Hold That Thought — Now’s the Time to Act

Government consolidation with Mark Desantis and James C. Roddey
Rate this item
(0 votes)

Things do not change; we change.” — Henry David Thoreau

Soon you will be asked to choose the purpose, shape, size and basic character of your local government. Fellow citizens are organizing now to ask you whether to reorganize the many layers and types of local government that have defined Allegheny County for almost 250 years. The changes are not yet clear, but it is likely that, if successful, our collective local governments will look nothing like they do now. Is such broad and sweeping change possible? Yes. Is it probable? Don’t know.

There are also glimpses of an opposition forming to this change. In America, it is a sure bet that when opposing citizens groups organize spontaneously, something very important is at stake. The issue is government consolidation.

Your first reaction to the prospect of any change in local government is likely a resounding, “Hell yes!” After all, bad local government is as much a fact of life in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania as gravity and the sun rising. And anything that alters this mess must be right and good, correct?

Consider withholding visceral reactions, however, until you know who will do the consolidation, how it will be done, what will (and won’t) get consolidated, when this is all supposed to happen, and, most important, why you should care. And before you get these answers, ask devilish questions such as why this plan and not some other? Who created it? Most important of all, what implicit assumptions are buried deep within? After all, every plan ever created has unarticulated assumptions. Maybe we can find a few before the contest begins in full.

The consolidation question deserves a level of effort and sophisticated thinking at least equal to what you used when you bought your first house. Remember the unfamiliar terminology and complex factoids you had to learn before you could even begin to ask informed questions? And even with all of your best efforts — with all due respect to the claims of the seller — you still needed a lot of independent third-​party validation to find out if those claims were really true or, at the very least, not blatantly false. We have our work cut out for us.

An infinite variety of consolidation plans are possible. However, experience across North America in recent decades suggests any proposed plan will fall within a continuum of two extremes. At one end is a complete fusion of all or almost all Allegheny County local governments into one giant “Pittsburgh Metroplex” government. Despite its size, Metroplex would be far simpler to comprehend in form and function than what exists now. However, it would also be very hard to bring about and would come with a big downside.

With our theoretical Metroplex, the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County would lose their respective current identities and become one government. That means, among other things, that the roughly 6,000 county employees would join the approximately 4,000 city employees to create a local government of more or less 10,000 employees (advocates will say fewer employees while opponents will say more). No more city and county councils, no more county and city police, and so on down the line.

The Metroplex would also absorb the political and administrative identities of some, most, or possibly all of the 130 local governments in the county, thus adding at least several hundred more local government employees to our already large Metroplex. In fact, when complete, Metroplex would become one of the largest freestanding governments in the United States, exceeding a number of state government bureaucracies.

At the other end of our continuum is a scheme far more complex in form and function than Metroplex. Though the opposite of the Metroplex is probably easier to bring about, it too comes with a major downside. In our alternative and hypothetical “Pittsburgh Alliance of Governments” some, most, or all local governments would remain intact as separate entities but would be joined through a series of interlocking contractual agreements. These legally binding agreements would, among other things, compel all parties to base all major decisions solely on efficiency and effectiveness criteria and work together in a coordinated way.

A rudimentary version of our Alliance exists now and is called the Council of Governments. The Councils have tried some joint purchasing and service provision. In our Alliance, however, city, county and municipal police departments might retain their identities and jurisdictions, but most or all of their administrative functions (purchasing, HR, etc.) might be performed by one entity. And this is just for starters. In the extreme, every government service that is provided now would be assessed for a “contractual consolidation.”

The U.S. military initiated a similar contract-​based consolidation shortly after World War II when the Department of Defense replaced the War Department. The Defense Department was organized to allow the Marines, Navy, Army and (later) Air Force to retain their identities while also bringing about a massive consolidation in key administrative functions (i.e., general management, procurement, contracting, and personnel) with the goals of cost reduction and increased coordination.

There is little chance you will ever see either extreme form of consolidation at the ballot box, however. Nevertheless, we have a window into why and how any consolidation will and, maybe, won’t work. Yet there is still more to consider.

For instance, the ominous-​sounding Metroplex only works when brought forth as a complete redesign of local government — a clean sheet of paper. With it we could obliterate in one stroke the unnecessary and silly duplication endemic to this region. We could subject every government service to a rigorous filter of rational and thoughtful administration and management. We could even contemplate whole new countywide services, impossible today because of jurisdictional boundaries and just plain petty political bickering.

However, there is one big problem with our Metroplex: it is big government. Bureaucracies create distance between those doing the work of government and those served by government. And bigger bureaucracies mean greater gaps. As inefficient as hundreds of borough managers seem on paper there are a lot fewer places to hide from the taxpayer in a government of 10,000.

