Crucial issues facing candidates for Allegheny County chief executive

Summary: This year, several Allegheny County elective offices are on the November ballot, including the office of chief executive.  Having served the maximum three consecutive four-year terms permitted under the Home Rule Charter, the current chief executive will leave office in January 2024.  As of this writing, eight candidates have announced their intention to run for chief executive.



As head of the executive branch, the powers and duties granted to the chief executive by the Allegheny County Charter include enforcing county ordinances and resolutions, representing (or designating a representative to do so) the county at meetings with the heads of other governments, appointing a county manager and solicitor (subject to County Council approval) and submitting a comprehensive fiscal plan to County Council.


The last time there was an open seat for the office of chief executive, the Allegheny Institute released a report (#11-01) that offered free market-based, commonsense solutions to issues facing county government.


Those included strengthening the charter, crafting a new reassessment policy, addressing problems at the Port Authority and Pittsburgh International Airport and being aggressive on privatization and outsourcing.


Twelve years later, while aspects of those issues may have changed, over all there is still plenty of work to do on each.


For example, there is a new terminal under construction at Pittsburgh International Airport.  But the number of passengers and flights remain below pre-pandemic levels.  The Airport Authority board, with all members appointed by the chief executive and confirmed by County Council, has—in the Institute’s view, unwisely—authorized the use of subsidies to airlines flying to and from the airport.


Bus and light-rail ridership are likewise below pre-pandemic levels.  However, the costs at the now renamed Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) are still near the highest of transit agencies in the country. Low-performing routes have not been eliminated, smaller vehicles have not been utilized and there have been no layoffs while federal, state and county subsidies have not been reduced, thereby driving per passenger costs to extremely high levels.


The one substantial change was in the makeup of the board of directors.  A 2013 state law enlarged the board from nine to 11 members.  But it reduced the number appointed by the chief executive from nine to six (two are confirmed by County Council) and added five appointments by state officials.  Unfortunately, PRT workers are still legally able to strike and a four-year labor contract was recently approved.


There has not been a recent countywide property reassessment and the need for an update to the 2012 base year could not be clearer.  Appeals by property owners and taxing bodies, particularly school districts, are a regular and frequent occurrence.  There was a lawsuit over taxing body appeals, which was dismissed.  A lawsuit over the county’s common level ratio used in appeals is pending.


There are the very important issues of retaining and attracting population and jobs to the county, which candidates are almost certain to talk about at length.


Between the 2010 and 2020 Census, Allegheny County grew in population for the first time since the 1950s.  The 2020 Census count was 1,250,578, up 2.2 percent from the 2010 Census.


Of the 49 counties across the U.S. that reported a population of 1 million or more in the 2020 Census (including Allegheny County) 14 had population growth that exceeded 15 percent from 2010 to 2020.  Included in this group were five counties in Texas, two each in North Carolina and Florida, and one each in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Utah.  With the exception of one county in Washington, all are located in Right-to-Work states.


The most recent estimate by the Census Bureau puts Allegheny County’s July 1, 2021 population at 1,238,090, a decrease of 12,488 (1 percent) from the 2020 Census count.  Components of population change of a specific geographic area include natural increase (births minus deaths) along with net migration (net domestic migration plus net international migration). The Census Bureau shows that in the time frame these values were both negative at 4,711 and 7,820, respectively.


A recent study by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research found that, among the nation’s largest counties, nearly 20 percent of the county’s population is 65 years of age or older, second only to Palm Beach County, Fla.


The December 2022 Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry news release on household employment (including county residents who are working, regardless of where the job is located, or residents looking for work) shows a labor force of 630,500 with 609,300 people employed and 21,200 people unemployed.  The resulting unemployment rate was 3.4 percent.


Compared to the pre-pandemic month of December 2019, the labor force is down almost 20,000 (3 percent) with fewer people employed and unemployed.  The unemployment rate has decreased from 3.9 percent.  But the declines in these components make it clear why that is the case.


Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s data for County Business Patterns by Legal Form of Organization and Employment Size Class, in 2018 there were 33,732 establishments in Allegheny County with 705,835 employees. In 2020, the number of establishments fell by 297 (0.9 percent) and employees by 4,053 (0.6 percent).


What changes would candidates make to reverse the trends in population and jobs? To be sure a substantially more free market-oriented approach would be a break from the past and would improve the county’s long-term prospects.


In the next few years, the remainder of American Rescue Plan dollars will be spent, appointments to key authorities will be made, the lawsuit over the common level ratio may be decided and the Bus Rapid Transit and airport terminal projects will be complete.  If county government spending and employee headcount grow or the county takes on new functions beyond its core responsibilities, the prospect of a tax hike could be real notwithstanding the fact that the county’s millage rate of 4.73 has not changed since 2013.


This year’s operating budget tops $1 billion and there are 6,125 budgeted full-time employees in the government (1,444 are employees of County Council, the Court of Common Pleas and the row offices of district attorney, sheriff, treasurer and controller).


Over the coming months, the Allegheny Institute will publish occasional Policy Briefs on the key issues discussed in this Policy Brief and offer recommendations for candidates and the eventual winner for chief executive as the next administration prepares to take office.

Eyes Focused on Pupil Costs in the Burgh?

Consultants engaged by the Pittsburgh Public Schools at the beginning of 2013 released a finding that the per-pupil cost in Pittsburgh is about $7,000 more than similar districts in Pennsylvania. Reacting to the finding, the Superintendent noted that the school board needs to “…have the facts on the table”. 



It is not clear if the implication is that the board had heretofore been in the dark about per-pupil costs in the District-the Annual Financial Report always contains data on student operating statistics and duly reports the cost per-pupil in 2011 was $21,177.  None of this will come as a surprise to readers of Allegheny Institute Policy Briefs that have made these points many times.  Likewise the state Department of Education regularly makes such information accessible and reported that identical amount for 2010-11, making Pittsburgh the eighth highest in the Commonwealth out of 500 public school districts.


The consultants, as reported in a news article, looked at spending and made adjustments to the data (removing special expenditures such as payments to charter schools) to produce a figure of $18,400.  Compared to “similar districts in the state” that produced an average cost of $11,600, the resulting difference was $6,800.  A later article identified the peer districts as Allentown ($11,952), Erie ($12,913), Hazelton ($10,917), Lancaster ($14,606), Reading ($12,559), and Scranton ($13,792). 


Give the consultants some credit for at least identifying the per-pupil cost and comparing it to other districts.  Let’s hope the report drives some discussions about the District’s budget and the impending arrival of insolvency that has been predicted to arrive sometime around 2016.  Previous consultants missed real opportunities to look at the data they had produced on per-pupil costs and therefore missed real opportunities to make hard recommendations for the District.


For instance, in 2005 (see Policy Brief Volume 5, Number 25) a consultant was paid $250,000 in taxpayer money for a report telling the District it needed to close schools and achieve other savings of $84 million over five years (combined operating expenditures for the District from 2005 through 2010 was $3.3 billion) and found that Pittsburgh’s per-pupil cost was 23 percent higher compared to five midwestern and northern districts. Lowering the Pittsburgh District’s per pupil costs toward the average of those districts would have produced savings on the order of $100 million per year. 


A year later (see Policy Brief Volume 6, Number 61) another group brought in to help the District also presented a review group of other school districts (across the country) but never calculated per-pupil spending even though they had expenditure and enrollment data.  The Allegheny Institute calculated Pittsburgh spending to be 59 percent higher than the average of the other districts. We recommended the District reduce per-pupil costs to around $12,500 with adjustments for inflation and enrollment, something the consultant should have done based on the data available but did not.  


No matter how you slice it, Pittsburgh spends an exorbitantly high amount on a per-pupil basis. 


If student population (average daily membership) is chosen as the basis of comparison, Pittsburgh spent more than Philadelphia ($14,132), Central Bucks ($13,811), Allentown, and Reading, a group that, along with Pittsburgh, represents the five largest districts in the state from the 205,000 students in Philadelphia to the 18,000 in Reading.


