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Local government in Pennsylvania

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Local government in Pennsylvania

Local government in Pennsylvania is more complex than in most states in the United States. This often leads to misunderstandings about how localities are referred to throughout the Commonwealth. There are five types of local governments listed in the Pennsylvania Constitution; county, township, borough, city, and school district.[1] All of Pennsylvania is included in one of the state's 67 counties and each county is then divided into one of the state's 2,562 municipalities. There are no independent cities or unincorporated territory within Pennsylvania. Local municipalities are either governed by statutes enacted by the Pennsylvania Legislature and administered through the Pennsylvania Code, by a home rule charter, forming a home rule municipality, or by an optional form of government adopted by the municipality with consent of the Legislature.[2]

Each municipality, except boroughs, are then classified according to their population. The General Assembly sets the population threshold for each local government unit. There are currently nine classifications for counties, four classes of cities, two classes of townships, and five classes of school districts.

Finally, villages and census-designated places are a part of the local community. Although they are not recognized local governments, they often refer to specific areas of township or other municipality and are often more familiar to people than the incorporated municipality. This can cause confusion to people who live outside the area and are not familiar with the local municipal structure.


Counties in Pennsylvania serve the traditional roles for state including law enforcement, judicial administration, and election conduct. Some of the other functions that Pennsylvania's counties may perform include: public health, property assessment, and redevelopment. Some of the welfare functions often performed by counties include, mental health, geriatric care, community colleges, and library support.[3]

Pennsylvania is divided into 67 counties, and all of them are governed by a county council, except Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania and the six home-rule counties Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh, and Northampton. The county council typically serves as both the legislative and executive body. The council of counties smaller than second-class consist of three elected members called commissioners, and by law, two must be of a majority party and the third must be of a minority party, which is determined by which candidates receive the most votes in a commissioners' election, as two candidates from each party run in the general election. One of these members serves as the chair. In addition to the elected commissioners, many of the counties have elected row officers independent of the county council. These offices include sheriff, district attorney, prothonotary, clerk of the courts, registrar of wills, recorder of deeds, and two jury commissioners. Smaller counties may combine the functions of the offices.[3]

Counties are further classified by population. Each classification has its own code set up by the General Assembly to administer county functions. The classification of counties are as follows:
Class Max. Population Min. Population Number Counties
First -- 1,500,000 1 Philadelphia
Second 1,500,000 800,000 1 Allegheny
Second A 800,000 500,000 4 Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware, Lancaster
Third 500,000 210,000 11 Chester, York, Berks, Westmoreland, Luzerne, Lehigh, Erie, Northampton, Dauphin, Lackawanna, Cumberland
Fourth 210,000 145,000 9 Washington, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Schuylkill, Fayette, Monroe, Franklin, Centre,
Fifth 145,000 95,000 5 Blair, Lebanon, Mercer, Lycoming, Adams
Sixth 95,000 45,000* 26 Crawford, Indiana, Clearfield, Somerset, Armstrong, Columbia, Bradford, Carbon, Venango, Bedford, Wayne, Mifflin, Pike, McKean, Jefferson, Huntington, Warren, Susquehanna, Clarion, Tioga, Greene, Clinton, Elk, Northumberland, Lawerence, Perry
Seventh 45,000 20,000 4 Union, Snyder, Wyoming, Juniata
Eighth 20,000 -- 6 Montour, Potter, Fulton, Sullivan, Cameron, Forest

(*): A county having a population of 35,000 and more but less than 45,000 inhabitants may by ordinance or resolution of the Board of County Commissioners elect to be a county of the sixth class.[4]

A total of seven counties currently have home rule charters: Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, and Northampton. Philadelphia is a consolidated city-county with all of its county functions being administered by the city government.[3]


After the county level, everyone in Pennsylvania lives under the jurisdiction of at least two types of municipal governments. The first type of municipal government will provide police and fire protection, maintenance of local roads and streets, water supply, sewage collection and treatment, parking and traffic control, local planning and zoning, parks and recreation, garbage collection, health services, libraries, licensing of businesses, and code enforcement. The second type will administer the local schools and are called school districts.

The Constitution of Pennsylvania mentions only three types of non-school related municipal divisions; city, borough, and township. Bloomsburg however, is the only incorporated town in Pennsylvania but is administered by the borough code and is classified (for legal purposes) as such by the state. The mostly uninhabited, township-sized area of East Fork was classified as a “road district” until its 2004 dissolution.


There are a total of 56 incorporated cities in Pennsylvania, the smallest being Parker, Armstrong County, with a population of 840 (2010 census). Each of these cities is further classified according to population. There is one first class city, Philadelphia, which has more than 1 million residents. There is also only one second class city, with a population between 250,000 and 1 million (Pittsburgh). A city with between 80,000 and 250,000 inhabitants that has also adopted a certain ordinance can be classified as a second class A city; only Scranton has done so. Finally, any city below 250,000 people that has not adopted the second class ordinance is a third class city. First and second class cities have a strong mayor and home rule charters. The mayor has broad power to appoint and remove certain commissioners and department heads. A majority of the city's functions are independent of the state's control.[5]

Third class cities can be governed three ways. The third class city codes establishes a commission form of government. Under this form, the mayor and four other members constitute the commission which is the governing body of the city. The mayor is one of the members of council and acts as president. Each council member is in charge of one of the five major departments. The city controller and treasurer are elected independently. A total of 20 cities employ this form of governance. The mayor-council form has a five, seven, or nine-member council, elected at large for overlapping four-year terms. A mayor, treasurer, and a controller also are elected for a four-year period. The mayor is the chief executive of the city and enforces the ordinances of council. The mayor may veto ordinances which can be overridden by a two-thirds majority of council. The mayor supervises the work of all city departments and submits the annual city budget to council. This form was adopted by nine cities by referenda. The last is the council-manager form, in which all authority is lodged with council which is composed of five, seven, or nine members elected at-large for a four-year term. A city treasurer and controller also are elected. A city manager is appointed by council. The manager is the chief administrative officer of the city and is responsible for executing the ordinances of council. The manager appoints and may remove department heads and subordinates. Only four cities use this method of city organization.

