100 Years Too Long: Disincorporate Alburtis

Lehigh County Commissioners gave tiny Alburtis borough some more land for its 100th birthday, but in a better world with better Pennsylvania annexation laws, they would’ve disincorporated the territory and gifted it to Lower Macungie Township, which surrounds the tiny borough on all sides. The easiest waste reduction move I know would be for the state to dissolve all the state’s donut-hole municipalities – all those surrounded completely by another municipality – into the donut ring municipalities. Hundreds of pointless local government units could be dissolved this way.


  1. Donald Dal Maso says:

    Next thing you’ll be telling the Lehigh Valley to get rid of the likes of ME, Jon. Not a good way to make friends.

    You neglect the significance of long-evolving relationships between people and the opportunity for pure democratic expression in person–in a small group. The new and the old constantly conflict, and resolve. If that is a modern inconvenience, then I’m all for it.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I respect that people value tradition and small group decision-making. I’m not arguing there’s no value to that. But it’s just one tally in the benefits column. On the cost side, there are many tallies. Serious redundancy and duplication of services throughout the region is the main one. There’s an economy of scale for administering many public services, and I think there’s every reason to believe that coordinating services like police, education and EMS from the County level would result in a lower cost per-person for these services. There’s also the tax fairness argument. Many tiny local governments get deeply discounted services from larger municipalities, since it costs so little for the larger munis to extend their services to these small land areas. West Easton, for example, gets policed by Easton at a discount. But why shouldn’t they just be Easton taxpayers? What’s especially pernicious about the lack of regional tax bases for municipal services is how this interacts with residential segregation. Wealthier residents of the Counties self-segregate in the townships, and do not pay their fair share of taxes for services in the high need areas. Transferring more municipal services to the County level would be an effective form of progressive taxation, since the County tax base is a wealthier pool of residents than city and borough tax bases.

  2. Donald Dal Maso says:

    Jon, Democracy is very inefficient, messy, and ridden with irrational people mouthing off all the time. But I prefer it to the streamlined version of government (or in the case of the right, the streamlined absence of reasonable government), which reduces individuals and their rationality or irrationality to purely mathetical significance as if politics were a matter of physics. A recent person to centralize that way on a big scale, and who regarded humans as “menschenmateriel”, lost a very large war in Europe. Stalin had the same attitude, but the Mandelstams proved that in Russia the intimate art of poetry would ultimately be more powerful.

    The kind of power Democracy bestows is built up relationship by relationship IMO. Long Live Alburtis! (wherever it is) and may the good people there start to cooperate with larger governmental institutions to save money.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Shouldn’t rich people and poor people have to fight for the same city hall, rather than a city hall for rich people and a city hall for poor people?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Until PA gets some decent disincorporation and annexation laws, the practical strategy would be for Counties to offer municipalities the option to contract with County for municipal services. For instance, some of the wealthier townships don’t have police departments, and mooch off the state police for local coverage. Lehigh County could create a police department to police Lower Macungie, in exchange for extra property tax dollars from Lower Macungie. They could then offer this option to more and more municipalities until eventually everyone contracts with the County police.

  3. Dal Maso, while I appreciate your refreshingly subtle insight into why democracy works as an institution, your analogy to Stalinist Russia is a little overwrought. There is a big difference between throwing generations of peasants off their land at the point of a bayonet compared to reorganizing county municipal services and tax bases. We have to discuss structural governmental changes like Mr. Geeting proposes with, perhaps, less inflamed rhetoric.

  4. Donald Dal Maso says:

    Actually, and I thought obviously, I wasn’t making an object lesson out of Stalin at all, Dear Publius. My point was about the poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda whose book “Hope Against Hope” has been called “the most important book of the twentieth century.” Mandelstam’s poetry is even more significant–it’s immortal.

    Perhaps you would be good enough to inform yourself Dear Publius by, perhaps, reading the Mandelstams. I can’t WAIT to hear what you have to say next.

    • If you read my almost two years of comments on here, you will see that my basic philosophical point is that aesthetic “truth” almost always trumps objective “truth.” Hence, Allentown’s most basic problem that perception overshadows the reality of the place. Or, put another way, the stories that people tell, and the medium of language in which they tell it has much more to do with “truth” than what actually happens in the physical world–hence people’s attachment to “their” little munciplaity or whatever. This seems pretty consistent with the Mandelstam’s poetic philosophy. It does not mean, however, that we must forever be wed to the irrational. Stories and narratives change–the rational mind is involved in bending that curve–in creating the story. And, elites, when push comes to shove, sometimes have moral obligations that must stand up to pure democratic participation as well–see, for example, interracial marriage. There is no either/or in this world. And, for you to say that the “Mandelstams ‘proved'” anything is a misreading of their poetic philosophy of truth.

