As academics G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young pointed out in a column that ran in the May 12 Perspective section, Pennsylvania has 67 counties that “encapsulate some 2,561 ‘incorporated’ local governments, including hundreds of boroughs, townships and cities. That doesn’t include the state’s 500 school districts or some 1,500 ‘authorities’ with taxing or fiscal powers (such as sewer and water authorities). Only Texas and Illinois have more local governments than the Keystone State.” Lancaster County alone has 60 municipalities and 17 school districts (including Octorara Area School District, which serves both Lancaster and Chester counties).
Lancaster County residents, like all Pennsylvanians, love the idea of local control — that is, holding close to us the reins of government power.
So, our five dozen municipalities include 41 townships, 18 boroughs, one third-class city (Lancaster, of course) and 75 authorities. And, fun fact: We have as many school districts as there are species of penguin.
Lancaster County is a crazy quilt of fragmented government, set in the larger crazy quilt of fragmented government that is Pennsylvania.
As Madonna and Young pointed out, this makes it difficult for voters to participate in municipal primaries like last Tuesday’s. They “confront a bewildering welter of possible candidate choices for a wide variety of offices. ... For most voters, the challenge is stupefying. Indeed, unless there is a controversy or scandal many voters will know little or nothing about the candidates.”
In addition to judicial races, Madonna and Young wrote, “there are also a large number of elections scheduled for mayors, township commissioners and supervisors and other local officials, along with school board directors.”
“And then there are the separate county offices to be filled. Except in the commonwealth’s few home rule counties, Pennsylvanians still elect sheriffs, prothonotaries, clerks of court, and registers of wills — all basically offices that perform court and administrative functions.”
Perhaps “a quarter of voters,” Madonna and Young asserted, “will have some knowledge about who is seeking these posts or will reasonably understand the functions performed by the officeholders.”
This helps to explain — but frankly does not excuse — why turnout in Lancaster County’s municipal primary was so small. LNP reporters called it “modest.”
They were too kind.
It was a paltry 14%.
This partly owes to the fact that because of Pennsylvania’s closed-primary system, only registered Republicans and Democrats can nominate candidates for election. Which is why we highlighted, in our May 19 Sunday LNP editorial, a Republican state Senate bill that would allow unaffiliated voters to choose on primary election day to vote with the Democrats or Republicans.
Madonna and Young believe the solution lies in appointing, rather than electing, people to fill some local administrative offices.
We believe there are more fundamental questions to consider: Have we gone overboard in our quest for local control? Should we consider more seriously some levels of consolidation of government in this county?
Consolidation is anathema to many of us county residents, who passionately want to retain our individual school districts, in particular. Merging, for efficiency’s sake, the tiny and impoverished Columbia School District with nearby Hempfield or Penn Manor seems a no-brainer to us, but those school districts have balked in the past at taking on Columbia’s problems.
Consolidating local police departments and creating a countywide force would make crime-fighting in this county a seamless endeavor. As we pointed out in 2015, when District Attorney Craig Stedman floated the idea of a countywide police force, criminals “pay about as much heed to municipal boundaries as they do to the law itself.” Creating a county police force also would eliminate free-riding by local municipalities that rely on the Pennsylvania State Police for coverage — a problem that Gov. Tom Wolf seeks to address by proposing a per capita fee, with a graduated scale based on population, for such municipalities. If we had a countywide police force, Lancaster County residents wouldn’t have to rely on the state police for local matters.
Another problem that could be ameliorated by some consolidation: overdevelopment in Lancaster County.
This county has a comprehensive plan — places2040 — aimed at slowing the loss of farmland to development and using land more efficiently in areas designated for population growth and business expansion. But it’s only a plan. It’s not enforceable. And, as we pointed out in a November editorial, “The success of this plan will require buy-in from an overwhelming majority of our 60 municipalities, which hold the power to manage growth and development within their borders.”
This, we noted, makes it “a nightmare to tackle regional planning.”
So, the questions we ask are these: Is there a way to retain the character of our individual communities while embracing some level of consolidation? Can we eliminate some of the micromanaging and redundancy of services, while holding onto a measure of local control? Should governance in Lancaster County — and Pennsylvania — be less fragmented?
What level of consolidation would be acceptable to you?
We believe it’s time to start a serious conversation about this. We invite you to share your thoughts in letters to the editor (via email: LancasterLetters@lnpnews.com).
The cover of today’s Perspective section is devoted to Memorial Day. We are deeply grateful to the men and women who sacrificed their lives in service to this great nation. Our gratitude extends to Gold Star families for their immense sacrifice.