City-county merger spins its wheels

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You go first.

No, you go first.

That's what the debate over merging Pittsburgh's government into Allegheny County's has come down to.

A forum yesterday, aimed at restarting a merger debate that's been moribund for 14 months, ended with Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato asking legislators to take the next step, and some of them telling him to finish his homework first.

Mr. Onorato, along with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, shocked the issue to life 14 months ago with their joint declaration that the voters should decide on whether to merge their two governments. The county's other 129 municipalities would remain independent.

But the General Assembly must first write a law allowing the merger vote and setting its parameters, and that hasn't happened.

"I would draft [legislation] tomorrow, but the reason that we haven't is because we're trying to work with the Legislature and within their procedures," Mr. Onorato told some 200 attendees at the forum, sponsored by The Pittsburgh Foundation and the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics and held at the Heinz History Center.

Legislators "don't want us to draft the language," he said later. "That's their job."

They aren't doing it because local leaders haven't showed that they're ready, some legislators told the attendees.

An April 2008 report on consolidation that the mayor and county executive endorsed calls for a pre-merger city-county "cooperation compact" that would commit current and future leaders of those governments to combining specific services.

"For us legislators, [a compact] is something that's going to show us a good-faith effort between the city and the county," said state Rep. Chelsa Wagner, D-Beechview.

Mr. Onorato said an effort to develop a compact would be a distraction.

"Do you just go the next 10 years trying to [merge] parks and recreation, trying to chip away at [information technology]?" he asked, hypothetically, after the forum. "If you really want to merge all of these departments, merge the governments. ... But if [legislators] are not going to move, obviously you could do the slow change."

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said his gut told him that a referendum, if held soon, would fail, because of public perceptions of city government.

"The city had struggled, went through a restructuring that was absolutely brutal," he said of the fiscal meltdown that led to state oversight of the city's finances. "In some ways, I think it poisoned the well."

He argued that the Legislature should focus on the statewide problem of underfunded municipal pensions, particularly acute in Pittsburgh, rather than getting "bogged down" debating consolidation.

Mr. Ravenstahl argued for both -- an effort to improve the city's fortunes, and a simultaneous merger push.

"Let's not be afraid to ask the residents of the city and the county to cast their vote," he said.

Full consolidation of all of the county's municipalities is what most city council members want, City Council President Doug Shields told the forum. "Other than that, you're not hitting the mark."

Mr. Ravenstahl said such calls for melting in the other municipalities are just poison pills designed to kill the merger push.

And Stanley Louis Gorski, executive director of the South Hills Area Council of Governments, said suburban organizations like his "are saving valuable resources, we are avoiding costs, and we are doing this without challenging the autonomy of the individual municipal governments."

Suzanne Leland, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who has been studying government mergers for years, spoke at the forum and said Pittsburgh is in the early stages of a process that usually unfolds over "decades of work."

Full mergers "are so politically difficult," she said. Nearly every prominent elected leader needs to be on board, and resolving dicey issues like minority representation on the new council, combining departments without cutting jobs or upsetting unions, and merging different approaches to law enforcement often takes years.

Louisville, Ky., and Jefferson County made repeated stabs at consolidation before the "Vote yes for unity" campaign succeeded at the ballot box in 2000, representatives of that city told the forum.

"Government consolidations represent the most complex conversation you are ever going to have with the electorate," said Joe Reagan, president and CEO of Louisville Metro Inc. So backers simplified the message, got all major current and former elected leaders behind it, raised $1.6 million, created an organization and polled voters until they knew what every one of them thought about the issue.

Kim McMillan, communications director for Charlotte, said that North Carolina city made the latest of three failed runs at a full merger with Mecklenburg County in 1996. The county council went along, but the city council did not because of concerns about how city residents would be represented in the unified government.

So the city and county continued a decades-long effort to unite services, including policing and parks, and a trend toward privatizing roles like waste collection, vehicle maintenance, street maintenance and water treatment. Ms. McMillan said that since 1994, the governments have saved $10 million by merging and contracting out services.

Ms. Leland said there's no guarantee that consolidations will cut costs, but in most of the cases she's studied, they improved economic performance.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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