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Allegheny

Important decisions, debate rare for Allegheny County Council

| Thursday, June 14, 2018, 12:06 p.m.
Allegheny County Council members meet at the Allegheny County Courthouse on May 8, 2018.
THERESA CLIFT | TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Allegheny County Council members meet at the Allegheny County Courthouse on May 8, 2018.

If Amazon chooses Pittsburgh to host its second headquarters, the decision of whether to award controversial county incentives to the online retailer would be up to a group that spends most of its public meeting time handing out congratulatory proclamations.

Of the 11 regular meetings Allegheny County Council has held so far this year, only one included more than half an hour of official county business.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has stressed that the county cannot grant Amazon any land or tax breaks to persuade it to build its second headquarters here without approval from the 15-member council.

“We can’t spend a nickel without it being a very public process,” Fitzgerald said during a May 7 interview. “So if we, meaning me and the mayor and others, decide if we want to give Amazon X whatever it is, I gotta take that to the County Council.”

The city and state would go through the same process, Fitzgerald said.

And Fitzgerald told the Trib on Tuesday: “(Amazon) couldn’t get anything I offered them, or the mayor offered them, without a public vote.”

Fitzgerald said the county’s incentive would require a council vote because it would require the creation of a Tax Increment Finance District or Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance — which allow tax breaks for new developments — or a good deal on the purchase or lease of county land or buildings.

If such a proposal comes in front of the council, it could represent a major shift from the council’s typically short, sparsely attended public meetings.

The council has spent just over 10 hours holding meetings so far this year. Members have spent nearly six hours of that time on ceremonial proclamations or announcing community events in their districts, which council calls “liaison reports.”

During proclamations, at the beginning of the meeting, council members hand out awards, make speeches and take photos. Boy Scouts who earn the rank of Eagle, residents turning 100, local sports teams and volunteers to charitable organizations are frequent honorees. Proclamations also recognize “national library week” or “national safe digging month.”

During a May 8 meeting, elected officials spent an hour on proclamations and four minutes on announcements, leaving just 13 minutes for official, government business.

When there is county business to consider, it’s usually minor, such as approving appointments to committees, approving permits for events and approving small transfers of county land.

Rarely is there a debate, discussion, a “no” vote or a public comment from a county resident relating to something on the agenda.

During a meeting June 6, the council met for 47 minutes, but spent only 16 minutes on county business: two appointments to the Council of Friends board for parks and license approvals for the “Picklesburgh” festival and an epilepsy walk.

Of the 22 committee meetings groups of council members have had this year, only eight lasted more than half an hour, according to data from the council clerk’s office. Five lasted less than 10 minutes.

Nonetheless, Fitzgerald said he is confident the council can handle the Amazon decision.

“If we’re fortunate to get it, they’re gonna spend a lot of time on that,” Fitzgerald said. “To delve into that in depth, as they would need to do, I think they would be very, very much capable of going through that process.”

Council President John DeFazio, D-Shaler, said the council has not talked about Amazon, and he isn’t yet sure whether he wants the e-commerce giant to come to town.

DeFazio, who has been on the council since it began meeting in 2000, said it goes through periods of low activity.

“It just seemed to slow down right now for some reason, but it’ll pick up,” he said.

Councilwoman Anita Prizio, D-O’Hara, joined the council in January with a long list of legislation she wanted to introduce . Prizio has yet to introduce a motion, but has been meeting with officials at the city and state level to coordinate joint approaches to several issues.

Prizio plans to introduce her first motion at Tuesday’s meeting to urge state and federal lawmakers to create a single-payer health care system. Pittsburgh Councilman Corey O’Connor, of Swisshelm Park, is also planning to introduce a similar motion to City Council, she said.

“I’m still in the learning process, but the motion is a way to start getting a little more comfortable proposing things and working with the (council) staff,” Prizio said.

The County Council was born in 2000 after county residents decided in a referendum to replace the three-commissioner government most common across the state with a 15-member council and elected county executive. Council members are paid a stipend of $9,000 a year.

The county’s home rule charter requires the council approve transfers of county land, new ordinances, taxes, the budget and appointments.

Some items that can be big expenses, such as contracts and settlements, do not require a council vote.

In April, Fitzgerald approved nearly $50 million in amended Department of Human Services contracts, according to a document the county posts online each month detailing his executive actions. It did not go to council.

Council does consider some big-ticket items.

In May, the council unanimously approved a $114.5 million bond package to pay for infrastructure projects in 2019 and 2020 in the county’s capital budget.

Amazon has said it plans to make its decision on a city for its second headquarters by the end of the year.

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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