With its 400-odd residents, Rosslyn Farms is one of Allegheny County’s tiniest places. It has its own council and mayor — elected by just 189 people — but other local governments provide police, fire and ambulance services.

One day, if the little borough gets tired of going it alone and wants to merge with neighboring Pittsburgh, Rosslyn Farms’ residents would have to vote.

The legal requirement to have buy-in from the community being absorbed stretches back more than a century.

But where once the final step to merging demanded approval only by Pittsburgh’s council, a recent state Supreme Court ruling has made things much harder.

Now, the majority of the surviving community’s residents would also have to give their blessing through a referendum. In Pittsburgh’s case, no longer would it be enough to have most of the city’s nine council members sign off. Instead, it would take a majority of the city’s 300,000 residents.

Last month’s court decision stemmed from a case involving efforts to fold Wilkinsburg into Pittsburgh. It marks the latest hurdle not only for backers of that annexation effort but more broadly for proponents of consolidation in Allegheny County, which is teeming with 130 independent political subdivisions – and rife with inefficiency.

The county has 15 municipalities under 1,000 people in population, among the most of any large, populous county in the nation.

Tougher in Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh hasn’t annexed another municipality since 1930, when Overbrook was folded into the city. The law that Wilkinsburg annexation advocates tried to use was over 120 years old, and its process would have bypassed the now-common practice of getting approval by the residents of all communities involved.

From efficiency’s sake, the attempted circumvention was understandable.

Pennsylvania — where each of its 2,560 municipalities has its own local government — is one of the toughest states in which to complete municipal mergers, said John Brennan, director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League.

“It is a very difficult process in the commonwealth. We are very different from Maryland, Virginia, and just about every state,” Brennan said.

“We don’t have one inch of unincorporated land. In places like Phoenix, there is all this unincorporated land and it is very easy to grow the population and tax base by just absorbing those communities. They don’t have a township or borough next door that they would need approval from.”

The recent court decision means Pittsburgh must comply with more stringent rules if looking to expand and absorb its neighbors.

While the ruling makes annexation harder, it’s not impossible. There are lessons to be learned from both the failure in Wilkinsburg and successes elsewhere.

One Western Pennsylvania city just an hour from Pittsburgh — Hermitage in Mercer County — recently completed a merger with another community that was significantly smaller, just like Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg.

Michael Lamb, former Pittsburgh controller and consolidation advocate, said there are signs of momentum for consolidation across Allegheny County, with local municipalities joining forces to provide public services like regional police forces and trash pick-up across municipalities.

“It has borne fruit for us, we know that it works,” Lamb said.

Having a say

In the case that went before the high court, the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that backed a merger with Pittsburgh, argued that the 1903 Annexation Law should govern the process.

The law said that Pittsburgh, designated as a second-class city, could annex through city legislative approval and a referendum among Wilkinsburg residents.

But an intermediate appellate court favored the plan’s opponents. Commonwealth Court ruled that the 120-year-old law was properly repealed in 2022.

Last month, in a case titled “In re: proposed annexation of Wilkinsburg by the City of Pittsburgh,” the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the proponents.

Its decision, rendered with the single word “denied” and no further explanation, is final. It has ramifications for the more than 30 townships and boroughs of various sizes that ring Pittsburgh and have borders that touch the city.

The defeat means that the lower court decision stands; any merger with Pittsburgh must include ballot referendums from all municipalities involved.

Attorney Charles A. Pascal, who represented a group of citizens opposing annexation, lauded the Supreme Court rejection and said it will allow Pittsburgh voters – not just their elected politicians – to have a say in potentially expanding the city.

“If there is going to be an annexation, the people of Pittsburgh will get to vote on determining their own destiny,” Pascal said.

‘Cumbersome’ process

Some Wilkinsburg residents worried merging would cause the borough to lose its community identity and local control.

“This is about our political voice,” Wilkinsburg resident Rene Dolney told TribLive in 2021 when the merger was first proposed.

Neither Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation nor the lawyer who represented them in court, Cliff Levine, responded to requests for comment.

Proponents had argued that a merger would help boost services and development in the borough, which already receives fire protection and trash services from Pittsburgh.

Lamb championed annexation. He said that absorbing Wilkinsburg would enable Pittsburgh’s population to stay above 300,000, helping it maintain access to certain federal and state grants. 

Census estimates peg Pittsburgh’s population around 303,000, but it has been falling for years. Wilkinsburg is home to nearly 14,000 residents.

Lamb advocated for municipal mergers with Pittsburgh while he was controller from 2008 to this year.

