Dan Onorato Says He Forged Efficient Rule in Allegheny County

By Puko, Tim | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

Dan Onorato Says He Forged Efficient Rule in Allegheny County


Puko, Tim, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


NOTE: The Tribune-Review profiles Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett on Tuesday.

When Dan Onorato ran for Allegheny County executive in 2003, he promised a drop in spending and 10 percent tax cut.

Seven years later, the county budget has grown by 18 percent and the only change in tax rates came from Onorato's enactment of a tax, now 7 percent, on poured booze.

Onorato, the Democratic nominee for governor, touts a track record of reform, including claims by his office that his initiatives led to $174 million in savings. But overall spending is on the rise and one hallmark of reform -- row office consolidation - - didn't help nearly as much as promised, critics say.

Onorato trimmed the county work force by 9.5 percent since 2004, but salaries cost taxpayers $18.8 million more last year than they did before the cuts. Onorato pushed the consolidation of 10 elected row offices to four, to save money; but the cost to provide those services jumped $4.1 million by last year -- or almost 8 percent -- from 2005, the year before consolidation.

"I believe he can take some credit for row office reform, as far as it went," said County Councilman William Robinson, a fellow Democrat from the Hill District. "Essentially, you have the same number of people as you had before, without some of the department executives. That's some reform, but it's not complete reform."

Onorato said his "tight fiscal policies and government reform efforts" cut positions from the payroll and eliminated duplicate functions.

"All of this has been done without raising property taxes, even though we have faced increasing health care costs and unfunded mandates from Harrisburg and Washington," he said.

"Cost avoidance is still savings to the taxpayer," spokesman Kevin Evanto said. "Even if the overall salaries are going up, there's still a savings."

Promise unfulfilled

Onorato began campaigning for county executive while county controller, pledging that layoffs and fiscal reform could lead to a 10 percent tax cut.

He didn't fulfill the tax-cut promise -- and later pushed for a levy on alcoholic drinks -- but he trimmed the county-controlled work force and kept the budget and property tax rate stable. He cut about 500 employees in his first year as executive, and he has trimmed 84 positions since. As of Aug. 14, county data show 5,348 county-funded employees.

The county payroll shed $7 million in 2004. Raises set by union contracts forced payroll costs up anyway, but the county Budget Office estimates those initial cuts have saved $21 million in salary and benefits each year since.

The rest of the $174 million savings comes from a collection of measures. Merging the 911 centers in 2005, for example, saved $50 million for cities and towns that joined the countywide system.

The county saved $7.3 million in utility and commodity purchases by combining with towns and other institutions to purchase in bulk. Absorbing Pittsburgh's fingerprinting operation saved the city $2.8 million.

"It's really been part of his mission to bring about that kind of synergy," said former Prothonotary Michael Lamb, the city controller and a Democrat who said he might run to succeed Onorato. "It's not just the county organization but residents of the county, whether their savings were realized at the county level or the municipal level, he's driven down costs."

Changes in motion

Critics say many of the changes were in motion before Onorato came to power. The first county executive, Jim Roddey, cut the payroll by 470 workers his first year. He started efforts to merge the 911 centers and consolidate row offices.

"He was able to get it when I couldn't because obviously he had the (Democratic) votes on the council. So, I don't see that he's done any remarkable reform," said Roddey, the county Republican Committee chairman. …

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