Harrisburg's Incinerator - Pittsburgh's Parking Garages
What I don't get, and what these Harrisburg stories mention, but don't go into much at all, is that Harrisburg's problems are not because of it's own bad accounting in a sense. Harrisburg is being caught because of a guarantee it made on a loan that another Pennsylvania government altogether, the Harrisburg Authority, is defaulting on for a garbage incinerator. Beyond the irony in that, you have to wonder if the folks who worked on Harrisburg's municipal budget even knew about their potential liability from that other loan when they were debating their own recent budgets. Public authorities were created mostly to create some independent (someone look up the definition of independent) loan authority distinct from municipal governments. Yet if Harrisburg (the city) is going to go down because of the finances of a public authority, what is the point of having the public authority in the first place?
Shouldn't pick on Harrisburg too much. Realize that Dauphin County is itself caught up in this.
The bigger question for them is what other liabilities out there might catch them off guard in the future? What about for other municipalities? Either explicitly or implicitly, say for example the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority fails completely, is the City of Pittsburgh off the hook for what costs that may incur?
Isn't the real story in this just how screwed up local government is in Pennsylvania? Here you have one government about to fail because of another's failure to keep up on a loan. It's pretty obvious that all of these special authorities and districts obscures government transparency. Few places are as confused as Pennsylvania with nearly 4,900 distinct government entities of one form or another. It's not just the large number of municipal governments in Pennsyvlania that sometimes gets talked about (2,562), but all the special districs and public authorities (at least 1,728 per count below, but I say there really are more) and don't forget 515 school districts* each of which has substantial tax-funded budgets. Is there transparent open governance for all of them? Most of them? Any of them? How can the public even keep track of all the convoluted lines of authority, let alone their financial responsibilities, between all these different types of governement? As Harrisburg shows, even the elected officials can't keep track.
Take for example what is going on Pittsburgh, where the biggest fiscal event in a decade (decades) is about to happen with the lease of Parking Authority assets to most likely a large financial concern not based in Pittsburgh at all. First, can anyone name the members of the board that run the Pittsburgh Parking Authority? or just the board chairman? or know how they are picked? Does anyone know what the Pittsburgh Parking authority actually does or what it really owns? Technically speaking, public authorities are creatures of the state, or that is the idea behind having it as a distinct government of it's own and not just a department of city government. Why is it then that the Pittsburgh Parking Authority is going to just hand over all the revenues it receives from the leasing of assets to the City of Pittsburgh? Almost a metaphysical question in that. How about this one... what happens to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and its board once the lease happens? Do we need to keep it around? Most likely, but will it become something akin to the Stadium Authority, which is everyone's favorite government, which still exists despite being stadium-less. Someone really ought to at least change the name of the Stadium Authority to something a bit clearer for the public to understand. How about the "North Shore Redevelopment and Repatriation Authority (NSRRA)"?
Anyway. For reference here is what I see for the current structure of local government in Pennsylvania as of 2007.
Special District 1,728
School District 515*
Source: US Census Bureau, Census of Governments
Which by the way adds up to 4,871, more than any other state in the nation.
*School districts might be one less currently with the merger of the Center Area and Monaca school districts northwest of Pittsburgh. Note there are 67 counties, but you don't want to double count Philadelphia, so it gets counted in the official census stats as a municipality. If the counts seem high to you, realize there are probably governments and school districts you are completely unaware of yet have some distinct governance. Everything from the City of Pittsburgh's Equipment Leasing Authority of all things to school intermediate units.