Chapter 8:

The Role of Local Government

Cities, boroughs and townships make up the 2,562 municipalities in Pennsylvania. Their job is to provide for the public health, safety, and welfare of their residents. Municipalities are important because many of the services they make available are not usually provided by the private sector. Historically, municipalities have been responsible for the upkeep of roads, making sure there is public safety by police and firefighting protection, and by providing planning and zoning oversight. Local government may also provide sewer, water, and trash collection services. However, these services are also provided by Authorities (see the chapter on Authorities) or by the private sector in some municipalities.

Municipalities operate through local ordinances, which are local laws adopted and enforced to provide for the public health, safety, and welfare of its residents. Examples of ordinances include the removal of public nuisances; rules (called codes) for an improved quality of life (weed control, removal of non-registered vehicles, animal control, and noise abatement are examples); and aesthetic improvements such as land development and zoning ordinances.

Pennsylvania residents have a voice at the local level and can help set a vision for their community. Residents, through their elected officials, are able to have a major effect on services provided to their community. They can also address the appearance and desirability of a community and can urge their elected officials to support cultural activities, parks and recreation, senior centers, museums, and other important services.

To get an idea of the location and size of municipalities (you can search by county) go to

There are five primary types of municipalities included in the Pennsylvania Constitution: Counties, Cities, Boroughs, Incorporated Towns, and Townships.

Pennsylvania’s Cities

There are 56 cities in Pennsylvania. Of the state’s 67 counties, 34 have at least one city, and those cities are found from Philadelphia in the southeast, to Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in the northeast, to Erie on the lake shore in the northwest, and Pittsburgh in the west.

These cities are very different by size, geography, and history. For instance, the largest city, Philadelphia, has a population of about 1,500,000. No other Pennsylvania city is close to that size. Pittsburgh is next with about 300,000 residents. There are 25 Pennsylvania cities with populations of about 10,000 or less.

In Pennsylvania, cities are surrounded by other municipalities that have ties to that city. People who live near cities often depend upon them for places to work. They also travel to the city for entertainment, cultural events, and parks. For instance, the City of Pittsburgh with its 300,000 residents is the largest municipality in Allegheny County. But when the surrounding communities with ties to Pittsburgh are included the population of the Pittsburgh area rises to about 1.2 million residents.

Cities also differ in size. Again, Philadelphia, which covers 135 square miles and Pittsburgh with its 56 square miles, are the largest cities by size and by population. Most cities in Pennsylvania tend to be about 10 square miles--these include Reading, Harrisburg, Altoona, Lancaster, New Castle, Williamsport, and Lower Burrell. Smaller cities of about five square miles have residents living in less space. These cities include Butler, Johnstown, Lebanon, Easton, York, and many others. Many of the largest municipalities in Pennsylvania are shown on the following map.


Throughout history cities have been the central point for housing, transportation, commerce, arts, culture, and recreation. From ancient Greek city-states to our modern day cities people have gathered in places that offer the ability to live, work, and play in one place. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas.

To find the oldest cities in Pennsylvania just follow the rivers and ports. Water will lead you to Philadelphia, Erie, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Johnstown, and most of the cities in the western part of the state. Water originally provided transportation, but the beginning of the industrial revolution brought mills to Pennsylvania. These mills needed large amounts of water to make iron, steel, glass, cloth, locomotives, ships, and many other goods.

Often cities grew up around a particular industry or an available natural resource, most of which in Pennsylvania came from the ground (coal, iron ore, gas, oil). Examples of Pennsylvania cities built upon specific industries follows:

Pennsylvania's Historical Industries by City
Williamsport Lycoming County Lumber
Reading Berks County Railroads
Lancaster Lancaster County Farming, publishing
Scranton Lackawanna County Coal, iron, steel
Jeannette Westmoreland County Glass, rubber
Altoona Blair County Railroads
Washington Washington County Oil and natural gas

In the 1800s and early 1900s the growth of Pennsylvania cities followed the railroads. Cities that were built upon rail lines include Bethlehem, Allentown, Johnstown, Lebanon, Erie, and York. For cities not on major water routes railroads offered an opportunity to attract major industries. Some are listed in the following table.

