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Disbanding might be tough sell to Allegheny County municipalities

| Thursday, May 11, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey (middle left) current county Executive Rich Fitzgerald (middle) and former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato (middle right) along with other county officials present a proposal that would let municipalities to disincorporate at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, on Thursday, May 11, 2017.

Local pride loomed large as some of Allegheny County's municipalities expressed reservations Thursday about a proposal that would allow them to disincorporate and rely on the county to provide government services.

Greg Jakub, the mayor of Wilmerding, which last year contracted with the county for police coverage, said he is proud of the job the borough does plowing roads in the winter.

Springdale Mayor Ken Lloyd said he had concerns about “turning the reins over to county government.”

John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, said it's his borough identity and independence that has allowed the gutted steel town to improve.

“I think we have a lot to be proud of,” Fetterman said. Braddock has been under state financial oversight since 1988. “I certainly would not want to cut that story short.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald joined his two predecessors Thursday to introduce a report that he said is the first step toward passing a state law that would allow municipalities to disincorporate, if voters approve, and rely on the county for government services such as policing and public works.

Fitzgerald and former county Executives Dan Onorato and Jim Roddey said the option to disincorporate would be available to all 130 municipalities in the county, but it could especially benefit the county's smallest and most financially distressed.

The county would benefit from the proposal because it has so many municipalities — more than any other in the country aside from Cook County, Ill., — that vary greatly in population and economic bases, said former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who worked on the report.

The county's largest city, Pittsburgh, has more than 300,000 residents, while the smallest has just 63, Nordenberg said, likely referring to Haysville. Forty have fewer than 2,000 residents.

Critics say having so many boroughs, townships and cities creates redundancies that waste taxpayer money. Proponents contend that local control allows voters to deal easily with elected officials and local government employees to fix potholes, change laws and allocate taxes.

“We have communities that can't get anyone to run for mayor, can't get anyone to run for city council,” Roddey said. “They're just too small and too poor to have those options.”

The report, funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, found Pennsylvania is one of only 12 states that does not already allow municipalities to turn control over to county governments.

Fitzgerald said he hopes to see a bill introduced in the state Legislature by the end of the year. The trio and Nordenberg visited Harrisburg this week to discuss the proposal with state lawmakers, who were supportive, Fitzgerald said.

Under the plan, an unincorporated area “would become an entity of the county” and the county executive and county council would have the ability to “perform any function in the governing and administration of the area.”

It would also give the county taxing powers.

Fitzgerald said he would not anticipate local taxes to increase for residents of municipalities that vote to disincorporate.

“They would be slightly lower I'd guess,” Fitzgerald said. “Why would a community want to do it if it doesn't improve their tax situation and service situation?”

Disincorporating would not affect school districts, volunteer fire departments or water authorities, Roddey said.

The vote would first come to the elected body of the municipality regarding whether to place a referendum on a ballot for voters to decide whether they want to disincorporate, Fitzgerald said.

If the referendum showed more than half wanted to disincorporate, the details would be set and the measure would go to county council for final approval.

Any municipal debts would continue to be the responsibility of the taxpayers of the former municipality, according to the proposal.

Currently, under Act 47, financially distressed municipalities can apply to the state to disincorporate, but the proposed legislation would allow any municipality in the county to disincorporate. Pittsburgh, Duquesne, Braddock and Rankin are under state financial oversight in Allegheny County.

Municipal officials react

Officials have been discussing the idea with municipal leaders, and many are interested, Fitzgerald said. He declined to identify them.

Elected officials in Tarentum, Wilmerding, Braddock, Duquesne, Springdale and Fawn contacted Thursday by the Trib said they had not heard about the proposal.

Tarentum Mayor Carl Magnetta strongly opposed the idea.

“No way would I ever even think of going with Allegheny County,” Magnetta said. “We control what we do and we can do. You're not going to get anything from Allegheny County.”

Magnetta said the county isn't repairing roads now and should be doing more to address the landslide on Bakerstown Road.

Magnetta said his residents know him and their council members.

“Who is going to come up from Allegheny County and take care of some of these little problems?” Magnetta said.

Fetterman, the Braddock mayor, and Lloyd, the Springdale mayor, also said they do not think disincorporation would be a good fit for their communities.

“We're going to be in a position to work our way out of it. We're heading in the right direction,” Fetterman said of Braddock and Act 47.

Fetterman said he supports municipalities having the option to disincorporate and join the county if it's best for them. He likened it to parents telling their children that they can move back home if they need to.

Tina Doose, president of Braddock's borough council, said dissolving Braddock has not come up in community discussions. She expected Braddock to look to its neighboring communities for consolidation before joining the county. Braddock already shares a public works department with Rankin.

Jakub, the Wilmerding mayor, and Duquesne Mayor Phillip Krivacek both said they didn't want to comment until they read the proposal.

The idea of disincorporating hasn't come up in Wilmerding, even as it searched for a municipality to partner with for a police department last year, Jakub said.

A proposal to regionalize fire departments years ago failed, Jakub said.

“No one wanted to give up their autonomy, so that didn't go through,” Jakub said of the firefighter measure.

Wilmerding contracted with county police last year, agreeing to pay the county $250,000 the first year and increases of 3 percent the following years plus a portion of fines and fees. County officials said at the time that Wilmerding's payments could fall $70,000 to $80,000 short of covering the full cost of policing the borough.

Jakub said the contract with the county has been “awesome.”

“We have a lot of pride in our community,” Jakub said. “Our roads, in the winter — and I can say this because I work on Baum Boulevard — our roads are better than at least 70 percent of the city roads.”

To address the concern of a loss of identity, Fitzgerald offered the example of Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

“Think about Brookline or Bloomfield,” Fitzgerald said. “They don't have a mayor but they have an identity. They have a Little League, they have churches, a main business district, community groups. The same thing will exist in any of these municipalities. They'll still have everything that makes them special.”

Emily Balser and Madasyn Czebiniak contributed. Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, tclift@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tclift.

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