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Pennsylvania Local Government

Image:Outline map of Pennsylvania Counties.

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Pennsylvania, Texas and Indiana are the top 3 States with the most Local government.Pennsylvania is a mosaic of mre than 5,300 individual units. All were established by the State or provincial government and operate under laws of the Commonwealth. Each unit is distinct and independent of other local units, although they may overlap geographically and may act together to serve the public. As of 2001, there were 67 counties. 500 public school districts and more than 2,100 authorities (active and inactive). The number of local units has remained fairly stable for the past few decades with two major exceptions. After passage of school district legislation in 1963 and 1965, the number of school districts diminished radically. Authorities, born as local units during the depression years of the 1930s, have proliferated at a phenomenal pace since then.

State and Local Government

Constitutional Provisions

The Constitution authorizes the state to enact laws regulating local units of government. It outlines basic requirements and rights. The Constitution requires periodic legislative redistricting, guarantees the right to select a home rule charter or an optional plan of government, and mandates uniform legislation establishing the procedure for consolidation, merger or change of municipal boundaries. The Constitution also prohibits special or local legislation by the General Assembly, sets up county government with elected row officers, permits classification of local governments according to population, and requires taxation to be uniform upon the same classes of subjects. The General Assembly is allowed to enact certain tax exemptions and special tax provisions because of age, disability, infirmity or poverty.


Municipalities and school districts may be classified according to population, and the General Assembly can legislate separately for each class. There are four general types of municipalities in Pennsylvania: counties, cities, boroughs and townships. At the present time there are nine classes of counties, four classes of cities, two classes of townships and five classes of school districts. Boroughs are not classified. Legislation may be enacted for each class even though there is only one unit in a particular class, as is the case of Philadelphia as a city of the first class and Allegheny as the only county currently of the second class. Each class of municipality operates under its own code of laws which sets forth the governmental structure as well as the general and specific powers of local government. Except for home rule municipalities, the codes are the most important source of legislative powers granted to a municipal governing body by the General Assembly. They are the County Code, Third Class City Code, Borough Code, First Class Township Code, Second Class Township Code and Public School Code.


There is also extensive general legislation applying to local governments. Some examples of legislative provisions outside the local government codes are real property assessment, local non-property taxation, municipal borrowing, real estate tax collection, intergovernmental cooperation, municipal employees retirement, solid waste management, sewage facilities and planning and zoning. Significant general laws affecting local governments both grant powers and impose restrictions. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code empowers municipalities to plan their development and adopt zoning, subdivision and land development ordinances. The Pennsylvania Sewage Facilities Act regulates community and individual sewage disposal systems. The Solid Waste Management Act provides for solid waste collection and disposal. The Local Government Unit Debt Act establishes debt limits for local government units based on municipal revenues. The Municipal Police Education and Training Act mandates training of all municipal police officers. The Intergovernmental Cooperation Act permits two or more municipalities to cooperate jointly in the exercise of any governmental functions and allows municipalities to delegate powers to other local units. The Sunshine Law requires public agencies to discuss and act upon agency business only at meetings open to the public. There are numerous other general laws affecting local government powers and procedures.


The state gives local governments authority to levy taxes on inhabitants and property within their jurisdiction and provides for tax exemptions. Taxes are levied and collected under general laws. The two primary sources of tax revenue at the local level are the real estate tax, authorized under the respective municipal codes, and the earned income tax, authorized by the Local Tax Enabling Act. The Local Tax Enabling Act authorizes numerous other types of taxes.

Home Rule

The Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law grants Pennsylvania municipalities the power to determine for themselves what structure their government will take and what services it will perform. A home rule municipality no longer has its powers and organization determined by the state legislature. A home rule municipality drafts and amends its own charter and can exercise any power or perform any function not denied by the state Constitution, the General Assembly or its home rule charter. As of January 2001, 71 municipalities have adopted home rule charters, including 6 counties, 19 cities, 19 boroughs and 27 townships.

Between 1957 and 1972, third class cities could choose the mayor-council or council-manager form of government. The Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law extended to all municipalities the right to adopt optional plans of government. Adoption of an optional plan of government alters a municipality's structural form and administrative organization. The municipality continues to be subject to its particular municipal code regarding municipal powers.

Six optional plans are provided for under the law:

  1. Executive (Mayor)-Council Plan A (department of administration optional);
  2. Executive (Mayor)-Council Plan B (department of administration mandated);
  3. Executive (Mayor)-Council Plan C (provides for the office of managing director);
  4. Council-Manager Plan;
  5. Small Municipality Plan (limited to any municipality having a population of less than 7,500 residents; and
  6. Optional County Plan (limited to counties).

As of January 1997, three cities, two boroughs and six townships have adopted optional plans of government. Thirteen cities continue to operate under the Optional Third Class City Charter Law.

National Government and Local Units

Local government is one of the powers reserved to the states in Article X of the United States Constitution. However, since the 1930s when the big cities of the nation looked to the federal government for financial assistance to combat the problems brought on by the economic depression, the national government has taken an increasingly active role in local government, especially in the urban areas. Recent developments have also evidenced concern for rural areas. Through financial subsidies, grants and technical assistance, federal agencies have stimulated development of low-cost housing, urban renewal, improved educational facilities, modern highways, health and welfare services, and personal security. Federal programs, such as housing and community development, have strengthened direct links between federal and local government. There is a trend toward reduced federal funding and more local decision-making in federal programs.


