Front page juxtaposition illustrates the best—and worst—that small, local government has to offer
● By Steven Hoffman
On the front page of last week’s Chester County Press, there was a bombshell story about the township manager who is facing charges of embezzling more than $3.2 million from Kennett Township since 2013. There was also a story about Penn Township supervisors adopting a budget for next year that does not require a tax increase. This is the 22nd year in a row that Penn Township has adopted a budget without increasing municipal taxes for its residents. The juxtaposition of those two stories on the same front page illustrates what is both good and bad about Pennsylvania having more than 2,500 individual municipalities, each one a kind of kingdom unto itself.
The borough council members and township supervisors who serve in leadership positions in the municipalities are united in their selfless willingness to volunteer their time for the betterment of the community—but beyond that they have little in common with each other. The borough council members and supervisors representing the 2,560 municipalities are nurses and teachers and business owners and landscapers and stay-at-home dads. These elected officials have varied backgrounds, differing education levels, and vastly different life experiences. Each council member and supervisor comes with strengths that they bring to these positions. They all come with their limitations, too.
Sometimes, having Pennsylvania’s system of more than 2,500 individual municipalities can result in good government. Neighbors elected to serve as municipal leaders are certainly more responsive to their neighbors in a small town or township. Who cares more about zoning and land-development issues than a person who lives in the community and who may have his or her quality of life impacted? Neighbors are certainly going to be more hesitant to raise taxes on their neighbors. So small, local governments have their pluses. But then there are the minuses. What happened in Kennett Township might be less likely to occur in a larger government entity where there would be a more professional environment with a system of checks and balances in place so that one person could blatantly steal taxpayer money.
So the news stories about Kennett Township and Penn Township illustrate the worst—and best—of local government. It can work great, and the Penn Township Board of Supervisors delivering a budget without a tax increase is an example of that. What happened in Kennett Township, by contrast, is an example of some of the flaws of relying on unpaid decision-makers to run municipalities where a lot of responsibility rests on the shoulders of just a few paid employees in leadership roles. That’s not to suggest that supervisors and council members should be paid. Even if they were paid, they could still make a mistake in who they place choose to replace their trust in.
The point is that all these 2,500 individual municipalities place a lot of trust in very few people. And when one of those people exploits the system for their own benefit, the inherent flaws in the system are exposed.