea on the merits, that type of approach is just going to scare people, and seems unlikely to move the ball forward.
Pennsylvania isn’t likely to ever dissolve many local governments within our lifetimes for all the reasons anyone would expect, so local government reformers are better off focusing on second-best solutions that expand counties’ roles as municipal service providers, move more of the most expensive services to the county level, and also pursue changes that increase the power of counties’ comprehensive plans over municipalities’ zoning options.
Make Counties Offer Services for Contract
Pennsylvania isn’t the only state that has this problem, and it’s worth looking abroad to some of the places that have come up with some more workable end-runs around it.
The version that seems most promising for Pennsylvania is a spin on the “Lakewood Plan” that’s in effect in greater Los Angeles, where it’s very common for municipalities to contract for some services with Los Angeles County, while retaining their own local governance functions.
In a 2011 article for the Rosewood Institute, Nathan Falk described how this works, and what municipal officials see as beneficial:
In the Inland Empire today, many cities and local governments employ some variation of the original Lakewood Plan. Contract emergency services – police and fire protection – are the most obvious examples of services for which cities have recently received media attention, but everything from tree-trimming to traffic signal repair, to legal services can be outsourced. Some cities and counties are even outsourcing library services to private, for-profit companies.
Not only are the types of contract services varied, the partnerships themselves also take a number of forms. Cities can contract with other governmental entities such as counties or neighboring cities, special districts, and, of course, private sector companies. If a Care ambulance drives by, a Burrtec truck picks up trash weekly, or the county sheriff’s office responds to a 9-1-1 call, those entities are providing services under contract with the local government. In Lakewood, for example, the city hired Los Angeles County to provide a variety of municipal services. Riverside County similarly provides police services to seventeen incorporated cities and one tribal area. Nineteen cities contract with Riverside County Fire for emergency services.
How this could work in Pennsylvania is that counties could be required or otherwise incentivized by state government to begin offering a menu of services that their constituent municipalities can contract for. The state would require all municipalities to have some minimum amount of coverage for certain basic services—police, fire safety, 911 service, building permitting, and others—and they would have the option to either provide them in-house, or contract for them with the county.
Over time, the hope would be that this would have the effect of moving more of the big-ticket items like police, fire, planning, and other functions to the county level, where those programs would be paid for out of a more regional tax base.
Would municipalities go for this? According to a WHYY story from 2020, it’s a growing problem for the state that more municipalities are disbanding their police departments and trust-falling into the arms of the state police, and adding to the state’s expenses. If they’re willing to do that, then they’re probably willing to entertain the idea of contracting for county services—especially if the state were to require some minimum levels of local service provision for certain programs.
There’s still some time left for Governor Wolf to get back to his regionalist roots and get a few meaningful initiatives or studies started before he’s termed out next year, working through bodies that the Governor controls like the state Planning Commission and Local Government Commission. But what’s more important now is for the next candidates for Governor to familiarize themselves with these issues, commit to making a change, and come into the office with a clear and workable plan for how to make a difference.