Pennsylvania has a wide array of local governments ranging from cities, to boroughs, to townships. Some see this as a wasteful duplication of effort, others view it as keeping government more responsive to the people it serves. More people live in townships than any other form of local government putting township supervisors on the front lines of providing municipal services.
A debate rages over whether reducing the number of municipalities in Pennsylvania by consolidation would provide cost savings, or result in tax dollars feeding larger bureaucracies rather than being spent on the direct provision of services. Between those two positions is a wide array of other options ranging from inter-municipal agreements to the regional provision of selected services.
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. recently conducted a survey of township supervisors from across the state. The survey found a willingness to work cooperatively with neighboring municipalities and to participate in regional projects, but supervisors generally felt such efforts should be undertaken from the local level and not forced upon them by state or county governments.
Nearly three-quarters of the supervisors surveyed (72%) reject the idea that Pennsylvania has too many municipalities. Fourteen percent say the number of townships in the state should be reduced, while 77% think the number of townships in the commonwealth is alright. Sixty percent said they would not consider merging with a neighboring municipality with 30% indicating they would consider such an option. The impact of a potential merger on taxes is a major consideration, 91% said they would not consider a merger with another municipality if it resulted in higher taxes.
There is also widespread agreement among township supervisors than any merger of municipalities should be approved by voters in the affected municipalities rather than mandated by state government. Ninety percent said voter approval is a must.
Population trends in most parts of the state find a declining number of people residing in cities and boroughs, and census numbers increasing in townships. Supervisors have some thoughts on the reasons behind that trend. Eighty percent said high crime rates in urban areas are causing people to move to suburban and rural townships; 72% blamed high taxes in cities while 70% felt traffic and congestion were responsible for outmigration; and 61% suggested poor schools prompted people to leave urban jurisdictions.
In addition to a better quality of life, tax rates in townships are often significantly less than in cities. And while population losses are causing cities to lose tax base, 89% of the supervisors surveyed said they do not favor increasing state or county taxes to make up for the revenue cities are losing because of declining population.
When a municipality of any type becomes distressed, a majority (62%) of the supervisors responding to the Lincoln Institute survey said the state should not be allowed to mandate its merger with a neighboring municipality. Such a merger would, of course, have a significant impact on the merger partner. Twenty percent felt such mergers should be state mandated. Additionally, 66% did not think the county should take control of a distressed municipality, a move which would have the effect of spreading any financial burden across taxpayers countywide. Increasing county property taxes to pay the cost of rescuing a distressed municipality was opposed by 91% of the supervisors.
When it comes to schools, many supervisors think smaller is better. In fact 65% favor making schools districts smaller than they currently are, while 25% think school districts should be organized at the county level. A similar smaller-is-better view prevails when it comes to tax collection. Seventy-three percent said they support continuing to have taxes collected at the local level. Seventeen percent believe taxes should be collected at the county level and 6% would give the function to a private firm.
As for regionalization, the idea has gained some traction among township supervisors as it pertains to providing emergency services. Fifty-four percent said fire and police service should be regionalized. Thirty-six percent oppose regionalization for fire and police. Among the responding supervisors, 40% serve in a township with its own police force and 4% are officials in a township that participates in a regional force. Most (56%) have police service provided by the Pennsylvania State Police. And, if the state were to impose a per capita fee for providing police service to townships without their own forces, 64% said they would pay the fee while 31% said they would join a regional police force and 5% said they would favor establishing a police force for just their township.
Regionalization and/or the consolidation of municipalities is not seen as a fiscal magic wand by Pennsylvania's township supervisors. Sixty-seven percent said they did not think regionalization or consolidation would result in enough cost efficiency to lower taxes. Twenty-two percent felt regional efforts or the consolidation of municipalities would save money.
Perhaps that is because townships, as a general rule, are weathering the economic storm rather well. Seventy-four percent said they have not had to reduce services in order to avoid raising taxes. Sixty-eight percent of the townships responding say they have a "rainy day" or contingency fund to help them through any period of financial difficulty.
In fact, according to the supervisors, the biggest problems facing their municipalities are roadway conditions/traffic problems (34%); low commercial tax base (20%); aging infrastructure (10%); sprawl (8%); and affordable housing (5%). Open space preservation is a high priority for 51% of the townships, while 41% said it is not.
Despite the economic recession, 40% of the townships reported there has been some business growth in their municipality and 12% said business growth has been significant. Another 40% said there has been no change in business activity, while 7% reported some decline and 2% reported significant decline. As supervisors look to attract more business to their township, 35% said they are seeing more manufacturing activity; 25% would like more service/technology jobs to locate in their township; 14% want more retail and 10% would like to see more offices.
Although, generally speaking, township supervisors do not look favorably upon municipal mergers, there is widespread use of inter-municipal agreements. Eighty nine percent said they favor entering into inter-municipal agreements. In fact 86% of the townships responding to the Lincoln Institute survey said they already have inter-municipal agreements and/or inter-municipal authorities. Fifty-nine percent rated those inter-municipal activities as very effective, while another 37% said they were somewhat effective. Only 4% felt their inter-municipal agreements were ineffective.
Twenty percent of the respondents said they favor inter-municipal agreements for purchasing; another 20% think such agreements work well for police services; 18% wish to work cooperatively with another township for planning and zoning; 18% think such agreements are good for sewer; and 14% for maintaining roads and highways.
A major function of township government is land use, planning, and zoning. There is strong opposition (83%) to having that power moved to the county level. Most townships are diligent in this area. Eighty-four percent reports they have a comprehensive land use plan for their municipality; and in 53% of those townships that plan has been updated within the past five years.
The budget range of municipalities served by supervisors responding to the Lincoln Institute survey ranged from the 1% with a budget of over $15 million to the 39% with budgets in the $1 to $5 million range to 4% with budgets of less than $100,000. Thus, respondents ranged from densely populated suburban townships to sparsely populated rural municipalities. Forty-two percent serve in a township of 2,000 to 5,000 residents; 27% in a municipality of under 2,000; 17% with a population between 5,000 and 10,000; 13% with 10,000 to 15,000 people and 1% with 15,000 to 25,000 residents.
Seventy percent of the supervisors reported their budgets have increased during their tenure in office, while just 5% have seen their budgets drop. Just 42% reported having had to raise tax rates during their terms(s) of office, while 8% were able to cut taxes. If the state allowed townships to implement taxes other than property taxes, 47% said they would like the ability to impose an earned income tax; 36% a sale tax; and 10% mercantile or business privilege taxes.
Among those supervisors who participated in the survey, 43% have held their public office for more than 12 years, 23% for six to twelve years, and 33% for less than six years. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents are registered Republicans, 29% are registered Democrats.
Being a township supervisor is also a job in which you will not get rich. Fifty-five percent of the respondents are paid less than $2,000 per year for their service; 18% make between $2,000 and $3,000; and 20% make $5,000 per year or more.
The Lincoln Institute's Pennsylvania Township Supervisor Survey was conducted electronically during the months of December 2009 and January 2009. A total of 185 township supervisors participated in the poll. Complete numeric results of the poll can be obtained online at www.lincolninstitute.org.