Pennsylvania Local Government Explained

Brief Explanation of Pennsylvania Local Government


I'm so confused!!

When I first moved to Pennsylvania, my boss asked me where I bought a house. I told him that it was in Chester County and that I could find it, but I didn't have the slightest idea of where it was. There were the post offices, villages, school districts, townships and boroughs. Strange letter groupings like Uwchlan or Tuplehocken. It was not like any of the other states that I have lived in. If you are new to Pennsylvania, it helps to know that there are 3 levels of government. The lowest level is the municipality which is a township, borough or city. Within the municipality, there are places or villages that have no significance other than in history or to help identify an area. Lionville, Yellow Springs and Lyndell are examples of villages or places. Before modern transportation, many of these villages had local post offices and some still do. 

The Municipality
City - Borough - Township

It's the Municipality level that has any authority at all. They are governed by elected supervisors or Commissioners and are responsible for local roads, police, zoning, building permits, and taxes. Supervisor elections are important to you because these are the people who will make decisions affecting your property and daily life. They also have advisory boards for planning commission, parks and recreation, historical committees etc. The negative side of municipalities is that there are 2566 of them in the state, each with its own supervisors, police, planning, and parks boards. But on the positive side, anyone can become involved in local government and serve on one of the boards or as a supervisor. It is very common to be talking to one of the supervisors or board members at a neighborhood picnic, in the grocery store or after church. These are the people listed in the Township Directory. Many municipalities have their own websites so that you can find out about everything that is happening. Each municipality page in the Township Directory has a link to the municipality's own page if it has one. Municipal Board elections are important because these are the people who determine property taxes, determine road maintenance, approve developments, determine what services, if any, will be provided, etc. They are also some of the most ignored elections - Take time to vote.

The County

The next level is the County Government. There are 67 counties in Pennsylvania and although it represents a larger area, it has relatively little authority. It is responsible for the health department, welfare offices, public libraries, land assessments, courts and other services. Counties generally have no roads nor police, although they have bridges, the Sheriff's office and the prison. The county is governed by three commissioners which must come from at least two different political parties. 

The State

The third level is State Government which is responsible for among other things, the state roads and state police. Any road that is not a municipal road is nearly always a state road. The state government has a House and a Senate. The districts for the State House, State Senate and US Congress are made up of a group of municipalities. Municipalities are rarely divided between two districts for any office. However districts are based on having nearly equal populations and are redefined after every census which will force the splitting of a municipality.

School Districts

School Districts are a different entity usually made up of an area consisting of one or more municipalities and occasionally crossing county lines.  Sometimes they will even split municipalities. There are 501 School Districts in Pennsylvania. School districts are an independent political or governmental subdivision like the municipalities. There is no connection between the school districts and the municipalities. The district is governed by an elected 9 member school board which is a legislative body and performs such duties as negotiating teacher contracts and setting tax rates. Each board member or School Director may represent specific voter precincts or may be elected at large.  Depending on where you live, you may have a specific representative on the school board. School board elections are important because, like municipality commissioners, these are the people who determine your property taxes and local school standards. They are also some of the most ignored  elections - Take time to vote.

Post Offices

To finish the confusion, Post Office areas (zip codes) have nothing to do with anything else. A municipality may fall into one or many Post Office areas. For example, Uwchlan Township in Chester County is served by the Exton, Downingtown and Chester Springs post offices. That is people living in Uwchlan Township could have any one of three different zip codes. Many post offices are named for villages or places that have been completely bulldozed for malls such as King of Prussia where little if any of the original site remains. 

District Magistrates

Last but not least, the District Justices are elected and administer the traffic and small claims courts. Again, judicial districts usually cover several municipalities or serve just part of a large municipality. They are the lowest level in the court system and are administered through the county.

© 2009 B A Yorczyk & Associates



Please send comments or suggestions to I personally have found that many people really don't know the importance of local government and are unfamiliar with its function. Any ideas on how to make this explanation more complete or better in any way will be appreciated.

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