Our innocent-​sounding Alliance confronts the limitation of Metroplex, but it too comes with problems. One of the realities of a contractual consolidation like our Alliance is that even though it may be easier to implement than the Metroplex, it is going to be much, much harder to manage. The Defense Department’s consolidation is still under way 60 years later with no obvious end in sight.

On the one hand, consolidators can be heartened by the recent referendum to absorb and consolidate the county row offices (three-​fourths of the citizens voted for it). On the other hand, the initial advantage in the ensuing consolidation battle will lie with the opponents of change. Niccoló Machiavelli captured this challenge when he advised his Prince nearly five centuries ago, “… nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Our experiment in thought, however, ignores the crude realities of politics, government and human nature. First, no one willingly gives up power. Can you imagine the hundreds of local elected and appointed officials embracing the loss of their job (and status)?

Second, there is no historic precedent for undertaking a government reformation on the scale implied by just about any kind of meaningful local government change. Is a region profoundly in debt, losing population and burdened by a perennially anemic economy capable of performing such an intricate and complex task as government consolidation? The will may be there — in part because of these difficulties — but are the means?

Last, any consolidation will change the local political battlefield in a way so extreme that it is impossible to predict which politicians and their allies will win or lose over the long term. Will a fear of the unknown drive our politicians to compromises so cumbersome and just plain stupid as to sink the consolidation vessel before it leaves the harbor?

You should, must, and likely will give the consolidation question all the hard thinking you can give it. And yet it requires even more than intense reflection. It demands each of us engage in an old-​fashioned running debate — not by few self-​appointed experts in a dais in a stuffy hotel ballroom symposium — but by you and me across our kitchen tables, neighborhood bars, office conference tables and car pools until we are satisfied we made an informed choice.

This is the essence of making hard-​choices and those choices will determine whether you will soon live in the City of Pittsburgh, Bethel Park, Shaler Township, or some place none of us ever heard of (yet).

Now’s the time to act — by James C. Roddey

For what seems like an eternity, consolidation, metropolitan government and municipal mergers have been studied, analyzed, praised, cussed and discussed. Proponents claim consolidation will increase efficiency, save money and reduce duplication. Opponents warn that the surviving governments will be too large and powerful, disenfranchising citizens by removing close contact with their public officials.

What if we could devise a system that would capture the purported benefits and avoid the predicted deficiencies?

First, though, why should we change the current government structure at all? As it is, we can boast of a diverse economy, low cost of living, beautiful skyline and vistas, the best airport in North America, a fresh water supply that can be doubled in capacity, a low crime rate, leadership in green building development, a vibrant cultural district, 14,000 acres of parks (10 times the national average), 35 colleges and universities, world-​class healthcare, affordable housing, a strong and active foundation community, professional sports teams, new stadiums, abundant recreation and an area rich in heritage and historical sites.

The problem is that, despite these attributes, the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and most of the region continue to lose population. While the city has a short-​term budget reprieve, it has no solution for its staggering debt obligation, estimated to be about $2 billion — the highest per capita in the United States. It’s likely that predictions of future budget surpluses are based on phantom revenues with no plan to reduce debt. The fact is that our governments and schools are too expensive and inefficient, with many of them choking with debt. By having too many governments, we’re wasting millions a year. That’s something we simply can no longer afford if we intend to be a viable, vibrant region.

To do nothing and expect a different outcome is tantamount to capitulation. And government consolidation won’t solve all of our problems. In order to truly get good government and be globally competitive, we should do much more: downsize the legislature, impose term limits, eliminate future pensions and lifetime benefits for legislators, limit “days in session,” enact tort reform, lower business and property taxes, repeal laws with excessive protections for labor unions and curtail government subsidies for business.

Nevertheless, anything we can do locally to signal that “enough is enough” and that we are serious about more efficient government will be an important step toward bringing fiscal sanity and reform to this region and this state.

We should consider consolidation on two levels. First is combining similar departments in the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County in order to lower cost, improve services and create efficiencies. Second is consolidating municipalities in Allegheny County to reduce the number of governments, which stands at 130 — the most of any county in the United States.

The time is right to devise a plan that will preserve close constituent contact, improve service and reduce cost. University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg is chairing a study of city/​county government consolidation. There is no person more capable or more committed to the success of the region. In addition, County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl have publicly said that they will make a through and objective evaluation of how consolidation can be achieved. I believe both of these gentlemen are sincere.

