The difficulties of merging or dissolving local governments in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has the third-most local governments but there is difficulty in trying to merge or dissolve these bodies:

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow dissolution and limit municipalities’ stay in the state’s distressed program. Thirteen cities have been stuck with that designation for at least a decade, and fragmentation at the local level makes it harder to turn them around, said Matt Fabian, managing director at Concord, Mass.-based research firm Municipal Market Advisors…Some localities have shrunk so much they may be unable to operate, according to Ross. The communities are stagnating as Pennsylvania’s economy is falling behind, with job and population growth trailing most states, said Standard & Poor’s…

In Pennsylvania, every square inch of land must be incorporated, preventing dissolution. Municipalities in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont also restrict dissolution, said Michelle Wilde Anderson, who studies distressed communities as an assistant professor at University of California Berkeley School of Law…

The path of merger or consolidation is often unavailable because municipalities are reluctant to take on neighbors, which may be distressed.

This sounds like a two-step process:

1. Providing the legal means for dissolving local governments. Residents may not think about it much but a group of local residents can’t simply declare themselves an incorporated community or start collecting local taxes – this process has regulations and procedures.

2. But, even if such moves were legal, the article hints at another difficult issue: getting communities or governments to agree to merge with others. Americans are generally unwilling to give up local control, even in difficult financial times, or to take on the problems of nearby local entities that might threaten their quality of life. As an example, see the shift in the late 1800s as suburbs stopped desiring annexation from big cities.

Given the financial difficulties a lot of local governments face, I suspect stories about this will be more common in the coming years. Yet, consolidation or dissolving is not a quick process and generally requires consent from all parties involved.

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