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.

Merger Misprint

In last Tuesday’s USA Today an article on city-county mergers-likely prompted by a proposed referendum vote this fall in Memphis and Shelby County, TN-was printed which contained the following statement: "Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pa., are considering forming a single government".

Really? That might have been true in May of 2008 right after the release of the Nordenberg report calling for an end to duplicative services and a referendum on merging "at the earliest appropriate time" but a funny thing happened on the way to the proposed consolidation.

There was the problem with how a merged entity that did not include the 129 municipalities other than the City would function; that a constitutional change would be needed to allow the City to become an urban services district that would permit the citizens of the district to be taxed at a higher rate than the citizens in the merged entity outside of the urban services district; that all areas in Allegheny County (and PA) are incorporated and have their own form of local government, a case quite different from other mergers; and this goes without mentioning the huge financial liabilities of the City that voters in Allegheny County would be reluctant to take on would the issue ever make it onto the ballot and that no one involved in the report is vocally expressing their support or questioning why their suggestions are so slow-going.

The possibility of a ballot question was essentially killed in August of 2008-approaching nearly two years now-when the County’s legislative delegation said it was not ready to pave the way for a bill allowing a question. What have the City and the County done in the time since to convince taxpayers they are aggressively looking to end duplication in public services while there is no merger talk?