In order to realize the greatest benefit from city/​county consolidation, we must change the structure of city government and amend the city home rule charter. Here are my suggestions:

1. Seven members of council should be elected by district and two at-​large, each from different political parties. I believe that, if there were an opportunity for a Republican to be elected in the city, perhaps Republicans would be empowered to vote in city elections. By retaining nine City Council members, we preserve a greater opportunity for African American candidates to be elected. Also, keeping City Council at its current number should minimize the concern that city citizens will be disenfranchised by consolidation.

2. City Council members should be paid the same as County Council members — $9,000 a year. There should be no City Council pensions, and members should share staff. These same conditions have served the county well and by every standard County Council compares favorably with City Council. City Council members currently earn $55,000 per year plus generous benefits and each has an average of two staff members. In addition, the City Clerks’ office, which has a budget of $560,000, could be eliminated.

3. With the exception of police, fire, EMS and garbage collection, every city department and service should be evaluated for possible privatization or transfer to the county under contract with the city. City taxes would be used to pay for such contracted services so that the suburban municipalities of the county are not asked to “bail out the city.” The county would not assume city debt. The “at large” candidate who receives the highest number of votes would become president of City Council and that office would be the highest elected position in the city. The City Council would then hire a professional city manager to prepare the annual budget, administer contracts and supervise the remaining city services. Municipal systems run by professional managers have proven to be much more effective and efficient than those managed by politicians.

4. With the exception of Housing and Parking, all authorities currently controlled or co-​controlled in the city with the county, would become county authorities. The city Urban Redevelopment Authority would be merged with the county Department of Economic Development. The parking authority should be privatized and the parking tax reduced from its present 50 percent to 25 percent. This resolution should make the city more competitive for both retail shopping and commercial offices, and although city revenues from the parking would be reduced, the increase in sales taxes and income taxes should offset that loss.

The county charter should also be amended. We should change the title of County Chief Executive to: “Mayor of Greater Pittsburgh,” which would better represent the new structure and creates one political voice for the region similar to Philadelphia. (Dan Onorato has suggested that this change would simplify efforts to attract companies and jobs to the region.)

All savings from such arrangements would be dedicated to reducing debt and/​or lowering taxes.

Consolidation of services between the city and county will require dedicated leadership from both governments. I believe that Dan Onorato has the political capital, earned by his performance as chief executive, to accomplish much, if not all, of this suggested agenda. Whoever wins the position of mayor of Pittsburgh and has the will to use his/​her influence for change and reform could be a powerful partner. Working together the county executive and the mayor could position the region to compete successfully for jobs and growth. That would be a result that I was not able to accomplish by trying to work with former Mayor Tom Murphy.

That’s the easy part. Now for the bigger challenge of reducing the 130 cities, boroughs and townships in the county into a more manageable and efficient number. A recent report released by the State Planning Board has documented that many municipalities can no longer afford to provide adequate services and maintain infrastructure because of loss of population and tax base. How might we aid those communities and at the same time reduce the ridiculous number of Allegheny County municipalities?

Allegheny County has 42 school districts. Philadelphia has one. Maryland has one per county. The national average for counties our size is three. Forty-​two is too many but not as bad as 130 municipalities. An imperfect but much improved structure would be to merge every municipal government into its school district. After all, the schools are the 800-​pound taxing gorilla — over 70 percent of all property taxes are levied by school districts. And the local governments already have a relationship with the districts. We would reduce municipalities from 130 to 42, save money and dramatically improve efficiency. (See consolidation chart, above.)

Surely 42 separate and sovereign local governments are enough to provide a close relationship with constituents. That’s less than 30,000 people per municipality. Fifteen municipalities would not be affected at all since they currently share the same boundaries as the school district. While these suggestions may not be perfect, they represent plans that can be honestly debated, refined or expanded. I believe the result of implementing these ideas will be so positive that the arguments against consolidation will pale before the benefits.

We should get moving quickly. Those metro areas with whom we compete are not putting their economies on hold while we try to get our act together. As we prepare to celebrate our 250th year, let’s put ourselves in a position to announce the birth of a new region that is ready and capable of taking advantage of all of our positive resources, a region with a new attitude and a new future!

Mark DeSantis

Mark is a management consultant and entrepreneur who lives Downtown. He is also an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Mark spent 15 years in and out of government service in Washington, D.C., before moving to Pittsburgh.

Explore Related Stories:

Close Window Welcome to Pittsburgh Quarterly
Keep up with the latest

Sign up for our Newsletter, Pittsburgh Quarterly This Week.

We’ll keep in touch, but only when we think there’s something worth sharing. To receive exclusive Pittsburgh Quarterly news and stories, please fill out the form below. Be sure to check your email for a link to confirm your subscription!

View past newsletters here.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up for our newsletter to receive award-​winning journalism in your inbox.

Please let us know your name.
Invalid Input
Please let us know your email address.
Invalid Input