Division and Unity

The powers-that-would-be issued a report on City of Pittsburgh/Allegheny County consolidation the other day. Chris Briem has context; Bram Reichbaum collects political notes. Lots of generalities; not so much on specifics. As Elvis once sang: A little less conversation, a little more action?

For my money, the far more interesting recent news item was buried (as it so often is) at the bottom of an otherwise innocuous P-G feature. "Heinz Endowments boss sets new tone" profiled the new head of the Heinz Endowments, the very impressive sounding Robert Vagt. Here's the last graf:

When asked about the issues most in need of attention, Mr. Vagt mentioned three: local school reform, proper planning and development, and a third topic that he acknowledged was more sensitive. "If I were politically correct, I wouldn't bring this up; but not since I was a freshman from Connecticut in North Carolina in the fall of 1965 have I been as slapped by the black-white issue as I have been in Pittsburgh," he said. "It slaps you. It's there and visible and obvious, and it seems to be, in one way shape or form, embedded in many of the issues we talk about, whether it's the arena or public education or development .... I guess I am surprised that it is not talked about more." And, "as a newcomer, this is the one piece I was not prepared for."

It seems to me that this topic is part and parcel of City/Council consolidation, but the consolidation report bypasses it almost entirely. I noted only two places in the report where problems of race and urban poverty in Allegheny County are mentioned. At page four, the report notes that the African American community here is disproportionately poor: "Of course, the impact of regional economic decline is not felt equally by all groups, and its disproportionate impact has been felt throughout the region. For example, African American poverty rates are four times higher than White poverty rates in Allegheny County, three times higher in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area, and 2.5 times higher in the City of Pittsburgh." And at page 17, the report notes, "A fundamental goal in effecting any change to the existing structure of local government must be ensuring that minority groups are not unfairly disadvantaged by that change."

Sure, fragmented government is an expensive, frustrating annoyance. But the goal here has to be more than more "efficient" administration of a shrinking pie; consolidation may streamline the infrastructure, but consolidation is not a goal in itself. Just because the least well-off won't be made worse off is no reason to pursue the plan (whatever the plan may be). If consolidation is worth pursuing, it's because all of Pittsburgh can be made better off.

[Updated 4/08: As Ed rightly points out, the City/Council reference above is a slip -- but I'll leave it uncorrected. I changed the link to Bram's blog, and otherwise fixed typos!]


8 Responses to "Division and Unity"

EdHeath said... 4/08/2008 7:06 AM

3 notes.
First, at one point you say "City/Council consolidation", a terrific Freudian slip.
Second, a great irony is that it is a Pitt entity, the Center on Race and Social Problems, that wrote the most recent report on race relations in Pittsburgh (that got local attention).
Third, one spin off of the City/County merger discussion is the realization that the Nordenberg report makes no provision for any kind of City Council or Mayor or anything. Apparently we are to have no representation at all in any local government, save members of County Council from the City. Pittsburgh will have a budget, presumably, fire, police, EMS and Public Works departments, but they will all answer to the Pittsburgh Metro Mayor. The city will have less representation than the 100 person borough, whether we are black or white.

Mike Madison said... 4/08/2008 7:31 AM

Such are the perils of multi-blogging, and relatively late at night to boot.

Evergrey said... 4/08/2008 12:31 PM

It seems Nordenberg & Co. went out of their way not to offend suburbanites so much... that they ended up crafting a useless proposal. There seems to be little to not benefit to either the city or county in this scenario. One of the major differences between Pittsburgh and the constantly studied Louisville case... is that Kentucky local governance includes a lot of unincorporated land... the county is the local services provider for unincorporated land. Here in Pennsylvania... every inch is incorporated and the county offers a different "bundle" of services than the municipality. While the Louisville plan preserved the autonomy of existing suburban municipalities... the City also benefitted from the annexation of hundreds of square miles of unincorporated land. Pittsburgh would have no such expansion in this case. A full merger of all 130 municipalities is the only plan that makes sense... yet that would have considerably less political support than the scant support for Nordenburg's awkward proposal

Schultz said... 4/08/2008 1:30 PM

"A full merger of all 130 municipalities is the only plan that makes sense..."

