With 23 recommendations and more than 60 pages of explanations and supporting documents, the residents of Allegheny County have a lot to deal with now that the Government Review Commission has released its report.
“The whole idea of self government is to improve as much as we possibly can on a daily, weekly, yearly basis. So, I think our commission can be very helpful and be a guide to (Allegheny County) council and the (County) executive,” Mark Forester, the Allegheny County Government Review Commission chair said.
The Allegheny County Home Rule Charter, which was enacted in 2000, required a top-to-bottom governmental review after five years and then additional reviews every 10 years. The first decennial review was released to the public Tuesday morning.
“We began our work one year ago and it’s been a long process,” Forester said. “I think we’ve come back with a solid report to the people of the county.”
Among the recommendations is a call for regular pay increases for county council and the county executive. The executive’s pay was set at $90,000 15 years ago and has not been increased since then. Allegheny County Council’s compensation comes in the form of a per-meeting stipend, totaling no more than $9,000, and $3,000 in expenses. The commission is recommending that the executive’s pay be immediately increased to $117,108.60 with the ability of increasing automatically. The commission is also recommending that the council stipends and reimbursements be changed into a salary and set as 10 percent of the executive’s pay.
“I found it amazing that in 15 years that the compensation for the county council members and the county executive has been zero,” said Review Commission Member Jim Nowalk. “We did not think that was good government.”
The amount of the initial bump in pay would be limited by the Home Rule Charter, which caps pay raises for those elected positions at 5 percent.
Also grabbing some attention within the walls of the county court house is a recommendation that a special task force be formed to review the possibility of merging the Allegheny County Police Department with the county sheriff’s office. Forming the commission could be done by county council, but merging the offices would require a voter referendum. The task force would also be asked to consider if the head of a combined office should be appointed by the county executive or elected by the voters.
“This country was founded on a system of checks and balances,” Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen said. “We’re an arm of the court, so there is an inherent problem if we are going to answer to a chief executive by an appointed position.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he would have to review the best way to manage such an office and would do the same with any suggestion to merge offices, but will consider what is best for the 1.3 million citizens of Allegheny County.
Also in the long list of recommendations was a call for all departments to follow the financial procedures already in place that require all county income and spending to pass through the treasurer’s office and for county departments to be required to make their own diversity reports, rather than the county launching periodic audits.
The members of the review commission voiced concerns that their work would be placed on a shelf and ignored.
“It seems as though the commission from 10 years ago, some things were followed up on, but most were not followed up on, so it would behoove the executive and council to follow up on a regular basis,” Forester said.
Rick Schwartz was a member of the Government Review Commission and a former member of county council. He said the first review might have been less impactful because it came when elected officials were still trying to figure out how to run the government.
“We have the benefit now of three different administrations and variations of council and I think that this is the first one that actually got to see all of the transition,” Schwartz said.
However, to make sure it does not happen again, the commission has recommended changing the Home Rule Charter to force the county council and the executive to publicly and formally review to, "Report to the people of Allegheny County on what action has been taken to implement the recommendations.”
Forester is quick to point out that this is not an effort to make the recommendations of the commission binding.
“Of course it cannot be binding or why have a council that’s elected and an executive that’s elected? They are the people that we entrust to do the right thing, to do the right job,” Forester said.