The Case for Consolidation
The governments of Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh – the two largest governments in our region – duplicate many departments and services, including parks, public works, human resources, computer services, emergency management and so forth. This redundancy of functions and services results in operational inefficiencies, public confusion and unnecessary costs.
However, there are significant examples of governmental cooperation, consolidations and mergers that have increased efficiency and reduced costs. Allegheny County provides public health and human services for all 130 municipalities, which has saved countless millions of dollars and resulted in quality service delivery. The County also oversees important regional transportation and education services through the Port Authority of Allegheny County, Allegheny County Airport Authority and Community College of Allegheny County.
One of my major priorities as county executive has been streamlining government and maximizing resources, and I have embraced opportunities to consolidate services and eliminate duplicate functions between Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh. During my tenure, we have made historic strides.
We merged five 911 call centers into a unified Allegheny County 911 system, which saves municipal governments $3.5 million annually. The City of Pittsburgh’s fingerprinting operation was collapsed into the county’s, and the Pittsburgh Municipal Court was merged with the county court system.
I led the charge to reduce the number of elected row offices from 10 to four. With voter approval, we consolidated the functions of the coroner, jury commission, prothonotary, clerk of courts, recorder of deeds and register of wills under the executive branch, which is saving taxpayers at least $1 million annually.
Based on these successes, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and I created the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on the Efficiency & Effectiveness of City-County Government and named University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg its chair in October 2006. The group was charged with recommending ways to further streamline government operations, but its scope was limited to the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. The 129 municipalities outside of Pittsburgh and the 43 school districts were not part of the committee’s discussions.
The group met on a twice-monthly basis, heard from more than 40 experts and visited the recently consolidated Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government in Kentucky. Perhaps more than any other item, the experience of Louisville and Jefferson County captured the committee’s attention and provided a template for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Jefferson County includes the City of Louisville and 83 other municipalities. For decades, various attempts at consolidating all of the governments into one floundered. However, in 2000, voters approved a measure to consolidate only the governments of Louisville and Jefferson County and to leave the other 83 municipalities untouched.
In 2003, the offices of the mayor and city council of Louisville and the county executive and county council of Jefferson County were abolished and replaced with a new metropolitan government with a single mayor and council. Overnight, Louisville went from being the 69th largest city in the U.S. to the 26th largest. At the same time, Jefferson County’s 83 other municipalities continued to operate as independent governments with separately elected councils.
To separate the legacy costs of Louisville and Jefferson County, as well as address the need for higher levels of policing, firefighting and other services in the urban core, Metro Louisville is divided into two “service districts.” The Urban Services District covers the footprint of the old City of Louisville, and the General Services District covers the remainder of Jefferson County.
Those residing in the Urban Services District have a tax rate to reflect the unique services required in the more densely populated urban core and to cover the legacy costs of the old city. Those residing in the suburban General Services District have another tax rate.
Chancellor Nordenberg and the committee commissioned a study by RAND Corporation to examine the benefits of city-county consolidation, especially in the case of Louisville and Jefferson County. The RAND report states that consolidation can improve efficiency in the delivery of services, eliminatefragmented governance and improve fiscal and social balance.
Other positive impacts of consolidation, especially when it comes to economic development, are unity of leadership, increased planning and development capacity, simpler regulatory procedures for businesses and reduced intergovernmental competition.
The study also points out that since consolidation in 2003, Metro Louisville has been ranked first in the nation in small business growth and first in the Southeastern U.S. in manufacturing job growth. Metro Louisville has also been named one of the 50 hottest cities for expansion.
After more than a year of discussion, deliberation and study, Nordenberg and the committee made the following three recommendations for Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh:
1. The county executive and mayor should further intensify existing efforts to achieve higher levels of efficiencyand effectiveness through functional cooperation.
2. The city and county should enter into a formal “cooperation compact,” both to ensure that efforts to partner inthe delivery of services are pursued most effectively in the short-term, and to ensure that such efforts remain a longer-term priority that also will be respected by successor administrations.
3. At the earliest appropriate time, the question of whether or not the governments of the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County should be consolidated, as a key step in forging unity of leadership and fostering higher levels of regional growth, should be placed before the voters.
The county and city administrations have fully embraced all three recommendations, and we are moving forward to implement them. In fact, during the time the committee was meeting, we continued our efforts to streamline operations and increase savings.
Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh signed a joint telecommunications agreement that will result in $6 million in savings during its three-year term. The county began providing bulk purchasing services to the city and other agencies, which is improving the efficiency of purchasing operations and resulting in significant savings for taxpayers.
We formed the Western Pennsylvania Energy Aggregation Program, an energy purchasing consortium that is open to hospitals, school districts, colleges, universities, public authorities, nonprofit organizations and private businesses throughout the region. As a result ofcombining electricity needs, the City, County, Sports & Exhibition Authority, Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority and Zoological Society of Pittsburgh will collectively save $1.4 million during the two-year contract. The consortium has also begun efforts to purchase natural gas.
The County and City are committed to pursuing joint ventures and partnering in the delivery of services in order to increase efficiency and reduce costs. In fact, we are working on a formal cooperation compact that may lead to the merging of functions such as emergency management, human resources, payroll services, public housing and vehicle fleets.
A ballot question regarding whether or not the governments of Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh should be consolidated will require enabling legislation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We will be meeting with legislators and the governor to discussthis issue and draft appropriate legislation. If Harrisburg agrees, the consolidation measure would also need the approval of the Allegheny County Council and Pittsburgh City Council before going to a vote of the people.
So what would consolidation mean for local residents? Following the Louisville model, only the governments of Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh would be consolidated. We would abolish the offices of county executive and mayor, as well as county council and city council, and replace them with a mayor and council of the “new” Pittsburgh, which would be elected by all voters in Allegheny County.
The “old” Pittsburgh’s legacy costs would be segregated from suburban areas — likely through the Urban Services District approach. All of the current duplicated departments of the city and county would be combined. Overnight, Pittsburgh would go from being the 56th largest city in America to eighth largest. We would have unified government that could set an aggressive agenda for economic development and compete as a top 10 city.
However, the other 129 municipalities, as well as the 43 school districts, would continue to exist and operate independently.
We have proven that it is possible to improve efficiency and reduce costs by eliminating duplicated functions and merging government services. I believe the future success of our region will be best served by consolidating the governmentsof Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh. Over the coming months, there will be ample opportunities to discuss and debate the merits of this approach.
I encourage everyone to read the report of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on the Efficiency & Effectiveness of City-County Government, which is available online at https://pittsburghquarterly.com
Dan Onorato is the Allegheny County executive.