Norristown: The Best Argument for Reducing Local Government Fragmentation in PA

Norristown PA

The suburbanization of the United States following World War II is well-documented and much critiqued by everyone from residents to sociologists to lawmakers.  In these evaluations, the focus has tended to be the growing tension between city and suburbs.  David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and a well-respected urban policy consultant, exemplifies this in his book Cities without Suburbs:

"An inelastic area has a central city frozen within its city limits and surrounded by growing suburbs...With the flight of middle-class families, the city's population has dropped steadily (typically by 20 percent or more).  The income gap between city resident and suburbanites is wide, and typically widening.  City government is squeezed between rising service needs and eroding incomes.  Unable to tap the areas of greater economic growth (its suburbs), the city becomes increasingly reliant on federal and state aid...This very fragmentation of local government reinforces racial and economic segregation."

However, Rusk's inelasticity theory overlooks an important dynamic of suburbanization. In highly fragmented regions and states, it's not just cities that are inelastic.  There are suburbs struggling with rising service needs and eroding incomes as a result of flight and a lack of economic growth.  In Greater Philadelphia, there is at least one community in each county that has experienced this type of strain-think of Phoenixville, Bristol, Burlington, Coatesville, or Chester City. 

Recently, as part of the Economy League's Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, we developed a case study to explore the challenges that an inelastic, suburban community experiences while trying revitalize.

We chose to focus on Norristown for a number of reasons. In addition to the fact that the municipality's experience is representative of many other suburbs, it's very close to Philadelphia (just over 6 miles northwest) yet most of our region's business, nonprofit and government leadership hasn't spent time there unless they have served on jury duty.  

Norristown has also played an important role in the history of the region's economy and governance.  It was incorporated in 1812 on rich agricultural land and its businesses manufactured everything from cigars to tanks to carpets.  It also served as a retail center for the rural areas outside of Philadelphia. And, Norristown is the seat of Montgomery County with a courthouse dating to 1854.

Norristown PA then

However, during the mid- to late twentieth century, the growth of suburban communities and large shopping malls (King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting Mall are nearby) led to the decline and eventual collapse of Norristown's retail center.  Its position on the R6 line, the R100 speed line, and as a hub for the buses in Montgomery County became less important as automobiles became the preferred mode of transportation and as office parks and malls and new development located near highway access.

Those who could afford to moved away from Norristown as the amenities shifted elsewhere, and the economic disparity between Norristown and its neighbors grew.  Montgomery County is the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania, and 44th wealthiest in the United States (based on highest personal per capita income).  Yet, that statistic masks some huge inequalities--according to the 2000 US Census, a Montgomery County resident's median income is just over $71,000. A Norristown resident's is just shy of $36,000. 

Much like Rusk's inelastic big cities, Norristown is a struggling small city surrounded by booming suburbs.  Despite being within 10 miles of such business tax cash cows as King of Prussia mall, Norristown sees no direct benefit from this proximity because such taxes are collected and distributed on a township basis.  Instead, its low cost housing has become a magnet for nearly half of Montgomery County's immigrants and Section 8 voucher recipients.  Where these residents located, social services followed, putting further strain on the local government's shrinking coffers to provide services. 

However, for the first time in years Norristown seems to be heading in the right direction. Immigration has been a positive thing for the community, though it has created some tensions with long-standing populations.  Redevelopment projects-although they require county, state, and federal subsidy-are underway. And walkable communities with transit access (especially with rising fuel costs) are becoming appealing to more people.

But, Norristown is a microcosm of a much larger problem in our region-government fragmentation.  With layers of taxation and service delivery districts, Pennsylvania does not leverage its tax dollars well or deliver value for its residents and businesses. 

How can this be changed?  By empowering counties. 

Montgomery County, Maryland is the wealthiest county in that state and the 14th wealthiest county in the nation.  There, more than 900,000 residents and some of the country's largest companies, federal government entities and universities are served by one county-based government with a $3.9 billion dollar budget to deliver all services-including public education.  (I tried to calculate the comparative budget figure for Montgomery County, PA but was unable to find the budget data for all of the 23 school districts, 24 boroughs, and 38 townships).

The benefits of county-based government are not just transparency, simplified taxation, and streamlined service delivery.  A county-based government also allowed Montgomery (MD) the flexibility to reshape a struggling community just north of Washington, D.C. that had been depressed in the 1980s and early 90s by the collapse of retail.  This community, Silver Spring, is now home to Discovery Communications, MedImmune, Marriott, the AFI Silver Theater, and a booming, transit-oriented downtown that provides significant economic and social benefit to the county, region, state, and country.

If the comparison between Norristown and Silver Spring tells us only one thing, it's that it is time for Pennsylvania's local government system to go the way of our tax collectors, one per county. 

-- Alison Gold, Deputy Director for Strategy and Operations