Beware Utopians in Renaissance clothing

Beware Utopians in Renaissance clothing

As surely as the swallows return to Capistrano and the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio, Greater Pittsburgh’s smart set (self-anointed) has dusted off that oldie (and still badie) idea of consolidating and/or merging the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

The latest iteration of the entreaty that has come and gone over many decades comes in the spring 2020 edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine. Tucked in at No. 3 on a “10-point plan” in pursuit of “facing facts and seizing opportunity” for “Pittsburgh tomorrow,” is this description/rationale (paragraph breaks added to facilitate easier reading):

Such a city-county coupling would “allow municipalities within the county to remain independent if they wish and others to voluntarily disincorporate into the new, larger city.”

“Pittsburgh would go from the 66th to the 10th biggest American city, with all the attention that would bring.

“Eliminate service duplication and reduce municipal disparities.

“In creating a new, modern government with the best in technology and efficiency, we would make Pittsburgh a public sector model.”

Goodness gracious, just watch those city buzzards eat those suburban swallows.

First, a few general observations from the available scholarly research:

Such consolidations have been rare. And even in those few instances where “success” is claimed, there has not been clear-cut evidence of lower costs.

Instead of a larger, single government creating claimed “efficiencies,” what’s created instead are larger bureaucracies.

Now, to a few Pittsburgh-specific issues:

Will all those wacky “progressive” city policies be force-fed down the suburbs’ throats?

Will the city attempt to bail out its still seriously underfunded pension plans with those of the generally healthy suburbs?

Heck, will the city that once poison-pilled privatized garbage collection use a spoonful of sugar to help the cyanide go down to dismantle the privatized garage collection that is the norm rather than the exception all through the county?

And, betcha-by-golly-wow, perhaps the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority, that prime example of a public utility government done wrong – now never, ever to be allowed to even whisper the word “privatize,” let alone consider or do it – will be the model for the new consolidated government.

Egads to all.

And these are only a very small sample of the issues to be faced.

Yes, there are documented case of success. But, again, as one public administration scholar once put it, while the selling point is efficiency, that doesn’t happen very often.

As misguided as is this latest call for merging Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pittsburgh Quarterly’s 10-point plan concludes with this Pravda-esque gem:

“Capitalize on internal marketing and public messaging … to create an ongoing public messaging engine that uses the power of persuasion to get our citizens behind and believing in the projects” listed in the 10-point plan.

And if using taxpayer dollars to attempt to sell this pig in a poke fails, it even wants local media companies on board to, led by the nose, disseminate what by any other name will be government propaganda.

Did these folks learn absolutely nothing from the hustle that was the defeated “Regional Renaissance Initiative” of 1997?

The same “smart set” that, more than 20 years ago, spent oodles and boodles of money attempting, and failing, to convince us that we indeed can tax our way to prosperity now claims merging our way to prosperity is paramount. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The entreaty to this latest incarnation of good governance self-immolation ends thusly:

“Imagine a city that innovates for a future we can’t yet comprehend. Imagine a green and healthy place that defines sustainability. Envision a region where everyone belongs and reaches their potential – a Pittsburgh where freedom of expression flourishes and creates a continuing cultural renaissance.”

Then as now as always, beware Utopians in Renaissance clothing.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).