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New County Executive Faces Fiscal Challenges

Many people tend to 'take it slow' over the holiday season, but Rich Fitzgerald has no such luxury.

"It's been very hectic, as you can imagine, because there's been a lot of issues in transition, to try to put a government together, to put an administration together," said Fitzgerald, who will take the reins as the next Allegheny County Executive in January.

But the assembly of his administrative staff will be the least of Fitzgerald's worries once he's inaugurated. He'll move into the county's highest office at a time when both the operating and capital budgets are shrinking, and social services are facing large cuts.

The capital budget has taken the biggest hit, and Fitzgerald said that will translate into tough choices for road and building maintenance.

"Like many homeowners, we have to make choices," said Fitzgerald. "Probably a lot of homeowners are deciding, are they going to fix the sidewalk, the roof needs fixed, the plumbing needs upgraded, they need a new bathroom, but you can't do it all at once. So, you kind of make choices and prioritize, and that's what we're going to do with the capital budget."

County Council has also approved a 21 percent property tax increase for 2012, a measure that Fitzgerald defended. He contended that the percentage increase is less than the inflation adjustment since the last tax hike about ten years ago.

"Nothing else can you buy, have you bought in 2002 that hasn't gone up more than 21 percent: college tuition, health care, gasoline, utilities, et cetera," said Fitzgerald.

The revenue from the tax increase will be used to abate some of the proposed cuts to social service programs.

Property Reassessment

Not only are taxes on the rise, but the County is also in the process of reassessing the value of every property within its borders, as ordered by Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick. Fitzgerald is a staunch opponent of the reassessment, calling it a "system fraught with nothing but chaos" that will lower property values and result in school district tax increases. He said that he's resolved to defy the reassessment by using 2002 property values in next year's tax bills.

"Who sets policy in this county, an unelected court system or the elected representatives of the people?" asked Fitzgerald.

He said that he's not sure if sending out the 2002-based tax bills would exacerbate the legal battle over the reassessment, but he would go through with the plan regardless.

Marcellus Shale

It may be the state that ends up setting policy in Allegheny County when it comes to gas exploration. Several of the county's 130 municipalities are debating the use of zoning laws to restrict where infrastructure related to the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry can be placed in their communities. Many township managers are opposed to Senate Bill 1100, which would prevent local governments from making any zoning law regarding shale drilling, leaving that power solely to the state. Governor Tom Corbett and many Republican legislators favor the bill, as does Fitzgerald.

"I think we need to have uniformity across the state," said Fitzgerald. "I think it makes us less competitive if any company, or particularly in this case, the drilling companies, have to come in and deal with 130 municipalities in this county and hundreds of others in other counties."

Fitzgerald said that he'll seek to lease county-owned land at Pittsburgh International Airport for drilling. He said that the property is mostly industrial brownfield and is a good first step toward opening up more leases on other county properties.

Fitzgerald will take up these issues — and plenty more — after his inauguration on January 3rd.