It won’t be business as usual next January for the dizzying layers of government across Allegheny County.
Six candidates running for county executive gathered for a forum Wednesday evening at the McKees Point Palisades event hall in McKeesport to pitch ways to get the many interlocking governments to work faster and in a more coordinated fashion, in particular to aid residents who are most in need.
The stakes are high when voters cast their ballots May 16, given that the executive can play a major role in setting the county government’s agenda on issues such as air quality, property taxes and the county jail; proposes the county’s $1 billion budget; and fills seats on boards and commissions. The current county executive is Rich Fitzgerald, a term-limited Democrat who will complete his third and final term at the end of this year.
Republicans only have one choice in retired PNC executive Joe Rockey, but there are six Democratic candidates: former Pittsburgh school board member Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi; Dave Fawcett, an attorney and former county councilor; state Rep. Sara Innamorato; Pittsburgh city Controller Michael Lamb; entrepreneur Will Parker; and county Treasurer John Weinstein. Colaizzi didn’t attend the event.
It can be difficult for municipalities across the county, in particular in the Monongahela Valley, to provide basic public services like police, fire and EMS while facing an eroded property tax base.
Lamb said the quality of emergency response “shouldn’t depend on what boundary you just crossed,” and would like to create an office focused on municipal partnerships that will work collaboratively to deliver services.
Weinstein said he would partner closely with municipalities and identify where additional financial resources are needed, adding that “every municipality needs help, and the county should be in a position where we’re able to offer that.”
Innamorato noted many municipalities and councils of government, which are partnerships between municipalities that can help deliver common services, often fight for the same financial assistance. She said a new policy of “co-governance” is needed, where all layers of government and community groups better coordinate amongst each other.
“We, as the county working in partnership with state and federal electeds, need to be able to draw down more money and support cross-municipal collaboration that you are already investing in to help save time, money and resources and share manpower across the necessary things you need to provide and are obligated to provide,” she said.
Rockey said he’d help create opportunities for “areas to consolidate their activities in a voluntary manner,” with the county then stepping in to help “top off where necessary” so there is a common standard for services.
Fusing together some of the county’s 130 municipalities has long been studied and discussed, but also proven divisive and not carried out.
A long-term population decline in the Mon Valley has left a large number of blighted properties, and candidates said there were various ways to both locate new owners and restore them to the tax rolls. A potential solution that came up repeatedly was forming a specialized office that could work to clear old tax lien liabilities so property sales can move forward.
Weinstein, who has managed county tax collection since 1999, said he wants to create an “immensely streamlined” process for moving properties into the hands of new owners. He also eyed fixing up blighted properties as a way to help tackle what for many residents is a lack of affordable housing, as well as what he deemed to be a public safety crisis.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for us, utilizing the talent and the experience that we have, to change the dynamics of the blighted property problem and affordable housing at the same time,” he said.
Lamb would like to create what he described as a revolving community development fund, where philanthropists and the county can pool resources to help municipalities address needs like blight. Along the same lines, Rockey would issue bonds to generate money needed to reinvigorate blighted properties.
Parker emphasized homeownership needs to be better promoted, and that getting young families into homes can help them build generational wealth to later be inherited.
Active properties can also pose issues for local governments, especially if those with code violations are owned by shell companies that potentially obfuscate the true landlord’s identity.
Innamorato said she would like to create a rental registry where all landlords are clearly identified, adding she thinks a lack of clarity can negatively impact the quality of life for nearby residents and reduce property values.
“More investment funds are purchasing properties, and these are the faceless LLCs that you’re not able to get in contact with,” she said. “We need to be able to track every owner of a building.”
Stressing his background as a lawyer who has gone up against rule-breaking corporations, Fawcett said it is key for the county to go after owners who have code violations.
“You’ve got to hold that stick and have a carrot at the same time,” he said. “It’s all about enforcement.”
While some candidate proposed forming a countywide code enforcement team, Lamb said he’s in favor of trying to standardize building codes where possible across the county while also keeping in mind that municipalities ultimately hold enforcement authority.
“We are a conglomeration of autonomous communities, and our local governments need to be able to make their own communities,” he said.
Candidates also discussed how to bring in new businesses and make sure it’s done in a sustainable way for a region whose residents breathe air that’s often ranked as some of the worst in the nation.
Weinstein said he sees a core part of the county executive’s responsibility as being the “chief marketing agent for Western Pennsylvania,” working “to be able to go out and cultivate business relationships and bring them to Allegheny County and Western Pennsylvania.”
“We have to be able to market the region,” he said.
A crucial task for the county is to redevelop land so it can be ready for use by corporations, according to Rockey, citing recent $500 million of comparable work done in Virginia. He would try and get the federal government to pay for redevelopment.
“Western Pennsylvania is uniquely qualified for the onshoring that is going to come in the next four to eight years,” he said. “It is critical not just for Allegheny County but for the world that we capitalize on making things here with clean energy, as opposed to a mountain that’s going to be made in China with coal.”
Lamb said industrial facilities in the county often appear to operate on a “pay to pollute” basis, and more comprehensive action is needed. But he also pointed to a need to invest in the county’s residents, and his proposal to provide high schoolers with free tuition to the Community College of Allegheny County.
Likewise, Innamorato said it’s important to focus on attracting and retaining the region’s younger residents. She described quality of life issues, with potential solutions in building strong business districts and ensuring there are thriving cultural and outdoor facilities.
One way to spur economic development could be to create a riverfront park, according to Fawcett.
“[That] would be big infrastructure dollars coming in that would help with reviving all of the old mill towns,” he said.
“We need big investments, and we need investments from the county coming into this region,” he added.
Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.