Bridgeville, Carnegie leaders question county's disincorporation proposal
While some towns nationwide dissolve for efficiency's sake, such a move might be a harder sell in Western Pennsylvania, local leaders say, where longtime residents are fiercely loyal to their small communities.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald supports an effort to broaden a municipality's ability to disincorporate and permit the county to provide services. Fitzgerald said he hopes to see proposal introduced in the state Legislature by the end of the year to create more options for residents, especially in communities where the tax base is dwindling but the demand for services is not.
“This is just another choice, another tool in the toolbox. This is not a forced takeover — this is not some big move from metropolitan government,” Fitzgerald said.
Some southwest suburban community leaders pointed out that pride and desire for control could make disincorporation a difficult choice for local voters.
“If they could figure out some way of keeping some representation, some feeling that the community is not being ripped apart and absorbed…people might support it,” Bridgeville Mayor Pasquale DeBlasio said.
A possible measure would allow communities — with voter approval — to dissolve. The former community would become part of county government, and the county would provide services to the area, with taxing powers.
A bipartisan panel of experts including former county executives Dan Onorato and Jim Roddey studied the issue which led to a report by the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics. Currently, 38 states have laws allowing communities to disincorporate, and since 2000, more than 130 towns have voluntarily dissolved, the report said.
The group began studying the issue last year — prompted, Fitzgerald said, by the knowledge that even as the tax base declines in some communities, the demand for services remains the same.
There are 130 municipalities in the county, more than any county in the state. Critics say having so many boroughs, townships and cities creates inefficiencies in providing services that waste taxpayer money. For example, each community traditionally has a borough building, and has to update infrastructure.
Carnegie Mayor Jack Kobistek said he'd like to talk with his constituents about the measure.
“The big question is what kind of service would I get from the county? Is the county the most efficient and best organization to serve these communities?” he said. “I'm not saying it's not, but government has a history of not being efficient, and not being responsive.”
He added: “I'm not criticizing but there would be a lot of questions on this.”
Carnegie — which endured a flood that destroyed much of its business district in 2004 — can balance its budget. However, the mayor adds, ”a lot of our big projects we have to pay for with credit.”
County council has not discussed the measure, which would require approval by the legislature. District 4 Councilman Pat Catena attended the May 11 news conference in which Fitzgerald, Onorato and Roddey presented the proposal.
“It would not take anything away from a small town. It's all 100 percent voluntary. It's just another tool in their toolbox,” said Catena, a former Carnegie Council president appointed in January to the county seat. “That a small municipality trying to balance a budget, it's very expensive and if you don't have the tax revenue to do that this may be something they want to look at.
“I would expect a significant cost savings for communities.”
But Heidelberg Council President Carrie Nolan says she would not support such a measure for her community, population about 1,200.
“If the community is sustainable, which Heidelberg is, then those citizens should be able to have a say in how their community is run,” she said via email. “This is just an attempt for government to get bigger. Your services would be greatly impacted. You would not have police presence and emergency services as you know it.”
Heidelberg Mayor Kenneth LaSota is similarly wary.
“I applaud it, but I don't see what it really saves,” he said.
LaSota pointed out that legions of volunteers and elected officials — paid a nominal sum — perform many of the administrative tasks necessary to operate a small community. Losing a town's identity, by extension, would mean the loss of longtime residents who served on bodies such as the zoning board, and who knew the area.
“I don't see how this really moves things forward,” he said. “It doesn't lower the tax rate and it doesn't give them local control.”
The measure could have merit for some communities, says Sal Sirabella, interim manager in Heidelberg. Sirabella is a former deputy mayor for the City of Pittsburgh who began a consulting business after retiring as manager of Collier Township last year.
“Personally, from a local government perspective, this would be a valuable tool for those elected officials who are struggling to govern their municipalities to simply provide safety and order for their residents,” said Sirabella, who pointed out he is not speaking for Heidelberg.
DeBlasio said he supports providing options to community leaders.
“The key word is ‘voluntary,'” he said.
This would be potentially another way to reduce bureaucracy, he said.
“Do I think this is a good idea? Yes,” DeBlasio said. “Do I think anyone will do it? Only if they are bankrupt and even then they would go kicking and screaming.”
“Even at that level, I am skeptical that residents would want to disincoporate,” he added.
Kimberly Palmiero is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.