Cities Built upon Mills and Manufacturing

Cities built upon Mills and Manufacturing
CityLocationType of Manufacturing
Bethlehem Northampton County Iron, steel, heavy manufacturing
Allentown Lehigh County Iron, clothing, trucks
Johnstown Cambria County Steel
Lebanon Lebanon County Iron and steel, metal products
Erie Erie County Ship building, railroads
York York County Electric, heavy manufacturing, food

Later, many of these cities found it difficult to keep people living in their homes when major industries closed. Cities with the most challenges had a large number of steel mills, clothing factories, coal mines, and industries that made things from iron and steel.

Types of City Governments in Pennsylvania

In many ways city government is based upon state government. There is a chief executive and a group (usually a city council) that makes the laws (often called ordinances). In Pennsylvania there are four types of city government:

  • The weak mayor/strong council
  • The strong mayor/council
  • The commission
  • Council/manager.

Cities in Pennsylvania may use any of these forms of government—it is their choice. The weak mayor/strong council emphasizes the role of the city council and their responsibility to plan, write laws, and oversee the operations of the city. The mayor may run some city departments (roads, parks, etc.) but plays little or no role in making the rules.

The strong mayor/city council places the running of the city under the mayor. City council has important duties, like approving the yearly budget and forming policies, but the mayor hires those who work for the city and puts people in charge. For an example of this type of city government you can access the City of Lebanon website ( or the City of Allentown website (

The Commission type of city government has a mayor, but that mayor serves as one of five commissioners. Often the other commissioners also work for the city by serving as department heads (road crew, code enforcement, parks and recreation, etc.). The running of the city is shared among the commissioners.

The council/manager form of government has a city council that hires a director to run the city. The director is usually a professional administrator that will run most city departments and take care of the needs of the city. The council makes the laws and the manager makes sure they are put into operation. To better understand this form of city government access the websites for Pittston ( ) and Sharon (

Home Rule

Some cities (18 altogether) in Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh, Reading, Lock Haven, Scranton, Allentown, and York have decided to be home rule cities. These cities can govern in any way not specifically included in the Pennsylvania Constitution. Home rule cities write a home rule charter. That charter becomes the law of that city if the city’s voters approve it in an election.

As stated in the City Government in Pennsylvania Handbook:

“The concept of home rule is relatively simple. The basic authority to act in municipal affairs is transferred from state law, as set forth by the General Assembly, to a local charter, adopted and amended by the voters.”

The Handbook goes on to say:

“A home rule charter has been likened to a local constitution for the municipality. The home rule municipality can exercise any power or perform any function not denied by the United States or Pennsylvania constitutions, the General Assembly or its own home rule charter. It is not subject to the municipal codes.”

Home rule gives a city much more room to set the type and level of taxes to raise money and frees it from many of the restrictions found in the City codes.

Class of Cities in Pennsylvania

The state has designated cities in Pennsylvania by class, originally based upon population. When industry and the number of people started to grow very quickly in the 1890s the state set up four classes of cities. These classes still exist. Classes make it possible for legislation and other rules to be applied to only one set of cities. Cities of all classes can choose their form of government (such as the weak mayor/council choice).

Most cities (53) are third class. A third class city has at least 10,000 residents and those residents must vote to become a city in a local election. Not all cities have 10,000 residents today but every community designated a city in the past remains a city. The number of cities in Pennsylvania with less than 10,000 residents is approaching 25. This is because many cities have lost residents as steel mills closed or other places of employment kept fewer workers. People then leave to find work.

With few exceptions third class cities are governed by Pennsylvania’s Third Class City Code. There are other laws that affect cities, but this is by far the most important. The City Government in Pennsylvania Handbook (access is a good source for many questions you may have about cities and their classes. When the class of a city was first assigned these were the cities with less than 250,000 residents.

There is only one first class city—Philadelphia. As Pennsylvania’s largest city there are times when the state will want to speak alone to this one city. Referring to first class cities in laws assures that only Philadelphia will be under that law. A city would need to have more than one million people to join Philadelphia as a first class city.

