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Pennsylvania Counties Cities Boroughs and Townships

traditions dating back to William Penn

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a tradition of local government rule that date back to a charter from King Charles II of England to William Penn who divided the colony into counties, boroughs, townships and cities, each with unique characteristics.

Pennsylvania state law determines the type of municipality on-the-basis of population with nine classes of counties, four classes of cities, and two classes of townships. Boroughs are not classified. Each municipality class operates under its own laws, determining its structure and powers.

Home Rule Charters determine the operating structure of a community. A home rule municipality drafts and amends its own charter and exercises powers not denied by the Pennsylvania state constitution.

Over 70 Pennsylvania Municipalities have Home Rule Charters

William Penn established Philadelphia, Bucks and Chester Counties in 1682. Lancaster was established in 1729; the 67th and last county in 1878. Today, each commonwealth resident lives in and comes under the jurisdiction of one county with Lycoming County the largest in size while the city-county of Philadelphia is the smallest geographically but the largest in population.

County Government governing bodies are typically three-member board of county commissioners with many other elected officials independent of the commissioners who form the legislative and executive branches of the county, authorized to administer human services, land use planning and local law enforcement. They also pass ordinances, assess all real and personal property for tax purposes, register voters, and maintain county buildings.

Townships were the First Political Subdivision in the New World

Townships are the oldest form of organized government in the United States, dating back to the 17th century. William Penn began establishing townships in Pennsylvania as early as 1683, with about 10 families to each. The Industrial Revolution brought development around cities and boroughs that began to annex the developed portions of adjacent townships without the need for citizen approval. Today, 1,456 second class townships represent nearly one-half of Pennsylvania’s residents.

Boroughs before the American Revolution, one borough was established in each of the three original counties. Since then, the number of boroughs has increased to 961, making them the second most common form of municipal government in Pennsylvania. A borough mayor has no power to hire employees or direct programs but can veto decisions of the borough council. Responsibilities include executing and enforcing borough ordinances and regulations, representing the borough at community events and other functions, and taking charge of the police department. The governing body is an elected council of seven members that serve four-year overlapping terms.

Philadelphia Pittsburgh and Scranton have Elected Mayor with Broad Powers

Cities Philadelphia, Chester, Lancaster, Easton and York were the state’s first cities; Altoona and Reading grew with the railroad industry, while Johnstown, Bethlehem, Clairton, and Coatesville became steel industry towns. The other 53 remaining cities operate mostly under a government commission in which residents elect a mayor to serve as commission chairman with four other council members, each heading one commission department.

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