Less Government Would Give Municipalities More Power
Smaller communities have "very little political leverage when dealing with the state or private interests."
In my column on local government mergers in New Jersey, one of the benefits officials talked about was leverage.
Governments that represent larger numbers of people can better compete for state and federal money than smaller governments can.
For instance, Woodbridge Township, NJ (whose government represents 10 small towns) can afford to employ a full-time grant writer whose entire job is to seek grants from the state and federal governments for local projects.
Because the government of Woodbridge represents a larger number of people, they also have a stronger claim to appropriations. When Northampton County asks Harrisburg for matching funds on a project, it's asking on behalf of almost 300,000 people. When Easton alone asks the state for money, it represents just 27,000.
Larger local governments also have more leverage for bulk purchasing of supplies (IT, school books, police vehicles) and contracting for services (trash collection, custodians, tax collection). Call it the Sam's Club strategy.
But there is another advantage to larger local government: greater political autonomy for the region's citizens.
Currently, Pennsylvania's municipal governments are creatures of the state. Their political authority is derived from the state government, and they are essentially tasked with carrying out the state's business at the local level.
Home Rule has allowed local governments greater flexibility, but they still have very little political leverage when dealing with the state or private interests who play government against government to enrich themselves at the taxpayer's expense.
For example, suppose Easton wants to keep natural gas companies from drilling within their city limits.* Gas companies are offering a lot of money, and tax receipts are still very low due to the weak economy, but citizens convince city council not to approve drilling anyway.
Now suppose this hypothetical shale formation can also be fracked in West Easton, so the gas companies make the same offer to them.
West Easton, having such a tiny tax base to begin with, badly needs revenue so its representatives vote to allow drilling. Even though everybody knows Easton and West Easton are functionally the same city, Easton residents can't do anything to stop the neighboring government from selling out.
It's also possible that if Easton City Council expected West Easton to cave, they might strategically approve the drilling anyway since it would be better to get the revenue if they're still going to have to deal with the resulting pollution and wear and tear on the city's roads and bridges.
This is the basic model of how corporations play Pennsylvania's local governments against each other to secure deals that are bad for voters.
This kind of competition between governments also creates pressure to approve more sprawling Big Box developments (lest a neighboring government do it first) and compete for businesses by offering expensive tax abatements.
A larger local government would give citizens more power to fight back against this "divide-and-conquer" strategy by standardizing land use policies and tax rates at the regional level. The most pragmatic way to accomplish this would be to give county governments authority over planning, zoning and tax rates.
Not only would this put an end to "divide-and-conquer" and make shady backroom deals with developers much harder to pull off, it would also give citizens better tools to protect themselves by increasing their capacity to defend local decisions in court.
How many unwanted projects have been approved because small governments feared that blocking them would require a prolonged expensive lawsuit?
A larger tax base would increase the resources and capacity available to local government to fight and win those lawsuits. Legally-binding regional plans would make it clear to developers what is and is not allowed to be built in different areas of the county.
For instance, if the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission's comprehensive plan had the force of law, it would be illegal for David Jaindl to turn more farmland in Lower Macungie into ugly sprawl. County planners could zone that area as farmland, and it could only legally be used for farming.
Some local activists have started organizing on the issue of increasing local power and leverage, but unfortunately the specific recommendations would not do anything to resolve the "divide and conquer" problem, or the lack of capacity to defend local decisions in court.
Increasing the power of metro regions over state governments is a very worthy goal, but only if local institutions have the incentives and the capacity to deliver the results their citizens want.
Standardizing land-use planning, zoning and tax rates within county borders would be a good first step toward giving citizens more meaningful political power, and preparing the Lehigh Valley's economy to prevail against the real competition - other metro regions.