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Answer sought on parks group

| Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato says he's working to create a nonprofit group to raise money for the county parks system. Some County Council members wonder why it hasn't been done yet.

They also complain that they get only vague answers or no answers at all from Onorato on what progress has been made.

Relations between council and Onorato have grown tense lately as the two have clashed over who holds the authority to merge city and county departments. Both sides expect to settle the dispute in court.

Former Chief Executive Jim Roddey and council created a Parks Department in October 2002. Roddey said the move was designed, in part, so the county could set up a nonprofit to raise money for and help run the parks, as the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has done since 1996.

It's a concept Onorato is familiar with: While serving on City Council, he co-sponsored the legislation creating the conservancy, and is a life member of the organization.

"Any foundation or corporation, they were all leery of giving the city money because they didn't think it would make it to the parks," Onorato said. Setting up a charity whose sole mission is bolstering the parks system makes it easier to get private cash to match the public's contribution.

As a result, he said, "the parks have never looked better. They leveraged all the public dollars, and it's more than the parks ever would have seen under the city's management."

The city parks conservancy has a 20-year master plan to protect and improve Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley parks. The plan, which is expected to cost $100 million, includes eventually connecting all four parks.

"I'm a big believer in it," Onorato said. "I think its one of the best things that ever happened to the (city) parks." Eventually, the county will follow suit, he said.

County Council's parks committee Chairwoman Joan Cleary said she's written letters to Onorato asking for details about what progress has been made.

"They told me they're working on it," she said. "They didn't give me a timetable."

Onorato said that's because he doesn't have one yet. He and Parks Director Andy Baechle, who got his job a couple of months before Onorato took office in January, are still trying to "get our hands around what needs to be done in the parks, and put a strategy together."

Councilman Vince Gastgeb, a Bethel Park Republican and avid parks proponent, said Onorato has had nine months in office to put a plan together. Until the nonprofit is set up, the Parks Department can do nothing about the $120 million in estimated repairs that are needed in the counties' nine parks, he said.

The Parks Department was created under Roddey's watch, and Onorato said his predecessor "punted" on the creation of the nonprofit.

Setting up a parks nonprofit "was one of the things we intended to do on the first of this year," Roddey said. "It's a relatively simple process, but there was so much going on, and with the election, it's just not something we got around to doing."

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