K-12 Tax & Spending Climate: To Be, or to Disband? A Question Facing Shrinking Towns

Daniel Vock:

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, has about 1.2 million residents, nearly 400,000 fewer than it had in 1970. Pittsburgh itself has enjoyed a recent resurgence in its reputation and economy, but the larger county region still has many relics of a more crowded municipal past. Towns such as Duquesne, Clairton, McKeesport and Wilkinsburg have all seen big drops in their population, which make it hard to afford all the government they still have in place. Some smaller jurisdictions are approaching the vanishing point. In Allegheny County as a whole, 40 of the 130 municipalities have fewer than 2,000 residents.

That raises a troubling question for county officials in the Keystone State: What happens if and when a municipality decides it no longer has the means to support itself and wants to disband? Municipalities in Pennsylvania are allowed to merge with each other, but that‘s often impractical. Towns and cities that are struggling to hang on don’t want to assume the debt or budget problems of a community that’s in worse shape than they are. That’s one reason there have been only five municipal mergers in the whole state since 2000.

Thirty-eight states allow for towns to disincorporate, but the only option for Pennsylvania cities to do so is to enter the state’s Act 47 program for financially distressed municipalities. Disincorporation is seen as a last resort in that process, and it’s one that can take years of bureaucratic maneuvering.