Make one big city? Holy 'Gothamization,' Batman
Heed ye sometimes the unsigned messenger, for in the safe, secure bosom of anonymity, he may yet unexpectedly spout forth words of truth though he fear the glare of disclosure.
Lest you think this is a lame attempt at channeling Confucius or a sneaky bid to become the head writer at the fortune cookie factory, be advised it's nothing more than a random observation that presented itself - God help us! - after perusing a recent installment of Sound Off.
About a week ago, a caller proposed that instead of just discussing the possible consolidation of local police departments, what we really should be considering is the formation of one big city "from Mount Carmel to Shamokin." The heading, appropriately, was "One big Gotham."
Granted, there's about as much chance of this happening as my being elected president of the United States in 2016. But the certain unlikelihood of these developments occurring does not mean they are not good ideas.
That keystone we're all so proud of is by no means just an attractive block in the archway of Pennsylvania history. It's a five-ton hunk of hernia-inducing cement that defies all efforts to dislodge it.
Though we love Pennsylvania, we must concede it's not a state that readily espouses change, especially when it comes to fashioning representative and responsible self-government. In fact, we continue to function under government structures that date back to the horse-and-buggy era.
Most counties still operate under the traditional three-member (majority/minority) commissioner boards because they've always done it that way. And, even worse, there is an unwieldy conglomeration of 2,500 individual municipal governments - cities, boroughs and townships - far more than most other states.
There is indeed much to be said about being governed by your neighbor from across the street. But, with a declining tax base, just how many benefits of local government does the average person actually enjoy? Public safety, though obviously the primary necessity, drains practically every dollar of revenue. State and federal grants are not as plentiful as they were back in the 1970s. That was an era when we were building community swimming pools and sanitary sewer systems; now we are closing pools and residents are burdened with the astronomical costs of mandated sewage improvements.
The area's geographical location puts us at a disadvantage in attracting industry, and, admittedly, governmental restructuring by itself certainly wouldn't change that. However, the louder voice that a regionalized local government could provide would certainly be heard in a lot more places than the weak or nonexistent voices that now emanate from our small communities, which, by the way, are shrinking ever smaller with each passing Census.
A hypothetical "Gothamization" of eastern Northumberland County - an area encompassing the present boundaries of Coal Township, Shamokin, Mount Carmel, Mount Carmel Township, Kulpmont and Marion Heights - would create a new entity of 30,324 people. If the Sound Off's caller definition of "from Mount Carmel to Shamokin" also included East Cameron, West Cameron, Zerbe and Shamokin townships, the population would rise to 35,892. Expand it to Conyngham Township in Columbia County, which is only logical, and it's 36,650. With Ralpho Township included (as it most definitely should be or why even bother?), our Coal Region "city" would have a population in excess of 40,000.
We'd have almost as many people as Wilkes-Barre, State College, York or Altoona, and 10,000 more than Williamsport. We'd definitely be on the map, and everybody in Harrisburg would know exactly where we're located.
There will be many good, practical and common-sense arguments against Gothamization. Here are some of them:
"Bigger isn't always better." "Smaller communities will lose their identity forever." "Larger communities will dominate and small communities will be underrepresented." "Parochial interests will stifle progress." "It's nothing more than a bailout of Shamokin." "Our schools will be next; my kids are NOT going to Shamokin." "Taxes will inevitably be higher, and I can't afford to pay more."
Certainly, all objections, concerns and negative impacts would require a thorough public debate. Certainly, although something like this has never occurred, the mechanism for the change would no doubt give the public have the last word at the ballot box, with each separate municipality having veto power. Certainly, there would have to be a region-wide consensus for so major a change; a bare majority in favor would simply not suffice.
Drastic thinking? Look where we are now. Consider our short- and long-term prospects. If our municipal governments, as they exist now, aren't solely responsible for holding us back, you have to admit they've done absoutely nothing to propel us forward.
Impractical musings that ignore reality or a sage, though difficult, solution to a decades-old problem?
When it's time to decide, remember ye this: 'Tis only a fine thread that separates foolish fluff from wise counsel. Keep your eyes straight ahead lest ye trip o'er the thread and doth forever dwell in the land of the stagnant.
(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)