Forum: 'Pittsburgh County'

People talk about redesigning local government, but Bob Cranmer has a plan. (Item 1: Dissolve the county's 130 municipalities and create just five townships.)

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When I was a young boy, my father bought an RCA color television. I think that it was one of the first models produced and, in a black-and-white world, it was quite a marvel. On the downside, the set was literally bigger than my mother's washing machine and the screen was only about 14 inches. No matter, it was "color" and it was great. But as the 1960s passed, color televisions became commonplace and our set became humorous to look at. I remember when cable reception became available around 1971. My father replaced the old set with a new Motorola, equipped with a direct plug-in for the cable. The color television that once captivated us made its way to the trash dump.

Ted Crow, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger image.

Why do I relate this story? I found myself using it as an example recently as I was discussing what changes have to be made by the oversight committee to fix the city.

You see, my father could have probably hooked up the cable to our old set, but what had once been a marvel had been rendered obsolete with the passage of time. The city, as we know it, must be redesigned or eliminated altogether.

But we can't stop there. Expansive changes are required for the entire county to survive.

   Bob Cranmer, a Republican, served as an Allegheny County commissioner from 1996 to 2000. r.cranmer@comcast.net  

The Central Issue

With 130 municipalities, 42 school districts, 118 police departments and about 250 fire and emergency response organizations, the governmental structure in Allegheny County, which was once a marvel, is now a very expensive joke. There's nothing like it that I know of in the country. How did this large complexity of government ever come to exist?

With history in mind, the question is relatively easy to answer. For a large part of the 20th century, Allegheny County was the most densely concentrated industrial center in the world. At one time it was said that there was more money on Fourth Avenue than there was on Wall Street. Tax revenue flowed like the Allegheny and the sky seemed to be the limit. If a few thousand people in a small area wanted to have their own local government, police department and school district, they could do it. In 1900 there were 40 local governments in the county; by 1950 that number had tripled!

The state has the responsibility to maintain major roads and bridges, but Allegheny County was always flush with cash and had enough to maintain its own roads. Thus, over 50 percent of the county-maintained roads in Pennsylvania are in Allegheny County. The city of Pittsburgh suffers from the same fate. The structure of a very large government that was created when money was no object has become an unmanageable burden. At that point in time, city government was seen as a "jobs provider" as well as a "service provider." As its citizens migrated to the suburbs during the last three decades, the problems of this large government have become more apparent with each passing administration.

Mayor Tom Murphy did not create this problem, it just happened to reach the "meltdown" stage with him at the helm. If one thinks that a few adjustments can be made to fix the current problems, one is not looking at the real issues. The outflow migration patterns that drained the city for the suburbs continues now beyond the city. Those same patterns threaten to drain the county, holding a similar fate for many municipalities in the not-too-distant future.

Taxes, Assessments and Taxes

A Post-Gazette reporter recently called me to discuss the high tax rates in my own municipality (Brentwood). It seems as though they are, on a per-capita scale, some of the highest in the county. He called me because my house has one of the highest assessments in the borough, about 3.5 times the average home. I joked back that I then paid the highest per-capita taxes in the county. He laughed and agreed. But then it's no laughing matter when I think of what I'd be paying if I lived in another county or even eastern Ohio, where many regional workers are now fleeing to escape the taxes.

So why are my taxes so high? For a municipality that is only about 1.5 square miles in size, with about 11,000 citizens, we have a police department, governmental offices and a well-equipped public works department. Add to this a school district with very impressive schools, but also one of the smallest enrollments in the county. All of this obviously costs a lot of money.

The last time I checked, the police department was in the vicinity of 60 percent of the municipal budget per year. Not that we don't get our money's worth, but a neighboring borough that is triple our size also has a police department. Its force is large enough to cover our borough. If we took half of the money that our police force costs and gave it to that borough, both governments could reduce taxes significantly with no degradation in public safety. Replicate this 100 times across the county and we would be looking at real savings.

Apply the same logical method to the largest taxing bodies -- the school districts -- and the efficiencies would be hard to calculate. Having our own school district for about 1,200 students is quaint, but I'd like to have a new Corvette, too. The problem is my bank book won't cooperate. It's time to take a similar view with local government and the schools.

The Perceived Obstacle

When I bring up the logic of consolidation to friends in government, they always agree, but simply state, "It'll never happen." The idea being floated now concerning a city-county merger may address the problems currently facing the city, but it doesn't address the rest of the county facing the same issues a decade from now. As the new higher property assessment numbers begin to circulate next year, a hue and cry will echo in the streets.

It is my sincere belief that taxpayers would be more than willing to look at municipal consolidation if it meant a 30 to 35 percent across-the-board reduction in their tax burden.

When I was a municipal councilman, I found that there were three things that citizens expected from their local government: pick up the trash, clean the snow off the streets and educate our children. Every 10 years or so when they have to call the fire or police, they expect a reasonable response time. Ask your neighbors if they can name more than one or two members of their local council. I would be surprised if they can.

I run into a number of folks in my borough who think that Tom Murphy is their mayor! One can speak to some great loyalty to local government or school districts, but the people who speak to it most are generally its employees. This current structure is one we simply can no longer afford.

The Solution

Allegheny County does not have to be stripped of all forms of local government and neighborhood identity to accomplish a more streamlined structure. Years ago when the borough of Carrick became part of the city, Carrick didn't disappear. There is still a Carrick Park and a Carrick High School. The same can hold true today.

I envision an Allegheny County with five township governments, each maintaining a level of the current local identities. The county as a whole could be renamed "Pittsburgh" and the county chief executive would take the position of mayor.

There would be three commissioners per township (part-time of course) and the County Council could be reduced to seven members, one per township and two at-large.

There would be five police departments, five school districts and five public works departments. The current city of Pittsburgh would be divided up. The school districts, which would align with the townships, would guarantee that the same quality of education be delivered to children in Duquesne as in Fox Chapel and Upper St. Clair.

The Allegheny County police department, which is the only such force in the state, should be phased out. It was only created by county commissioners of old to compete politically with the elected county sheriff and his force of deputies. The county criminal investigation branch would be transferred to the district attorney and specialty units could be given to the sheriff. Policing of the county parks would then be contracted to a township police force and airport security given to private firms at a greatly reduced cost.

Fire departments would be "all volunteer" organizations, as they currently are across the county, except in the city. The county could have a fire bureau to help coordinate the volunteer organizations. Garbage collection would simply be contracted out to private firms. None of this is rocket science, and its efficiencies are already well documented.

Implementation

Several things would be needed to make this new design a reality.

First, the Pennsylvania Economy League would have to quantify the savings to be gained through this redesign and consolidation of local governments.

Second, once the savings to be realized are qualified and understood, it would have to be voted on by the citizens of the county.

Three, special legislation would be required to allow for the dissolution of local governments and the consolidation of school districts. The process could be managed over a five-year period and would be managed by the county government. The coordination effort would be tremendous, especially with the school districts, but it could be managed.

I am convinced that the fiscal crisis currently facing the city awaits the remainder of the county.

I end with a famous statement made by Benjamin Franklin after the signing of the Declaration of Independence: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

We must make the necessary changes now or soon, one by one, each municipality will face a similar gloomy fate.



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