Regional Cooperation: Intergovernmental Cooperation
County and municipal governments can most help to advance economic growth, community development, and general prosperity by doing well the basic things that are within their governmental control, including the provision of coordinated, efficient and cost-effective services.
To achieve these ends, public accountability requires that governments employ the best methods of service delivery at reasonable costs. Governments may do this alone, or they may cooperate with one another in providing services. The principal means to work together is through “Intergovernmental Cooperation.”
The Intergovernmental Cooperation Law, PA Act 180 of 1972 (as amended) (53 Pa. C.S.A. § 2301) is the enabling legislation for intergovernmental cooperation in Pennsylvania. This law allows counties and municipalities to cooperate with one another in any action or service that the governments have the authority to do alone. For the purpose of this Act, the term “municipality” is defined as “…a county, city of the second class, second class A and third class, borough, incorporated town, township, school district or any other similar general purpose unit of government which shall hereafter be created by the General Assembly.”
There are two general methods of intergovernmental cooperation. These include: (1) formal Act 180 agreements and (2) councils of governments. In addition, there are many “handshake agreements” in effect throughout the Commonwealth. Handshake agreements include unwritten working arrangements between municipalities, and any written agreements not formally adopted.
Formal intergovernmental cooperation agreements are legal contracts among two or more municipalities. They are usually single purpose agreements for the joint provision of a specific service. Act 180 agreements can be generally structured in two ways: (1) a provider/purchaser structure whereby one municipality sells a service or program to another, and (2) a joint program whereby two or more municipalities implement a joint program, sharing ownership and control of the program.
Councils of Governments (COGs) are a special kind of organization. A COG is a voluntary organization of member governments whose purpose is to discuss, plan and undertake joint, intergovernmental activities agreed to by its member governments. The purpose of a COG is further defined in its bylaws. A COG formed for general purposes may:
- Serve as a forum for the identification, discussion, and examination of intergovernmental issues and concerns;
- Facilitate agreements and cooperative actions for specific purposes and programs agreed to by the member governments; and,
- Administer, undertake, and execute projects and programs assigned to the COG as agreed to by the member governments.
COGs may be comprised of any combination of counties and municipalities. COG activities, like all other intergovernmental arrangements, are also controlled by the codes or laws applicable to the participating governments.
The challenge for intergovernmental cooperation is this: All across Pennsylvania the boundaries of the local municipal governments do not encompass complete communities. More often than not, our communities span several municipalities. Many of the municipalities are quite small in land area and population and have great difficulty providing even the most basic services. In addition, many of the municipal governments cannot obtain adequate numbers of persons to serve on their legislative bodies, boards and commissions. In these cases, it is a myth to call these governments close to the people, or responsive to the community, for they control nothing.
The boundaries of the local municipal governments artificially divide our interdependent, geographic, social, and economic communities. Moreover, Pennsylvania laws appear sound on the surface, but lack depth. This lack makes it nearly impossible to achieve real and meaningful changes. As a result, especially when elected officials fail to recognize the interdependence between our local governments, cross boundary policies, and economic outcomes in communities, there often exists throughout much of the Commonwealth a shocking lack of intergovernmental communication, duplication of services, needless inefficiencies, lack of cross-boundary visioning and planning, and cumbersome coordination and decision-making.
Unfortunately, there is a definite connection between governmental interdependence and economic performance. Across Pennsylvania, our cities and older urban areas are under siege from interconnected patterns of aging and declining populations, falling median incomes after adjusting for inflation, unnecessarily costly services, and eroding tax bases, while the areas immediately surrounding them may appear relatively prosperous, leading the citizens and officials in those areas to be complacent about their own futures and the huge economic struggles of the larger regions they call home. Prosperity in suburbia in PA is only in the eyes of the beholder and relative only to the cities nearby. Most of even the wealthiest suburbs in Pennsylvania are not keeping pace with the economic performance of the nation.
Stymied economic performance in our cities and suburbs can be traced directly to the inability to “act as a team” and “get along within the family.” At the same time, the inability to coordinate and cooperate in our true communities has unnecessarily driven urban sprawl, thereby undermining the values many cherish in the traditional rural areas of our townships.
These problems underscore the difficulties of our cities, boroughs and townships, and significantly impact the ability of entire economic regions in the Commonwealth to plan for improving the future quality of life and to define and target objectives regarding economic growth, community development and land use.
Continued lack of local governmental cooperation and coordination is totally unacceptable. At the same time, Pennsylvania’s laws and policies pertaining to the local governments have remained largely unadjusted and must be changed.
With all this in mind, it is imperative that the Commonwealth make legislative and policy changes and provide much better incentives to enable county and municipal governments to act regionally, to more readily cooperate in the provision of public services, and to make structural changes for improving services in our true regional communities.
The current means of local governmental coordination through very incremental cooperation and extremely difficult boundary changes is not enough. If we are truly going to get serious in ways that will make substantial and meaningful differences in the economic competitiveness and quality of life of our communities, then the Commonwealth and local decision makers must adopt much more active legislative and policy changes, and much better incentives to support greater coordination among local governments. These actions would result in much greater functional cooperation, and structural changes, resulting in much improved economic performance.
There are currently two general purpose councils of governments in Erie County undertaking functional cooperation. They are the Erie Area Council of Governments and the Northwest Tri-County Council of Governments.
The Erie Area COG has historically served the areas receiving Erie City water and sewer, but recently the COG has moved beyond those boundaries and is taking on a greater county-wide presence. The current members of the Erie Area COG are the County of Erie, City of Erie, the Boroughs of Girard and Wesleyville, and the Townships of Fairview, Franklin, Harborcreek, Lawrence Park, Millcreek, North East and Summit.
The Northwest Tri-County COG has historically served the southeastern portion of the County, encompassing the City of Corry and surrounding areas. It too is becoming increasingly more active. The current members of the Northwest Tri-County COG are the City of Corry, the Boroughs of Spartansburg, Union City and Wattsburg, and the Townships of Amity, Concord, Union, Venango and Wayne.
There are also four special purpose COGs in Erie County. They are the East Area County COG and West Erie County COG. Both have historically provided emergency dispatch services for police and fire departments. There is also the special purpose West Erie County Emergency Management Agency (Albion, Cranesville, Franklin, Elk Creek , Girard Twp., McKean Borough and Twp., Platea, Washington) Conelway Regional Emergency Management Agency (CREMA) (Corry, Elgin, Amity, Concord, Venango, Wayne) and the Northwest PA Uniform Construction COG.
Many other intergovernmental organizations and arrangements exist throughout the County. They include fire organizations, the Erie County Association of Township Officials, Erie County Associations of Boroughs, Erie County Association of Municipal Administrators, Erie County Public Works Directors group, Erie County Real Estate Tax Collectors Association, and the Erie County Zoning and Code Enforcement Officials Association.