Municipal cooperation gains foothold in fragmented region
When it comes to governments, southwestern Pennsylvania has plenty. In fact, few regions in the nation are more fragmented. So it’s not surprising that consolidation has been a popular topic of late. And, to some extent, the notion appears to be taking hold.
Just don’t expect that to translate into significantly fewer municipal councils, boards, authorities and school districts.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that’s not going to change much,” said David Miller, a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs professor, former city budget manager and past director of the Pennsylvania Economy League. “There are 130 governments in Allegheny County. Unless something remarkable happens, 25 years from now we are probably going to have 130 governments in Allegheny County.”
Where change is being seen is in the growing recognition of the consequences of government fragmentation and the willingness to begin to address some of them, most notably recent efforts to break down walls that discourage municipal cooperation and collaboration on finding solutions to shared issues ranging from sewers to public transportation.
People who reside in the hills and valleys of the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area are ruled by more than 900 distinct government entities. That’s a lot by any measure. Only St. Louis among the 15 Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions has more.
Miller’s Metropolitan Power Diffusion Index looks at government decentralization more closely. The measure gives each region a single score based on the number of local governments it has that provide 11 common services ranging from police to sewage and how much each of those governments spend to provide those services. The more local governments there are spending greater amounts of money, the higher the region’s MPDI score.
Chicago is the only region in the nation more decentralized than the Pittsburgh MSA, according to MPDI scores based on 2007 data, the latest available. Trends show government is becoming more fragmented in most regions across the country. Regions in the Northeast are, on average, the most decentralized, but the slowest to become more fragmented. Regions in the West, on the other hand, are among the most centralized, but are becoming more fragmented and are doing so at a much faster pace than anywhere else in the country.
How many governments are too many is anybody’s guess. Miller recalls the time when the topic came up in conversation with a municipal manager from Charlotte, NC at a national conference. “He was saying there were so many governments in his area they couldn’t get anything done. I asked how many governments he had to contend with. He said, six. And I thought as I sat there, ‘I could spend the rest of my life trying to reduce the number of governments in Allegheny County from 130 to 60, and I would still have 10 times as many as this guy is complaining about.’”
Trimming the number of governments that exist in southwestern Pennsylvania is a notion that has failed to get much traction. But there is evidence that efforts to more effectively deal with some of the consequences of fragmentation are gaining momentum.
Fragmentation has many difficult-to-manage consequences. It lends to fiscal disparities among municipalities, and southwestern Pennsylvania has more than its fair share of fiscally distressed boroughs, including several former steel towns in the Monongahela River valley. Fragmentation exacerbates segregation by race and class. It makes fiscal mercantilism more likely, raising the risk that tax jurisdictions will compete against each other to win over businesses by offering lower rates and better incentives than their neighbors.
And fragmentation can diminish the sense regional unity, push collaboration down on the list of municipal priorities and make solving large-scale problems that cross jurisdictions more difficult.
In that regard, at least, southwestern Pennsylvania is making some headway. Through the four-year-old Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT), for example, City of Pittsburgh officials work with officials in the 37 municipalities it shares a border with to address common issues, such as water and sewage, public transportation, emergency medical services, economic development, and blighted and abandoned property.
Few other U.S. regions have such a mechanism for collaboration within the urban core, although the data make a strong case for it. In southwestern Pennsylvania, the urban core communities are where the economic engine resides. Allegheny County is the most densely populated, wealthiest of the seven MSA counties, and two of three Allegheny County jobs are found in the CONNECT communities. The urban core also holds 55 percent of the county’s population, 14 of 15 county council seats, four of the six state senate districts and all three congressional districts.
“CONNECT came together when the city and those municipalities that share a common border recognized that they have a lot more in common than they thought they had,” Miller said.
Allegheny County is also home to the Regional Asset District, which allocates county sales tax dollars as part of one of the largest metropolitan revenue-sharing programs in the United States.
The coming years promise to test the strength of municipal cooperation in the region. One of the most critical tests is the reengineering of a 4,000-mile network of aged water and sewer lines in Allegheny County that the federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered be undertaken to resolve long-standing pollution issues. The region’s largest public works project to date involves 83 municipalities, the City of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority. Each owns a piece of the storm and sewage system, the problem and the legal obligation to solve it.
To date, municipal cooperation has produced the first digital map of the entire sewer network and saved an estimated $12 million by jointly conducting a required flow-monitoring program. But bigger challenges are around the corner, not the least of which is figuring out how to share the cost of billions of dollars worth of sewer fixes. “The real issue here is governance,” said John Schombert, executive director of the nonprofit 3 Rivers Wet Weather, which was created to help municipalities address the sewer problem. “We can’t go forward with a model of distributed ownership through 80-plus entities. We have to look at regionalization of the system, which, I think, will be easier to accept than something like the consolidation of fire and police services. With these wet weather plans there’s no asset. It’s all liability.”