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Merge Allegheny County and Pittsburgh?

| Sunday, July 29, 2001


According to the recent U.S. Census, Pittsburgh has become a shadow of its former self. Pittsburghers (and Pittsburgh businesses) have been voting with their feet with the population falling one-half - from 677,000 in 1950 to 335,000 in 2000.

Just in the past decade, the city's population fell 9.5 percent. And while the population fell, the city's bonded debt rose astronomically to about $1 billion, or $3,000 per capita. As the Trib has pointed out, it will cost Pittsburgh taxpayers twice that, including interest. As recently as 1982, the city's debt was $237 million.

The fault is not in the stars but in ourselves. We haven't had a Republican mayor or City Council member for more than 60 years. To say that the city's leadership has been mediocre is a phenomenal understatement. And the Republican party never offered the citizenry an alternative to the counterproductive policies of successive Democrat administrations.

In the editorial titled 'Symptoms and solutions' (July 18), the Trib stated that I advocate a 'metropolitanistic remedy - merging (Pittsburgh) with Allegheny County,' that I ignore the high-taxation examples of Philadelphia/Philadelphia County and Baltimore/Baltimore County. The editorial continues, 'Pittsburgh has many self-generated problems and inefficiencies ... But conscripting ever more taxes and enlarging the size of the government machinery are not 'solutions.''

You are absolutely right about that. The editorial is wrong only by assuming that is what a merger would necessarily entail. But it is possible to conceive a merger that begins by dumping the mayor and the entire nondescript City Council and the school board into the trash bin of history and replacing them with a city manager and school superintendent, both appointed by the county executive and subject to the approval of County Council.

This is more or less what Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, did in 1970 and the Indianapolis plan can be improved upon. We don't need two sets of executives and legislatures nor a school board that for all practical purposes is anonymous. Nor would I impose any additional taxes. Indeed, I would get rid of the city income tax ($42 million in 1999) and the business privilege tax ($35 million) whose main economic effect is to provide an incentive to move out of the city.

And until recently the wealthy avoided the now-defunct 8-mill tax on intangibles by moving their residences as the Mellons did to Ligonier. The result has been a stampede of people and factories out of the city. Even its once-leading newspaper, The Pittsburgh Press abandoned the city.

MESS OF POTAGE

Pittsburgh's population relative to the county's total is now less than 20 percent. Pittsburgh will not dominate the new Pittsburgh county-city. And we have a county executive who represents a new caliber of leader in contrast to the many mediocrities of the past.

The members of the new County Council will be less beholden to the city's Democrat constituencies who have sold out the futures of their progeny for a seat at the table and a mess of potage. The people who have left the city are from a different set of constituencies, more educated and more sophisticated. And more Republican.

It is hard to see how the elimination of the mayor and City Council could avoid making the county-city more attractive to new enterprises and a better place to live. We have nothing to lose. Even the county's population has fallen and continues to fall, albeit at about half the city's rate of decline.

No doubt many will object to putting the blame on the politicians. They had little to do with the disappearance of the steel mills, for example, or the buyout of Gulf Oil. And the flight to the suburbs often was motivated by the search for better housing, a different lifestyle, better schools, lower taxes, and facilitated by the transportation revolution. That was a fact that the city's leaders had to deal with and they did nothing except for the elimination of the tax on intangibles.

No, they did a lot of things and spent a lot of money, nearly all of it wasted. Their policies - public housing, etc., kept the poor in the cities where good jobs were scarce. Instead of subsidies that would create good jobs, they wasted money attracting new retail businesses, a zero-sum game, that only takes jobs away from other retailers. Witness the demise of Keystone Plumbing in East Liberty.

PROVEN FOLLY

The spending on stadiums is a classic example of the misuse of public funds. All the city has to show for taking hundreds of acres off the property tax rolls and the $40 million it borrowed for Three Rivers was a photo of its implosion. It remains to be seen what the new stadiums will cost. The mentality of the leaders seems to be 'One stadium failed, two will succeed because of the volume.' The millions of dollars did not create one new good permanent job. Worse, the stadiums removed acres of the most valuable and scarce vacant land in the city from the property tax rolls, land that had a potential economic value of billions dollars had it been devoted to a productive use rather than a proven folly. Those stadiums should have been built in a corn field. If the teams are good, they will come.

An analysis of the tax burden borne by Pittsburgh city residents (as reported by the Trib on July 15) compared with Philadelphia and eight other cities showed that a family of four with $50,000 in earned income paid nearly $5,400 in state income, local income, and property taxes. There is a direct correlation of tax burdens with cities' rates of growth (and sports stadiums).

Utilizing the table that appeared in the Trib, I've added a column showing the growth of each city's population over the past decade:

City Tax burden Population Growth(%)
Philadelphia $6,578 - 4.3
Baltimore 6,335 -11.5
Pittsburgh 5,396 - 9.5
Louisville 5,134 - 4.8
Cincinnati 4,462 - 9.0
Cleveland 4,311 - 5.4
St. Louis 4,265 -12.2
Buffalo 3,899 -10.8
Raleigh 3,706 +32.8
Indianapolis 3,312 + 6.7

All of them losers except for Raleigh which has a city manager, mayor and a small council. The manager is nonpartisan and appoints all the department heads. Indianapolis has had a history of good leaders and merged with Marion County in 1970. In the merger, most but not all of the taxing districts were consolidated. The people in the Old City continue to support their own police and fire departments. It has a city-county council and Bart Peterson, the mayor, has a distinguished record in the private sector and served as Gov. Evan Bayh's chief of staff.

Neither has a major league baseball or football team. All the others except Louisville do, and if I recall correctly, it was the home of the famous Louisville Sluggers. Professional sports hasn't helped any of them. Indianapolis is on the way to becoming the amateur sports capital of the world.

FISCAL KEY

It is worth quoting from a state of the city address by Mayor Peterson early this year:

''To get ahead in an ever-changing world, we have to operate like a successful corporation - thinking far into the future while addressing the challenges of today. ...

''The first challenge is getting our financial house in order. Sound fiscal policy is the foundation of any thriving city. Significant tax increases only spur urban flight - decreasing the tax base and amplifying a city's problems.

''That's why we've held the line on taxes. ...''

I have never until very recently considered metropolitan government as a solution and there are lots of conditions that such a solution would require to protect taxpayers before it is implemented. But I know no other solution. The current political arrangements offer no hope at all for the future. And what is the alternative• Former city councilman and now state Rep. Bill Robinson has publicly called for state intervention, the state taking over and running the city's finances as it has done already in Philadelphia. What a prospect!

Raymond L. Richman is a professor emeritus of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Shadyside.

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