Pennsylvania's Local Political Structure Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Pennsylvania's Local Political Structure

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All politics is local
- Tip O'Neill

The truth of this statement by former Massachusetts Congressman Tip O'Neill is proved beyond question in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State is a commonwealth and is one of only four in the USA1. What this means is that when the state was first established, it was agreed that the government would work for and protect the 'common good'. It also means that much of the work of government is to be driven to the local level. To this end, Pennsylvania today has 2,569 units of local governance2 - from large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to tiny SNPJ3 Borough in Lawrence County which has a population of 14.

Add to these municipalities another 500 public school districts and 67 counties and you've got quite a lot of local politics.

Now let's take a more detailed look at each political subdivision.

County Government

As we mentioned earlier, Pennsylvania has 67 counties and they range in size from Philadelphia County (with a population of over 1.5 million) to Forest County4 (with about 5,000 people).

Most counties serve to provide regional court and law enforcement functions, oversee elections and provide property assessments. Many counties in Pennsylvania also support nursing homes, hospitals and library systems.

The most common form of county government is a three-member board of commissioners. Minority party representation is required on this board to prevent one party from holding all three seats. In Pennsylvania, this usually result in votes of 2-1 on most issues as two Republicans and a Democrat or two Democrats and a Republican can rarely agree on any issues. We are unaware of any 'third-party' candidates ever holding this office.

There are also county 'row offices' which include the district attorney, sheriff and register of wills. All of these positions are elected offices with terms of four years.

Counties are able to charge a real estate tax which collects a dollar for each $1000 of valuation of property (a mill5). This tax is used to support county functions like the courts, prisons and other operations.

The Courts

Each county operates a Court of Common Pleas, usually located in the county seat. It is here that criminal trials are heard ranging from homicides to misdemeanours as well as civil cases seeking monetary damages. All matters relating to the family (divorce, child custody and child support) and juvenile court cases, estate matters, adoptions, property disputes and equity issues are heard at this level. Judges are elected for ten-year terms.

In addition to the Court of Common Pleas, each county oversees several local District Justices who are known in other states as District Magistrates or Justices of the peace. The District Justice is locally elected and serves a few specific municipalities (his district) for a term of six years. He deals with small civil claims and summary offences. The District Justice also hears preliminary hearings and arraignments and are not required to have any prior legal experience.

Municipal Government

Of the 2,569 local municipal governments in Pennsylvania, 56 are classified as cities, 964 as boroughs, one as a town, and 1,548 as townships. Each classification operates under a set of laws established by the state which regulate the governmental structure as well is its powers.


There are four classifications of cities as defined by the state based on their populations. The classes are:

  • First Class Cities - Cities with populations over one million are considered to be first class. This class of city is governed by an elected mayor and a city council which is made up of members representing various neighborhoods. Philadelphia is the only city in Pennsylvania in this class.
  • Second Class Cities - Pittsburgh with a population over 250,000 is the only officially designated second class city.
  • Second Class A Cities - This is a special designation for cities with populations between 80,000 and 250,000 whose voters opt to adopt this classification. So far, Scranton is the only city in the state that falls in this category.
  • Third Class Cities - All of the remaining 53 cities with populations below 250,000 are classified as third-class cities.


Boroughs are the traditional small towns of Pennsylvania. In the state's early history, boroughs served as the market towns for the surrounding countryside.

While the state's 962 boroughs do not have specific classifications based upon their number of residents, population is used as a measure to determine the pay of council members and the mayor. And in boroughs of more than 3000, elected officials may not be borough employees.


The township is considered to be the oldest form of government in the USA with examples dating back to the 17th century. In Pennsylvania, townships are divided into two classes. First class townships have a population density of at least 300 people per square mile and have elected to become first class townships. All other townships in the state are considered to be 'townships of the second class6'. There are 91 townships of the first class and 1457 townships of the second class in Pennsylvania.

A board of three or five officials elected for a six-year term governs each township in Pennsylvania. Three-quarters of the 1,548 townships in the state have three-member board of supervisors and to convert to a five-member board requires the approval of the voters. All first class townships are governed by a five-member board of commissioners.

Supervisors and commissioners act as a legislative body with powers like enacting ordinances and levying taxes. They also wield executive powers like enforcing ordinances and hiring employees. Township supervisors are responsible for road maintenance, but in larger townships they may oversee police departments, sewer and water utilities and even parks and recreation functions.

Many larger townships are administered on a daily basis by a township manager who acts as the board's agent in day-to-day business matters. All township elected officials are eligible for small salaries usually on a per meeting basis, but it is such a pittance that many refuse the money or donate it to a community non-profit scheme such as the volunteer fire company.

The Town of Bloomsburg

Bloomsburg is Pennsylvania's only town. With a population of about 12,000 it is roughly the size of a borough, but was incorporated as a town in 1870 under a special act of the state legislature which was championed by resident and state Senator Charles Buckalew.

Its governing body has six council members and a presiding officer who is also the mayor. Council members are elected at large, rather than representing a specific ward. The mayor also participates in all meetings and has a vote on all questions. All council members are eligible for a small salary.

Apart from its unique designation and political structure, Bloomsburg operates very much like boroughs with the same taxing authority and general governmental obligations.


Pennsylvania law does not recognise villages. While many such entities exist across the state, including the village of Hershey, villages are always part of the township which surrounds them.

School Districts

Pennsylvania's 500 public school districts provide free education to roughly 1.8 million children between the ages of five and 18. Student enrolments in these school districts range from 267 to 214,2887.

After the adoption of the Public School Code in the late 19th Century, each local municipality provided school services to the children living within its boundaries. This was often in the form of one-room schoolhouses and attendance was sporadic, especially in rural areas where boys were required to help out on the farm in the spring and autumn. In the 1950s and 60s, school consolidation occurred with townships and boroughs joining together to provide public education to students. This created the structure of the public education which exists today in the commonwealth.

A school board of nine elected officials who are unpaid volunteers governs each school district. They sit as a board of directors to oversee the overall operations of the school system and its administrative team. The duties of a school board include setting policies, adopting a budget and levying taxes, and hiring staff.

Since providing a free public education is mandated in the state constitution, all school directors are technically state officials and school employees are eligible for participation in the state employees' retirement system.

1For bonus points at your next pub quiz, the other three are Virginia, Massachusetts and Kentucky.2Only Illinois has more!3Formed in 1978, this 500-acre municipality northwest of Pittsburgh is named for the group that owns the land: Slovenska Narodna Podporma Jednota or the Slovene National Benefit Society.4Forest County is actually inside the Allegheny State Forest and has more deer than people!5The term mill comes from the Latin word millesimus meaning 'thousandth.' A mill is one-tenth of a penny or one-thousandth of a dollar.
To calculate the property taxes on a home, multiply its assessed value by the millage rate. For example, a home assessed at $100,000 with a millage rate of 15.0 mills would pay $1,500 in real estate taxes ($100,000 x .01500 = $1,500).
6These are never referred to as 'second class townships' because of the perceived pejorative nature of that statement.7At the time of writing.

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