Tough Sledding for Lift Proposal

As part of the drive to find efficiencies in County government and determine the proper functions of County government the Parks Department and Council’s Parks Committee might test the slopes to see if there is a private interest out there who might want to take over the skiing and snowboarding functions at Boyce Park. We have written previously about the County’s efforts (here, here, and here) which go back to a 2007 study on identifying revenue sources in the park system. The County put out a request for proposals for the Boyce Park facilities but it was not successful in drawing interest.

The Executive, sounding a bit like the Governor when discussing the liquor store privatization plan, stated "We’re going to take a look at, say, our ski slopes, (and ask) is that a business we should be in. I don’t know that it is."

That’s the perspective the County needs to take as part of its next Sunset Review and not be dismissive of getting the report done and being serious about it. The 2003 Review raised the issue of looking for alternative revenue sources for the parks,

Savings to be Found at the Jail?

The Allegheny County Jail has a prominent place in the Pittsburgh visage (being situated on the banks of the Monongahela River and next to the Liberty Bridge) but a relatively small place in the overall County budget. In 2011, the Jail totaled $55 million in expenditures, about 7% of the $767 million operating budget. There are ways to save money on its operations, however, and County Council is going to look at how to get that done.

An article today raised issues related to electronic monitoring and prisoner work detail in order to control the institution’s costs. The 2010 sunset review said that the Jail should "…manage inmate population growth, continue development of alternative incarceration programs". The report pointed out that the County does contract out a portion of the Jail’s operations: a non-profit provides medical services, a for-profit provides food service; laundry and halfway house programs are handled by contract. The sunset review also said that "the County could contract additional functions to make the jail a private facility".

The Jail’s most recent annual report for 2009 shows that most of the people that did end up there stayed for two weeks or less and that over the five year period through 2009 admissions decreased.

Sunset Review: Time for a Change?

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 specifically renewed" (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.

Chief Executive Goes to Washington

The Allegheny County Chief Executive participated in a meeting yesterday with other county level officials from around the country as they met with the President and other high ranking Federal officials on the issues pertaining to county services. Since "Federal policy, regulatory and budgetary decisions can have tremendous impacts on county governments" the meeting "was a great opportunity to share our thoughts and positions on a number of critical issues" according to the Executive’s press release.

Infrastructure and air traffic were topics, as was the jail. The Executive raised the Federal regulation that suspends Medicaid benefits after the end of the first month of incarceration, which cost the County $11.3 million in 2010 (the County contracts this service out to Allegheny Correctional Health Services according to the 2010 budget) and the Jail’s budget for 2011 is $55.6 million.

Allegheny County’s jail is one of 69 county jails in Pennsylvania. Some operating statistics from the PA Department of Corrections: in 2009, Allegheny County’s jail "usage" (average in house daily population/bed capacity) was 87%; the statewide average for all county prisons was 83%; its average cost of housing an inmate was $57.04, roughly the middle of the pack for the county prisons in the state; Allegheny was also lower than the statewide average of full-time security per 100 prisoners (based on the average daily population) at 17 to 21. Data from the County Jail’s annual reports shows that the average number of inmates maintained grew 8% from 2005 to 2008.

Short of a major change in Federal policy on Medicaid coverage for incarcerated people, could the County find savings elsewhere at the jail to offset the expense? The sunset review stated "the County contracts halfway house programs, food services, and laundry services. The County could contract additional functions to make the jail a private facility". Note that the review did not specify what the additional functions were. And it is not clear if by the last part of the statement the review the intention was a full privatization of the jail. That idea would likely be quickly dismissed by the public sector unions and their backers.

Charter Members

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.


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Improving Home Rule in Allegheny County as the Second Decade Begins

As home rule government begins its second decade in Allegheny County-the effective date of the Home Rule Charter was January 1, 2000-taxpayers and residents of the County have several big issues coming at them related to their government. 

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Sunset Review Redone?

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.

Sunset Review Still Hasn’t Seen Light of Day

Back in March of this year (Policy Brief Volume 10, Number 16) we inquired as to the whereabouts of Allegheny County’s mandated periodic sunset review. Under language in the Home Rule Charter-“the constitution of Allegheny County” according to its drafting committee-the County’s departments, agencies and functions are to be subjected to periodic review to determine if the needs of County taxpayers are being met.

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Taxpayers Still in Dark on Sunset Review

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?