Townships: the beauty of what they can do

Columnist : Albert Paschall

 “Township officials are elected to make policy decisions, levy taxes, borrow money, authorize expenditures and direct administration of their government by their appointees.” – The Pennsylvania Government Manual

      But the results of a recent Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research survey of elected supervisors and commissioners across Pennsylvania’s 1,548 first and second class townships proves three things that aren’t in the manual.  One: being an elected officials in a township is as exiting as watching paint dry, two: has all the power of sowing grass seeds on a windy day and three: will bore you more than a Danielle Steel made-for-TV movie.  And yet they are our most efficient governments largely because of what they can’t do.

     Township officials can’t make any money.  64% of them make less than $2,500 a year for spending hundreds of hours listening to constituent complaints, half the time about things they can’t control, spend hundreds of other hours on liaison committees to other agencies and then add more hours actually doing the government’s business.  That puts them in at about $2 bucks an hour and even if Congress would cover them under the minimum wage law they can’t pay themselves more.

     Because township officials can’t spend any more money.  74% of the state’s townships have annual operating budgets of less than $1 million a year with 91% of them having fewer than 10,000 residents.  Just by straight-line arithmetic, that gives the average 5-person Board of Supervisors about $200,000 each to spend.  Your garden variety Pennsylvania legislator gets a crack at about $58 million and if you are a member of Congress it’s about $3.3 billion if it all were actually divvied up equally.  So the local folks get about $100 a head to buy police protection and equipment for volunteer firefighters, maintain roads and bridges and by their numbers manage their number one problem: sewage disposal.  Throw $200,000 at a U.S. Congressman and you’ve thrown out pocket change.  Throw $200,000 at a township supervisor you’re likely to get a new cop on the street, 30 potholes fixed and your local sewer plant gets two more years of life.  And while sewer capacity may lack the romance of the Federal Government’s latest educational initiative, if sewage runs into your neighborhood you will quickly smell the relevant differences between Washington’s affect and the township’s affect on your daily life.

      Township officials can’t control your tax bill.  Looked at your local tax bill lately?  Probably not.  Chances are your township is the bargain basement government but since most Pennsylvanians play mortgage pass through with local taxes they don’t know what they’re getting.  Paying an extra ten bucks a month?  Real good chance that $120 a year is going to your school district.  For every local tax dollar you pay on average about 70 cents goes to schools, 18 cents goes to the county and 12 cents get into local coffers.  12 cents for cops, firefighters, road crews, snowplow operators, dogcatchers, parks and libraries.  Just the cost of 7 kids in an average Pennsylvania public school pays for a police officer on the streets in Pennsylvania’s municipalities.

      Township officials can’t change things much.  64% of them would like to change the way they raise money.  They are tired of Harrisburg restricting them to an antiquated property tax code.  They are tired of senior citizens paying for what wage earners should and 63% of them would enact or raise earned income taxes to relieve property taxes.  According to the Pennsylvania Association Of Township Supervisors, they are stewards of 95% of the Commonwealth’s land mass and they are demanding that Harrisburg lift the restrictions on controlling development because they can’t control development nearly to the degree that many constituents believe when they suddenly realize what’s being built in their own backyards.

Township officials can’t quit.  48% of the respondents to the Lincoln Institute Pennsylvania Township Officials Survey 2000 have served for more than 8 years as a supervisor or commissioner.  It may be all perspective but almost half see their job as doing what they can and the other half are trying to manage what they can’t.   Either way they are a bargain.  Dollar for dollar they are delivering more real and relevant services than any of their larger colleagues.  In what they can’t do is their beauty.  In their institutional manageability they are far more disciplined and open than any other form of government that we have.

     There are many in Harrisburg that would like to strip what few powers township governments have.  With carrots and sticks and bogus problems like sprawl they want to trash local control of zoning, sanitation, building codes and the all important sewage disposal.  The administration’s Growing Greener bill is $645 million dedicated to the proposition that the county or state knows what will be best for our communities in development.  53% of Pennsylvania’s townships don’t know if Growing Greener will even be used in their neighborhoods and a full 79% are sure that they will do battle with any County government that might try to take over their community planning.  It’ll be a great fight and place your bets on the supervisors and commissioners of the state’s townships.  They learned a long time ago what they can’t do and someday that’s a lesson that Harrisburg sorely needs to learn.  And no group is better suited to teach it to them than those who manage government by what they can’t do.