There are 67 counties in Pennsylvania including the consolidated city-county of Philadelphia, and each inhabitant of the state lives in and comes under the jurisdiction of one of them. The largest in population is Philadelphia with over 1.5 million people; the smallest is Forest with approximately 5,000. The Constitution establishes a basic organization, but counties can adopt their own form of government. Six counties have adopted home rule charters: Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh and Northampton.

County Functions

Counties continue to serve in their traditional role as agents of the state for law enforcement, judicial administration and the conduct of elections. The county is also responsible for the property assessment function. Counties become involved in regional planning, solid waste disposal and public health. They perform welfare functions, including mental health. Counties also can establish housing and redevelopment authorities and conduct community development programs. Counties maintain hospitals and homes for the aged. Counties may support local libraries and community colleges. Legislation enacted in recent years has strengthened the policymaking role of boards of county commissioners, granting them greater control of and responsibility for county government. The geographic size of counties enables them to cope with functions that can be better performed on an area-wide basis, i.e., mass transportation and environmental protection.

County Government

County government, as provided for in the county codes, may be described as a "no-executive" type. The chief governing body is the three-member board of county commissioners. But there are also numerous other elected officials to a large extent independent of the county commissioners. These include the sheriff, district attorney, prothonotary, clerk of courts, register of wills, recorder of deeds and two jury commissioners whose duties are mostly concerned with the work of the county court. Additionally, there are the elective offices of the controller or three auditors and the treasurer who are county finance officers. A public defender is appointed as provided by law. The county commissioners, the elected officers and the county court individually or jointly appoint a number of other county officials and employees needed to carry out county functions by law. Whereas the 11 elective county officers are enumerated in the Pennsylvania Constitution, their powers and duties are prescribed by statutes which are scattered throughout the county codes and general state laws. Consolidation of certain elective offices is provided by state law in the smaller class counties involving the offices of prothonotary, clerk of courts, register of wills and recorder of deeds.


Municipal Powers

In addition to living under a county government, every Pennsylvanian also lives in a municipality. Municipal governing bodies make policy decisions, levy taxes, borrow money, authorize expenditures and direct administration of their governments by their appointees. The scope of their functions and responsibilities is broad. Many powers given to local governments are not exercised in every place, while others are shared with the state and even the national government. All of the various municipal units of Pennsylvania share the same basic responsibilities with respect to the provision of public services at the local level and have similar statutory powers for the most part. Although cities have more specifically enumerated powers than boroughs or townships, many of those powers may also be exercised by boroughs and townships under general grants of power. Home rule provides equal opportunity for all classes of municipalities to exercise new powers.

Municipal Functions

The main areas of local services include police and fire protection, maintenance of local roads and streets, water supply, sewage collection and treatment, parking and traffic control, local planning and zoning, parks and recreation, garbage collection, health services, libraries, licensing of businesses and code enforcement.


First and Second Class Cities

The oldest and largest Pennsylvania city, Philadelphia, has had a strong-mayor home rule charter since 1952. There is a council of 17 members, one elected from each of the ten councilmanic districts of the city and seven elected at-large. Each political party may nominate one candidate for each of the ten districts but only five for the seven at-large places. This allows the minority party to elect at least two members. The mayor, also elected, has control over the administration of the city and is assisted by a managing director who supervises ten major departments, a director of finance, a city representative and a city solicitor.

Pittsburgh and Scranton, second class and second class A cities respectively, also have strong mayors. These mayors, like the chief executive of Philadelphia, have broad appointive and removal powers, are responsible for the preparation of the annual budget, recommend measures for the consideration of council and may veto legislation which may be overridden by a two thirds majority of the council. Home rule charters were adopted by Scranton and Pittsburgh in 1974. In all three cities, the mayor is the dominant force in city government.

Third Class Cities

The code establishes a commission form of government. Under this form, the mayor and four other members constitute the commission which is the governing body of the city. The mayor is one of the members of council and acts as president. Each council member is in charge of one of the five major departments. These officials and the controller and treasurer are elected at large by the voters for a four-year term. Councilmanic terms overlap. Appointment of all other officers and employees is made by council. Twenty of the 53 third class cities operate under the commission form: Aliquippa, Arnold, Beaver Falls, Bradford, Butler, Connellsville, Corry, Duquesne, Jeannette, Lower Burrell, Monessen, Monongahela, Nanticoke, New Kensington, Pittston, Pottsville, Shamokin, Sunbury, Uniontown and Washington.

