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To save, states try to merge tiny towns

Politicians take a closer look as deficits grow

By Mark Niquette
Bloomberg News / May 29, 2011

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GREEN HILLS, Pa. — Politicians facing budget deficits are gunning for hamlets such as Green Hills, a square-mile Pennsylvania borough with 29 residents that exists to allow alcohol at a golf course.

The town was created in 1978 so it could apply for a state liquor license for Lone Pine Country Club. It has an annual budget of about $10,000 to pay a solicitor and contract with a volunteer fire department in the surrounding township, according to Terry D. George, club pro and mayor. He was elected in 2005 with all five votes cast.

“I don’t think there’s any logical way to try to pretend that it makes any sense,’’ said J. Bracken Burns Sr., a commissioner in Washington County, home to Green Hills about 35 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania faces a budget deficit next year forecast at $4.2 billion. With shortfalls nationwide that could reach $112 billion in the next fiscal year, states including Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan are pushing school districts and local governments — each with its own officials and budgets — to share more services and to consolidate for the sake of efficiency and cost.

Green Hills, named after the rolling hills of the 175-acre golf course and a 300-acre horse farm, also has four homes.

In an interview at the club, George, 63, pointed to three binders and a few manila folders under his PGA hat that contain most of the borough’s records.

Why did he become mayor? “Someone has to do it,’’ he said.

State Representative Thomas Caltagirone, a Democrat from Reading, introduced a bill last year that would require consolidation among the commonwealth’s 2,652 boroughs — 30 percent of which have 1,000 or fewer residents, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development. Residents and elected officials are loath to surrender control, he said.

“A lot of them know in their hearts it’s the right thing to do, but politically they’re afraid to touch it,’’ Caltagirone said.

In Ohio, Governor John Kasich has suggested a bipartisan panel similar to the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission to analyze consolidations and document the benefits.

One state to the west, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana has proposed eliminating the state’s 1,008 township governments, calling them “venerable but obsolete,’’ in his State of the State address this year. Cutting their three-member elected boards would save about $2 million a year, Chris Ruhl, director of the Indiana Office of Management and Budget, said by phone.

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