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Suburbs CONNECT for greater clout in lobbying state

Jeremy Boren
| Thursday, June 17, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

A University of Pittsburgh nonprofit is seeking to harness the collective political clout and buying power of Pittsburgh and the 35 towns that border it.

The Congress of Neighboring Communities -- known as Connect -- will hold its second annual "municipal meet-up" Friday in Oakland to talk about common problems that include paying public safety expenses, upgrading failing sewers, collecting back taxes, trimming utility costs and expanding public transportation.

"If anything, Connect has demonstrated that these communities have more things in common than they have things that separate them," said David Miller, director of The Innovation Clinic, part of Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

Miller, a finance director under former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, doesn't like to use the term "suburbs" when referring to Pittsburgh's next-door neighbors.

He refers to them as "also-urbs." Beyond them are Pittsburgh's "true suburbs," such as Upper St. Clair, Moon, McCandless and Plum.

"(Also-urbs) become the intermediary institutions that exist between the center city and the true suburbs," said Miller, who established Connect and runs it with five Pitt grad students and two coordinators. Nine charitable foundations support the program financially.

Miller believes it makes "far better" sense for suburbs such as Upper St. Clair to discuss urban interests with also-urbs such as Mt. Lebanon than with Pittsburgh.

One of the program's major successes so far has been to establish a network of "expeditors," public officials in each member municipality who can quickly answer questions, advise or collaborate with other members.

Doug Sample, manager of Crafton, said he's in the early stages of banding with some of his neighbors to swap the borough's inefficient streetlights for long-lasting, energy-efficient LED bulbs. The move could cut Crafton's annual $100,000 streetlight costs by 20 percent, he said.

Last month, he discussed his plans with Jim Sloss, Pittsburgh's utilities and energy manager, and Lindsay Baxter, the city's sustainability coordinator. They shared how the city is testing LED lights in South Side streetlights. Both Sloss and Baxter are Connect representatives.

"It has opened up lines of communication with not only the city of Pittsburgh but our other neighbors," Sample said. "We have contact people with these people, which we didn't have before."

Mary Ellen Ramage, manager of Etna, said Connect could create a louder, more persuasive voice in the state Legislature on behalf of the borough's 3,900 people.

"If you add together all the people who truly make up the urban core, you have a lot more power behind you," she said.

That could be particularly helpful in competing against Philadelphia for shrinking state resources, Ramage said. Etna also has benefited from joint purchasing. The borough is buying a new police cruiser by piggybacking on an Allegheny County contract.

It's a strength-in-numbers approach that Connect touts to its members, who include Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the group's chairman.

Connect's 36 community members, including Pittsburgh, account for 680,000 of Allegheny County's 1.2 million people; 14 of 15 County Council members; 17 of 23 state House and five of eight Senate districts; and 67 percent of the county's jobs.

Distrust and years of poor communication have prevented some of Pittsburgh's neighbors from exchanging ideas to improve efficiency or save money.

"You would call the city and not get a response," said Tim Rogers, manager of Shaler.

Rogers said one recurring problem is income tax collection. Occasionally, a city-based employer will submit a Shaler resident's income tax to the city instead of the township. Correcting the problem through the city's Finance Department is difficult but easy when the same mistake occurs with other municipalities.

A change in state law that takes effect in two years is expected to eliminate the problem.

Connect is next planning to tackle how insurance companies reimburse municipal ambulance services, Rogers said. The goal is to ensure that all patients pay. Some slip through the cracks now, passing the bill onto taxpayers.

"We never had a face-to-face with the city before this," Rogers said. "The success of the city is critical to the success of the region."

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