I'd like to know about the township, borough and city designations given to parts of Allegheny County. How are they different, if at all? Why are we not all cities? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

I'd like to know about the township, borough and city designations given to parts of Allegheny County. How are they different, if at all? Why are we not all cities?

Question submitted by: Ellen Kaufman, North Versailles

Soon, Ms. Kaufman, you WILL all be cities... or rather, one city! Yes, soon you shall all be residents of... Pittsburgh! And then your tax base will be ours, all ours! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-h...

Sorry about that. The Allegheny Conference was just here, accompanied by a handful of burly metropolitanists from the Post-Gazette editorial board. These people will stop at nothing to merge the 130 municipalities that make up Allegheny County.

And as you know, those 130 municipalities consist of various kinds of city, township and borough. And while some folks think these governments should be consolidated, such an effort would face numerous hurdles. For example, the county’s second-class townships are led by a panel of “supervisors,” whereas first-class townships elect a panel of “commissioners”! History teaches us that such divergent political traditions are usually only resolved through bloodshed.

And the differences between the various forms of municipal government are even greater than that.

Boroughs have elected mayors and councils of seven or more members, along with a handful of tax collector and auditor positions. Townships don’t have mayors at all, presumably to prevent a charismatic tyrant from rising up in, say, Robinson. And though they are the simplest forms of government, townships come in different sizes too. First-class townships -- which must have at least 300 people per square mile -- have a five-member board of commissioners, plus an elected treasurer and auditors. Second-class townships have three to five supervisors, plus a handful of auditors and a tax collector.

Generally, voters can petition to adopt whatever form of government works best for them. The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors notes that “Townships are the oldest form of organized government in the United States,” having been brought to our shores by the Pilgrims. The PSATS lauds townships as being “structured to reflect the wants and needs of the people they serve. … By design, the township structure is flexible, allowing local residents to determine what best serves their local needs.” Indeed, voters in some townships can change the number of supervisors by referendum, shifting from three to five and back again by referendum. It’s 100 percent pure democracy.

That’s a power many Pittsburghers probably wish they had. But California is proof that unrestrained democracy can be dangerous. Sure, it might be nice for voters in Kilbuck Township to expand or contract their representation … but if the voters don’t use that power wisely, the next thing you know Gary Coleman or Larry Flynt will be in charge of the place. (Assuming they aren’t already; who could tell?)

Making things more complicated, there are four different classes of city alone. To invoke Title 53 of the Pennsylvania Code of Statutes, cities “containing a population of one million or over shall constitute [cities of] the first class,” while “those containing a population of two hundred and fifty thousand and under one million shall constitute the second class.” There’s also a second-class “A” designation for cities of between 80,000 and 250,000 people, while all other cities under 250,000 people, including McKeesport, count as third-class cities. And each city type has its own form of government.

But as it turns out, there’s only one first-class city in the state, Philadelphia, and only one second-class city: Pittsburgh. So why not just say “Pittsburgh” when we mean Pittsburgh? Because some legislative sleight-of-hand is at work.

The state’s constitution has what’s known as a “uniformity clause,” which says that taxes must be applied uniformly “upon the same class of subjects,” and the courts have only recognized a handful of classifications as legitimate. The state’s income tax charges the same flat rate to everyone because, although you and I might think there’s a difference between the working class and the upper class, the state doesn’t recognize those classes as being legally valid.

Similarly, if you wanted to levy a new payroll preparation tax, say, on “every business in Pittsburgh,” you couldn’t do it. Being a “business in Pittsburgh” isn’t a valid class. You could, however, levy the tax on “every business operating in a second-class city.” That makes the rule sound broad-based because it applies to all cities of a specific size … even though everyone knows only one city qualifies. The whole idea of the second-class city is to allow legislators to levy unique taxes on Pittsburgh while pretending they’re not.

Tax dodgers might note that if Pittsburgh drops beneath 250,000 people -- which it just might someday soon, the way things are going -- it will no longer count as a “second-class city” according to the definition. Theoretically, that would put its taxing powers in jeopardy. But don’t count on it: The legislature could simply redefine “second-class city” to be smaller so Pittsburgh would still meet the definition. (It’s already been done once in the city’s history.)

Or we could simply engorge ourselves by swallowing up our own suburbs! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

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