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.

Major Changes in the Makeup of the Port Authority Board

The Governor has signed legislation that will dramatically alter the board of directors of the Port Authority (PAT).  What was a nine member body with members serving staggered five year terms and appointed solely by the Allegheny County Chief Executive will become an eleven member body with members eventually serving staggered four year terms with appointment power shared by six individuals.



The idea behind what is now Act 73 of 2013 began germinating a few years ago with recurring financial problems at PAT.  The argument was made that since the state put in a significant portion of PAT’s budget there ought to be state level appointees on the board.  The Auditor General’s 2007 performance audit of PAT called attention to our work (see Policy Brief Volume 7, Number 9) and that of the 2006 Governor’s Transportation Commission’s thoughts on the matter, and pointed out that “taxpayers from across the state have been providing most of the funds to operate [PAT] for many years…the governing structure of [PAT] must be changed to include permanent representation by the state on the behalf of state taxpayers”.  The Authority did not challenge the Auditor General’s argument in its response to the audit, noting that state law determines who serves on the board. 


Fast forward six years to this year’s legislative session.  A bill changing the PAT board was introduced in the Senate in early June.  Though the Act went through many changes, these items remained the same from the first proposal:


  • A new board would have eleven members.
  • The Governor and the legislative leaders of both chambers would make appointments.
  • Board members would be term limited and would have to possess a background in finance, transportation, or economic development.
  • PENNDOT would be charged with undertaking a study on what benefits consolidation and privatization can have on revenues and expenses.


Most of the changes dealt with how to apportion local appointments.  In earlier versions of the bill the County Executive would have had either one or four appointments to the new board.  The Mayor of Pittsburgh, County Council at Large members, and County Council members of the opposite political affiliation of the Executive would have had appointments but those were eliminated as amendments were adopted.  The final version of the Act gives the Executive six appointments in total. Here’s how those appointments will be made: four will be chosen freely by the Executive, and two will be drawn from a list compiled by four community-based organizations and confirmed by County Council.  There is no requirement that a member of County Council serve on the board as the law currently requires, but a member could certainly be appointed. 


The terms of current board members end in 60 days, and the law permits any of those members to be reappointed.  Once the new board is seated, the terms will be staggered so that expirations occur at various times.  Board members cannot serve more than three consecutive terms, including the initial appointment.  The table below shows when appointments would be made over the next decade.


Appointing Official

Years Making Appointments


2013, 2017, 2021

Senate Pro Tem and Senate Minority Leader

2013, 2017, 2021

House Speaker and House Minority Leader

2013, 2016, 2020

County Executive-2 free nominations

2013, 2015, 2019

County Executive-2 free nominations

2013, 2016, 2020

County Executive-2 nominations drawn from list and confirmed

by County Council

2013, 2015, 2019


Assuming all of the initial 2013 appointments serve for the maximum three terms, the appointees of the Governor and the Senate leaders will have served twelve years, House leadership appointees and two Executive appointees would have served eleven years, and four Executive appointees would have served ten years.


A quorum for meetings is six members, but it will require seven members to “take action on behalf of the Authority”.  That means it could require one state level appointee to join with the six County appointees on a decision, or, conversely, two County appointees to join with the state appointees to get business moving forward.   Obviously the point of this requirement is to ensure that the County-level appointees can’t do anything unilaterally without at least one state appointee consenting.


The state will exercise significant power on the board in two other ways. First, for adopting by-laws, appointing a CEO, authorizing bonds, borrowing, leases, and contracts in excess of $5 million the two board members appointed by the General Assembly who are not of the same political affiliation of the County Executive can move to table this business to stop it and/or second it to move it forward.  Under current partisan arrangements, that would mean the appointees of the Senate Pro Tem and the House Speaker would get important veto power over these areas. 


Second, the Governor’s appointment is the only one that does not have to be a resident of Allegheny County, only a resident of the Commonwealth.  This appointee might come from another part of the region or another part of the state and would provide a broader perspective should indeed the Governor not select someone residing in Allegheny County.


A statewide say on PAT business, board members with qualifications, and a study to determine what exactly privatization and consolidation can bring: is a new day dawning for PAT? While not as draconian as it might have been, the just enacted law will certainly offer opportunities to bring professionalism and business acumen to oversight of the Authority.