Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

June 8, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider the issue of unincorporated areas: what are the fiscal implications?

In many U.S. states, it’s not uncommon for homeowners to reside in what are known as “unincorporated” areas, meaning portions of the state or county that are not contained within the boundaries of an incorporated city, town, village or similar local governmental entity. From a municipal perspective, that means a community not governed by its own local municipal corporation, but rather is administered as part of larger governmental administrative division—such as a township, parish, borough, county, or city—governance entities which, depending upon the pertinent state laws, may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, dissolve, disincorporate, or, as we noted in today’s eGnus, make even separate. Widespread unincorporated communities and areas are a distinguishing feature of both the U.S. and our neighbor Canada—but rare in any other countries around the globe. In fact, unincorporated areas are mostly found in this country in Texas—an enormous state, but which has the nation’s smallest municipality: McAllen, in Jim Hogg County, with a population of 6.

When it comes to unincorporated areas within states, Pennsylvania appears unique: it is, after all, the state with the greatest number of local governments or political subdivisions: the Census Bureau puts the number at 5,000—putting the state only behind Texas and Illinois; but maybe ranks it first in terms of imposing vast and conflicting arrays of taxes—taxes which, however, are imposed on shrinking tax bases. Indeed, the fiscal stress has reached such a point that the state’s House Urban Affairs Committee recently convened a public hearing on legislation intended to assist smaller municipalities mired in cycles of financial distress—threatened with insolvency absent outside assistance. House Bill 2122 would allow these communities, after gaining approval in a voter referendum, to dissolve themselves and have their functions absorbed by the county. The co-sponsors, Representatives Dom Costa and Harold English, offered the bill as a means they described to provide for the voluntary dissolution of municipal corporations (cities, boroughs, towns, & townships) within counties of the second class (Allegheny), and the substitution of an unincorporated districts as a new form of government to be administered by the county. Under the proposed legislation, the process of dissolution would be initiated by the governing body of the municipal corporation through passage of a non-binding resolution to engage in discussion with the county over a period of six months, during which time they would develop a proposed essential services-transition plan as part of an intergovernmental cooperation agreement.: such a plan would be subject to public meetings in the community and would have to be voted on by the governing body of the municipal corporation, as well as the County Council: should both the municipal corporation and county governing bodies approve said plan, a referendum would be scheduled—an election where, if approved by the voters, a six-month winding down of the affairs of the municipal corporation would begin. At the conclusion of such a period, an unincorporated district administered by the county would go into effect, and the essential services-transition plan would become an official ordinance of the county. That would entail significant powers to said county to administer and manage such a district; the county would also retain the tax levying power and authority to assess fees and service charges previously authorized to that particular class of municipal corporation. All taxes and fees levied within the service district would have to be used for the benefit of the district.

Finally, the bill provides for the potential merger and consolidation of the unincorporated district with another municipal corporation or would permit the district to re-incorporate itself as another type of municipal corporation in accordance with the existing municipal codes applicable to such entities.

They reported the legislation was carefully crafted with input from the staff of the bicameral/bipartisan Local Government Commission, confident that it represents a unique voluntary agreement between municipalities – one in which a given city, borough or township would be able to ensure a more efficient and effective delivery of services to their residents while retaining their municipal identity. 

Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development administers Act 47, as we have previously noted, a program to help “distressed” communities as designated under the terms of the state’s Act 47, under which the state could ultimately take on the task of providing local services. However, it appears that Deputy Secretary for Community Affairs Rick Vilello, the department’s deputy secretary for community affairs and development, HB2122 might provide a better option, or, as he testified: “We’ve not timed out [on recovery options] on a community who we felt wasn’t ready to try to make it on their own…But we are fast approaching a time when several municipalities will time out. When municipalities time out, there are very few good solutions from that point forward. House Bill 2122 provides a potential solution for local leaders facing hard decisions and is a tool worth trying.” Secretary Vilello testified that to date, only 31 municipalities in the state had ever reached “distressed” status out of 2,560. Of those 31, nine were in Allegheny County.

The Secretary noted: “House Bill 2122 could be a life-preserver for communities that have been treading water for a very long time: Who knows, if it works in [Allegheny County], what would be possible next. House Bill 2122 is a tool for the elected officials and for the citizens of distressed municipalities to make a choice about their future.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald testified that the proposed legislation could be useful, not only to those communities whose finances have spiraled out of control, but also to those that have managed to avoid financial disaster by cutting essential services to minimal levels:  “Some of them, quite frankly, have not gone into Act 47…They just quit providing the services. They haven’t gone into the debt problem, but they haven’t provided the services their citizens have wanted. And what [residents have] basically been doing is voting with their feet. They’ve been leaving, [and] those municipalities have been shrinking in population.” The County Executive emphasized that the legislation could not lead to any municipality being dissolved against its will; similarly, he testified that no county could be forced to absorb a municipality against its will: both governments would have to agree to the terms of the disincorporation before it even went to the voters for approval.

Under the proposed legislation, the unincorporated community would retain some level of local governance through the establishment of a district advisory committee appointed by the county council. The advisory committee would hold open meetings in the former municipality and issue reports to the county on matters pertaining to local residents.

Nevertheless, Melissa Morgan, legislative and policy analyst for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, warned the proposed legislation would go too far in wresting local power and vesting it in a higher level of government, telling legislators her organization, which she said represents 1,454 townships in the state, opposes the passage of HB2122 or any other legislation that would allow for the dissolution of municipalities: “County government should not be given additional powers to administer unincorporated territory…Instead, the Legislature should consider relieving unfunded mandates for municipalities, such as those requiring benefits to uniform employees to help alleviate financial challenges.” County Executive Fitzgerald said he was in favor of the Legislature taking other steps such as those suggested by Ms. Morgan to ease the plight of struggling communities; however, he noted that HB2122 was also a good option to have on the books in case those other steps fail to provide relief: “It’s a voluntary program: It’s just giving people an option. And to me, that’s what democracy is about, giving people the choice. Right now, they don’t have that choice.”

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