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Tom Ferrick Jr. | The land that time, and good sense, forgot

Here is a short quiz for a wintry winter weekend. Name the Pennsylvania city with a diminishing population, an eroding tax base, and deep budgetary problems?

Here is a short quiz for a wintry winter weekend.

Name the Pennsylvania city with a diminishing population, an eroding tax base, and deep budgetary problems?

a. Philadelphia.

b. Pittsburgh.

c. Allentown.

d. Erie.

e. All of the above.

Being an astute reader, you probably have guessed the answer: All of the above.

Actually, that's only the beginning of the list. I could include Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Hazleton and Reading, Pottsville and Phoenixville, Williamsport and Monessen.

In fact, there are more cities and small towns in this state in this condition than there are letters of the alphabet.

And it's not just a city problem.

As the Pennsylvania Economy League (PEL) put it in a recent study:

"The migration of communities toward fiscal decline is statewide - impacting townships, boroughs, and cities in every region of the state . . . in rural, suburban and urban areas.

"It impacts businesses of all sizes and types. It already impacts over half of Pennsylvania's households. And based on revenue trends, it's only a matter of time until the rest of our municipalities are similarly affected . . . "

What to do about it? Let's run away from that question for a minute while we ponder the dimensions of the problem. It's a story with a lot of numbers.

The first important one is 1682.

That's the year William Penn landed in Pennsylvania and settlement of the colony began in earnest.

It didn't take long for colonists to begin laying out the boundaries of local government. And they didn't stop until the entire state was a thick web of lines demarcating counties, cities, townships and boroughs.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, those boundaries date back as early as the 17th century, and this is, like, the 21st.

When they laid out municipal boundaries 300 years ago, they had to be compact because the only way to get around was to walk or ride a horse. Government had to be close at hand.

When it came to raising money to support local government, they used the only reliable barometer of wealth in those pre-modern times: land.

Today, Pennsylvania has (this is not a misprint) 2,565 municipalities, run by 22,500 elected officials and employing nearly 150,000 people.

The budgets of these local governments total about $11 billion a year, according to PEL, and their principal way of raising money remains a tax on land - also known as the property tax.

A few more numbers: About 60 percent of the municipalities in the state have populations of less than 2,500.

The PEL study found more than 1,000 of the state's municipalities to be in varying degrees of financial distress.

To put it simply, they lack the tax capacity - usually due to their size or economic conditions - to provide the basics in municipal services.

In case you think this is a Philly problem, the city is not among the worst off, by any means. Smaller rural communities and towns in western Pennsylvania - which have been losing population, jobs and industry - tend to be the state's basket cases.

If I came up to you tomorrow and said you must live an 18th-century life - no electricity, no modern appliances, no central heating, no modern medicine and no car - you would think I was nuts.

But when it comes to their 18th century-sized local governments, people like them just fine.

Any suggestion of consolidation of services - let alone boundaries - is usually greeted with howls of protest.

It makes a lot of policy sense to consider consolidation - or at least to update the state laws governing local governments.

But it makes no political sense. There is no strong constituency to change. It's hard to rally folks with the slogan: "Consolidation or bust!"

PEL, with its study, is taking the first steps toward getting the issue some attention. It suggests the topic might be addressed through a constitutional convention or (at least) some major rewriting of local government codes by the legislature.

The last major consolidation in Pennsylvania happened in 1854, when the city of Philadelphia, which then had the boundaries of today's Center City, gobbled up surrounding boroughs and townships and created its current city limits.

What provoked that drastic action was a series of riots - anti-Irish and anti-black - that threatened to overwhelm the local government. City fathers wanted to create a police force along the lines of London's bobbies, but lacked the tax base to pay for it.

Several wise leaders also realized that it was more efficient and cost-effective to meet the demand for water supplies, roads and other municipal services under a consolidated government.

I wonder what would happen if any elected official proposed that type of consolidation today, say, in Delaware County? He probably would be impeached or even stoned.

The rest of the world may move on, but Pennsylvania is the state where yesterday rules.

Makes me want to propose a new slogan for the state:

Welcome to Pennsylvania: America's Living Museum.