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How local government influences your daily life

Plus: Penn State’s diversity efforts have been criticized as “all smoke and mirrors.”

This is Talk of the Town, a free weekly newsletter delivering top news from State College and the surrounding region.

February 29, 2024
Want to see your business or organization featured here? Become a Talk of the Town sponsor! Email Michelle Mertz at michelle@spotlightpa.org for more information.
Inside this edition: Penn State units cut funding from diversity efforts the administration later called promising, the services local governments provide, and what to know about Pa. voting machines. Happy Leap Day! 
Dan Nott / For Spotlight PA
How Local Government Works is a series that focuses on issues and trends in Pennsylvania local governments and provides tools for readers to hold their local officials accountable. Have a question about your local government? Email Min Xian at mxian@spotlightpa.org.

What do your nearest park’s playground equipment, your neighborhood’s trash pickup frequency, and your closest library’s services all have in common?

They are probably overseen by your local government, which deeply influences our daily lives in big and small ways.

To keep core services running smoothly, municipalities create policy, levy taxes, borrow money, authorize spending, administer public services, and more. 

This can make it tough for the average person to judge how well their local government is performing, because no uniform rule outlines what needs municipalities must meet.

Local governments in Pennsylvania have delegated powers, meaning they “can only do things specifically declared by law to be within their authority, or things the courts interpret as necessary to carry out such powers,” according to a guide published by the Pennsylvania Governor’s Center for Local Government Services. Home rule municipalities, such as Philadelphia and Ferguson Township in Centre County, are exceptions because they can do what is not prohibited by superseding laws.

The services provided by any borough, township, or city can vary widely: police and fire protection, road infrastructure, sewage collection, parking and traffic control, zoning, park maintenance. 

State law doesn’t explicitly require that local governments provide specific services — although the statute governing financially distressed municipalities does outline eight basic offerings it calls “vital and necessary.” It instead gives municipalities the authority to provide such services. In practice, though, constituents expect many fundamental functions from local governments, and local officials broadly recognize those needs and work to meet them.

“Every community … gets to set their own standard for what’s important to them and what they can afford,” said David Sanko, executive director for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. 

That’s why people tend to trust their local government more than the state or federal ones, he added.

“It’s more responsive, and it’s more customizable, if you will, to the needs of the community,” he said. “It doesn’t try to be everything to everyone.”

Governing bodies — such as a borough council or a township board of supervisors — carry out municipal actions in the form of ordinances or resolutions. This information is typically accessible through open records, from which residents can find out what their local government has promised to do.

Public works and utilities such as airports and water systems can be expensive, and local governments can choose to form municipal authorities to finance and manage those projects. More than 1,500 authorities in Pennsylvania provided a variety of services in 2022, according to the latest numbers available from the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Rising costs of materials and personnel, along with the growing complexity of state and federal regulations, have made providing public services locally more difficult, Sanko told Spotlight PA. Larger municipalities tend to face more competing needs from the community that tug at limited resources, he added. 

At the end of the day, people judge the effectiveness of services provided by local governments based on their quality of life, he said. He encourages residents to attend public meetings and volunteer so that local actions reflect their community’s needs.

 —Min Xian, local accountability reporter
» Before Penn State pledged more money for ‘promising’ diversity efforts, some of their budgets had been cut

» Five takeaways from our event on the Whole-Home Repairs Program

» Pa. election 2024: The state House races to watch as Democrats try to keep the majority

» Elections 101: Everything you need to know about Pa.’s voting machines, how the state keeps them safe, and more

» Federal money has supercharged Pa.’s plugging of dangerous wells, but critics want more oversight

» WATCH: A panel on Pa.’s popular housing repairs grant program

» BLACK WALL STREET: Join us on Thursday, March 7 from 6-7 p.m. ET on Zoom for a free panel on the history of Harrisburg’s Black Wall Street, and the people and businesses hoping to preserve its legacy. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
A snapshot from James G.’s trail camera in Huntingdon County.

Have a north-central Pennsylvania photo to share? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
A deer surrounded by snowy trees
We’re giving you a special preview of our “All Sun, No Shade” beach towel! This towel is available for a special pre-sale ahead of Sunshine Week in March, a time when we mark the importance of government transparency. Make sure to place your preorder ASAP!

Proceeds benefit Spotlight PA’s nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism that gets results for Pennsylvania.
» PennLive: Lycoming controller seeks $120K in legal fees
» Daily Item: Evan, WellSpan will repay Geisinger $20.3 million
» CDT: How small businesses adapt to changing downtown State College
» WPSU: Pharmacy closures in rural areas lead to unique workarounds
» Courier Express: Treasury returns $288K in unclaimed property
» Daily News: East Broad Top Railroad archive work continues
» SC: Centre County recycling coordinator retiring after 3 decades

» WPSU: Record of wrongfully executed Black soldier restored
Want us to list your event? Send it to us.

» Feb. 29: Penn State Professor Cathleen Cahill speaks about her most recent book, Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement, at Schlow Centre Region Library in Centre County.

» March 1-2: Enjoy a weekend full of concerts and events at the Williamsport City Jazz Orchestra Jazz Fest, a “first of its kind” event for the Lycoming County city.

» March 1-3: With spring only weeks away, the Blair County Home Garden & Health Living Showcase has exhibitors to inspire and aid your warm-weather projects.

» March 2: Kick off baseball season at CurveFest in Altoona, Blair County, with free food, live music, and giveaways.

» March 2: Customize your own hat in a workshop with Northern Felt Hat Co. in Kane, McKean County.
💗 Love Spotlight PA State College? Want to help us grow? Become a volunteer! Email talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org for more information.
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Decode the anagram and send your answer to talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org. We’ll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA State College swag.

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Do you have events, community shoutouts, questions about our region, or tips on stories that we should pursue? Email our team.
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