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Innamorato, Rockey debate crime, property taxes in Allegheny County executive race

Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey met in the WTAE-TV studios for the second televised debate in the race for Allegheny County executive.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey met in the WTAE-TV studios for the second televised debate in the race for Allegheny County executive.

Democrat Sara Innamorato and Republican Joe Rockey met Tuesday night for a second televised debate in their race for Allegheny County executive. The hour-long forum on WTAE-TV revisited key topics they argued over a week before, but the extended discussion allowed some policy differences to emerge more clearly.

The debate focused heavily on crime and the justice system, with a particular emphasis on Downtown Pittsburgh. Crime-related issues, including discussions of the Allegheny County Jail and the shuttered Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, took up the first third of the debate.

And the two candidates sounded some similar notes: Both agreed on the need for better staffing at the county jail, for example, and both supported efforts to consolidate local police forces across the county’s 130 municipalities.

But Rockey, who touts the support of a handful of local police unions, sounded a harsher note on crime, repeatedly decrying “an open drug market” in Downtown Pittsburgh and contending that allowing it to continue “is not a demonstration of compassion.”

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Innamorato, in contrast, said “policing isn't the end-all, be-all of safety,” and emphasized the need to deal with “root causes” of such problems as homelessness and crime. She recommended including social workers as part of a police response, while Rockey repeated his plan to hire about 20 more county police officers to provide additional aid to local police.

Both sought to distance themselves, as they had previously, from outgoing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s decision to hire an outside contractor, Adelphoi, to operate a reopened Shuman Center this winter.

Innamorato said she would seek “to put in place an oversight board … to ensure that our provider [is] taking care of the youth that are in their charge,” while Rockey said he would “do everything in our power to get out from under that contract.”

It’s not clear how much impact such solutions would have: The Shuman center previously operated with a juvenile detention advisory board, and the contract negotiated with Adelphoi seems to offer little opportunity for an early exit. While Adelphoi may terminate the arrangement “for its convenience,” the county has no such exit provisions unless it is unable to obtain funding to pay for Adelphoi’s services or Adelphoi violates the contract.

Clear distinctions also emerged on the contentious topic of property reassessments.

Rockey has opposed a countywide reassessment, and on Tuesday he flatly declared: “I will not do a property reassessment … and force attacks on our seniors and those on fixed income.” He said county assessments had gotten out of whack by not properly calculating a “common level ratio” that compares current sales prices with the values set in the last assessment 11 years ago.

“When you mismanage [the process], that’s how you get individual properties out of sync,” he said.

Innamorato argued that more frequent assessments could create a more equitable tax system and root out bias against people of color,a position for which there is some evidence.

She said that she’d want to take steps to protect lower-income homeoners, such as raising the homestead tax exemption prior to carrying out a reassessment. But if the county does nothing, it could end up with “the worst possible outcome, which [would be that] the courts force us to do a reassessment” without such preparations, she said.

The WTAE event was a cordial affair, even less charged than a KDKA forum a week ago. The subject of abortion — a flashpoint in any race — did arise, with Rockey repeating that his “personal opinion on abortion is not relevant because the Allegheny County executive does not set policy for abortion. I will enforce the law, whatever that law is that the state or federal government gives us.”

Innamorato countered, as her campaign has been doing since the previous debate, that county executives can shift the landscape on abortion rights. And she tacitly linked Rockey to the broader conservative movement, referring to ads by outside-spending groups indirectly backed by hedge-fund manager Jeff Yass, a top contributor to conservative causes across the state. A Yass-backed committee has reported contributing $200,000 to two independent expenditure groups that have placed ads attacking Innamorato.

“You're going to see a lot of negative ads about me,” she said. “And those ads you need to know are funded by an out-of-touch billionaire who supports MAGA Republicans and has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting those folks.”

In the end, both candidates stressed life stories that included tales of childhood hardship: Innamorato told the story of how she lost her father to opioid abuse, while Rockey recalled a hardscrabble upbringing on the city’s North Side.

Innamorato, who was previously a state House member, said, “Instead of climbing the corporate ladder, I chose public service, first in the nonprofit sector and then as a small business owner, and then as the state representative.”

Rockey, meanwhile, said he was “very proud of my business career,” which was capped by his work as an executive at PNC Bank before his retirement last year. He said he didn’t “retire to be a politician,” but he added that the election is “about leadership … and the day-to-day decisions that are going to run a county government that supports 1.25 million people, that spends $3 billion and has 7,000 employees. I have had jobs bigger than that.”

A final debate is scheduled to air on WPXI on Oct. 15. The election is Nov. 7.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.