The Pace of Progress

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In the game of Monopoly, sometimes you land on Community Chest. If fate smiles, you draw a little yellow card that says “Advance to Go” or “Bank error in your favor,” and you collect $200. The worst card shows the mustachioed Monopoly man stooped over, carrying a pick and shovel with the words “You are assessed.”

If you’re not sitting on a pile of cash — and who does who plays the game well? — the card means crisis. It’s so odious and destructive that a common house rule is to take it out of the deck.

In Allegheny County, “You are assessed” so regularly that municipal and school officials don’t have to vote to raise taxes. As assessments keep rising, they simply keep millage rates the same and collect the windfall, while property owners struggle and newcomers are shocked by the high tax bills. Without millage reductions, accurate, market-​based assessments are a recipe sure to drive people out of Allegheny County.

County Executive Dan Onorato knows it. He inherited the assessment tar baby that helped sink his predecessor Jim Roddey. And when new assessments were announced last year, Onorato was determined not to let them stand. After initial obstacles, it appeared assessments might cloud his future too. Onorato, though, was undaunted. He forged a plan that got the approval of the iron duke, Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick, the bane of flawed assessment schemes. The result: assessments will remain at the base year of 2002.

Only the naïve or the pinheaded expect pristine perfection in politics. Onorato did what had to be done. No more back-​door tax increases by every taxing body in sight. Now, school boards will have to face their public if they want to raise taxes. Voters will reward Onorato, and that’s fine. A leader smart enough to make policy that benefits the county and himself has a bright future. County council followed suit, with Republicans and Democrats unanimously standing with Onorato. And that from a bunch of part-​timers who work other jobs and draw only $9,000 a year for their evening meetings and constituent calls.

Looking at county council, the Observer wonders: Is it time for city voters to take a lesson? Is it desirable to pay nine council members $53,000 a year plus fringes and a $77,000 budget for staff? How about $9,000 apiece and a shared staff for city council? Could the distressed city use the roughly $800,000 in annual savings?

But who would want to run for city council seats after such a change? The antique phrase “citizen legislators” comes to mind. Would a city council so constituted be more efficient? Would it pay more attention to performance and less to posturing? Would it be more or less likely to embrace more consolidation with the county? And would that make our region more competitive?

A little over a year ago, Markos Tambakeras, then CEO and now chairman of Kennametal, stood before city council discussing the creation of the new Schenley Plaza. He had taken a particular interest in transforming the gray parking lot into a green gathering space in the heart of the great university hub. After praising the joint efforts and support of many groups, including the state, Tambakeras sounded a friendly warning the council members: “In the time it has taken us to do this, Beijing has built three beltways around their city.” Next month, Schenley Plaza opens, some eight years after Meg Cheever of the Parks.

Douglas Heuck

A journalistic innovator, Heuck has been writing about Pittsburgh for 25 years, as an investigative reporter and business editor at The Pittsburgh Press and Post-​Gazette and as the founder of Pittsburgh Quarterly. His newspaper projects ranged from living on the streets disguised as a homeless man to penning the only comprehensive profile in the latter years of polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk to creating a statistical means of judging regional progress that has led to similar projects across the country. Heuck’s work has won numerous national, state and local writing awards. His work has been cited in the landmark media law case “Food Lion vs. ABC news.”

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