Is it Time for a New Merger Typology?

It has been nearly five years since the Mayor of Pittsburgh stated "a year from now, when you ask the question ‘should the City merge with the County?’ we will have the answer". It has been four years since the County Executive said of a prospective merger "hey state [of Pennsylvania], you have to help fix the unfunded pension and the outstanding debt". And it has been three years since the report of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of City-County Government, or the "Nordenberg report" after the chair of the committee, released its recommendations. That report was to provide the answer to the question posed by the Mayor in 2006.

So what has happened since? We have heard of the 911 consolidation, the City and the County making agreements to purchase services together, the City providing services to other municipalities, municipalities and/or their authorities joining together with others to provide services. Just in the past week there was a failed multi-municipal merger of police departments, a successful merger of water systems, and a merger of fire departments. Unlike the "one size fits all" approach that a City-County merger would have produced (though municipalities other than the City of Pittsburgh, school districts, and authorities would have been untouched) there are a variety of methods by which mergers and consolidations have come about.

They can be cooperative, directed, or voter-driven, and either between various governments (County-City, City-municipal, County-municipal, authority-authority) or wholly within government (a department-department consolidation). Note that the Nordenberg report pointed out that their inquiry was "…limited to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the two important units of government…[it] does not extend to other municipalities or to school districts".

The recent union of the City and the County into a financial management system came at the behest and insistence of the Act 47 team and the oversight board. That would be considered "directed, County-City". The agreement announced between the City of Pittsburgh and the Borough of Wilkinsburg for the City to provide fire protection would be considered "cooperative, City-municipal". That’s similar to the garbage collection pact negotiated between the two governments several years ago.

The pact between two water authorities in the North Hills reported in the newspapers would be "cooperative, authority-authority" and the consolidation of row offices into County departments would be "intra-County, voter driven" since a voter referendum approved that change.

What this suggests is that there is more than one method by which to evaluate the conditions under which a merger or consolidation is undertaken. The typology might help to determine which kind works better than others.

Newspaper Revisits Nordenberg Report

The Post-Gazette in an opinion piece this morning laments that politicians and local leaders have failed to get a referendum question on the ballot asking voters to approve a merger of the Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. In decrying the lack of progress they remind us of the infamous Nordenberg Report from 2008, which recommended the merger vote. According to the op-ed writer the Nordenberg study group did a very thorough job of making the case that with all the municipalities there is excessive duplication and called boldly for a City and County merger to address the issue.

Too bad the op-ed writer has never bothered to read any of the criticisms of the shortcomings of the Nordenberg Report. Analytical ineptitude hardly begins to describe the hastily written report. Misleading use of Louisville’s job growth following merger with Jefferson County and failure to point out the huge differences between the situations in Kentucky and in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh are just a sample of the fallacies contained in the study.

But what really sank the Report almost as soon it was released was the absurd plan for merger. Pittsburgh would merge with the County, but all other 129 municipalities would remain intact. Pittsburgh as a government would cease to exist and be replaced by an "urban services" district. The district would run city services and collect taxes to support the expenses. Unfortunately for the plan, the Pennsylvania Constitution does not allow different tax rates for people and businesses in the same government jurisdiction. With Pittsburgh no longer in existence as a municipality its residents would be citizens of the County and could not be taxed higher than County residents. Moreover, Pittsburgh’s debt and other obligations would be shared by all residents of the County.

What a pathetic effort for seventeen months of study. Little wonder the public, in the City and across the County, have no interest in pursuing the merger.

Perhaps if the writers of opinion pieces would actually read the report and look at some of the criticisms leveled against it, they might climb down off their lofty high horse and deign to consult with a few folks who know something about the issues and problems in the Nordenberg Report. But don’t count on it. Strongly held convictions based on pie in the sky notions are often impervious to facts and reasoned argument.