There is only one second class city—Pittsburgh. Likewise, there is only one second class city A—Scranton. A reason there are two types of second class cities (second class and second class A) is that through the years legislation has been written just for the City of Scranton. Having a separate class is useful when passing legislation meant only to apply to one city. The remainder are classified as third class cities.

How Cities are Run

City government, like the state and federal governments, requires a balance of power among its three branches; executive (mayor, administrator), legislative (council) and judicial (magistrate). Every city worker, elected or hired, must do his/her role. Sometimes individual personalities, leadership style, and relationships are important factors in how effectively city government is managed.

Perhaps the most important decisions made in city government are about money. Cities must develop and adopt a city budget each year. This budget spells out what the city expects to collect in revenue and must estimate the expenses of every department (police, fire, community and economic development, public works, to name a few). City officials must also set goals for spending money and decide which services are most needed. The budget then follows the plan for the next twelve months. Budget hearings are usually held in public before a budget is adopted. At hearings government officials listen to residents and discuss how spending will affect the city.

Pennsylvania’s cities offer residents many opportunities to get involved in the running of their government. Volunteers serve on municipal boards, advisory committees, authorities, and commissions to help make local decisions. Volunteers are appointed by the city’s mayor, council, and directors. Serving on a recreation commission, for example, gives volunteers the chance to help guide the activities available in parks and playgrounds. Some boards, like historical and architectural review boards, require specific knowledge and certain qualifications. Contact your local municipality to learn more about the advisory committees, authorities, and commissions in your community to see how you can be involved.


One of the most important things a city does is plan for its future. Planning includes making budgets each year, developing policies about housing, deciding when a road or building needs to be fixed or replaced, what buildings should be allowed in which places, how many fire fighters and police officers to hire, how and when to buy new equipment (fire trucks, tools, computers), and how much to pay employees.

Each city, by state law, must also prepare a comprehensive plan. Cities and counties often work together on their plans so that they support each other.

To learn more about how cities plan access, select Get Local Government Support, then select Publications in the drop down list. You can read how cities do planning by reading any of the following:

  1. Local Land Use Controls in Pennsylvania
  2. The Planning Commission
  3. The Comprehensive Plan
  4. Zoning
  5. Technical Information on Floodplain Management
  6. The Zoning Hearing Board
  7. Special Exceptions, Conditional Uses and Variances
  8. Subdivision and Land Development
  9. The Zoning Officer
  10. Reducing Land Use Barriers to Affordable Housing

Interesting facts about Pennsylvania’s Cities

The City of York, Pennsylvania—named for York, England—was the birthplace of the Articles of Confederation and it was there the words "The United States of America" were first spoken. According to York City, this is where the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving, and signed the French Treaty of Alliance. All of these events occurred in the nine months York remained Capital of the United States - until June 27, 1778. See for more information.

Philadelphia is Pennsylvania’s oldest and largest city. One of every 12 people who live in Pennsylvania live in Philadelphia. It is a metropolitan city with many cultural centers and universities, including the University of Pennsylvania founded by Benjamin Franklin. About 12 percent of all Philadelphians were born in a different country. The city has over 668,000 homes and almost 27,000 businesses. For detailed information visit:

According to Visit Pittsburgh many firsts took place in that city including the first Ferris Wheel, the worlds’ first commercial radio station (KDKA in 1920), the first polio vaccine (1954) at the University of Pittsburgh, the first Public Television Station in the country (WQED in 1954), the first nighttime world series game (1971), and the first Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University. Find more interesting facts about Pittsburgh at

Harrisburg was not the capitol of Pennsylvania until the General Assembly moved there in 1812. Simon Snyder, of Selinsgrove, was governor and the state had a budget of $336,189.15. The first Capitol building burned to the ground on February 12, 1897.

The new Capitol was expected to cost between $5 and $10 million, but by the time it opened in 1906 it had cost $12.5 million. The present Capitol was dedicated October 4, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt, who said it was a “handsome structure.” More information can be found at › History › Pennsylvania History › Places. Reference this website for more interesting stories.

