Organization hopes to spur urban-suburban cooperation

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Say a town's ambulance service is running out of money. How is a lone municipality -- or even a mid-sized city -- supposed to get the state attention needed to fill the financial gas tank?

That's the kind of question the Congress of Neighboring Communities, or CONNECT, was created to answer. The organization of 34 municipalities -- nearly all of those that border Pittsburgh plus the city itself -- was born 13 months ago and is starting to walk.

The idea is that "urban" municipalities have a lot in common and can pool their brainpower and clout to address transit, water and sewer and public safety issues.

For example, the Ross/West View Emergency Medical Services Authority "is struggling," said Dan DeMarco, president of the Ross board of commissioners and CONNECT's second vice chairman. That's in part because state laws don't define paramedics as health care providers, making it difficult for ambulance services to get paid by insurers.

CONNECT "can work to write legislation that makes sense, that is realistic" and push it in Harrisburg, said Patricia Schaefer, Edgewood council president and vice chairwoman of CONNECT.

It could do even more. "I think there is some interest out there to perhaps better regionalize EMS services," Mr. DeMarco said.

CONNECT is a long way from regionalizing anything, and its leaders emphasize that it's about communication and collaboration, not consolidation.

"I don't want to drive my agenda through this," said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who endorsed a city merger with Allegheny County in 2008 and was elected chairman of CONNECT in June. His message to the city's neighbors: "The city of Pittsburgh is not after your identity. ... We're comfortable with [merging services], but we don't want to dictate that."

CONNECT started quietly on Oct. 31, 2008, with a publicity-free meeting at the Wyndham Pittsburgh University Place hotel. It held an equally below-the-radar "congress," attended by representatives of 26 municipalities, on June 19. Last week, it hired its first full-time staff member, Associate Director Katherine Risko, and it's hoping to get some successes under its belt in time for a second congress in June.

It may have gotten a boost this year when President Barack Obama's administration adopted a new urban affairs policy that emphasizes urban-suburban cooperation. CONNECT is watching the development of federal policies closely and looking for opportunities for the region to tap into any funding streams geared toward municipal cooperation.

"We have a president now who cares deeply about urban-suburban cooperation," said Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd, who helped spur CONNECT but bowed out when he challenged Mr. Ravenstahl in the May primary. "I believe that this is one of a handful, at most, of models in the country that people should look at."

CONNECT is funded by foundations and run out of the University of Pittsburgh, guided by David Y. Miller, director of the Innovation Clinic at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a former city budget director. It now counts suburban officials as some of its most enthusiastic leaders.

The suburbs have a track record of working together on issues such as sewer improvements, joint purchasing and policing, and they have gradually realized that they "could join together and not lose your identity as a community, which I think was our biggest fear," Ms. Schaefer said. "There are services that we can do far better, having one do it rather than 10 or 15 different contracts."

Collaboration with the city was especially scary. Mr. Ravenstahl said that even a few years ago, suburban officials who talked with the city about cooperation risked losing their jobs. That changed a bit with a 2006 pact that has the city collecting Wilkinsburg's trash and a July announcement that the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is buying Millvale's water system.

Of the 35 municipalities that border the city, only two -- Fox Chapel and O'Hara -- have said they don't want to participate in CONNECT. Neither the mayor of Fox Chapel nor the council president of O'Hara could be reached for comment.

For many communities, identity theft may seem less of a threat than their slow loss of clout. Most of the municipalities have lost population, cutting into their representation at the state and federal levels. The combined population of the city and its neighbors is about 680,000 -- roughly the number of people the city alone held at its peak half a century ago.

Combined, the communities represent 56 percent of Allegheny County's population and 75 percent of the county's jobs, according to CONNECT. The communities are represented by 17 state representatives, five state senators and three congressmen.

Looking for concrete accomplishments, CONNECT is working with the Port Authority to figure out how to spur development around planned transit hubs. Its members are talking about more collaboration on the huge, federally mandated job of eliminating sewer overflows. Some, like Mr. DeMarco, are talking about even more ambitious, politically difficult agenda items -- such as coordinating the mishmash of volunteer and professional fire companies that serve the area.

"Breaking down barriers to communication is critical," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "We have no choice but to do this. We really don't."


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


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