For people who are not native to the region, it’s always been a source of amusement that you can enter South Hills Village mall in Upper St. Clair, exit it in Bethel Park, and walk not too far and be in Mt. Lebanon.
Or that the Waterfront shopping and entertainment complex sprawls over three communities – Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall.
But that’s the reality of local government in Pennsylvania. As a story by The Caucus news service outlined, Allegheny County is bursting at the seams with municipalities. A full 130 to be exact. One eye-opening number unearthed by reporters Brad Bumsted, Mike Wereschagin and Paula Knudsen is that Allegheny County, in fact, contains more local governments than 13 states in their entirety, including Arizona, Nevada and Massachusetts.
Washington County is not as packed with municipalities as Allegheny, but it’s no slouch, either. It contains 67 municipalities within its borders, from cities like Washington and Monongahela to tiny boroughs like Twilight and Green Hills. It also has 15 school districts. And all for a population of a little more than 200,000 people.
We have long championed municipal consolidation and centralizing the operations of school districts, believing that it would reduce costs for taxpayers, be more efficient, deliver better services and help nudge Pennsylvania into the 21st century. We’re not alone on this one. Both Democrats and Republicans have championed consolidation over the years and, more recently, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, along with former executives Dan Onoroto and Jim Roddey, have gotten behind an idea that would allow smaller communities to disincorporate, with their services taken over by the county. But this proposal, and others like it, has been met with resistance because, the thinking goes, Pennsylvanians like to be able to have direct contact with their elected officials.
Merging with another community, or dissolving a community altogether, would mean a crucial loss of identity.
But it comes at a cost, Bumstead, Wereschagin and Knudsen pointed out – $5,320 for every resident of Pennsylvania, or $68 billion per year.
“People like to see their police car going down the street, with the name of their municipality on the side, but there’s a cost to that,” Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, told The Caucus.
Given all the efforts to consolidate municipalities and school districts that have gone asunder, there’s the temptation to believe the status quo has a hammerlock on the state, and communities like Chalfant, an Allegheny County borough of about 800 people, will exist in perpetuity.
But there is some hope. In the 1960s, Pennsylvania drastically reduced the number of school districts, with the total being whittled down from 2,277 to 669, with an additional 168 being eliminated in the 1970s.
One of the reasons so many school districts were done away with in the 1960s was, in fact, the closing of outmoded, one-room schoolhouses.
You could make an argument that places like Twilight and Chalfant are today’s version of one-room schoolhouses.