Pennsylvania has over 5,000 units of local government, including municipal authorities. Undoubtedly the cost to be paid for keeping government so “close to the people” is a certain lack of efficiency—if that is indeed a negative quality. As Senator Eugene McCarthy once observed, “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”
Ostensibly to reduce duplication and overlapping of services, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is considering a state constitutional amendment (H.B. 2431, P.N. 3570, of 2010) that would strip most functions away from the state’s boroughs, cities, towns and townships and turn them over to the 67 county governments. Those who prefer to live in rural areas, avoiding the both the taxes and services imposed by urban governments, would no longer have that option.
Can a state do this? The Supreme Court of the United States says that it can. In Hunter v. Pittsburgh (1907), residents of the City of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, challenged their involuntary amalgamation into the City of Pittsburgh. There had been a referendum, as provided by statute, but the residents of the larger, debt-ridden Pittsburgh outvoted the residents of the smaller, solvent Allegheny (one may recall the definition of “democracy” as “two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner”). The Court’s holding remains the law today:
“Municipal corporations are political subdivisions of the state, created as convenient agencies for exercising such of the governmental powers of the state as may be entrusted to them. . . . The number, nature, and duration of the powers conferred upon these corporations and the territory over which they shall be exercised rests in the absolute discretion of the state. . . . The state, therefore, at its pleasure, may modify or withdraw all such powers, may take without compensation such property, hold it itself, or vest it in other agencies, expand or contract the territorial area, unite the whole or a part of it with another municipality, repeal the charter and destroy the corporation. All this may be done, conditionally or unconditionally, with or without the consent of the citizens, or even against their protest.”
207 U.S. 161 at 178-79. It’s now 103 years later, and the City of Pittsburgh is again (still) on the verge of bankruptcy, as are several other Pennsylvania cities. For additional commentary on this proposed legislation, see “One very bad idea” in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.