On December 6th, Allegheny County Council voted to increase property taxes by 1 mill, or 21 percent, resulting in a new millage for property owners of 5.69 mills. Sadly, but predictably, this action is consistent with the disconcerting pattern of recent years wherein the Council passes illegal legislation that gets overturned in court.
As we wrote last year and earlier this year in a series of Briefs the County dropped the ball on its sunset review of departments. The Home Rule Charter calls for departments to be "evaluated every four years, and be eliminated unless specificallyrenewed" (emphasis added) and charges the County Manager with the review and vests Council with the power to continue, reorganize, or eliminate departments. Council can follow the recommendations of the Manager, but they are not bound by them.
A funny thing happened between the time of the Charter and the creation of the administrative code that spells out the specific sunset review procedures. Section 5-1201.05 B spells out Council’s role once the review is in their hands. "Upon receipt of the County Manager’s recommendation, County Council may adopt an ordinance or resolution on or before October 15 to either (1) continue the existence of the affected department for another four years; (2) to abolish the department, or; (3) Reorganize the department subject to evaluation and review" (emphasis added).
The most recent review-which was published seven years after the first, well past the mandatory four year cycle-came on December 31, 2010. By the code language, Council would have had ten months to take action. They did not have to, since the section says "may" and not "shall" but silence on the matter should not convey continued existence since that is at odds with the Charter language that there ought to be a specific renewal. That is different from renewing by not taking action, or using the budget process as a tacit blessing for a department to continue.
By all indications Council has not taken any action. A search of legislation on Council’s portion of the County website does not turn up anything related to sunset review in 2011 and the latest action recorded was as of December 6 of last year, some three weeks before the review was published on the Manager’s page.
One of two things has to happen: either Council has to amend the administrative code language to change "may" to "shall" so that present and future Councils take an up-or-down vote on sunset reviews or they need to propose an ordinance to strip the sunset review out of the Charter and the code so that is no longer required. The halfway method of delayed reviews and no follow-up makes a sham of the sunset review.
The respective partisan caucuses of Allegheny County Council will soon be meeting to select members to fill the two vacancies caused by Council members who vacated their seats in order to run for the office of County Chief Executive. The Home Rule Charter of the County, in essence the local “Constitution”, spells out how vacancies on Council have to be filled (Article III, Section 9b) and that Council members who want to run for another office must first resign their seat (Article III, Section 6b). Therefore, by all indications we have an instance of the Charter being followed as written.
Should voters in the City of Pittsburgh have the right to approve or reject property tax increases? A majority of City Council does not think so, and have effectively killed a measure that would have put a question on the ballot asking voters if the City’s Home Rule Charter should be amended to require a referendum for tax increases. A petition containing the requisite number of signatures could override the Council’s decision and place the measure before voters.
When the sitting County Executive announced last week that he will not run for reelection (under the Home Rule Charter an Executive can serve a maximum three terms) the President of County Council noted that the Executive’s decision is "…almost like the Steelers losing Troy Polamalu.".
Steeler fans know all too well the effects of missing its starting strong safety: as of the 2011 season the Steelers posted a losing record (5-7) without Polamalu in the lineup. Backups have not gotten the job done. Hard to do for Pro-Bowl players.
So what is the Council President saying? Surely he meant to praise the current Executive, but in so doing he seemed to be demeaning candidates running in the spring and all subsequent holders of the office. It becomes all the more curious when one realizes that the President is likely to be one of those candidates. It makes one wonder if anyone is worthy of the office going forward.
Should the Council President run and win, should he be viewed as a lackluster imitation of the current Executive? If he does not take the office (either by opting not to run or running and not winning) will he treat the successful winner as stepping into shoes they will never be able to fill?
Realizing that the County’s departmental sunset review is well overdue (the Charter requires one every four years, yet the Manager’s office has not completed one since July 2003) three of the Republican members of Council (the Council is responsible for taking action on the Manager’s recommendations in the review) have put forth an ordinance that would get the ball rolling on this fundamental duty.
Under their proposal the Manager must have the review that was due in July of 2007 done in six months from the effective date of the ordinance. The Manager would then have to submit a departmental evaluation schedule by October 1 of this year. Each department would have to be reviewed at least once every four years (it could be reviewed more than once in that time period) and the schedule would have to be communicated in writing to the Executive and the Council. The due date for the sunset review would be July 1 of 2011 and every four years thereafter. If a review cannot be done, a six-month extension would be granted.
Currently the Charter and the Code prescribe no sanctions for failing to have a sunset review on time. The proposed ordinance would tie Council’s role in confirming or denying appointments to the completion of the review, disapproving of all new and pending appointments to County authorities (PAT, Airport, Housing, etc.) until the review is received.
The Mayor of Pittsburgh, members of Pittsburgh City Council, and all City appointees do it; so too do the members of Allegheny County’s personnel board; county officials in Erie County also do it; but whether deliberate or because of an oversight, the Allegheny County Executive and members of County Council do not.
Back in March we asked "has the sun set on sunset review in Allegheny County?" The Home Rule Charter clearly spells out that every County department and agency is to be reviewed every four years to see if the needs of County taxpayers are being met. The review allows the County to determine if the function should be continued, reorganized, or abolished.
That the last sunset review took place in 2003 is troubling to say the least. This is a function that is clearly spelled out in the Charter and prescribes clear responsibilities for the Manager’s office and the County Council. The County should have been close to producing its third review for 2011. Instead, it has yet to act on the second one.
There are no punitive measures spelled out in the Charter or the Administrative Code describing what would happen in the current case. But talk about sending a bad message. Taxpayers ought to know what works and what does not work in County government. So again we ask-where is the sunset review for Allegheny County?