If the comparison is based on the relative wealth of the District-using Pittsburgh’s ranking of 386th on the state’s market value to personal income aid ratio list to compare (1st being “poorest” and the 21 districts tied at 480th being “wealthiest”)-we find per pupil spending at similarly ranked districts was lower. Districts included Fairview in Erie ($12,552), Schuylkill Valley in Berks ($15,618), Upper Perkiomen in Montgomery ($13,882), Dallas in Luzerne ($11,154) and Keystone Oaks in Allegheny ($17,929). 


If the comparison is based on geography and is limited to Allegheny County, districts including Duquesne ($20,564), Brentwood ($20,693), Wilkinsburg ($20,569), and Quaker Valley ($20,046) nudge up against Pittsburgh’s level of spending per-pupil. The average per-pupil expenditure of all districts in the County not including Pittsburgh was $15,500. 


With this new consulting report set to be finalized toward the end of the year along with a hefty reshaping of the school board with four of the nine school board members not returning in 2014, perhaps the board will finally get serious about reducing costs-and improving academic performance.

Pittsburgh Takes the Prize: Can It Keep It?

Officials in Nashville are mad. They just saw the most recent ranking from moving company U-Haul that ranks "growth cities" which are "…determined by calculating the percentage of inbound moves vs. outbound moves for each area." The Music City has been dethroned by the Steel City, with the company noting Pittsburgh had a 9% rate in 2012.

Actually there has been no news out of Nashville (it finished 8th in 2012) because of a phenomenon noted in a 2007 Brief we did when Pittsburgh was named "America’s Most Livable City": when a city-to-city or metro-to-metro list or ranking of "most" or "best" is put together it is often dubious. The London Times stated "the publication of the Almanac sets off a round of preening from mayors of winning cities and huffing and puffing from the losers." One has to wonder if losers or runners up even bother to fume at all.

The company has produced the ranking at least as far back as 2008 and if patterns hold taking first place as a growth city is fairly volatile: only Santa Monica has repeated as a first place finisher (in 2009 and 2010); Nashville appeared in 9th place in 2008, disappeared from the top ten in 2009 and 2010, and then finished first last year; 2008‘s winner Wichita has not been in the top ten since that year. A handful of cities-Austin, New York City, San Francisco, and Oakland-have appeared more than once in the top ten. (The company also produces a destination city ranking based on a person making a move to a city of more than 50 miles away from the origination point and does not take into consideration the percentage of inbound and outbound moves like the growth city methodology, and Houston has finished first in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012).

We also pointed out in 2007 the best measure of the attractiveness of a place is whether people stay or leave. Recent numbers show that the metro area and Allegheny County are seeing a small uptick in population (0.2 in the metro, 0.5 in the County from April 2010 through July 2012). When the net domestic migration as a proportion of total population for the 25 largest metros was measured from July 2011 to July 2012 the region did better that Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and seven others but rose slower than fourteen other regions including Tampa, Seattle, and San Antonio.

Allegheny County’s Tax Hike: A Regional Perspective

Setting aside all the madness surrounding the reassessment process that began with the mailing of new values to property owners in Pittsburgh and Mt. Oliver, it is important to recall that Allegheny County Council voted to increase the County millage rate from 4.69 mills to 5.69 mills effective for 2012.  One member stated “the draconian cuts in the state budget” were the cause for the 21 percent millage increase.


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Population Changes in Allegheny County Municipalities: 2000 to 2010

In last week’s Policy Brief (Volume 11, Number 56), we documented the per capita spending and revenues for most of Allegheny County’s municipalities noting the high, low and average values for several spending and revenue components. We also found a strong correlation between population count and total general fund spending and revenues. 

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Debunking Demographic Hype in the ‘Burgh

Giddy editorial writers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette nearly hyperventilated recently upon learning the City’s median age had declined from 35.5 years in 2000 to 33.2 years in 2010.  As they portrayed it, the reason for the significant decline in the median age was a 7,642 increase in the number of people aged 20 to 24 and a nearly 13,000 person drop in the over 65 population.  The editorial lauded the decadal shift in age opining that new stadiums and other attractions around the City are finally paying big dividends.

