Unity among Officials Is Key to a City, County Merger

Article excerpt

Persuading voters to combine Pittsburgh and Allegheny County governments won't happen without gobs of corporate cash and a dogged marketing crusade.

"This is the most complex political campaign that the community will ever see," said Joe Reagan, president of Greater Louisville Inc., a key figure in the Kentucky city's successful "Vote Yes for Unity" campaign that prompted 54 percent of voters in 2000 to OK a merger with Jefferson County.

Reagan on Thursday told members of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development that any hope of boosting Pittsburgh's regional economy through a merger will wither without creating an "impenetrable wall" of support from local mayors, councilmen, judges and corporations in most of the county's 130 municipalities. Many area leaders agreed.

Louisville companies poured more than $2 million into the public education campaign. Organizers spent the money on television commercials, daily polling and targeted messaging. In one case, pollsters found young women opposed the merger, Reagan said.

"So we created an ad about how the merger would create jobs that would keep their children and grandchildren (in Louisville)," he said.

The same push must happen here to allay widely held fears that the merger would erode representation and saddle county taxpayers with the city's $1 billion debt.

"Clearly, in order to be successful, you're going to have to educate the voters," said Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who added that he eventually plans to seek funding from corporations and individuals for the pro-merger campaign. "I don't think it could be successful without a campaign like that. People need to know what they're voting for."

But none of it can begin without the Legislature's approval.

"It's pointless really even to have the discussion without it. Harrisburg's gotta act," said John Buckley, director of corporate and social responsibility at Bank of New York Mellon.

Buckley, who heard Reagan's talk, said little has happened in the Legislature to marshal support for a city-county government merger since April, when a 13-member committee headed by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg released a 25-page report touting consolidation.

"This is a slow-go, there's no doubt," said Erin Molchany, executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, an organization that caters to young professionals. Molchany, who attended the lecture, said she has been trying to educate her 1,200 members and others about the benefits of consolidation. …