By Editorial Board
Despite its modest size and population, Allegheny County has an absurdly high number of municipalities – 130 – or just four less than the combined number across the entire states of Delaware, Nevada and Rhode Island.
As a hyper-local publication – heck it's in our company name – we’re all for local governance, but does each small neighborhood really need its own town hall, fire service and police department? In many cases, it’s hard to justify.
Locally, we find municipalities smaller than 0.5 square miles (Ingram), and with populations lower than 1,000 (Neville). Testifying to the strain imposed, Ingram now contracts fire services from Pittsburgh while Neville contracts policing services from Ohio Township.
These unique arrangements help both municipalities stay afloat, but could a full municipal reconfiguration help them thrive?
Recent headlines capturing the push among some Wilkinsburg residents and stakeholders to merge with Pittsburgh raise helpful questions for communities west of the city to think through.
Advocates of the Wilkinsburg-Pittsburgh merger proposal point to the inefficiencies of running unique services at the local level and say their community could benefit from pooling resources with the city. Those against say they see nothing good in forfeiting local power to an already overstretched government with 90 other neighborhoods to worry about.
Ultimately, the pros and cons are for the people of Wilkinsburg to weigh up and act on – as they will if the measure makes it to the ballot.
But the question comes at a good time for others in the region to think through what we want our communities to look like, as we emerge from the disruption of the long pandemic months.
The answer probably isn’t for inner suburbs like Crafton, Ingram, McKees Rocks and Stowe to dissolve into the city and lose all forms of local representation. But what if some banded together around common cultural and geographical ties?
The communities of Crafton and Ingram, for instance, wrap snugly around each other, with the borderline slicing awkwardly through the middle of the parking lot of the aptly-named Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center.
Similarly, the many meandering neighborhoods of McKees Rocks and Stowe form such wonky boundaries that most of us don’t really know where one ends and the other begins.
In both cases, it’s hard to see a situation where the residents of each municipality wouldn’t be getting better public services while paying less in taxes, should they merge.
Operating police departments within miniature jurisdictions makes life harder for officers, who have to involve neighboring forces whenever a suspect veers onto their patch. It also requires more resources to get the same work done with two departments where it can feasibly be done with a single larger one.
The same applies to fire departments, road crews and administrative staff, as well as consultants employed for legal and engineering services.
Collectively, these combined savings could translate into meaningful tax breaks for residents and more funding for paving cracked roads and tearing down vacant buildings.
Another benefit mergers offer to small communities is greater bargaining power to woo responsible investors and fend off those seeking to exploit.
The recent dispute between McKees Rocks and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) serves as a case in point. Borough officials were rightly outraged that their town was targeted as a “dumping ground” for a long-term construction project, and suspected they were chosen on the assumption they were too small and under-resourced to put up much of a fight.
Perhaps they were right. If so, having the additional resident base and funding stream supplied by a merger certainly wouldn’t have harmed their resistance efforts.
So what is there to lose from a merger?
Many reading this have probably felt a gut reaction to the idea of giving up their beloved community for the sake of a merger. But merging doesn’t have to entail this.
Municipal boundaries simply define the limits of local government.
They don’t define the limits of your community.
Families living one house over from each other on the same street don’t belong to different communities simply because they pay taxes to separate governing bodies. Likewise, residents of the tightly-knit Norwood and Presston neighborhoods haven’t lost their identity because they both belong to Stowe.
In reality, all our areas are to some extent shaped by common ties and bound by shared fortunes. Why not pack that into more effective local power structures that could better serve the interests of all?