The City of Erie has a population of 280,294 (census estimate for 2013) and is home to 6,250 businesses. The city is on Lake Erie and is a port city. Attractions include the Art Museum, ExpERIEnce Childrens Museum, Erie Maritime Museum (which is the home of the Brig Niagara), the zoo, and Presque Isle Park. Find out more about Erie at

More Sources of Information about Pennsylvania’s Cities

Learn more about cities at or

Also read “Local Government Entities in Pennsylvania” in the Legislator’s Municipal Deskbook at

The Pennsylvania Local Government Fact Sheet is available from the Department of Community and Economic Development at

Interesting information about places in Pennsylvania can be found at › History › Pennsylvania History › Places.

Pennsylvania’s Townships

Pennsylvania has two classes of townships. First and second townships are different in their structure and the codes that guide their operation. Townships of the first class are typically found in more densely populated, urban areas. Townships of the second class are often found in more rural areas. This is not a rule; both types of townships may have a large number of residents.

First and second class townships are governed by a set of codes set by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. These codes outline the structure and powers of each local government. There is a set of codes for each type of local government:

  • The County Code
  • Third Class City Code
  • Borough Code
  • First Class Township Code
  • Second Class Township Code
  • Public School Code.

These codes have few details that tell the state’s townships how they should be organized, and allow wide flexibility in defining how they operate or which departments they may set up (administration, public works, fire department, etc.). The smallest townships may have no set department structure or may have only a department of roads or public works. Large townships will have separate departments for parks and recreation, police, finance, water, community development, and others. The number of departments and what they do is based on local needs, as set by the governing body.

Election of Local Officials

First class township residents vote for a board of commissioners. This board can have five members elected at-large (meaning elected by everyone in a community) or can be up to 15 elected officials by wards. Voting wards are areas of a community that vote for their own representative. The commissioners have four year terms and their terms start in different years.

In townships of the second class, residents vote for a board of supervisors. This board has three to five members elected at-large. The supervisors serve overlapping six-year terms. Political parties use primary elections to nominate their candidates for each election.

Other elected officials in the townships include three auditors and the tax collector. However, local assessors perform their duties under the direction of the county assessor. They do not get involved in the assessment of property. However, they do look over the earned income tax and they keep the per capita tax rolls (a list of all persons in the township that must pay taxes).

The position of constable is also elected in townships, but constables serve as a county official. Constables are Public Officers that can be elected or appointed, who can make arrests. Most of their work is for the county courts. They support those in the court system and often serve warrants for the courts.

The three elected auditors conduct the financial audits for the township they serve. However, many townships hire professional, certified public accountants that do these financial audits. The auditor also sets the salaries of elected township supervisors who may also work as an employee of the township such as the position of roadmaster or secretary/treasurer.

The tax collector collects the school, county, and township real estate taxes. In addition they may also collect any special assessments levied by the township. Earned Income Taxes are now collected by a county wide tax collection service.

Unlike many other states, Pennsylvania has no general law authorizing initiative and referendum. An initiative is a proposed law or constitutional amendment. In most states if a petition is signed by enough people the proposed law is placed on the ballot. Voters then decide if the law should be passed. A referendum can be used to repeal a law that already exists. In Pennsylvania citizens are not able to amend the state constitution. Only the General Assembly or a constitutional convention can change state laws.

Appointed Officials and their Roles

Fewer than 160 townships in Pennsylvania have managers, so often the board of supervisors or the township secretary supervises the operating departments. Because many township supervisors are also employed by the township as roadmasters, road superintendents or as secretary-treasurer, they also need to run township departments.

Every township has an appointed secretary and treasurer. These two duties were combined until 1981, though many townships still combine these positions. The secretary and treasurer may be a supervisor, a township employee, or, in the case of treasurer, a financial institution.

Appointed officers such as the township solicitor and township engineer have their roles defined in the Second Class Township Code. The solicitor’s role includes all legal matters, real estate transactions, review and drafting of ordinances, guidance on employee relations, and matters before the court. The Second Class Township Code also provides for the appointment of special legal counsel for special functions such as bonds, and personnel law. The Township Engineer is also appointed by the board of supervisors. The engineer, like the solicitor, has their duties enumerated in the Second Class Township Code. The township engineer’s primary duties are working on roads and streets, reviewing development plans for compliance with the Township’s zoning and land development ordinances, as well as special projects and the preparation of cost estimates and specifications for projects within the township.