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Has Allegheny County’s Population Loss Ended?

Has the population decline in Allegheny County that dates back to 1960 finally ended? The latest Census figures show the rate of population loss since 2000 appears to have slowed to a halt-at least temporarily. The question is: has the County turned the corner and is it now poised to begin reversing the decades-long pattern of population loss, or is it more of a momentary pause in losses stemming from the effects of the deep national recession? 

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Counting PA’s Cities

The official numbers from the decennial census will be arriving in the coming months. What does the existing estimate data show now? From the official 2000 census count through the estimated July 2009 period, the state’s population increased 2.6%.

The state’s ten largest cities exhibit various trends in population change over that same time frame. Not counting some minor changes in position of ranking, the cities that constituted the top ten in 2000 (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Reading, Scranton, Bethlehem, Lancaster, Altoona, and Harrisburg) did so in the 2009 estimates. Philadelphia, with 1.5 million residents today, is 30 times larger than the 10th largest city of Altoona, with 46k residents.

Quite a mixed bag in terms of results: Philadelphia (1.9%), Allentown (0.9%) and Bethlehem (2.8%) grew; Pittsburgh (6.9%), Scranton (6.6%), Lancaster (1.8%), Altoona (6.1%) and Harrisburg (2%) declined in population; Erie and Reading remained virtually unchanged.

The extremes overall? Tiny New Morgan Borough in Berks County (increased 225%) and Collegeville Borough in neighboring Montgomery County (down 36%).

Population Change: How Does Pittsburgh Stack Up?

In anticipation of the formal count of population under the decennial Census comes the 2009 estimate of "incorporated places and minor civil divisions". Looking at the list of the 276 places that fit the criteria of being over 100k people-all the way from New York City at close to 8.4 million to Boulder, CO at a scant 160 people over 100k-shows a population count of 311,647 for Pittsburgh, ranking it 61st. Year over year decline has slowed since the earlier part of the decade, and overall Pittsburgh has lost 6.6% of its 2000 estimated population of 333k (the official Census count was 334.5k).

How does Pittsburgh’s estimated change over the decade stack up? Revisiting our research back to 2004 when we started looking at cities in a comparative perspective provides an idea.

Our peer group report looked at ten other cities of similar population size (we used a range of 305k-380k from 2000 estimates). All of the cities increased in population-from a 0.6% bump in Cincinnati to 39% in Raleigh. That latter city, along with Colorado Springs and Minneapolis, no longer fit the population range we defined six years ago having reached more than 380k in 2009.

We then looked at Rust Belt cities-here Pittsburgh finds more company with Detroit (-3.7%), Buffalo (-7.5%) and Cleveland (-9.5%) posting decreases. Philly (2%) and Milwaukee (1.2%) netted positive numbers.

Lastly, our Benchmark City-a concept much broader and one we have revisited twice-shows all four regional hub cities growing over the decade. Salt Lake City is up 1.1%, Columbus 4.9%, Omaha 8.1%, and Charlotte is up 21%.

Analyzing County Population

New Census data on 2009 estimates for counties in Pennsylvania and the U.S. is now available. Here’s what it shows for Allegheny County-population as of July 1, 2009 stands at 1,218,492. That’s down 5% over the decade from the July 1, 2000 figure of 1,279,929, a drop of just about 61,500 persons.

If the estimates data holds the 2008-2009 change represents the first net increase of population change in the County this decade. The 2008 population was 1,218,227 so the 2009 total would represent a small positive uptick of 267 people. Certainly a far cry from year over year losses earlier in the decade, some of which were quite significant (losses in the 2003 to 2005 period were reported at over 10k each year).

As a percentage of the seven county metropolitan area population (Allegheny along with Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland) Allegheny County fell slightly from representing 52.6% in 2000 to 51.7% in 2009.