Tom Corbett's budget proposal has nothing but bad news for local governments and school districts. The governor has proposed deep cuts in education and municipal aid that will force municipalities to either raise property taxes or make deeper cuts to core public services like schools, police and health.
But there is a way to reduce spending and improve value for taxpayers if officials can learn to (literally) think outside the box.
Pennsylvania has too much government. The state has 2,562 municipalities, and 78% of them have fewer than 5,000 residents. Almost one third have fewer than 1,000 people, and each has its own bureaucracy, a set of elected officials and the power to tax and spend. Most have their own police and fire departments.
Local tax and zoning laws are a mess, and they vary from tiny government to government, making it unnecessarily difficult and confusing to open a business - a process politicians are always saying should be streamlined. The result is massive duplication of administration, lower quality services, disappearing open space and higher property taxes.
The lack of real-world examples of successful consolidated governments has been frustrating, as it allows the naysayers - loudest among them, incumbent politicians - to stir up fear of change to preserve the status quo.
So on Friday, I decided to go to Paramus, NJ to hear a panel discussion hosted by Courage to Connect New Jersey to learn more about how they are making progress on this issue.
New Jersey (I can't believe I'm about to write this) is well ahead of Pennsylvania in this regard. Like Pennsylvania, has way too much government, although its 533 municipalities are looking pretty good by comparison. And in 2007, New Jersey passed a law called Local Option Municipal Consolidation that allows voters to initiate a formal consolidation study by petition.
Courage to Connect NJ has recently been traveling around the state educating voters about the benefits of consolidation and advising them on how to use their new powers under the law to organize in their own communities.
At this panel, we heard from the mayor and the superintendent of Woodbridge Township, a rare NJ township whose 10 towns did not split apart when that was popular back in the late 1800s.
Woodbridge provides a good test case for exploring the efficiencies that can be realized when 10 towns operate under one municipal government - and the inefficiencies that result from fragmentation.
For example, the populations of Bergen County (99,494) and Woodbridge Township (97, 963) are about the same, but Woodbridge has lower taxes. Bergen residents pay $438 more per capita than their counterparts in Woodbridge.
Bergen County's municipal governments employ 277 police officers to patrol an area the same size and density as Woodbridge, but Woodbridge only needs 194. Woodbridge actually employs 10 more civilian administrators, but they're also providing more comprehensive services.
Police officers like the larger department because it means they can specialize in areas of interest and there are more opportunities for promotion and advancement.
On average, residents of towns comparable in size to the tiny towns that make up Woodbridge pay $223 more in taxes than Woodbridge residents, but they get many fewer services. Reagan Burkholder, a consultant who spoke on the panel, claimed that it would cost 40% more to run the towns of Woodbridge as separate governments.
The larger tax base in Woodbridge means they can afford to provide better, more professional services while paying lower taxes than everyone else. The township has a full-time grant writer, planner, economic redevelopment officer, purchaser, mayor, public communications officer, and 24-hour police detectives.
They have a Human Resources department; Geographic Information System (GIS); Information Technology coordinating police, fire, first aid, municipal governments and schools; and in-house Special Education.
Woodbridge is also able to use its size for leverage in purchasing and negotiating contracts. By doing the purchasing for such a large number of people, the township can get taxpayers a better deal on garbage service, custodians for the schools, and building repair than a tiny government would be able to negotiate.
Woodbridge Superintendent John Crowe especially emphasized the savings from centralized IT purchasing for schools, which he claimed has been key to keeping costs down.
I came away from this event more convinced that there are real possibilities for saving taxpayers money and increasing value at the same time if elected officials were only open to institutional reforms.
Sadly in many cases elected officials are more interested in preserving their own power than saving taxpayers money and delivering better value for their tax dollars. Even some politicians who say they want less government and red tape aren't about to relinquish their own fiefdoms.
That is why we will need state representatives in Harrisburg to reform the relatively weak-tea municipal consolidation law they passed in 2010 to give citizens more power to initiate consolidation studies via petition even when their elected officials disapprove. The New Jersey model is the ideal process because it is centered around citizen participation, not the preferences of politicians.
The state also needs to provide the funding for consolidation studies; we don't need to give politicians any good excuses - tight budgets - to drag their feet on this issue.
In the meantime, there's nothing stopping local governments from agreeing to share services, or coordinating with the county on bulk purchasing or information technology.