HARRISBURG - With its multitude of centuries-old townships and boroughs, Pennsylvania can boast of its historic and highly localized municipal-government structure, but policy experts say it's time for an extreme makeover.
No wonder, as Pennsylvania has 2,565 local governments, or one for every 4,820 residents.
And that doesn't count the school districts.
Recent studies say the state's fragmented governmental structure and near-total absence of regional planning holds back economic progress, crippling older communities and allowing unchecked development despite nearly $1 billion in new funding aimed at community revitalization and open-space preservation.
The reports from the Brookings Institution and two other groups gave the Rendell administration kudos for its efforts, but said the General Assembly now needs to take the lead, with new land-use legislation and changes to ambiguous and outdated laws that have created boundaries and discouraged intergovernmental cooperation.
Not everyone thinks such change is desirable. If the state tried to impose its will on local communities, "We'd have to draw a line in the sand. It would be a battleground," said Keith Hite, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors which represents leaders of the state's 1,456 townships.
Nevertheless, a key legislative leader agrees change is necessary.
"We are going to see some activity," said State Rep. Bob Freeman (D., Northampton), who, as chairman of the House Local Government Committee, is the de facto gatekeeper of reforms. "I am committed to addressing the recommendations in the Brookings report," he said.
Because local government is so fragmented, "It's been difficult for communities to get their arms around the impacts of development, to deal with regional growth, and reduce the impact of sprawl," Freeman said.
The Brookings, Pennsylvania State University and Pennsylvania Economy League reports released last month endorsed recommendations from the state Planning Board last year to expand the authority of county governments, allow tax-base and revenue sharing, reconcile conflicts among local government codes, and encourage - even mandate, if necessary - economically foundering local governments to merge with healthier neighbors.
"The system of mandatory services, artificial barriers and revenue streams has not been adjusted or changed since the 1930s," said Todd Vonderheid, strategy director of the nonprofit Campaign to Renew Pennsylvania, which was formed to respond to recommendations in the initial Brookings report released in 2003. "It clearly doesn't work."
The latest Brookings report credits Gov. Rendell with launching land-use initiatives and funneling millions to bring new life to older communities and preserve green space. But it's up to the legislature to make needed statutory changes, the report says.
The idea of "outsiders" telling local governments what to do - including suggesting that some should be forced out of existence - will be a politically difficult sell. It roils officials with the township supervisors association.
Hite said there are examples of intergovernmental cooperation - such as two Lancaster County townships sharing a highway line-striping machine - and said other studies show that residents like their local governments the way they are.
He also said a proposal to create a regional police force in Lancaster County was voted down. "Isn't that the way local government is supposed to work?" he asked.
But lawmakers who support change say that boroughs, townships and counties must be better coordinated so planning and zoning regulations operate in concert. The plans must recognize that infrastructure improvements such as those for sewer and water have far-reaching environmental effects beyond borough or township lines, Freeman said.
And if a community is not viable, it should examine options for sharing resources or merging with a neighbor.
"Some communities simply don't function," said Rep. David Steil (R., Bucks), the ranking Republican on the House Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. "They are too small and the tax base is nonexistent. They can't pay for police or other public services." But now, he said, the state doesn't even have standards to assess whether a community is viable.
Vonderheid, a Luzerne County commissioner, used his own county as an example. There are 52 police departments, some in which the chief is also the only patrolman. They have an abysmal 8 percent average case-closing rate and, worst of all, they don't communicate with one another, he said.
"Someone wanted on drug trafficking in Wilkes-Barre gets pulled over for a moving violation in Wilkes Township, and they have no idea a warrant is out on them in Wilkes-Barre," he said. "We're not providing quality public-safety services for communities."
In the greater Philadelphia area, Delaware County has 49 townships and boroughs; Montgomery County has 62; Fast-growing Chester County has 73 municipalities; and Bucks County has 54.
Steil and Freeman argue that the way the system is structured creates economic barriers to cooperation: Wealthier communities are loath to bear the burden of a struggling neighbor, and therefore won't do so.
They said the state could help by offering incentives to merge or consolidate services.
Freeman wants to go further, and give communities tools to better control, even halt, development, if they believe it is necessary. He hopes to move bills out of his committee that would allow local governments to place a moratorium on development while officials are revising zoning ordinances, and expand the use of impact fees on new development - now limited to transportation - to cover added education costs.
Freeman said the current system forces many communities into an endless downward spiral: Those that need services the most - cities and townships with large swaths of tax-exempt land, aging housing stock, and an aging population - can't afford them.
"We have to get older communities on a firmer footing," Freeman said. "And we have to bring communities together. They have to realize they don't exist on an island."
As for school districts, there are 501 in Pennsylvania.
Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or email@example.com.