In Allegheny County capital budget, some districts are left out

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Amid all the scuffles and scoffs of last week's Allegheny County Council budget debate, Councilman James Ellenbogen looked at 2014's list of projects, leaned back and uttered what many have thought but few have said.

"I can't identify one thing that's in my district," the Democrat from Banksville told his colleagues Tuesday.

Cue nervous laughter.

In the world of political budgeting, everyone wants to bring home the bacon. Members of county council routinely submit projects from their district that they would like county Executive Rich Fitzgerald to consider including in his budget proposal, which for 2014 amounts to $50 million.

But in keeping with county council's we're-all-in-this-together spirit, they usually don't complain in public about getting shorted.

Mr. Ellenbogen's challenge laid bare an important question, though: Why do some districts get a lot of county roads-and-bridges funding, while others get hardly any?

PG graphic: Allegheny County roads, bridges and budgets
(Click image for larger version)

"Well, we don't just say, 'We like this councilperson, let's give them their road,' " joked Mr. Fitzgerald. "We sit down, and [county manager William McKain] says, 'This bridge hasn't been done for a while.' ... It's a need-based type of thing."

Still, seeing your district on the capital budget list can be quite the Christmas gift. This year, council member Amanda Green Hawkins is the big winner, with more than $5 million in projects slated for her district, according to county figures.

(That's not a fair fight: The Democrat's Pittsburgh-centric territory includes the courthouse and jail, inflating her total with infrastructure projects that benefit the entire county.)

Next up is District 4, which sweeps through the South Hills and includes Carnegie, Scott, Robinson and Collier. Represented by Democrat Michael Finnerty, it received just over $4 million, with improvements slated for Campbell's Run Road and Fleming Park Bridge.

District 1 (represented by the soon-to-depart Independent Matt Drozd), District 6 (Democrat John Palmiere), District 7 (Democrat Nicholas Futules) and Mr. Ellenbogen's District 12 received no specific allocations.

But those figures don't tell the whole story, Mr. Fitzgerald said. More than $34 million in capital funding is split into projects across the county, or sunk in shared services like the Port Authority.

And urban districts like Mr. Ellenbogen's just don't have enough county roads and bridges to generate big budget requests, he said.

"There are a lot more transit dollars that will go into his district," the executive said.

At Tuesday's meeting, Mr. Futules, D-Oakmont, joked that he should complain, too: His district, running northeast along the Allegheny River, is also got no funding.

But he later said it's important for council members to keep their eye on the big picture, understanding they vote for the good of the entire county, not just their district.

"I represent 1.2 million people. Everything I do, say or touch is responsible for everybody in this county," he said. "It's great to go up there and beat the drum -- but every project in this county belongs to everyone."

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.

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