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State College area encouraged to consolidate to improve economy almost 3 decades after failed attempt

FILE - A view of buildings in downtown State College, Pennsylvania. {Georgianna Sutherland / For Spotlight PA}
Georgianna Sutherland
For Spotlight PA
A view of buildings in downtown State College, Pennsylvania.

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

STATE COLLEGE — As DuBois and Sandy Township work through the yearslong process of consolidating into a new city, about 65 miles southeast a consulting firm commissioned by State College recommended it also explore the idea of fusing with neighboring municipalities.

The firm was hired to look into problems facing downtown State College businesses, and identified consolidation as a way to grow the region’s economy.

Municipal mergers and consolidations can help to increase government efficiency and reduce costs.

Pennsylvania established a uniform system for how local government boundaries could change in 1994. Since then, 17 mergers have been proposed in Pennsylvania, of which 11 received approval from voters. By comparison, only two out of 13 consolidation initiatives have passed during the same time.

One of the failures occurred in the State College area.

In 1995, voters weighed in on a proposal to replace College Township, Patton Township, and State College with a new local government and rejected the pitch.

Evan Myers, State College Borough Council president, was part of the commission that recommended consolidation nearly 30 years ago.

Myers said the municipalities would be more efficient and have greater purchasing power if they had combined. A larger community with more diverse land-use options also made sense for planning and growing the area, which was experiencing a steady increase of population and needs for public services at the time, he said.

But the public was not properly informed of the rationale or merits for the union, and their skepticism was not addressed before the referendum, Myers told Spotlight PA.

David Price, a former local journalist and longtime Centre Region resident, was one of the skeptics. He wrote an article in a local magazine prior to the consolidation vote that enumerated reasons to oppose the move.

But he said he’s remained interested in the idea of consolidation since then.

Price does not believe a larger government would save taxpayer money, and said that the current level of cooperation among the municipalities — primarily through the Centre Region Council of Governments, which is an association of six governing boards that has no taxing authority — is more palatable, because the public is resistant to change.

“If we had a magic wand and could wave it and wake up tomorrow morning and be consolidated, there would be some benefits here in the Centre Region,” Price told Spotlight PA. “But the chaos and angst and dislike among people to get from where we are today to where we could be, I think, would be so disruptive and so negative that the end gain would not outweigh the hell that we would have to go through as a community to get there.”

Doubts about the move are understandable, Myers said, but he believes it is possible to ensure local representation and efficiency even in a bigger government.

Although consolidation is “just talk right now,” and he does not know if there is political will to undertake another attempt, Myers said he still believes in the potential benefits.

“I agreed with [the reasons to consolidate] then, and I agree with them even more so now,” Myers said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the location of State College in relation to DuBois.

Min Xian reports on how local governments are run and how public dollars are spent, with a focus on how public and private forces shape ordinary life in this region.