Ravenstahl, Onorato to Push for City-County Merger
Boren, Jeremy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Luke Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato embarked Thursday on the toughest sales pitch of their political careers: persuading voters that merging city and county governments is the region's springboard to prosperity.
"We need bold, decisive and far-reaching change to fundamentally alter our trajectory," Ravenstahl said, lamenting Pittsburgh's steady loss of jobs and people. "We must change if we are to grow again."
The mayor's surprising transformation from skeptic to supporter of a city-county merger was the missing piece Onorato said was needed to begin lobbying state lawmakers and voters to merge the city and county through a referendum as early as next year.
Onorato, the county chief executive, and Ravenstahl announced their support for a merger after a task force led by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg released a study conducted over 17 months.
"Our goal isn't just to get the question to the voters, it's to get the question to the voters and have it pass," Onorato said.
The toughest sell will be to members of the Legislature and elected leaders of Allegheny County's 129 other municipalities, whose governments wouldn't be directly affected by a merger.
"To sell this idea to the voters, the city and county are going to have to educate people about why this is smart government that benefits everybody," said Sara Jayne Kuhn, deputy mayor of Penn Hills. "And it won't be enough to say that it saves money if there's any kind of reduction in services."
The 25-page "Government for Growth" report makes three key recommendations.
Chief among them is to ask voters, perhaps as early as 2009, whether Pittsburgh and Allegheny County should consolidate.
The report recommends that:
= Pittsburgh and Allegheny County enter a "cooperation compact" to ensure future political administrations stick to merger efforts.
= The mayor and county chief executive "further intensify" efforts to combine services and cooperate immediately.
The report recommends changes to improve government efficiency but stops short of describing how to make the merger happen or estimating how much money it could save both governments.
It stresses that Pittsburgh's $1 billion general debt and $470 million pension obligations should "remain segregated" from Allegheny County.
To accomplish that, the merger would establish an "Urban Services District" to replace what is the city of Pittsburgh. Those who live in the district likely would pay higher taxes to cover the pension and debt obligations and the higher costs of police, fire and medical services, Ravenstahl said.
Because a higher number of minorities live in the city, it would be a "high priority" to draw up new city/county council districts that allow for sufficient minority representation, the report states.
Allegheny County's 130 municipalities would remain as they are, Onorato said, but the existing jobs of county chief executive and Pittsburgh mayor would be eliminated.
"You would have a mayor's office of the new city of Pittsburgh," Onorato said. "You would have a different city."
That should be an incentive to small municipalities in Allegheny County, Ravenstahl said.
"So, it's not as if they're losing anything. In fact, one could make the argument that they're gaining the ability to have a voice in the greater dialogue of the region," the mayor said. If the merger means he's "the last mayor of the city of Pittsburgh, so be it. …