City-county merger

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Last Friday, Pittsburgh’s newspapers screamed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s announcement that he is willing to work with Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato to push a public referendum on whether or not to merge the city of Pittsburgh with Allegheny County.

Rust-belt cities (northeastern cities that have experienced economic downturn following a loss of industry) are shrinking rapidly in their urban cores, and with tax bases quickly drying up, redevelopment is difficult. Urban planners are staring longingly at the rich tax base of the still-growing suburbs that benefit from their proximity to the dying city’s infrastructure.

A city-county merger model is the mid-’90s merger of Louisville, Ky. with the surrounding Jefferson County. Government functions and services were consolidated under one government, but individual municipalities (other than Louisville in Jefferson County) were allowed to retain some autonomy.

The big question is whether Pittsburgh would benefit from a merger. It seems intuitively clear that Pittsburgh, which will gain status as it gains population, will benefit greatly. It will have more money from suburban tax revenue to invest in public schooling, develop new industries, streamline city-county services, and update infrastructure.

One glaring problem is that the city will grow from 300,000 largely-minority residents to a largely-Caucasian city of over one million. If districts stay the way they are, minority neighborhoods will hemorrhage political power and thousands will be unable to effect change.

There are plans to redraw districts in order to maintain minority power, but as this city’s suburban ring is more conservative than its liberal urban core, it’s unclear if a merged city would remain the Democratic stronghold that it has long been.

The burst of growth from a merger could make the city attractive to outside investment, especially with Pittsburgh’s preexisting universities, hospitals, and cultural institutions. Still, the city is in disrepair; infrastructure is failing and city services are being cut. Most of the added revenue from the merger would need to be spent on maintenance and repair before being allocated toward redevelopment.

A merger has the potential to put Pittsburgh back on the map, but if it isn’t sensitive to the realities of an aging Pittsburgh — racial politics, decaying infrastructure, autonomous suburbs — it may do more damage than good.