Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Revisiting Pittsburgh and Allegheny County as an opportunity for city-county consolidation: The "RiversCity" proposal

Partly what got me thinking about city-county consolidation--places like Indianapolis (1970), Knoxville, Macon-Bibb County, Georgia (2012), and what SF and Philadelphia did in the 1800s--was seeing mention of a Brookings Institution report about Pennsylvania c. 2003 (Back to Prosperity: A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania), and it mentioning how so many of the micro jurisdictions across the state including in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is, lacked the financial capacity to serve their residents.

Plus I attended a conference in Louisville Kentucky in 2004, just as they were beginning to consolidate the city and county after a successful vote to do so (A 10-Year Perspective of the Merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, KY, Abell Foundation, "How merger reshaped Louisville, Jefferson County and metro development," Louisville Public Media/NPR).

It was probably easier for Louisville because Knoxville city and Knox County had merged some functions--but not the city and county--years before.

Later I suggested this for Baltimore City and County ("Opinion: What Baltimore and D.C. can do to start working better together as a region (Baltimore Business Journal op-ed," 2016), and I support efforts to do this for St. Louis City and County ("St. Louis: what would I recommend for a comprehensive revitalization program? | Part 1: Overview and Theoretical Foundations," 2021).  I also think Detroit should do it, but ideally with Oakland County!, not Wayne.

It turns out that ten years before Brookings, Professor David Miller (now deceased) of the University of Pittsburgh suggested a proto version of this, a concept called "Rivers City," not for the entire county and not for Pittsburgh but for the various small communities in what is called the Lower Mon(ongahela) Valley ("Small Western Pennsylvania towns weigh merits of merging some public services," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

The economic circumstances they face are issues common to that of municipal finance for communities and metro areas across the country, which I wrote about in "The real lesson from Flint Michigan is about municipal finance" (2016).

Basically our local government finance systems were set up when the country was growing.  They don't work well in changed circumstances.

In the Lower Mon Valley, communities are resistant, believing rightly that they are unique.  Although really, they are not exceptional, and economically at least, they should merge to have greater taxing and funding capacity.  

Those communities haven't merged, but over the years, because of their minimal financial capacity, they have merged services, like police and fire departments.  This phenomenon has been happening across the country for the past couple decades in places like New Jersey, Suburban Detroit, and Salt Lake County.

According to the article, 39 communities make up "Rivers City," ranging in population from 232 to 23,000. The communities total 209,000 in population, while Pittsburgh is about 306,000 and the total county population is 1.238 million.

From the article:

“A lot of these really small towns have now been in a position for about 30 years where they just don't have the tax base necessary to support the full slate of services that they had been used to previously,” Mr. Dougherty said. “And I'll be honest: our response to them has largely been, heal thyself, mostly through service cuts.” 

If it isn’t service cuts, then it’s consolidation — many fire and police departments are either decertifying their operations or merging with nearby departments, Mr. Dougherty said. And it’s likely that sort of functional consolidation, rather than municipal consolidation, will occur in the coming months and years, he said.

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At 3:03 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Tiny Newville, PA, in Cumberland County, which is adjacent to Harrisburg, has the same problems, with less than 2,000 population, has an income tax to help cover its financial issues.

Tiny Cumberland County town faces fiscal nightmare: Raise taxes and cut police, or raise taxes more


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