County, city want to merge

Ravenstahl, Onorato announce 'bold' plan

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After more than a year of talking about it, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato yesterday announced a plan to merge the city and county under one government, calling it a "significant and bold" step for the region.

The plan was formally set in motion in October 2006 when both leaders asked University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and a 13-member committee to study the two governments and the results of such mergers elsewhere.

After 17 months of study, looking at places like Louisville, Ky., where the city merged with Jefferson County in 2000, Chancellor Nordenberg issued his report yesterday and concluded that city-county consolidation "is an idea from which good things will flow."

Mr. Nordenberg's 21-page report, "Government for Growth: Forging a Bright Future -- Built on Unity, Efficiency, Equity and Equality -- for the People of Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh," made three key recommendations:

The city and county must move to end duplication of services; form a cooperation compact to guide both governments beyond the terms of the current leaders; and then ask voters to approve the consolidation through a referendum.

In embracing the recommendations, Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Onorato said local government consolidation is an elemental way to pull the region's economy out of a decades-old slide.

"We can no longer afford the status quo," said Mr. Ravenstahl, noting talk of consolidation has "stymied" other economic development efforts.

"Every time the city tries to solve a problem, the question comes up: But aren't you going to merge? We must embrace change in a historic way," said Mr. Ravenstahl, who was reluctant to embrace the concept when it was first proposed.

Citing his efforts to consolidate six of 10 county row offices and eliminate five 911 call centers, merging them into one center in Point Breeze, Mr. Onorato said he has long been a proponent of streamlining government.

Mr. Onorato and Mr. Ravenstahl are working on the cooperative compact, outlining goals for continued cooperation between the two governments.

It would have to be ratified by both county and city councils. Separate legislation permitting a merger referendum would need approval of the state Legislature, which "would dictate how and when this would get to the voters," said Mr. Onorato.

City Council President Doug Shields yesterday dismissed the report as "an essay."

"It's history," he said. "We know the history. There's no specificity. There's nothing that deals with legal implications, home rule, you name it."

His problem with the plan, Mr. Shields said, was that the consolidation does not go far enough. Instead of consolidating functions of city and county governments alone, the plan should extend to the other 129 municipalities in the county, he said.

That's a deal breaker, said Allegheny County Councilman Vince Gastgeb.

"Theoretically, I'm in favor of cutting the size of government. But the devil is in the details here, and I will not support anything that involves the suburbs being included in this plan," he said.

City Councilman William Peduto said consolidation should include all municipalities in the county and the issue should be put to a referendum in November, not in 2009.

"Let's get this moving," he said. "We're very good at creating reports. We're very poor at making change. We have to work, right now, to structurally change local government with or without the referendum."

Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said Gov. Ed Rendell's administration is "supportive of consolidation" but the process likely would take several years.

In the Legislature, state Rep. David Levdansky, D-Forward, said anything that includes suburban municipalities in a consolidation is doomed to fail.

"There are about 1.2 million people in Allegheny County, right?'' he said. "Well, the 300,000 who live in Pittsburgh would probably vote yes [on consolidation] and the other 900,000 would say they want no part of it.''


Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tom Barnes and staff writer Rich Lord contributed. Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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