It is difficult to believe that come January, as I leave the office of Allegheny County controller, it will mark a decade since I assumed the role of the county’s fiscal watchdog and taxpayer advocate.
As I first ran for the office and ever since, I have taken an expansive view of what a controller can and should be. While I am incredibly proud of what the office has accomplished within its traditional fiscal purview (significant technological advances, unprecedented public transparency of government spending and a general fund balance that has grown from just over $6 million to nearly $90 million), I am also pleased with the role I have been able to play as an advocate.
My office pioneered paid family leave for government employees, increased awareness of the necessity and feasibility of replacing dangerous lead water lines, convened patients and advocates to shine a bright light on the potential human toll of the UPMC-Highmark “divorce” and brought attention to unacceptable conditions in the county jail.
In this spirit, I am taking the opportunity to urge my fellow county officials and those who will come next: Think big and take action.
Allegheny County is the third-largest government in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the largest local government in Western Pennsylvania. But the impact it can and does have on the daily lives of our residents is not currently reflected in their perceptions.
A perfect example came with the recent receipt of emergency federal aid by our local governments. While the City of Pittsburgh’s allocation process for $335 million was met with deserved advocacy for greater public involvement and transparency, the fact that the county began allocating more than $380 million with minimal input from even elected council members seemed barely noted in the public or the press.
True, it is the Pittsburgh skyline that glitters on national television as a symbol of our region and, when we travel, we proudly say we are from “Pittsburgh” without regard to municipal lines. But only a quarter of the county’s population lives in Pittsburgh proper. Our fastest growing communities as well as those struggling the most with population decline, blight and intractable poverty are outside the city. These communities — and the overall prospects of our region for future growth — require a county government that actively leads and convenes a deeply fragmented collection of municipalities.
Be the leader our communities need
Our smaller boroughs and townships increasingly lack the resources to adequately provide basic services like policing. And, indeed, expecting a community of a few hundred residents to be able to do so in this day and age seems quaint. The Allegheny County Police force of more than 200 officers, many with specialized training, already augments the work of local departments and trains local police through its police academy, but this help comes with few strings attached. The county should be more active in ensuring that local police meet our citizens’ expectations of modern, accountable law enforcement, and could condition increased services from the county police on meeting these standards. It is also likely that more and more municipalities will come to the conclusion that they simply cannot provide policing on their own, as happened in Wilmerding, where the county took over primary responsibility. While cooperation and regionalization with other neighboring communities would be ideal in these circumstances, such agreements have proven elusive. The county should plan to reliably provide service in communities in which departments are understaffed or no longer feasible.
Other areas where the county can do more to convene and coordinate are economic development and lead water line remediation. Leaving 130 municipalities and dozens of small water authorities to compete for private and public dollars does not behoove a county that aims to advance all communities and protect all residents. The county must work toward reducing disparities between communities experiencing unbridled development and those in stagnation, and those residents being guaranteed safe water and those being left behind.
To respond adequately to the needs of varied communities, those with the pulse of these communities must be able to advocate for their needs. This duty falls primarily to Allegheny County Council.
County council members are part time, receive minimal pay and budgets and lack individual staff. Opinions may differ on whether these are features or bugs of the system as compared to other levels of government, but they contribute to council lacking independence from the county administration. A government in which those charged with conveying the voice of the people are hindered in that task is unlikely to be responsive.
Council last year carried out a substantive act of legislating when it considered a paid family and medical leave law, dedicating its limited resources to the task over months, hearing the views of all sides in public forums, adapting its legislation in light of these views and ultimately passing the bill this March. However, this work proved for naught when the administration pulled the rug out from under the legislation on the eve of its passage, insisting that such a regulation could only be put in place by the Board of Health. It was only after the board took action that the county executive signed legislation passed by council in September.
While this reading of state law governing how the county functions can be debated, it should be plain to any and all that it is antithetical to representative government. A body of 15 elected officials should not have to defer to an unelected board on policy affecting nearly every county resident. If indeed this is what the law currently requires, all concerned should commit to changing it.
Even in its most basic duty of passing the annual budget, council is handicapped by inadequate staffing for the task of analyzing and putting its own stamp on a budget of more than $900 million annually. Generally, what the administration submits is what is enacted, with a minor adjustment here or there. Given the enormity of the resources at the county’s disposal, varied perspectives and meaningful checks and balances are necessities that are currently lacking.
