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Suburbs wary of Pittsburgh's attempts to share public services

Bob Bauder
| Sunday, April 24, 2016, 11:05 p.m.
Pittsburgh firefighter Rob Shay gets into a pumper truck Friday, April 22, 2016. New stenciling on the truck added Ingram, which has agreed to pay Pittsburgh to provide fire protection for the next five years.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh firefighter Rob Shay gets into a pumper truck Friday, April 22, 2016. New stenciling on the truck added Ingram, which has agreed to pay Pittsburgh to provide fire protection for the next five years.

Pittsburgh officials said they want to provide more public services to neighboring municipalities, but some suburbs are not eager to strike a deal because of worries about ceding control.

“What I want to do right now is to build the trust to show these suburban municipalities that we're not interested in annexing them,” Mayor Bill Peduto said after a recent meeting of the Congress of Neighboring Communities, a University of Pittsburgh-based group that promotes municipal cooperation.

“We've had too many years of people talking about merging the city into the county, or merging the county into the city, that we lost the focus of how, if we work together, we can provide better services,” he said.

Pittsburgh began handling trash collection for Wilkinsburg in 2007 and took on the borough's fire protection services in 2011. Pittsburgh this month began providing fire protection in Ingram under a deal Pittsburgh City Council approved in December.

Suburban officials acknowledge the benefits of partnerships with the city, but say it's a tough sell to residents.

Ingram residents packed council meetings in opposition to the city taking over for its volunteer fire department of 25 active members. Ingram officials did not return phone calls.

“I think people are afraid of the big bad city,” said Kathy Coder, vice president of Belle-vue Council.

Bellevue, which borders Brighton Heights in Pittsburgh's North Side, is 1 square mile. It has a paid fire department and full-time police and public works departments. Together, they made up about 49 percent of Bellevue's $5.8 million budget for 2016.

Coder said it would make sense for the borough to share services with neighboring Avalon and Ben Avon, which have joint zoning ordinances, but conversations about merging departments have not progressed.

“Some people have the mentality that we need to keep our own services, but in the future, that's not going to work,” she said. “I think in order for us to thrive, we have to work together.”

Peduto said Pittsburgh and its first-ring neighbors could start by developing cooperative agreements for plowing snow and sharing administrative services, such as employee pension plan management.

The city, he said, is not actively marketing its public safety services but would consider offers from municipalities.

Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl Jones said firefighters began preparing to cover Ingram last year by driving through its streets. Pittsburgh's coverage will cost Ingram about $459,170 over five years.

Pittsburgh Station 31 on Chartiers Avenue in Sheraden will be the primary station responding to emergencies in Ingram, but three other stations and a battalion chief also will respond to structure fires, Jones said.

“That's the way it is all over the city, except for some of the high-density areas,” he said, “The first call, you get four engines and a truck and a battalion chief.”

Peduto said municipalities are reluctant to disband fire and police departments, but he hopes to share public works services such as snow plowing. It would be more efficient for city plow drivers to continue plowing while crossing municipal boundaries en route from one neighborhood to another, he said.

“It wouldn't take away from anyone's public works department,” Peduto said. “It would just create a more efficient way to do things.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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