Forum: Why regionalism is so hard

The proponents preach to the converted. The opponents have inertia on their side. CHRISTOPHER BRIEM looks for a way to make the twain meet

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City-county consolidation, regionalism, metropolitanism -- whatever you call it, the debate over local government structure is a century-old issue in the region. At the heart of the issue is the question of whether local governments can, or indeed should, work toward consolidation.

   Christopher Briem is a regional economist at the University Center for Social and Urban Research, University of Pittsburgh (cbriem@pitt.edu).  

How can an idea that seems like such a good one to some cause such unmitigated apoplexy in others?

Each side argues one side so stridently, neither seems able to even understand the other. The end result is that the region remains in stasis, not far removed from where it was a century ago. Seeking some common ground is essential if the most basic problems in the region are ever going to be solved.

Most public discourse on regionalism consists of preaching to the choir. Public forums on regionalism are aimed at those who already support government consolidation. Opponents of government consolidation likewise rarely attempt to address the arguments of those advocating regionalism, sticking mostly to a simple mantra that bigger government is bad always and everywhere. Neither argument means much to local citizens who no longer have a municipal police officer to call upon when in distress.

Proponents of regionalism need to understand some of the deep-seated antipathy toward government consolidation.

Fifty years ago, Harold Pike, the manager of Cheltenham Borough outside Philadelphia, was in town for a conference of local government officials. In an interview with The Pittsburgh Press, he proffered some timeless wisdom at a time when migration out of the city into the suburbs was still an emerging phenomenon. He explained that new suburbanites delight in having direct access to top officials.

"In big cities there are too many people in front of the mayor," he said, "but in townships all folks need to do is phone you." Many vote with their feet to live where they have direct influence over local government. They will not surrender that power unless they are given tangible incentives to do so.

Those who oppose consolidation need to offer some constructive advice on how to deal with the region's growing number of distressed communities. Many local boroughs and townships have already declined past the tipping point to where they can't provide minimal public services.

The recently elected mayor of Braddock, John Fetterman, is on record bemoaning how hard it is to get neighboring municipalities to even provide backup to the borough's police force, a common practice across the region. To just defend the status quo by opposing all attempts to restructure local governments will eventually have disastrous public safety consequences.

Once you look beyond Allegheny County or the metropolitan region, selling regionalism becomes much more difficult. Across much of the state the topic of merging governments amounts to collectivism. Public opinion in the vast Pennsylvania "T" is crucial even for local reform. Without assuaging the fears of large government across the state, getting Harrisburg to pass the enabling legislation needed for most reform is a non-starter. Any progress at reforming government can only begin with broad political consensus.

By overreaching, many efforts to promote regionalism have only worked against that goal. If the effort to implement a metropolitan sales tax as part of the Regional Renaissance Initiative in 1997 had been successful, it would have been a radical change in local government structure. In Harrisburg, the legislation needed to put the RRI referendum on the ballot passed both houses of the Pennsylvania General Assembly with minimal opposition and had broad support among local leaders. In the end, the referendum failed in each and every county where it was introduced, in some cases by margins reaching an inconceivable 65 percentage points. To describe the result as a disconnect would be charitable.

Successful regionalism will have to come from grass-roots efforts among municipalities to work together, not a top-down mandate to change. Toward that end, efforts are best focused on devising systematic incentives to encourage cooperation. Local Councils of Governments could be re-empowered. State and county expenditures could be targeted to reward municipalities that work together. Even simple steps to reform and standardize municipal pensions could facilitate cooperation.

Today, there are over 4,000 municipal pension plans in operation across the state. Even where municipalities want to consolidate services, they can be thwarted by the financial challenges caused by incompatible pay and pension systems. If municipalities themselves choose cooperation or merger, there can be little political opposition to letting them do so.

At a theoretical level, the debate at hand is between municipal self-determination and economies of scale in the delivery of public services. That academic debate is not going to be solved quickly if ever. Many communities in Pennsylvania can't wait any longer.

Former County Controller Frank Lucchino once pushed the idea of voluntary disincorporation as a means toward reforming government. The de facto disincorporation of our region's municipalities has already begun.



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