Counties in Pennsylvania are classified on the basis of population for the purposes of legislation and regulation of their affairs. Northumberland County is a Fifth Class county based on its population of 96,771. Northumberland County is subject to the County Code of 1955, as amended, covering Fifth Class counties.
While the County Code is the basic law for administration of county affairs, many important functions and duties of county officers are set forth in other laws. For example, retirement systems, assessment procedures, election laws, and borrowing powers are set forth in Acts of the General Assembly dating back to 1931. Under the County Code, a county is primarily an agency of the State government rather than a fully independent unit of local self-government. The General Assembly, therefore, prescribes many of a county’s operations, and consequently, its costs.
Although, under the County Code the county generally performs many of the functions of State government on the local level, it has also been granted powers of purely self-government, not basically different from those of cities, boroughs, or townships. Exercise of these powers is based on a number of premises, but usually centers on the belief that a county should foster, preserve, and promote certain activities for the general welfare of county residents. Changing social and economic conditions are another basis for county requests to the General Assembly for additional powers and functions. County officials throughout Pennsylvania have seen the need for many new county agencies and operations such as planning commissions, park and recreation boards, flood control projects, and redevelopment projects. Certain enabling legislation, such as the Municipalities Planning Code, grants powers to the county as an interim measure until local government units enact their own ordinances. In other cases, such as Act 101 concerning solid waste management, the General Assembly has realized that the solution to certain problems resides with counties.
Northumberland County contains 23 townships, 11 boroughs, and two cities. The least complex form of government is the second class township. Its three elected officials have been traditionally engaged in maintenance of township roads, but in recent times, they have been given a wide range of powers including protection to persons and property, planning, zoning, utilities, and other responsibilities. A first class township performs similar functions as a second class township, but because of its population density of at least 300 persons per square mile, the number of elected commissioners is increased to five. Coal Township is the only first class township in Northumberland County.
Northumberland County’s boroughs were created from townships by the County Court after petition by a majority of the property owners in the area. Usually the property owners desire more services than the township furnishes, so if the Court agrees, the property owners may establish a borough. There are two cities in Northumberland County. The cities are governed by five councilmen under the Third Class City Code.