A full merger will not happen. I've lived on both sides of the fence now so I have firsthand experience at the difference in level and quality of services and public safety of the suburbs vs. city. Don't even get me started on the schools.

I'm all for more regional cooperation between city and suburban residents but I don't see suburban voters in a lot of those 130 municipalities voting yes to this referendum. A partial merger or no merger are the only two options I see as feasible.

Evergrey said... 4/08/2008 2:49 PM

School districts are separate governmental entities from municipalities, schultz.

A lot of provincial (suburban) Pittsburghers seem to think our insane system of local/regional/metropolitan governance works ok. But most people don't realize that Metro Pittsburgh operates under the most fragmented, arcane, duplicative and self-destructive system of local governance in the country. The amount of municipal governments here is staggering... and suffocating. Pennsylvania's system promotes extreme segregation amongst municipalities (racial, economic, land use patterns, etc.), but it's at its worst here due to our unique history of settlement and industrialization resulting in hundreds of outmoded and useless "factory town" municipalities.

Our system of municipal governance inhibits cohesive regional strategies for urban growth, economic growth, high-quality and equitable service delivery, equitable tax burdens and revenue streams, sensible 21st century transportation, etc etc etc. Our system does not allow Pittsburgh to respond to the challenges of a 21st century metropolis. Instead, we are cannibalized by intra-regional squabbling and competition. While Kilbuck Township blocks off major metropolitan arteries with a doomed cliffside Wal-Mart... other regions move forward with unified visions for growth, development and quality of life. "Regionalism" takes many forms, such as Twin Cities' tax base sharing program, Portland's metro government and land use boundary, and the myriad of mergers, annexations and consolidations taking place elsewhere in the country. In Pittsburgh, we have made tiny incremental steps... such as the RAD district, which shifts part of the burden for supporting critical regional assets clustered in the City to the suburbs. Pittsburgh, the totality of Pittsburgh that is not confined to an artificial and outdated municipal limit, is a city/region/metropolis that offers so many advantages. But these advantages will never be fully realized if the status quo system of metropolitan governance is allowed to continued. A system of "small towns" where a metropolitan scale is needed.

Jefferson Provost said... 4/08/2008 3:34 PM

Yes, you suburbanites! The city has higher taxes and worse services than your suburban townships and boroughs. Naturally, you should give up your local municipalities and use city services instead!

Bram Reichbaum said... 4/08/2008 4:21 PM

I think you may have mis-linked my article -- it goes to notes on the mayor's reshuffling of boards and authorities, not anything about consolidation.

Um, right on with the black/white issues. Nice find.

Schultz said... 4/08/2008 4:41 PM


I repeat "Don't even get me started on the schools." I'm not even going there with the school districts. Too complicated.

I do agree with everything you said in your last comment. But I'm still saying - a full merger will not happen for the reasons JP brought up. My biggest concern is the lack of accountability of the officials and department heads in the city, particularly Mr. Luke "The Buck Stops here" Ravenstahl.

In regards to city services, public safety is a big concern. When there was a crime or nuisance in my old city neighborhood we expected more than the response of "You're SOL" when called 911 numerous times.

Speaking of public safety and nuisances, do you want to know something bigger than the school issue that drives people out of the city? How about the city officials letting the neighborhoods rot and decay. Drive around and view the vacant and crumbling properties in neighborhoods all across the city. Compare that to what you see in the suburbs. In the suburbs, neighbors do have some power to collectively enforce neighbors to clean up their yards or houses (via the police) so that they are not eyesores and haven for drug dealers like the house we used to live across. See for yourself.

With all that said, if we did have a mayor of the new super Pittsburgh who had the power and influence and could work with the new form mega-city council to clean up the city and get things in order, then maybe we can entertain talks about a complete merger.

The question should be, who leads the new Pittsburgh? Is it the current mayor, Luke Ravenstahl? I love the city, and there are a lot of things that I miss about living in the city, but if there isn't a change of leadership I want no part of that mess.

Search Pittsblog

About Pittsblog

Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

Comments are moderated.
Subscribe to Pittsblog comments


Blog Archive

Header Background

Header background images licensed from (left image) lemonad and (right image) plaskota under Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 2.0 Generic licenses.


Copyright 2003-2010 Michael J. Madison - WP Theme by Brian Gardner - Blogger Blog Templates, ThemeLib.com