Cheaper Government, But Not Better
How much does all this government cost us?
Surprisingly, we spend less per capita on local government than the average region. In 2002 (the year of the most recent Census of Governments), the Pittsburgh MSA ranked 22nd among the top 40 regions on total local government revenues per capita. (This includes counties, municipalities, school districts, and special districts.)
And we ranked even better on per capita local government taxes – 24th out of 40, about 12% less than the average region.
That’s good news, right? Yes, in part. Although everyone thinks their taxes are too high, our local taxes are actually below average compared to other major regions, and that’s a selling point in our favor.
The problem is that although we’re spending less than other regions, we’re also getting less value for our money.
Take police services, for example. Among the top 40 regions, the Pittsburgh Region ranked dead last in local police expenditures per capita in 2002. Local governments in the Pittsburgh Region spent 40% less than the average of other major regions. Although that’s partly because we have a lower crime rate than other regions, it’s also because over 200 of the 548 municipalities in the 10-county region don’t provide police services at all. (They rely solely on the State Police for police coverage).
We don’t need 200 more police departments; we need to have more of our municipalities sharing police services. Why have 10 police chiefs in 10 municipalities, when you could have 1 police chief and 9 more officers? Yet only 12 municipalities in the entire region participate in a regional police force, and only 48 others purchase police services from a neighboring municipality.
We spend nearly 20% less on highways than the average region, and we probably get even less in value because of the inefficiencies of having over 500 separate highway departments. With increased concerns about bridge and highway maintenance, we should be looking for more efficient ways to use the money we do spend.
So what would happen if we reduced the number of governments here? Is bigger government more expensive? Not necessarily. A number of regions have fewer, larger governmental units, but still spend less than we do. For example, Tampa has only 1/7 as many governments, and 20% lower local government taxes, with about the same population as the Pittsburgh Region. Both Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon have half as many governments on a per capita basis as we do, with lower local government taxes. (It’s not because state government in those areas is picking up the burden – total state and local taxes per capita are lower in Florida, Minnesota, and Oregon than in Pennsylvania.)
Would fewer governments mean fewer government jobs? Not likely – we already have lower local government employment than most other regions. The problem is that we have a lot more overhead in government than we need.
We manage to get by with 126 school districts, why do we need to have more than four times as many municipalities? If we had the same number of municipal governments as we have school districts, we would still have more municipal governments per capita than 24 of the top 40 regions, but we could have more efficient, effective service.
We need to provide simpler, better government services if we want to attract businesses and jobs. It’s not that our government is costing us too much – it’s that it’s delivering too little.
Both citizens and municipal officials need to support consolidation of services and ultimately consolidation of municipalities in order to make our region more competitive in the global economy.