Allegheny County Controller Mark Flaherty yesterday outlined a proposal for a broad restructuring of county government that would fold six row offices facing elimination in a May 17 referendum into several new offices, possibly saving the county $773,000 a year.
In December, County Council put the referendum on next month's ballot, giving voters a chance to do away with six of 10 elected row offices -- register of wills, recorder of deeds, coroner, prothonotary, clerk of courts and jury commissioner.
Yesterday, Flaherty's office released performance audits of each of the six row offices and a 20-page report that offers an analysis of how county government may change if voters approve the referendum.
"If we want to make county government smaller, we must try to make sure it's more efficient as well," Flaherty said.
The audits, conducted during the past year, mostly focus on the importance of using technology to streamline operations, changes that many of the offices already have started to implement.
The restructuring report goes much further, providing a blueprint for how the row offices could be absorbed by existing or new government bodies.
The office of jury commissioner would be combined with the administrative office of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.
The county coroner would be replaced by a medical examiner, appointed by the chief executive. Also, a Department of Laboratories would house facilities for the coroner, the county Health Department and a biological terrorism unit. The Health Department already has plans to construct a bioterrorism lab, and the controller's report suggests centralizing all county lab work at that building.
Also, a Customer Service Center, located on the first floor of the County Office Building, would bring together three new offices:
The clerk of courts, prothonotary and register of wills would be combined into an Office of Court Records Administration, allowing those offices to merge computer systems.
A Tax Claim Bureau would centralize the collection of unpaid real estate taxes in the county. Flaherty's report estimates that about $38 million in county, school district and municipality taxes go uncollected every year.
The recorder of deeds and the Office of Property Assessments' deed registry duties would be merged into a Real Estate Information Office.
The report also suggests creating a document storage facility for all county offices.
Since the referendum would allow elected row officers to complete their current terms, the controller's proposals would be phased in, with the offices of jury commissioner and coroner being eliminated in 2006, and the offices of the clerk of courts, prothonotary, register of wills and recorder of deeds being eliminated in 2008.
The report estimates that the changes, if implemented, would cut 22 jobs, including the high-paying elected row office positions and four solicitors. The total savings would be about $1.4 million, but costs for several new administrators, including the medical examiner, would reach $591,259, reducing savings to $773,028.
County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, however, thinks the county can avoid some new expenditures and come closer to the $1.4 million figure.
"The costs are something we'll try to minimize," he said. "We're going to go through each recommendation. If they're good, we'll try to implement them."
Several current row officers disagreed.
"You will not save money," Valerie McDonald Roberts, recorder of deeds, said of the proposal to eliminate the row offices. "I'm fearful it will cost money."
George Matta, clerk of courts, said new positions will have to be created if his office is removed, and he said he is obligated legally to keep paper copies of almost all documents that pass through his office.
"We have some cases that go back to the turn of the century," he said.
Onorato, a Democrat, was criticized harshly by some members of his own party last year for agreeing to put the row office referendum before voters, even though his original proposal called for eliminating another two offices, the sheriff and the treasurer.
All 10 row offices are held by Democrats.
Flaherty's audit only looked at the six offices facing elimination, and he did not offer an opinion about whether or not voters should approve the referendum next month.
He noted that, if approved, the referendum would transfer an additional 320 employees and more than $18.3 million in county funds to the chief executive's office.
"In reality, as a voter, you're giving up your privilege of electing these independently elected officials," Flaherty said. "You're doing it for a savings of $773,000."
Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1183.