No City is an Island

Harold Miller's perspectives piece in today's P-G (expanded, with graphics, at his blog) argues that the number of regional jobs in the City of Pittsburgh relative to the City's population points toward the continuing significance of the City of Pittsburgh and to the need to adopt public policies aimed at recruiting and retaining City residents in order to strengthen the City's tax base.

Virtually the same data, however, point to the continuing significance of the City's suburbs or -- more precisely -- to the inter-dependence of City and suburb. The City and its residents thumb their political noses at the suburbs at their peril; the City has the bulk of the region's jobs, but the suburbs have the bulk of the region's employees. Municipal boundaries are politically important but economically arbitrary -- as Harold notes. And the suburbs are aware of their strategic importance -- and are working hard to maintain and even growth their own tax bases. A "City of Pittsburgh first" approach to regional policy threatens to perpetuate the zero-sum thinking that often dominates regional economic developments efforts. If the City grows, the suburbs lose. Why play a game that fans regional antagonism?

That's theory. Here's practice. At the margin, in the near term public policy may influence the direction of urban/suburban migration. (Here's a policy problem that Harold doesn't have space to mention: County transfer taxes on home purchases increase the transaction cost of changing location once you've bought a home. If government makes it cheaper to move into the City, a few more people might actually move there. If it's cheaper to move away altogether, people will move away altogether.) Gas prices may do more. But it's easier to move dollars than to move bodies. Full-fledged city/county consolidation is a dream for some and a pipe-dream to others, but full-fledged consolidation isn't required to imagine a rational, comprehensive county-wide tax collecting and distribution scheme. (Which is not necessarily the equivalent of the commuter tax beloved of some City's commentators.)

I realize that I just used the concepts "rational" and "comprehensive" in the context of "Pittsburgh." Monkeys are flying, hell is freezing, and so forth. But a scheme that recognizes suburban significance rather than casting suburbs as the enemies of the future -- that's one that is more stable in the long run.


5 Responses to "No City is an Island"

Schultz said... 8/04/2008 1:26 PM

Mike - I posted a few suggestions over on Harold's blog. I think you and I are pretty much in agreement.

Burgher Jon said... 8/04/2008 3:52 PM

How do you believe the city has snubbed the suburbs? I have been saying for a while that it is unfair that we who live in the city pay the taxes that support the trash collection, police and other such services that serve you while you're at work.

After all, I don't know the schedule of a law professor, but I imagine you spend 40% of your day in a place where you pay less then 5% of your taxes. I also know as a current city and former Lebo resident that your local income taxes are less then half of mine but your local services (police, fire, schools, etc...) are superior. The primary reason for this is that eventhough you work in a city which has a large income variance (as cities universally do), you receive your local services from an entity that has almost exclusively high-income constituents. Leaving myself and other high-income city residents to suplement the (necessary) lower class' tax dollars without you.

I'm not saying there isn't another side of the coin, where suburbanites legitimately feel that the city has "thumbed its nose" and taken a "City of Pittsburgh first" approach, but I am not familiar with it. Could you outline some ways that the suburbs feel that they are not fairly treated? Do you think that suburbanites (particularly residents of Lebo, Fox Chappel, USC, etc...) would actually pay less taxes if all of the residents of the county were treated equally?

I think it is essential that both sides come to an agreed upon understanding of the real economics of the county before a fair merger plan can be formed.

Mike Madison said... 8/04/2008 4:02 PM


You're reading my post but not reading very carefully, and you're responding to something else entirely.

I'm not advocating a City/county merger.

I'm not opposed to a sensible plan that rationally allocates local income and real estate tax burdens across the region. In fact, the whole point of this post was to argue that such a plan would be a *good thing,* even if it's a politically infeasible pipe dream. Do not, however, reduce my argument to the simplistic, moralistic bombast associated with the claim that free-loading suburbanites should pay a commuter tax. That always comes off as trying to punish suburbanites for rational and legitimate decisions regarding where to live and raise families, and we suburbanites will always trash it. Start from a different premise, and maybe everyone can get somewhere.

Finally, the City first/suburbs second argument is one that's implicit in Harold Miller's piece, to which I'm responding. If you're looking for examples of the "City of Pittsburgh counts for more than the suburbs" argument, read through endless comments on earlier posts on this blog, going back 4+ years. Read commentary ad naseum in the Post-Gazette and other MSM. Etc. Etc.

Schultz said... 8/04/2008 4:12 PM

burgher jon - we started a thread of comments on this subject over at Harold Miller's blog

I have to say I disagree with your reasoning for the suburbs having superior services. Out here in the suburbs police and others who work for the municipality are held accountable. How you ask? Well, if things aren't right people will complain, they will call their commissioners and they will call the municipality offices. We pay high taxes and therefore we expect quality. In the city - we paid high taxes and we b!tched and complained to the police and our councilmen to no avail. Our complaints fell on deaf ears, and the police would say, on more than one occasion, "you are SOL" when the problem wasn't an easy fix for them. Having leaders in office (some council members do in fact perform their duties effectively) who are accountable, and who hold the department heads under the mayor accountable, is the first step to increasing the quality of services which will increase the quality of life and the attractiveness of living in the city of Pittsburgh.

I'm sure those who live in the east end wonder "what the heck is he talking about" since they hvae it good but I'm also sure that others reading this who live in neighborhoods in the north, south, and west sides of town understand where I'm coming from.

Burgher Jon said... 8/04/2008 9:28 PM

I'm aware of the discussion on Harold Miller's blog and offered a response to your comment there.

I don't disagree that management of the public services is a problem in Pittsburgh. I don't believe that it is the only problem. I will say again that a system that allows the high-income worker to pay taxes to and receive services from a seperate entity then the one that the low-income worker must use (in spite of the fact that they work in the same building) is always going to result in an unfair balance. That's a fundamental flaw and it ought to be fixed.

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

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