The office of Township Manager and Police Chief are created by ordinance (a law passed by the township). How to hire a Police Chief and how to prepare contracts and other employment papers is outlined in the Second Class Township Code. The Code also provides for their respective duties and responsibilities.

There are other offices provided by the Code that authorize the townships to make appointments. These include sewer enforcement officer, emergency management coordinator, earned income tax officers, the zoning officer, and the zoning solicitor. Any of these positions can be filled by the township or the township can sign a contract for a private company to provide these services.

More information about townships is available from the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors at

Pennsylvania’s Boroughs

Borough government in Pennsylvania is a weak mayor form of government. This form of government has been in place since the 1800s. Many of the Commonwealth’s cities began as boroughs but they later became cities as the number of residents grew. Boroughs have a council that makes the laws and often runs the municipality, and a weak executive (often a mayor). The mayor has a small role to play in a borough, but where there is a police department the mayor is in charge of the police. The Borough Council is the governing body and is voted into their position for a four year term. The office of the mayor is also a four year term.

The other elected officers in a borough, besides the mayor and the council, are the tax collector, the tax assessor, and the auditors. The other officers are appointed by the borough council. A borough that does not have voting wards (a specific region of the community that elects its own representative) usually has a total of seven council members. Here all residents vote for all candidates.

Council seats at boroughs that have wards must be no less than one seat per ward, nor more than three council seats per ward. The powers of the Council are many and they cover the entire range of borough government to include administration, finance, public safety, public works, and code enforcement. The Chief Executive Officer of the borough is the Borough Manager. The Manager is appointed by the council and serves at the pleasure of the council (this is the term that means the council can hire and fire the manager as they see fit). The Manager’s role and duties are different for each borough. The duties of the Borough Manager are spelled out in the Borough Code.

Home Rule

The Pennsylvania Legislature has also adopted the Home Rule Charter and Optional Law. The Home Rule Charter authorizes Pennsylvania municipalities to determine what form of government they would like to have and what services they want to provide. A municipality that adopts the Home Rule Charter is no longer guided by the Codes enacted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Home Rule Charter grants more power and the ability to exercise any powers not denied by the state Constitution, the General Assembly, or its own Home Rule Charter. Each municipality that chooses a Home Rule Charter is expected to draft and amend its own charter.

Such adoption of an optional plan of government alters their own structural form and administrative organization. The municipality is still subject to its particular municipal code regarding its municipal powers. At the present time there are six optional plans provided by law. They are as follows:

  1. Executive (Mayor) – Council Plan A (there may be a department of administration)
  2. Executive (Mayor) – Council Plan B (there must be a department of administration)
  3. Executive (Mayor) – Council Plan C (provides for the office of managing director)
  4. Council-Manager Plan
  5. Small Municipality Plan (limited to any borough that has fewer than 7500 residents)
  6. Optional County Plan (limited to Counties only).

The Role of the Federal Government in Local Government

Article X of the United States Constitution says that community laws and operations (local government) are determined by the states. However, in recent years the federal government has become more actively involved in local government. This began with a need for financial help by some of the nation’s largest cities. Help was given through financial support, subsidies, grants, and technical assistance.

Federal agencies also assist with the costs of providing low income housing, mass transit, health services, social services, and recreation programs. National associations that lobby on behalf of local government are active in Washington and they continue to lobby for additional spending and upkeep of existing programs.

The use of Federal Community Development Block Grants has increased partnerships between local government and the federal government. However, in recent years shifts can be seen in this relationship with block grant programs shifting to the state’s responsibility along with federal transportation allocations, thereby changing the role of the federal government in local government.

More Information

To find where you live access Additional information is available from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. Try these websites:

You can find information about the following (and many, many more topics) at :

  • Municipalities in Pennsylvania by County and Class
  • Statistics and forms for and about local governments and schools.
  • Municipal Tax Information
  • County/Municipal/Demographic Information
  • Municipality and County Annual Financial Information.

Most cities, townships and boroughs have their own website. Search on the name of the municipality to learn about how it operates and who it serves.