County executive: Rich Fitzgerald has the right mix of experience
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It's been 12 years since Allegheny County voters faced a choice like this -- two candidates for county executive and neither one is the incumbent. That means the person who succeeds Dan Onorato, who decided not to run for a third term, will come to the job with fresh eyes and a desire to put his own stamp on the office.
Voters who are getting their information strictly from TV commercials must think the Nov. 8 election is a contest between Democrat Rich Fitzgerald, serial tax raiser and career politician, and Republican D. Raja, heartless businessman and jobs exporter. Both portrayals, however, are ludicrous.
The real message to be gleaned from all the personal, negative advertising is that the candidates generally agree on the major issues confronting the county. Where they differ is on experience and background.
D. Raja, 46, of Mt. Lebanon is the CEO of Computer Enterprises Inc., a software company in Scott with 300 employees. He left India in 1986, then became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He earned master's degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. After a job with Formtek, a Lockheed company in Sunnyvale, Calif., he returned to Allegheny County and founded CEI in 1992.
He was a Mt. Lebanon commissioner for three years, until he resigned last spring after winning the Republican nomination for county executive. He said his aim as a commissioner was to keep a lid on taxes and bring business principles to the municipal budget. In two interviews this year with Post-Gazette editors, he said he intends to do the same at the county level.
Mr. Fitzgerald, 52, of Squirrel Hill is also a businessman, though on a smaller scale. After receiving a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from CMU, he moved to Rockford, Ill., to work for NALCO Chemical Co. as a sales associate for chemical treatments of industrial boilers and cooling towers. In 1982, he returned to Pittsburgh and founded Aquanef, which provides water treatment services and equipment to more than 700 customers.
An advocate of the home rule charter that replaced the county's three-commissioner system with an executive and council, Mr. Fitzgerald was elected in 1999 to the first county council and served for 11 years, including seven as president. He bucked his party's old guard on another reform issue by pushing to eliminate six of the 10 county row offices, which had become symbols of waste and patronage.
A strong pledge of fiscal responsibility is the major area of overlap for the candidates, and this trait drives their positions on several key issues.
Both Mr. Raja and Mr. Fitzgerald oppose Allegheny County being forced by the state Supreme Court to perform a property reassessment while other counties are free to use outdated valuations. They both want to see state legislative action to make the assessment system uniform and they abhor the notion of raising property taxes.
Both candidates want to exploit the revenue potential of Marcellus Shale gas drilling on county lands, particularly around Pittsburgh International Airport. They profess to balance that desire with a concern for the environment and want to see all drilling done with effective, responsible oversight.
Both are concerned about the future of the Port Authority, criticize its reduced service and rising fares and believe its labor costs must be reined in. Mr. Raja would go further and seek approval for private competition on routes that have been cut; Mr. Fitzgerald wants to end redundancy with other county transit systems by regionalizing the authority.
Their sharpest policy difference is over the county's 7 percent poured alcoholic drink tax. Mr. Raja wants to abolish it, while Mr. Fitzgerald says its revenue, used to leverage state matching dollars for transit, is necessary to keep property taxes in check. When pressed on how he'd make up the lost revenue from the drink tax, about $27 million a year, Mr. Raja says he'll find economies at the jail, the Kane nursing centers, public works and other areas. But the next executive is going to have to find savings in those areas just to balance the county budget, let alone cover the elimination of a tax.
Mr. Raja's position on this issue is illustrative, we fear, of his general approach to the job. He makes costly promises (an end to the drink tax, reduced property taxes, lower car rental and hotel taxes, etc.) but fails to convince us he can pay for them. Although a corporate CEO can operate by decree and deal with the fallout later, a Republican county executive who would be joined at the hip with a mostly Democratic council must be politically astute, nimble in the art of the deal and able to hold office without tripping over his learning curve. Mr. Raja is intelligent and engaging, but we're not sure he is well-suited to Allegheny County's political pressure cooker.
We have no such reservations about Rich Fitzgerald. On county council, he's endured budget battles, tax fights, pressure from special interests and calls from constituents. As someone who's had to make a living in the meantime (council members get a stipend, not a salary), Mr. Fitzgerald lives life in the private sector and believes that government must enhance, not inhibit, the county's quality of life.
The votes he has taken and the record he has compiled -- sometimes in opposition to his party's leadership -- attest to Rich Fitzgerald's experience in this arena. That's knowledge his opponent will take months, maybe years, to acquire.
Allegheny County can't afford on-the-job training. That's why the Post-Gazette endorses Rich Fitzgerald.
First Published October 30, 2011 12:00 am