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Understanding the Pandemic’s Impact on Local Government

  • Community Impact

The Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh has released a report that provides a glimpse into the challenges facing municipal governments as the COVID-19 pandemic eases.

Commissioned by regional stakeholders and local government organizations, the study, "Preparing for Tomorrow: Fostering Municipal Resilience in the Wake of the Pandemic,” reflects a growing desire to understand and address systematic challenges faced by municipalities. 

A 28-member committee engaged local and national experts to survey regional municipalities in the spring of 2021. It requested information and opinions spanning operations, sustainability and resiliency before, during and after the pandemic.

More than 150 elected and municipal administrative officials across 10 counties of southwestern Pennsylvania completed the survey. The results and subsequent report highlight opportunities for municipalities to increase their resiliency with greater support from regional, state and federal governments.

“The 130 municipalities in Allegheny County all have different opportunities and challenges — a fact that was emphasized during the pandemic. The impact on operations, and path to recovery, is just as diverse as these communities,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “By better understanding the needs of these local governments, there can be a concerted effort to assist in the quick recovery and long-term resiliency of these communities. Local governments are at the heart of the vibrancy of our region, and it is our hope that this work leads to a sustainable future for all of our residents.” 

The findings

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, municipalities confronted challenges such as blight, fragmentation and difficulty attracting and retaining experienced professional staff that endangered their ability to serve residents. The report revealed that the pandemic has highlighted these pre-existing issues and also exasperated them. Other issues noted included structural weaknesses within local governments, declining or stagnating local revenue sources and unfunded state and federal mandates. 

To ensure local governments can deliver vital services to their communities, the committee focused its work not only on the pandemic’s impact on municipal governance and finances, but also on ways to improve the long-term sustainability, resiliency and preparedness of municipalities in southwestern Pennsylvania. The committee identified recommendations across four critical areas:

  1. Increasing municipal revenue flexibility
  2. Improving local government financial capacity and transparency
  3. Promoting basic government administration and budgeting standards
  4. Improving supports for intergovernmental cooperation

Among municipalities responding to the survey, shared services were noted as a high priority to develop efficiencies in service delivery as well as budgeting and operations. Emergency services and library services were areas identified as most favorable to share between municipalities. However, municipal autonomy was a concern of small and large municipalities alike.

“Western Pennsylvania, with its hundreds of local municipalities, faces challenges of efficiency and coordination unseen in other parts of America,” said Frederick Thieman, Henry Buhl, Jr. Chair for Civic Leadership with the Buhl Foundation and the committee co-chair. “These kinds of local problems require local solutions. Not only in response to the pandemic but to address long standing structural challenges.” 

Allegheny County Manager and Fostering Municipal Resiliency Co-Chair William McKain added, “Local governments work very hard every day on the front lines of our communities to provide a wide variety of services that their constituents rely upon. They also have the critical responsibility to properly safeguard and use efficiently the assets entrusted in their care.”

The report also identified strategies that require commitments from local, state and federal stakeholders, across varying timeframes: 

  • Shorter-term strategies that respond to immediate municipal needs of the pandemic and its aftermath.
  • Medium-term strategies that require coordination of municipal and other regional leaders to implement but are accomplishable under existing conditions.
  • Long-term strategies that will require state legislative or administrative changes to implement and will require significant advocacy and coordination efforts among stakeholders.

“The Institute of Politics is committed to providing data and facts that support our regional government officials,” said Samantha Balbier, director of the Institute of Politics. “The extraordinary response received from local officials to this survey and report indicate a commitment to building regional resiliency, but also highlight the significant work we all need to do to prepare our communities for the future.”

For more information and to download the report, visit the Institute of Politics website.