Open up the authorities
We must also confront the fact that many of the most critical functions performed by government in Allegheny County are not carried out by the county itself but by our authorities. The four largest of these authorities — the Port Authority, Airport Authority, ALCOSAN and Sports & Exhibition Authority [SEA] — together spend roughly $1 billion annually, which is allocated by unelected boards with little transparency. This has led to questionable spending, in my view — from the distribution of event tickets by the SEA for unclear purposes, to glitzy ad campaigns from ALCOSAN as rates rise and aid programs for residents remain underutilized, to the Airport Authority repeatedly subsidizing airlines that failed to deliver on their promises.
The public would clearly benefit from increased transparency from these bodies, which I have long likened to “shadow governments.” A simple way to provide this would be for the professional team of auditors in the controller’s office to be given access to the authorities. While the authorities undergo financial audits by contracted auditing firms, an independent eye on not only the balance sheets but on how the money is spent is a necessity in government. I unsuccessfully sought this authority in court, but it should never have had to come to that. These boards could voluntarily open their doors to the scrutiny that should be inherent in the spending of public funds.
As safeguards, county council — which confirms appointees to the boards — should insist on candidates from outside the usual circles from which board members are chosen and are therefore less likely to have conflicts of interest or overlook instances where other board members may have them. Additionally, council should closely scrutinize disclosures of business and financial interests made at the time of an appointment.
Take on the big issues (and the big bully)
Even as I hope my successors and the current and future county administrations will take a broad view of their duties, there certainly remain matters at the heart of county government that continue to need to be addressed.
The county’s pension fund is a major fiscal concern that stands to impact our budget and workforce in many ways. At the close of 2020, the pension’s ratio of assets to liabilities stood at only 36.1%. That’s not healthy. While, early in our tenure, county leadership successfully lobbied state legislators for changes to benefit calculations that will soon begin to bear fruit for the fund, these reforms alone will not solve the problem. Neither will continually increasing government and employee contributions, which have been raised in five of the last nine years.
The problem boils down to an imbalance of those drawing from the fund and those paying into it. We should work to return many contract employees, which number in the hundreds, to the county’s payroll and pension system. While bolstering the pension fund, this should also reduce turnover and increase accountability by putting these employees directly under the authority of our elected officials.
While the county is in an enviable fiscal position — having achieved a robust fund balance, strong credit ratings and encouraging economic indicators over the past decade — we must always be mindful that conditions can fluctuate and that revenue options are limited. State and federal funding streams are subject to change, and fiscal support that bolstered county revenue streams that suffered in the recent downturn may not always be available. Priorities like providing human services, supporting public transit and repairing roads and bridges will not be any less crucial if such circumstances should occur.
Nearly half of county general fund revenue comes from property taxes. While this is a stable source that varies little with economic ebbs and flows, the fact that the largest landowner in the county pays no property tax is a deep inherent flaw. UPMC continues to grow across the county. Meanwhile, health outcomes have not improved and appear to have worsened in the most vulnerable areas. UPMC’s status as a “purely public charity” exempt from taxation is laughable to most county residents as a concept and quite possibly legally questionable.
The impact of UPMC’s exemption on the City of Pittsburgh and school districts is even greater than on the county, and impending changes in leadership at other levels of government give some indication that challenges to its status could be renewed. But the county’s role as the preeminent local government, its reliance on property tax revenue and its vested interest in the success and well-being of all of its residents dictate that it cannot sit out this likely fight. In a sense, the county is the “big brother” in this scenario, and the bully has been taking its smaller siblings’ lunch money long enough. If we are to assert leadership and win this fight for resources that support all of our residents, the county must stand up.
As I have sought to make the most of the powers of the controller’s office and the ability inherent in elected office to speak out on a broad array of issues, I hope my successors and my counterparts across county government will do the same moving forward. While I have had well-documented differences with the administration I have served alongside, I must acknowledge the progress it has made on moving the county forward in many ways.
But continuing the evolution of a large, diverse and changing county will require many partners and the acceptance of opposing viewpoints. It will require letting the public see more clearly the workings of government and giving their representatives the ability to more meaningfully influence them. Then, Allegheny County government can fulfill its potential as the driver of regional policy and prosperity that its size dictates.
Chelsa Wagner is in her third term as the Allegheny County controller. She will be sworn in as a Court of Common Pleas judge in January. If you want to send a message to Chelsa, email email@example.com.
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