Sunday Forum: Redefine Pittsburgh

Duquesne University Chancellor JOHN E. MURRAY JR. says it is time for another fundamental change in local government -- the merging of city and county functions.

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In 1995, Allegheny County Commissioners Tom Foerster and Pete Flaherty asked me to lead a study of county government which they knew was structurally inefficient.

Tom Foerster, especially, had spent much of his career living with the obstacles and gridlock of a three-commissioner system. He was eager to see a more effective structure for the 21st century. Neither he nor Pete Flaherty attempted to influence the work of the Committee to Prepare Allegheny County for the 21st Century.

A year later, the committee, known as ComPAC 21, issued a report containing recommendations that included a single chief executive; an unsalaried County Council that would, for the first time, represent all segments of the county; and the elimination of a number of row offices. Our recommendations were based on careful studies of other economically successful counties throughout the country and the need for a more effective and efficient county government structure.

Every current or former Allegheny County commissioner eventually supported these recommendations, which became law after a referendum passed, but it passed by only the slimmest margin.

The public statements of the organized opposition emphasized the fear of changing a 200-year-old tradition, but their real motivation was different. They had another kind of fear -- the fear of losing political power and the sinecures that power can provide.

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger image.

John E. Murray Jr., the former chairman of ComPAC 21 and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, is chancellor and professor of law at Duquesne University (murray@duq.edu).


It is now time to consider another structural change. A city with a population exceeding 600,000 citizens constituting the majority of people living in the county is a distant memory. Only half that number now reside in the city. The rest of the 1.2 million people in Allegheny County live outside the city, which no longer dominates the business activity of the county.

Moreover, competition among places to live and work in the United States is no longer among cities or even counties. Competition for new businesses, population, jobs, overall economic development and the quality of life is regional.

Last April, "Pittsburgh" reclaimed the country's "most livable city" title, but the "Pittsburgh" that achieved this well-deserved honor was not the city alone; it was the seven-county "metropolitan" area of southwestern Pennsylvania. When asked where they are from, it is not uncommon for the people living in this region to say "Pittsburgh."

With a residential tax base of only half of the population that must now carry the bulk of the burden, the city can no longer sustain the government structures of the past. The stark reality of imminent bankruptcy required the appointment of two oversight boards.

Oversight boards can assist the city to be more efficient and to avoid bankruptcy in the short run as a recent announcement suggests, but they have no magic remedy for a billion-dollar long-range debt. Nor can they suggest a plan that otherwise assures the financial viability of the city in perpetuity. Gambling revenues are a palliative at best. City officials have nothing more to tax and additional major help from the commonwealth is unrealistic. If an entity cannot be sustained, a realistic alternative must be pursued.

The city and the county continue to have departments performing the same functions. There have been studies, committees and discussions about merging these functions for decades. Both oversight committees insisted on economies from such merged functions in the plans they approved for the city to avoid bankruptcy.

One of the obvious duplicated functions is purchasing. The purchasing departments were supposed to be merged years ago. There is only one reason why the city and county continue to have separate departments pursuing similar functions. They have a vested interest in maintaining the political power these and other departments represent.

It is one thing to hope for cooperation between the leaders of the United States and the leaders of Iran or North Korea, but it is pathetic that local citizens are reduced to a mere hope that their own elected officials might discover a way to cooperate in the interest of the citizens they represent.

On Oct. 19, 2006, city and county leaders announced the creation of an advisory committee to study these issues. The mayor was quoted as saying, "A year from now, when you ask the question, 'Should the city merge with the county,' we'll have the answers." It is important to consider what these "answers" should not include.

The purpose of these studies is not to assure lifetime employment opportunities with the city or the county. They are designed to foster genuine economic growth that will provide many more employment opportunities in the private sector for citizens, including former city and county workers. The recommendations should look to effecting a sufficient population and tax base that will be capable of supporting an efficient and effective government structure in perpetuity for the continuous enhancement of the quality of life.

It is clear that the current situation is no longer viable. The future does not belong to vested interests who resist change for fear of losing political power. The future belongs to those who recognize societal changes that have already occurred and the critical need to adapt government structures to these changes for the benefit of the citizens they serve. Our future awaits the "answers" the mayor promised to be delivered by Oct. 19, 2007.

When the ComPAC 21 plan was unveiled in the mid-'90s, some citizens who strongly favored the recommendations often despaired over its chances of being approved by the voters. They suggested that the committee was politically naive. "After all," they said, "this is Allegheny County where politics reign supreme."

That experience, however, proved that while major change is politically difficult, it is still possible in Allegheny County. After all, this is not only Allegheny County, this is southwestern Pennsylvania. This is "most livable Pittsburgh."



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