The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part V

[Part I is here] [Part II is here] [Part III is here] [Part IV is here] [Part V is here] [Part VI is here] [Part VII is here] [Part VIII is here] [Part IX is here] [Part X is here]

What's the story behind Pittsburgh's revitalization? Today's topic: What do Pittsburgh politicians and politics have to do with it? In general, what role has local government played?

It's a timely topic in part because of this recent post at Pop City: "Five Things that Allowed Pittsburgh to Turn the Corner." John Denny, who does PR for investment firm the Hillman Company, identifies the following five: RAD (the Regional Asset District that collects and distributes taxes to fund certain cultural services in the region); home rule for Allegheny County; the Life Sciences and Digital Greenhouses; river and trail restoration and access; and creation of the County's Department of Human Services.

I think that this is a good list in its focus on institutions rather than on individual people - or on "grit," but it is a decidedly "old school Pittsburgh" list in its focus on government and top-down organization as drivers of change in Pittsburgh. That's no surprise. The Hillman Company and the Hillman name are two of the most respected institutions in the entire region and icons of the Pittsburgh establishment.

So, while there is no doubt that each of the items on that list has played an important role in Pittsburgh over the last 10 years, it's also true that the story in each case is full of misses as well as hits. The current recession has exposed the flaw in the RAD formula, as recipients of RAD funds fight over a smaller pool of funds. Home rule gave us a strong county executive, but in practice that office is susceptible to exactly the same kind of local politics soap opera that characterizes the Mayor's Office and City Council. I will talk about the Greenhouses in a later post in this series, on Pittsburgh's tech economy, but a case could (and will) be made that the Greenhouses have stood in the way of authentic entrepreneurship, rather than facilitated it. Calling out progress on Pittsburgh's waterfront is a right thing to do, but the job is far from complete and, as the recent mini-flap over trail access at the new casino showed, government sometimes has to be prodded to do the right thing. The County's Department of Health Services, for all of its good work, is not in a position to address deeper structural problems that I once described as "Second World Pittsburgh" and "Third World Pittsburgh." More on that, too, in a later post in this series.

In general, it's just as easy to see Pittsburgh's government -- city and county -- as obstacles to revival as it to see them as facilitators. People outside of the region encounter the Mayor for the first time and are inclined to see him as the embodiment of a young, forward-looking city. It doesn't take much scrutiny to dispel that notion; even many of Luke Ravenstahl's supporters welcome his leadership precisely because it so explicitly echoes the way that Pittsburgh politics has operated for decades, via appeals to traditional urban Democratic constituencies and via backroom deals. But I don't want to bash-and-run; in recent months, it strikes me that the Ravenstahl is very slowly learning how to exercise the levers of power. The recent showdown with the Pennsylvania Legislature over Pittsburgh's underfunded pensions is one example; facing down County Executive Dan Onorato over the cost of security for the G20 summit is another.

Moreover, the Mayor's office is only part of the vast mosaic of government institutions, most of them formal, some of them informal, that play important roles in the region. "Fragmentation" is the local watchword, as partisans of city/county integration have noted for years. The City of Pittsburgh has 89 officially-recognized neighborhoods, or maybe 90. The county has 130 municipalities. Then there are the dozens (hundreds?) of other taxing bodies here. The overall population of the region has remained more or less stable while the population of the city has diminished dramatically. That redistribution of population has not been matched by a reallocation of public resources. Whether or not that reallocation should be somehow proportional is a separate issue. The point is that the demographic shape of the city of Pittsburgh and the surrounding region has changed fundamentally; how governments deal with those things largely has not. Real, productive, disciplined broad-based inter-governmental cooperation is necessary to get things done, but it's rare. Inter-governmental cooperation has produced little more than a handful of policies and projects that have moved Pittsburgh forward over the last 10 or 20 or 30 years.

Aside from the overlapping authorities, there are the same questions of priorities and sheer competence that afflict local government in just about every American city. The city of Pittsburgh operates under the Pennsylvania equivalent of municipal bankruptcy. Its pension liabilities alone are huge, and there is still no meaningful plan to address them, for reasons explored in detail by Chris Briem. Yet Pittsburgh's City Council talked itself into a twist recently over approval of an electronic billboard. Yes, there were meaningful questions lurking in that case about bureaucratic competence and perhaps even corruption -- but in public debates, those questions remained mostly buried. Pittsburgh's government has enthusiastically embraced gambling, and ten years ago it overrode the will of the local population in dedicating public funds to construction of stadiums -- beautiful facilities, for sure -- that house a professional sports team (the Pittsburgh Steelers) and an organization that calls itself "the Pittsburgh Pirates" and has the gall to compete in Major League Baseball.

Pittsburgh's suburbs are often little better. My own town just barely manages to keep the lid on the seething melodrama that lurks underneath the calm public surface of its Commission and School Board.

I could go on (what about the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia rivalry that plays out in the capital? what about the gubenatorial ambitions of the County Executive? what about the broken real estate tax assessment system?), but this is plenty.

There was a time, decades ago, when Pittsburgh's political leaders were beloved, when they mastered the art of public/private partnering, when government and business built and rebuilt the city and the people prospered. That time is long gone. John Denny's list in Pop City highlights some recent successes. It is certainly plausible to characterize them as meaningful contributions to Pittsburgh today, even while I've pointed out that there is more to the story. But as an explanation of how Pittsburgh "turned the corner," in his phrase? I think that there is much more to explain.

Comments

1 Response to "The Story Behind Pittsburgh's Revitalization, Part V"

May said... 12/29/2009 11:18 PM

Substantive interlocal cooperation is extremely important.
You might want to read this article:
http://www.citymayors.com/government/interlocal.html
A review of the pros and cons of increased
interlocal cooperation in local government

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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]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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