Despite the hurdles raised by the court ruling, Lamb said the decision isn’t all bad. Communities, he said, deserve to have a say in the process.

Now working as a lawyer in private practice, Lamb acknowledged that municipal consolidation is particularly difficult to accomplish in Pennsylvania.

“It is just hard. The process is purposely cumbersome,” he said. “The fact that Pennsylvania makes this so difficult is rough in terms of efficiency, but in terms of public participation, it is probably a good thing.”

Pros and cons

Lamb said many municipalities in the county understand the benefits of merging, having already consolidated public services such as police, trash collection and emergency response.

He said he has been advocating for consolidation for about 15 years. Over that time, the county has moved from having about 100 EMS agencies to about 30 today. He also noted the creation of regional police forces, of which Allegheny County has several, like the Northern Regional Police, which serves Pine, Marshall, Bradford Woods, and Richland.

“That kind of consolidation shows the efficiencies that can be gained,” Lamb said.

Verona is currently considering merging police departments with a neighbor. The Allegheny Valley borough of about 2,500 people has struggled with an officer shortage and can’t provide local police coverage 24/7.

In April, two violent crimes were committed in Verona on a recent Sunday when no borough officers were on duty. Pennsylvania State Police had to respond from a station 30 miles away.

Dormont and Mt. Lebanon were recently recognized by the governor for a partnership in which Mt. Lebanon started to do administrative work for its smaller neighbor.

On the flip side, there are local municipalities that have resisted working together.

Recently, for instance, residents of Kiski Township balked at the local police force becoming part of the Southern Armstrong Regional Police Department.

Kiski Township resident Lisa Kuntz said during a community meeting last week that the Armstrong County borough has already made recent investments that shouldn’t be passed along to another, larger department.

“I think we already have a strong police department,” she said. “We’re spending all this money, but then we’re just going to give it all to you guys.”

Brennan, the Pennsylvania Municipal League director, said momentum for public-service consolidation is growing. He cited an increase of more than 250% in the 2023-24 state budget for the Municipal Assistance Program, which supports local governments that share public services.

Gov. Josh Shapiro announced Thursday $1.5 million for the program. It included $120,000 for the Eastern Regional Mon Valley Police Department, which started last month and merged the police departments of North Braddock, Rankin, and East Pittsburgh.

But sharing public services won’t solve all of local government problems, said Brennan.

Pennsylvania must eliminate barriers to business investment in order to compete with other states, Brennan said. One way to do that, he said: consolidation, so there are fewer municipalities that companies must coordinate with when doing business.

That was a driving force behind one of the most recent mergers in Western Pennsylvania.

Success story

Hermitage completed its merger with Wheatland at the start of this year, combining the 580-person borough with Hermitage’s 17,000 residents.

Hermitage Manager Gary Hickson said the municipal marriage has been successful. The enlarged community is using its economic development department to try to boost a new industrial corridor it gained when it merged.

Hickson explained that Wheatland, which had a neighborhood with light industry, never had the resources to expand development in the corridor, but now Hermitage is excited about its potential.

Former Wheatland residents also benefited, said Hickson.

Wheatland had a much higher property tax rate than Hermitage, so its residents benefited from Hermitage’s lower taxes.

“It appeared to be a win-win for both communities,” Hickson said.

Getting to an understanding of these mutual benefits early and relaying them to voters was key to Hermitage’s success, said Hickson.

He said the merger process, which took about five years to complete, was methodical and intentionally sought buy-in from the community.

“It was an orderly process,” he said. “It is not something you can cram down their throats in six months.”

The 2022 referendum vote for merger passed with over 68% in support. Hickson said the margin was spread pretty evenly across both municipalities, about 2-1 in each. Before the vote, some Wheatland residents voiced concerns about losing the borough’s identity, according to news reports.

“One of our successes was to be as transparent as we could be, and we had multiple open public meetings,” Hickson said.

Hickson acknowledged that municipal mergers in Pennsylvania are rare. There are typically two or fewer each year across the entire state.

But he does recommend consolidation if the conditions are right.

Brennan agrees. He said that he wants municipalities to work together more and even consolidate, but those efforts should be organic and driven by public demand.

“This isn’t capture the flag, like in the west,” Brennan said. “Here you have to have voter approval to do merge, and that is a good thing.”

Ryan Deto is a TribLive reporter covering politics, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County news. A native of California’s Bay Area, he joined the Trib in 2022 after spending more than six years covering Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh City Paper, including serving as managing editor. He can be reached at rdeto@triblive.com.