Balkanized suburbs and declining local revenues

A story about several suburbs outside Philadelphia highlights a problem facing many suburban communities: how can they counter declining revenues when residents and businesses move away?

Pennsylvania’s Delaware County is a crazy quilt of municipalities. Just to the west of Philadelphia, it is home to some of the oldest suburban communities in America. It is dense, with more than half a million people packed into townships and boroughs as small as a half square mile. Such tight confines can make governance difficult under any but the best conditions.

If a neighborhood starts to change in a way its middle-class residents don’t like, they can move a few miles to a newer house, a better school district, and lower property taxes. The communities they leave behind are faced with the impossible math of declining revenues, rising taxes, and an increasingly needy population…

But Hepkins’ most attainable plan is his ongoing effort to lash Yeadon together more tightly with its neighboring municipalities. He dreams of creating a non-profit 311 call center that could cover the six eastern Delaware County municipalities served by the William Penn School District. This centralized office could connect residents with immigration, veteran, and senior services…

The mayors of Lansdowne and East Lansdowne have been receptive to Hepkins’ advances, but his other three counterparts are hesitant. Even if the local politicians do overcome their own parochial interests, it’s an open question how much resource-sharing between six struggling municipalities would accomplish. A system incorporating the region’s more prosperous communities would be far more advantageous, akin to the revenue-sharing policies utilized in the Twin Cities metro region. But nothing like that is being seriously discussed in the Philadelphia area.

Several thoughts come to mind:

  1. This is a reminder that suburbia is much more diverse than the standard image of white and wealthy communities. Suburbs have increasing numbers of non-white and poor residents and there are various types of suburban communities ranging from bedroom suburbs to industrial centers.
  2. Local governments are often very reliant on property taxes. And Pennsylvania has a lot of local taxing bodies though it trails Illinois. Thus, suburban communities are very interested in wealthier residents as well as businesses that can bring in money through property taxes and sales tax revenue. This creates a kind of competition that is difficult for everyone to win.
  3. A number of metropolitan regions and urban communities in the United States have considered ways to band together to tackle common economic and social issues. This can be hard to do because one of the features people like about the suburbs is having more local control. Moving local revenues to another community – even if it is needed or might benefit the region as a whole – can be a hard sell, particularly in better off suburban communities.

I suspect we’ll see more and more stories like this in the years to come.

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