Struggles faced by small Pa. towns

Although Colwyn has only 2,500 residents, it is actually one of the larger municipalities in the state, where the median population of a municipality is 1,900.
Although Colwyn has only 2,500 residents, it is actually one of the larger municipalities in the state, where the median population of a municipality is 1,900. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

They're costly to taxpayers, too, but mergers are complicated and meet public resistance.

Posted: September 18, 2012

Colwyn, on the edge of Philadelphia, is a tiny place with prodigious fiscal issues, a fractious government, and a police force that has captured national notoriety.

Its surreal tax rates are among the highest in the nation, five times higher than those of some wealthier communities in the region. Not a single new home has been built in the borough in at least 15 years.

At a time when public money has become ever-scarcer, local-government experts say Colwyn is the kind of town that raises an overwhelming question:

What is a place with only 2,500 people doing with its own government? Wouldn't it be better off merging with a neighbor so they could share the expenses?

It turns out that the Delaware County borough, jammed between Darby and Sharon Hill, actually is one of the larger municipalities in the Keystone State.

In Pennsylvania, micro-government rules.

Comparatively, in New Jersey, where consolidation is the rage and the governor is pushing a plan to create a Camden County-wide police department, municipal government is big government.

The median population of a New Jersey municipality is about 22,000; in Pennsylvania, it is 1,900.

The costs of operating all those town halls and paying so many municipal officials and police officers are extracting a price from taxpayers, said Gerald Cross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League's Central Division.

"These local governments are nothing but locally based cash businesses," said Cross. In towns with dwindling resources, tax bases, and populations, "you just get worse and worse services for higher taxes."

Several smaller Pennsylvania towns, notably in Berks County, have opted for mergers, an oft-proposed solution. But they are complicated and laborious, said Cross, a merger specialist. They can fall apart for reasons that have nothing to do with government inefficiencies. (He said one failed because the husband of a township official ran off with a prospective merger partner's secretary.)

Mergers also must overcome popular resistance.

"People like their local government," said Cross. "They don't know why they like it, but they like it."

"Local government is part of what this country is made of," said Tonette Pray, Colwyn's council president, adding that for the first five years she lived in Colwyn, she had no idea it was a municipality.

"Big government, we lose."

Even people who hold low opinions of their elected officials embrace the idea of knowing where to find them, said Craig Totaro, borough manager in Lansdowne, Delaware County, and head of the county's Council of Governments.

"There's a comfort level," he said. "If there's a street festival, they know how to access me to get the barriers up."

Cross and others believe that realistically, the Colwyns of the world at some point need to join forces with other towns to pay for basic services, such as police.

"We're looking into that," said Colwyn Mayor Daniel Rutland. In the 1990s, Colwyn and Darby had a joint police force, but that alliance fell apart, and it's almost certain to stay apart.

Last year, a YouTube video that went viral showed Darby Police Chief Robert Smythe involved in a confrontation with a Colwyn police officer who had tried to assist a woman beaten in Darby. "Get out of Darby! Get out of Darby!" Smythe is heard yelling.

Colwyn gained an unwanted spotlight again in May when a police officer was charged with Tasering a handcuffed, jailed teenager. The officer who blew the whistle on the incident was suspended and, along with other officers, has sued the department. Another officer has filed a sexual-discrimination complaint against the whistle-blower.

A popular Pennsylvania option is to enlist state police to patrol a community. Pray said that would not work in Colwyn, where "public safety" constitutes about a third of the budget.

"Colwyn is a great place to live," she said, a "peaceful" place. But certain realities are inescapable.

"We're not Mayberry," said Pray. "We do have crime. We are on the border with Philadelphia, Darby. We need patrolling in our streets."

Rutland acknowledged that the borough's problems go far beyond police.

Colwyn, whose population is 80 percent black, has few commercial ratables. From 1995 through 2010 the total value of taxable real estate nearly doubled in Philadelphia's four neighboring Pennsylvania counties; it barely budged in Colwyn.

Typically, the town portion of a property tax bill is the smallest. Colwyn's municipal millage, 26.6 - a 30 percent increase over last year's - is higher than the combined county, school, and municipal taxes in some other towns.

Based on state data, its effective tax rate - the annual bill as a percentage of a home's market value - is about 7 percent. That's substantially bigger than some of the heftier rates in New York and New Jersey, which have the nation's highest property taxes.

"Raising the taxes chased people away," said Rutland, who opposed the increase.

"It was painful for all of us," said Pray. "We all have to pay those taxes."

"Right now I have six places in Colwyn," said Frederick B. Lesher Jr., a landlord, lifelong resident, and vocal critic of town government. "I wish I didn't."

The house next to Lesher's home on Main Street sold last year for $30,000. The annual tax bill is $4,262, about what the owner of a $300,000 house would pay in Upper Merion Township, Montgomery County.

Lesher isn't sanguine about the fate of his hometown. "It doesn't have a future," he said. "The best thing that could happen to Colwyn is for Philly to take over."

Not likely.

But Cross said that some Pennsylvania towns have pulled off mergers and that nearby Berks County has been the leader in that movement. One recent example was the merger of Wyomissing Hills and Wyomissing Borough, which created one of the state's larger municipalities with an almost Jersey-like population of 12,000.

The Hills lost half its name but gained a broader tax base by joining Wyomissing, home of the "Reading" outlets. The Hills police received a raise; higher municipal salaries rule in mergers.

A merger requires a majority vote in referendums in the two communities, and one hurdle was what to do about annual parades. The Hills had a Memorial Day tradition; Wyomissing, July 4th. The compromise: Hold two parades. In the end, 90 percent of the Hill voters said yes to the merger, and 70 percent of Wyomissing's.

"I think that's the way we have to go in the future," said Fred Levering, the borough's council president. "Ultimately there are some small communities that are going to have to look at consolidation."

In the case of Colwyn, that is unlikely to happen easily.

Eventually, shared services probably would be the better way to go for a town such as Colwyn, Cross said, since mergers of poor towns won't make either of them rich.

"If you made four poor families move into a single house," he said, "you may not have a rich family at the end of the day."


Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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