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Councils of government continue collaboration, won't merge

| Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 4:51 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
State Sen. James Brewster, Twin Rivers COG director John Palyo and Elizabeth Township commissioners Joanne Beckowitz and Larry Vota inspect a municipal fueling station in the township last January that was paid for with funds obtained by the council. The visit occurred about two months after the township quit Twin Rivers and joined the South Hills Area COG.

Over the course of the last year, two local councils of government serving communities in the Mon Valley have seen their membership shrink.

Last November, Elizabeth Township pulled out of Twin Rivers COG and in July, West Mifflin voted to leave Steel Valley COG. The township changed over to the South Hills Area COG and it's likely West Mifflin will follow suit by the end of the year.

That leaves Twin Rivers with 12 member communities and Steel Valley with eight.

The moves impacted member communities.

At a meeting last week, West Elizabeth officials noted their annual membership dues in Steel Valley COG jumped from $460 in 2012 to $913 in 2013 because of West Mifflin's leaving.

The borough plans to pay the increase and Councilwoman Susan Pershing noted that even with the hike, membership is well worth the cost given the benefits the community — which has a population of about 518 — will receive through the joint purchasing power of the council.

But the discussion, combined with a report on blight issued last week by the Twin Rivers, Steel Valley and Turtle Creek Valley COGs, which together work as the Tri-COG Collaborative, opens the door to the question of whether it is time for members of that collaborative to form one single council.

For now, according to officials from all three councils, the answer seems to be “no.”

“There are not currently any initiatives going on with the intent of forming a single COG across our three geographic footprints,” said An Lewis , executive director of the Steel Valley council.

While the three councils have worked together effectively in targeting blight and on the East Region Tri-COG Advisory committee to Allegheny County 911, Lewis said she doesn't foresee any merger in the immediate future.

“Just because we're collaborating, that doesn't mean the next step is consolidation,” she said. “There are things that are lost when you get too big.”

The Tri-COG Collaborative represents 40 communities and reaches from Forward Township to Plum.

Turtle Creek Valley COG director Amanda Settlemaier said communities in that region have overlapping concerns but also have unique economic, geographic and cultural needs better addressed by smaller councils.

“We have 20 members and are self-sustaining,” Settlemaier explained. She said a collaborative makes sense to her but a merger does not.

In connection with the study that found blighted properties have negatively impacted the regional property values in a range between $218 million and $247 million, the Tri-COG Collaborative is looking at land banks and other ways to combat the problem.

The collaborative is working together under a $600,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant that pays for assessments of smaller brownfield areas.

The group is developing a shared conflict resolution policy that establishes a process for councils and their member communities to address differences.

“Nobody wants to lose a member,” said Twin Rivers COG director John Palyo. “You want to work together.”

While Palyo wouldn't rule out the possibility of mergers down the road, he said for now the answer is staying competitive as individual councils.

When a member community leaves, “There is an initial impact on your dues,” said Palyo. But he said councils do recover and noted that only 21 percent of the Twin Rivers COG budget comes from membership dues. He said Twin Rivers members responded unanimously to make up for the loss suffered when Elizabeth Township left last year, adding, “They understand the value of the services we provide to them.”

Members will get the most out of their COG if they stay on top of the opportunities it offers, Palyo said.

“It's important for your community, whether it's large or small, to stay active,” he said. “If you don't go to meetings, you're probably going to miss out on something.”

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1966, or

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