A total of 16 third class cities have adopted home rule charters. Two cities (DuBois and Altoona) have an optional council-manager plan and one city (Hazleton) has a mayor-council optional plan.


Boroughs are generally smaller than cities in terms of both geographic area and population. Most of the cities in Pennsylvania were once incorporated as a borough before becoming a city. Boroughs are not classified by population and are administered through the borough code. Each borough elects a weak mayor and a three, five, seven, or nine member council which has broad powers. The tax assessor, tax collector, and auditors are elected independently. The borough council can also hire a borough manager to enforce ordinances and carry out the day-to-day business of the council. A total of 19 boroughs have also adopted home rule charters.[5]

Boroughs generally incorporate from areas of dense populations in a township. These areas generally had a train station and were centers of businesses and industrial activities. The first borough to be incorporated in Pennsylvania was Germantown in 1690.[6] That borough ceased to exist when all of Philadelphia's municipal government were consolidated in 1854. The borough of Chester Heights has a unique distinction of incorporating into a borough out of Aston Township due to a tax revolt.[7]


Townships in Pennsylvania were the first form of land grants established by William Penn. They have existed in one form or another since the Province of Pennsylvania was established.[8] They were usually large tracts of land given to a person, a family, or a group of people by Penn or his heirs.[9]

Townships can be of the first or second class. A township may become a first-class township by a referendum of the township's voters. Representation in a first-class township is by a board of commissioners. That board can consist of anywhere from five commissioners elected at large or 7-15 commissioners elected by wards to four-year terms.

A second-class township usually has three supervisors, elected at large for six-year terms. A referendum may allow a second-class township's board of supervisors to expand to five members. Some townships have home-rule charters, which allow for a mayor/council form of government.

School Districts

There are a total of 500 schools districts in Pennsylvania and are administered by the Pennsylvania Public School Code of 1949. School districts can comprise one single municipality, like the School District of Philadelphia or can comprise multiple municipalities. School districts have the sole responsibility to instruct the school-aged population of the Commonwealth. Some school districts cross one or more county lines creating challenges in equalizing property taxes due to widely varying property tax assessments. Like some other local governments, school districts are classified based on population and these classifications determine what regulations they follow.

Class Max. Population Min. Population [10]
First -- 1,000,000
First A 1,000,000 250,000
Second 250,000 30,000
Third 30,000 5,000
Fourth 5,000 --

Municipal Authorities

Municipal authorities are a special kind of local unit. They are not general government entities as are cities, boroughs and townships. They are set up to perform a special service. An authority is a body corporate and politic authorized to acquire, construct, improve, maintain, and operate projects, and to borrow money and issue bonds to finance them. Projects include public facilities such as buildings, including school buildings, transportation facilities, marketing and shopping facilities, highways, parkways, airports, parking places, waterworks, sewage treatment plants, playgrounds, hospitals, and industrial development projects.

An authority can be organized by any county, city, town, borough, township, or school district of the Commonwealth, acting singly or jointly with another municipality. An authority is established by ordinance by one or more municipalities. The governing bodies of the parent local unit or units appoint the members of the authority's board. If created by one unit, the board consists of five members; if created by two or more local units, there is at least one member from each unit but no fewer than five. The board carries on the work of the authority, acquires property, appoints officers and employees, undertakes projects, makes regulations and charges, and collects revenue from services of the facilities or projects.[11]

Unincorporated communities

Unincorporated communities in the state of Pennsylvania are well-defined communities that are part of one or more incorporated municipalities but are not independent municipalities in their own right. They have no elected form government and have no authority granted to them by the state or county. Many unincorporated communities though, often overshadow the true municipal government. King of Prussia is an example of an unincorporated community that tends to be better known than Upper Merion, the municipality King of Prussia actually resides in.

These communities can be small, cross-road type areas with a few homes and businesses or they can be large business complexes with relatively few residents but a strong commercial center.


Villages in Pennsylvania are often small communities within a township that chose not to incorporate into a borough. Many villages are identified by the familiar PennDot sign along a state highway. Lahaska is an example of typical village in suburban Pennsylvania.

Census-designated place

These are areas recognized by the United States Census Bureau for enumeration purposes. Many CDPs are also names of villages or post-offices that tie a community together.


  1. ^ . Article III Section 20ConstitutionCommonwealth of Pennsylvania.
  2. ^ The Pennsylvania Manual, Page 6-3.
  3. ^ a b c The Pennsylvania Manual, Page 6-4.
  4. ^ The Pennsylvania Manual, Page 6-9.
  5. ^ a b The Pennsylvania Manual, Page 6-5.
  6. ^ (1995-07-04). "Incorporated District, Boroughs, and Townships in the County of Philadelphia, 1854". Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  7. ^ "The History of Aston Township". Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  8. ^ "Frame of Government" of Penn's Land Grant. Text Available:
  9. ^ Velma, Carter. "Penn's Manor of Springfield." PDF Document, 1976. Available:
  10. ^ Pennsylvania Public School Code of 1949. Article II, Section 2-202
  11. ^ The Pennsylvania Manual. Page 6-6.
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