Regionalization: A need too great to ignore
Pennsylvania’s arrangement of a municipality in every nook and cranny means it has 2,625 local governments, second most in the country, trailing only Illinois at 2,828.
I have lived in five of those municipalities: Williamsport, South Williamsport, DuBoistown, Loyalsock Township and Susquehanna Township.
In Susquehanna Township in the charming hamlet of Nisbet, it felt like a dozen incredibly dedicated and caring residents were carrying the community on their backs. Every event, emergency service and government function seemed to be dependent on their time and energy.
They handled it all with a can-do spirit and sense of fairness that is irreplaceable.
The problem is, they will eventually have to be replaced. Father Time is undefeated.
And the lifestyle realities of the 21st century probably mean there will be fewer people to shoulder the load.
The same reality is proportionately true in Williamsport, South Williamsport, DuBoistown and Loyalsock Township.
The black-and-white solution to the numbers problem would be a consolidation of communities. But a combination of parochialism and pride makes that highly unlikely.
For evidence, look no further than the emotional outcry that occurs every time the numbers dictate a discussion about a school closing in our area.
There are 500 school districts in Pennsylvania. Eight of them are in Lycoming County. Maryland, by comparison, has 37 county school districts.
In 2009, Gov. Ed Rendell, proposed reducing Pennsylvania to 100 school districts. It did not go well. But if a state the size of Florida can have county school districts, with the resulting streamlined administrative operations, why not Pennsylvania, where student numbers have dropped sharply over the past four decades?
All of this education independence has not led to clear-cut improvement in the instructional product or academic achievement by Pennsylvania students that would suggest the status quo of 500 fiefdoms is a status quo worth continuing.
Likewise, local government does not cost less and the services provided have not clearly improved in the past 50 years to show that a municipal operation around every corner is the best course for the future.
And in both the municipality and school district cases, the tax bite has grown exponentially more punitive with each passing year over recent decades.
So, from both an efficiency and cost standpoint, a better model should be considered.
At this point, it’s unrealistic to expect many of the 959 boroughs, 1,546 townships, 56 cities and 500 school districts to unilaterally and voluntarily close offices and combine entire operations, giving up name, parochial pride and independence.
That’s just not the Pennsylvania way.
But how about expanding on what news headlines of recent weeks indicate is a growing trend?
Those headlines say DuBoistown is in talks with South Williamsport for 24/7 police coverage provided by South Side that would also save money for DuBoistown. A robbery in DuBoistown during off-local-police hours that took 30 minutes for state police to respond may have had something to do with that.
Muncy and Montgomery boroughs and Brady and Clinton townships are in ongoing talks over police regionalization.
In recent years, there has been a police partnership developed in the Jersey Shore area.
When is Greater Williamsport going to have one police force? Given the costs to Williamsport for adequate local police coverage and the attendant future pension burden, the city should be pursuing such an arrangement and the surrounding municipalities should welcome it.
Loyalsock has the economic advantage of state police coverage standing as its police presence, but realistically, that is not local police coverage at all and represents a roll of the dice for the future.
When are neighboring townships and boroughs going to join more completely in road materials and equipment purchases as a group and consolidate highway workers?
We don’t live in an age when there can be a shoe store on every corner of downtown, so why do we think a police force every two miles makes sense when one combined force — call it the cavalry — can provide more efficiency at less cost?
There is no longer a tractor supply store on every corner, so why do we think street and highway operations and supplies need to be separated in the middle of a street at township, borough or city border?
There is justifiable pride to be taken from a name and public service performance.
But all of that can be maintained while the product is improved and taxpayers are kept from having to decide between paying their taxes and maintaining a home.
Call it merging services, call it consolidating schools, call it regionalization, call it economic necessity, call it whatever makes you comfortable with the boundary you live in.
Mostly, though, call it sensible in a state more fragmented than just about any other by municipal and school boundary lines drawn centuries ago.
David F. Troisi is retired as editor of the Sun-Gazette.