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Why do some towns choose ‘home rule?’ For one thing, there’s some money in it

As Harrisburg looks to exit a state program for "financially distressed" municipalities, it has asked lawmakers to let it keep tax increases it now enjoys. Another way it could increase taxes: Adopting home rule.

Upper  Darby Township adopted its home rule charter in 1976.
Upper Darby Township adopted its home rule charter in 1976.Read moreMichaelle Bond

When Harrisburg entered Pennsylvania's "distressed municipalities" program, the state gave it power to hike certain taxes to help pay its bills.

As the city looks to exit the program, it would like to keep those tax increases. A bill pending in the legislature would allow that.

Meanwhile, a state official tasked with helping Harrisburg has suggested another way for the city to increase taxes beyond the state's normal limits: The state capital could consider becoming a "home-rule" city.

Municipalities have the right under Pennsylvania's Constitution to choose home rule, which grants certain limited powers.

Of Pennsylvania's 2,560 municipalities, only 96 have done so, including 24 in the five-county region, according to the state's Department of Community and Economic Development. Philadelphia was the first to vote to accept a home-rule charter in 1951.

Municipalities "don't like the limits that are in state law," said Joseph McLaughlin, director of the Temple University Institute for Public Affairs, but "most municipalities have considered [home rule] not to be worth the effort."

What is a home rule charter?

A home-rule charter is a local constitution that sets out the powers and structure of government. Home rule municipalities have some autonomy but have to to abide by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions and other state laws. The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development calls home rule "limited independence."

Most states, including New Jersey, allow for home rule.

How does a community adopt home rule?

A municipality or county can ask voters in a ballot question whether they want to form a commission that studies whether and how to create a home-rule charter. The home-rule process, which includes public hearings and expert testimony, can take 18 months or more. If the commission recommends switching to home rule, residents then vote to adopt or reject the new charter.

How many municipalities in the Philadelphia region operate under home rule?

Four municipalities in Bucks County; five in Chester County; eight in Delaware County; six in Montgomery County; and Philadelphia have home rule.

Why would a municipality adopt a home rule charter?

Towns choose home rule for two main reasons, said Jim Nowalk, president of the Pennsylvania State Mayors' Association and mayor of Allegheny County's Whitehall Borough: Money, and at least a sense of control.

Because Whitehall has home rule, it was able to increase its wage levy from 1 percent, to 1.5 percent, generating an additional $1.9 million for its roughly $10 million budget. Coatesville and Norristown, both home-rule cities, also have wage taxes above the 1 percent state standard, as does the City of Chester, which has the region's highest municipal earned income tax for residents at 2.75 percent.

"I'm just surprised that everybody isn't home rule just for that reason," Nowalk said. "You have great flexibility in terms of funding government services."

Home rule also is an opportunity to customize local government instead of using the state's cookie-cutter options.

Upper Darby Township adopted its charter in 1976 to create a "strong-mayor" form of government. The council creates policy, and the mayor chooses how to implement it. The setup helps cut through bureaucracy and cuts out the need for debate and consensus on minutiae, said Mayor Thomas Micozzie. The move "allowed the township to remain independent as a community" and helped it grow, he said.

Delaware County also became home rule in 1976 and is the only county in the region to have done so — and the only county that doesn't require minority-party representation in its governing body. The county formed a five-member council instead of the traditional three-member board of commissioners and implemented two-term limits for elected officials.

Then-Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo tried in 1978 to get voters to amend the city's home-rule charter to allow mayors to serve more than two terms, but residents didn't go for it.

Why don’t most municipalities have home-rule charters?

"There's a lot of misunderstanding," said Beverly Cigler, professor emerita at Penn State and author of the Pennsylvania entry in the 2000 book Home Rule in America: A Fifty-State Handbook. "It's not a free-for-all like you can easily think when you hear 'home rule.'"

Adopting home rule to change the local government structure is one thing, Cigler said, but it is not a cure-all for municipalities.

"The real problem for local governments is they need more fiscal autonomy," she said. "Home rule gives them a little bit but nowhere near enough to fix their issues." That would take the legislature fundamentally changing how states and local governments deliver services and who pays for what.

Communities also may find cooperating with neighbors difficult if they all operate differently, Cigler said. Then there's the time and effort needed to adopt a charter.