Pittsburgh: The Road to Reform

Bruce Katz and Mark Muro

It speaks well of this region that the city of Pittsburgh’s fiscal crisis has provoked maybe the most urgent debate in the nation over city-county consolidation.

Not every region, facing such circumstances, would have scrutinized its fundamentals so seriously as this region has. Such grit reflects a determination that could yield progress in easing Pittsburgh’s budgetary problems and reforming the region’s balkanized government system.

And yet, let us be frank: When it comes to governance reform, local initiative and grit—we hate to say it—won’t be enough.

Oh sure, the region might manage some needed reforms, such as consolidating row offices. And perhaps the prospects are good for consolidating some city and county services—an obvious and needed efficiency in tough times.

But chances are the region won’t—by itself—be able to streamline its convoluted, Rube Goldberg system of local government as much as it needs to. The reason: Metro Pittsburgh’s 400-plus municipalities remain creatures of the commonwealth, not the region—which means that state action will almost certainly be necessary to help the region simplify its cluttered map.

The upshot: Pittsburghers are right to demand reform from their own leaders, but they must also take their desire for change to Harrisburg, and insist that the governor and General Assembly provide them much more latitude and support as they try to rework the commonwealth’s “horse-and-buggy era” governance for the biotech age.

The need for reform, of course, speaks for itself. Metro Pittsburgh is drowning in government, as we observe in “Back to Prosperity: A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania,” a new report published by our center at the Brookings Institution, the Washington, D.C. think tank.

Currently, an incredible 418 counties, cities, boroughs and townships—130 within Allegheny County alone—make decisions in the region, not to mention scores of school districts, single-purpose authorities, utility districts and other units. Divvy the 418 main governments up, and the region maintains an astonishing 17.7 general-purpose governments per 100,000 residents.

This overload of government is No. 1 among the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas—and is more than triple the nation’s metro average of 6.1 governments per 100,000.

Why does this matter? Traditionally, efficiency has been the bugbear, because—it’s true—fragmentation does increase the costs of government.

Several studies of consolidated police agencies in Pennsylvania conducted in the late 1980s detailed significantly higher costs of traditional local policing.

More recently, a University of Georgia assessment of the consolidation of Athens, Ga., and Clarke County identified broader costs. This analysis concluded that the expenditures of comparison stand-alone governments remained nearly 10 percent higher than those of the combined government, once sizable one-time transition costs were incurred.

But in our view, the problem of cost matters less than the fact that fragmentation can undercut economic competitiveness.

The problem here is that Pittsburgh’s profusion of jurisdictions hinders the region’s ability to mobilize its talents.

Competitive regions move with alacrity to seize opportunities, mobilize coalitions and organize resources to pursue common goals. They are bold, flexible and fast.

In Pittsburgh, by contrast, municipalities frequently spend more time competing against each other than competing together in the global economy.

The result is that greater Pittsburgh competes at a disadvantage. It’s simply harder for Pittsburgh to “get its act together,” and that seems to us the most critical reason of all for the region to restructure itself.

The problem with remedying this mess, though, is that the outlines of Pittsburgh’s local political map—like that of the rest of the state—were established generations ago and remain as inflexible as any in the nation.

State law bars annexation—an option in many states. Moreover, statute allows mergers or consolidations only between two or more municipalities through a cumbersome, almost insuperable procedure of petitions, municipal ordinances, joint agreements and referendum votes that has resulted in only a handful of combinations since the state’s new constitution was adopted in 1968.

In sum, the commonwealth’s hyperrestrictive statutes on border changes and governance impede voluntary realignments and effectively block change. Regions really don’t have a chance to pull significant reform under the state’s hostile system.

Clearly, the region deserves enormous credit for the serious debate now underway in southwestern Pennsylvania about consolidating the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and the 130 smaller municipalities within the county.

Achieving even such incremental reforms as consolidating row offices and city and county service-delivery would be a coup given the current state-enforced barriers.

But chances are the region won’t—by itself—be able to substantially reorient itself.

What should the region ask for, then? How should the General Assembly and Gov. Rendell help?

First, Harrisburg must create much greater incentives for local governments to get together within the present system. At the very least, the commonwealth should become much more assertive in rewarding, supporting, or otherwise favoring municipal cooperation, consolidation, or mergers, here or elsewhere.

For example, any merged or consolidated entity should rise to the top of the stack where any state grant award, funding, or permit is concerned. And there should be outright intervention in support of simplification.

Does the Pittsburgh region want to streamline itself? Then let the state do everything it can to broker a pact.

Otherwise, Harrisburg should sweep away Pennsylvania’s many existing barriers to unification and provide new options to regions like Pittsburgh that might want to reorganize. Along these lines the commonwealth should:

  • Make it easier for municipalities to merge or consolidate. Right now, state law essentially mandates paralysis by allowing structural reforms only through a cumbersome, often uncertain procedure.

  • Allow municipalities to dissolve themselves. Why shouldn’t towns or even cities be allowed to dissolve themselves, with their revenue bases reverting to the local county or surrounding township?

  • Allow groups of municipalities to forge “compacts” to act and govern as regional communities of “common interest.” Such compacting would allow groups of like-minded localities to voluntarily come together to carry out extensive bundles of activities, much as they do now in the EMS/911 system.

Metropolitan Pittsburgh has a chance now to do something even more significant than simply remaking itself for the 21st century. Play its cards right, and Pittsburgh’s push for change might well become the prod that prompts reform all across the commonwealth, and so resumes a fractious state’s drive to competitiveness.