That dreaded M-word again
A disclaimer: I'm not choosing sides in the Shamokin mayoral primary, even after the fact. But the most intuitive and forward-looking comment in an altogether lackluster, uninspiring and sleep-inducing campaign regionwide actually came from a candidate who eventually lost - Councilman R. Craig Rhoades.
In a pre-election interview with The News-Item, Rhoades, touting the need for more intermunicipal cooperation between Shamokin and Coal Township, broached the idea of "creating a new community." Although Rhoades was loath to use the M-word (merger), he favored elected officials taking a close look at what steps could be taken to benefit all citizens. He saw merit in at least studying the concept.
Should Shamokin and Coal Township - or for that matter, Mount Carmel Borough and Mount Carmel Township - merge? Almost certainly - but no one who ever wore or saw anyone else wear a (yikes!) leisure suit is ever going to see it. If you're 25 years old and are reading this, you'll look back much later when it actually happens and remember that the idea didn't just originate with the sages of 2045.
Consider that even the mildest of nods to the idea by Rhoades certainly didn't actually generate a cascade of public support in his favor. The M-word has been uttered from time to time over the last 50 years only to be greeted with protests that "bigger isn't always better" and concerns about loss of community identity. It makes sense to do a serious objective study, but that's not apt to happen in a local political climate where "guarding one's turf" is very much a part of every politician's comfort zone.
Shamokin may face chronic fiscal challenges and city residents may view widespread urban renewal as their only hope, but few dare to consider the benefits that can be derived from further strengthening the bonds that, for all intents and purposes, already make Shamokin and Coal Township a single community. And there is more to it than creating efficiencies in the delivery of government programs. A merger might provide the burst of creative energy needed to create a new community that looks forward, not backward.
The Keystone State ranks third, behind Illinois and Minnesota, in having the largest number of local levels of government. In all, there are more than 2,550 municipalities in Pennsylvania, including 56 cities, 959 boroughs, 92 first-class townships (Coal Township is one), 1,455 townships of the second class and one town (Bloomsburg). California, by contrast, has only 484 municipalities; Texas, 1,214; Florida, 410. So many governments in Pennsylvania! - and that doesn't even include the 67 counties and 500 school districts to whom we are subject.
Here's the operative theory as defenders of the status quo might define it: Local government should be close to the people. By representing as few people as possible, elected officials better understand and are more responsive to their constituents' needs. But does it really work out that way? In fact, progress is often no more than an elusive pot of gold for government leaders in small and mid-size townships and boroughs who spend all their time putting out fiscal fires.
There was a time when running for office was considered a public obligation for entrepreneurs and professionals who had a real personal stake in the community's economic growth. Sadly, seeking political office is no longer high atop the "must do" list for civic-minded residents. Public service in these parts has become more and more a thankless avocation, as evidenced by the many empty ballot spots and few real contests in Tuesday's primary. Even worse, voter apathy in what was once the most political of regions is at an all-time high. It's worth considering whether the current system of local government dooms us to a life of getting by rather than getting ahead.
Consolidation is not in the best interest of all communities, and it should never be taken lightly. No problem there. Since the merger process in Pennsylvania is involved and cumbersome, outright marriages between consenting municipalities are extremely rare.
The "case for consolidation," whatever that may be, isn't helped by the fact that the perception in most quarters is that Shamokin has everything to gain and Coal Township has everything to lose from a merger. That's an easy conclusion in the real world of 2013 where Coal Township, no longer considered the "poor cousin," has room to expand its tax base and 3,000 more people than the city.
But the fact is, the entire area hasn't been faring all that well - economically, socially or culturally - under the antiquated system of local government bequeathed to us by long-dead founding fathers in Pennsylvania whose world view was formed in the era of the stage coach or steam locomotive, not the high-speed Internet. We're operating under a 19th Century model in a 21st Century world. It's akin to using a passenger pigeon to send a message to Cousin Dounia in Dubuque rather than dashing off a quick e-mail.
(Jake Betz is assistant editor of The News-Item.)