Tuesday, October 9, 2012
The Life Blood of Local Government
Pennsylvania relies heavily on its local municipal governments to provide services to its residents. Unlike its neighboring states which utilize counties as their basic level of government, Pennsylvania governs primarily through Boroughs and Townships. In the greater Tri-County area, there are dozens of municipal government units, whether they be First or Second Class Townships or Boroughs. In all municipalities, the governing bodies are nominally compensated and serve their communities, essentially, as volunteers.
Municipal governments operate through the authority provided by State Law. The State Borough Code, the First Class Township Code, and the Second Class Township Code are the enabling statutes under which municipalities can operate.
Boroughs are governed by Councilors and a Mayor. Boroughs are traditionally smaller in terms of geography and population than Townships. Boroughs are usually older communities and more urban in nature and generally fully developed. According to the Borough Code (which was recently updated this past year for the first time in nearly 50 years), Councilors are elected to four year terms. Most Boroughs have seven elected Councilors, although more are permitted. Councilors can be elected by all voters in the Borough (known as At-Large seats) or specifically by voters in wards or precincts. Precincts and Wards are most common in larger Boroughs, where differing areas within the community may be faced with different issues and challenges. While the Borough Council runs the Borough, generally, the Mayor’s function is to supervise and oversee the police department.
First Class Townships are governed by a five person governing body known as the Board of Commissioners, who serve four year terms. First Class Townships are more prevalent in developed areas and are usually more suburban than rural. Unlike a Borough, there is no Mayor, although there are many similarities between the First Class Township Code and the Borough Code.
Second Class Townships operate under the requirements of the Second Class Township Code. The governing body may consist of either three or five elected supervisors. Originally, many Second Class Townships were undeveloped or rural in character. Many were initially governed by a three member Board of Supervisors. As the Townships would grow and develop, it was not uncommon for the Board to expand to five members. Today, Second Class Townships can be very diverse, with certain portions of the Townships being developed areas, which would have Main Streets and Business Districts, as well as, suburban residentially developed areas, along with agricultural or undeveloped portions of the municipality.
Regardless of the type of municipality, each operates under similar rules and with many common advisory boards or other necessary Boards and Commissions. Each municipality has a Planning Commission which is an advisory group, appointed by the elected officials to review and comment on Subdivision and Land Development Plans. Each municipality that has its own Zoning Ordinance has a Zoning Hearing Board. The Zoning Hearing Board is a judicial body appointed by the governing body to consider variance requests, special exceptions, and other zoning appeals. The elected officials may also create autonomous boards known as “Authorities”, as permitted by the Municipal Authorities Act. Although Authorities have differing purposes, primarily Authorities can be created to finance and/or operate utilities such as water or sewer facilities.
As a result of these numerous governmental units, there is a great demand for civic minded persons to fill the positions on all of these Boards and Commissions that are needed to properly run a municipality. As with the elected officials, most of these Board members receive little or no compensation for the hours of service time needed to attend meetings or home time needed to prepare themselves for regular meetings of the Board or various Committee meetings.
As residents of Boroughs and Townships we owe a debt of gratitude to those who volunteer their time to local government for a job that many consider to be truly thankless.