  5. Dondla Dal Maso says:

    Dearest Publius, WHAT are you talking about?

    I have better things to do than read your screeds. I suggest YOU read the Mandelstams before commenting about them.

    Finally, it is the courage of their lives which proves my point not merely their writing.

  6. ok

  7. Jon,
    I don’t really see the issue. Alburtis has a small slice of government services, that it seems more than capable of paying for. It is regional (for schools), has a small volunteer fire department, and a small police department. Always seemed like a nice town with a nice spirit.

    Dal Maso, if there’s anything I learned in graduate school, its that you just have to say “bifurcated” and “discourse” in these types of conversations a couple times and then people just start nodding yes. That said, Jon is not in any way an advocate for the means of Joseph Stalin.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      The issue is that the state has hundreds of Alburtises, and all this redundancy adds up to quite a lot of wasted money. That pot of wasted money should be the very first place local governments turn to replenish their strained budgets, not programmatic cuts.

      • It’s their money, and it’s their decision on whether to waste it or not.

        Make it easier for municipalities to merge, fine. To force it because “Elites” have decided that’s the way to go, forget it.

        What this amounts to is another naked money grab by whorish politicians and elites.

        How about you fix problems instead of just throwing more of someone else’s money at them Junior? Harder work true, but you’re up to the challenge.

  8. OK–how much money is Alburtis wasting?

    The problem really seems to be fading municipalities that believe (or are contractually obligated to) maintain governmental capabilities that they don’t need or can’t afford anymore. Is there any evidence that Alburtis, or any of the municipalities around this, are in that boat?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I don’t know how much money they’re wasting because nobody’s studied the per-person costs of the various services in each municipality. That’s a project I’d like to do but haven’t gotten around to. But I am pretty sure we would find that the cost per resident of police services is higher in low population munis than higher population ones.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      That’s also a great argument for the virtues of regional tax bases. Each corner of the county shouldn’t be expected to be self-sustaining, nor should we want them to be. I don’t want the currently undeveloped areas to attract local employers to sustain local services. I want them to stay undeveloped.

  9. Jon,

    1. Have you ever been to Alburtis? Did you know it has been settled for over 150 years and was an early site of industry and economic development in Lehigh County?
    2. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from this: “I don’t know how much money they’re wasting because nobody’s studied the per-person costs of the various services in each municipality.”
    3. I’m not sure why if two similar things cost different amounts to different people there must be wasted “money.” What’s your rent versus a person in Alburtis? Is your money wasted?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I’ve driven through it. I’m not sure what relevance the duration of its incorporation could possibly have for fiscal policy in 2013. If the public safety services cost more per-person in one place than another, and the likely reason is that the service area and population are too small to achieve economies of scale in service delivery, then that’s wasted money.

  10. You didn’t answer my question about rent. Some towns want more parks, some want a cop or two, some want afterschool programs. Your priorities at your point in life are different. Alburtis seems to have what it wants and isn’t having trouble paying for it–and in this silly “tea party” age, that it remains popular is saying something.

    If Allentown was a prosperous city in 1963, but isn’t now, why should the public spend endless amounts of time and effort trying to “revive” it?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Right, people have different preferences about the level of services they want, but I think that the appropriate level to decide that question is at the County level. Service levels and tax rates should be the same across the whole region, with no variation from municipality to municipality. If people want fewer services and lower taxes they can live somewhere in Berks County, and if they want more professional services and higher taxes they can live somewhere Northampton or Lehigh. The Tea Party view is that these decisions should be left to the smallest unit of governance possible, and I completely disagree with that.

      I think that’s a highly inaccurate description of what is happening in most of these small boroughs. Most are having trouble maintaining their services with such a small tax base, but are too stubborn and parochial to pursue mergers.

      • I don’t disagree with you. Many towns do struggle and a more flexible code would allow the sorts of mergers you envision. But why pick on a town that seems perfectly content.

        I guess I disagree on the county thing–I don’t see what’s so special about a county that it should be mandating services. Its not a level of governance with much resonance in Pennsylvania.

        • Jon Geeting says:

          What’s special about the County is that it would be valuable to standardize municipal fiscal policy across a much larger land area than is currently possible. County government currently is little more than a pass-through entity for state programs, but my agenda is to turn it into the primary municipal service provider.

  11. lol, Dal Maso, you totally make my point. It is possible to have a brave, meaningful, and even heroic life when you courageously stand up to a real evil like the red Army, concentration camps, and cossacks. When you take a similarly inflamed position against municipal funding schemes you just look like an idiot.

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