From 1957 to 1972, cities could adopt two other forms of government by referendum under the Optional Third Class City Charter Law. The mayor-council form has a five, seven or nine-member council, elected at-large for overlapping four-year terms. A mayor, treasurer and a controller also are elected for a four-year period. The mayor is the chief executive of the city and enforces the ordinances of council. The mayor may veto ordinances which can be overridden by a two-thirds majority of council. The mayor supervises the work of all city departments and submits the annual city budget to council. Cities operating under this plan include Bethlehem, Easton, Erie, Harrisburg, Lancaster, New Castle, Sharon, Williamsport and York. In the council-manager form, all authority is lodged with council which is composed of five, seven or nine members elected at-large for a four-year term. A city treasurer and controller also are elected. A city manager is appointed by council. The manager is the chief administrative officer of the city and is responsible for executing the ordinances of council. The manager appoints and may remove department heads and subordinates. Cities operating under this plan include Lock Haven, Meadville, Oil City, and Titusville.

Since 1972, 16 cities have adopted home rule charters including Allentown, Carbondale, Chester, Clairton, Coatesville, Farrell, Franklin, Greensburg, Hermitage, Johnstown, Lebanon, McKeesport, Reading, St. Marys, Warren and Wilkes-Barre. Also, DuBois and Altoona have adopted the council-manager optional plan and Hazleton, the mayor-council optional plan, under the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law.


The present type of borough government is the weak mayor form which governed all incorporated municipalities during the 19th century. Most of the present cities were boroughs first and became cities as their population increased. Boroughs have a strong and dominant council, a weak executive and other elected officers with powers independent of the council. The governing body of the borough is an elected council. The tax collector, tax assessor and the auditors also are elected. Many other officials are appointed by borough council. The mayor is elected for a four-year term; council members are elected for four-year overlapping terms. A borough not divided into wards usually has seven council members; in boroughs divided into wards, at least one and not more than two are elected from each ward. The powers of council are broad and extensive, covering virtually the whole range of urban municipal functions. In more than 200 boroughs, the chief administrative officer is a manager appointed by council. The manager is responsible for carrying out the policies and enforcing the ordinances of council, relieving council from routine day-to-day administration. Since 1972, 20 boroughs have adopted home rule charters: Bellevue, Bethel Park, Bradford Woods, Bryn Athyn, Cambridge Springs, Chalfont, Edinboro, Green Tree, Kingston, Latrobe, Monroeville, Murrysville, Norristown, Portage, State College, Tyrone, West Chester, Whitehall and Youngsville. The boroughs of Weatherly and Quakertown have adopted optional plans, selecting council-manager plans.


Pennsylvania has two classes of townships. The first numbers 91 and includes the more urban townships located in the state's metropolitan areas; the second class, numbering 1,457, is generally rural. In townships of the first class, the governing body is made up of elected commissioners. There are either five commissioners elected at-large or up to 15 elected by wards. The commissioners have four-year overlapping terms. The governing body of second class townships is composed of three supervisors who are elected at-large. Two additional supervisors may be elected if approved by referendum. All are elected at-large for six-year terms. Other elected township officials include the tax assessor, tax collector (second class), three auditors or controller, and a treasurer (first class). Appointive officers include the secretary, township manager if desired, chief of police, fire chief, engineer, solicitor and others. To become a township of the first class, a second class township must have a population density of 300 persons per square mile, and voters must approve change of classification in a referendum. Many townships meeting the density requirement have remained second class.

Since 1972, 12 townships of the first class adopted home rule charters: Cheltenham, Haverford, McCandless, Mt. Lebanon, O'Hara, Penn Hills, Plymouth, Radnor, Upper Darby, Upper St. Clair, Whitehall and Wilkes-Barre.

Fifteen townships of the second class have also adopted home rule charters: Chester, Elk, Ferguson, Hampton, Hanover, Horsham, Kingston, Middletown, Peters, Pine, Richland, Tredyffrin, Upper Providence, West Deer and Whitemarsh. Five townships of the second class adopted optional plans of government. College, Indiana, Lower Saucon and Washington townships adopted the council-manager form.

Bensalem Township as well as Bristol Township, a first class township, have adopted the executive-council optional plan.


The authority is a special kind of local unit. They are not general government entities as are cities, boroughs and townships. They are set up to perform a special service. An authority is a body corporate and politic authorized to acquire, construct, improve, maintain and operate projects, and to borrow money and issue bonds to finance them. Projects include public facilities such as buildings, including school buildings, transportation facilities, marketing and shopping facilities, highways, parkways, airports, parking places, waterworks, sewage treatment plants, playgrounds, hospitals and industrial development projects. An authority can be organized by any county, city, town, borough, township or school district of the Commonwealth, acting singly or jointly with another municipality. An authority is established by ordinance by one or more municipalities. The governing bodies of the parent local unit or units appoint the members of the authority's board. If incorporated by one unit, the board consists of five members; if comprised of two or more local units, there is at least one member from each unit but no less than five. The board carries on the work of the authority, acquires property, appoints officers and employees, undertakes projects, makes regulations and charges, and collects revenue from services of the facilities or projects. The original reason for the establishment of authorities was the restrictive provisions for incurring debt imposed by the Commonwealth prior to the 1968 constitutional amendments, but they have proven useful mechanisms particularly for joint municipal projects. As of January 2001, there were 2,198 authorities in Pennsylvania. They have continued to grow at a substantial rate from the 1962 figure of 1,398.

Source: The Pennsylvania Manual