Regional Cooperation Is Not Capitulation


Oct 17, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on October 17, 2004.

The realization that economic progress comes with mutually beneficial partnerships, says Sally Sleeper, will transform thinking in local government

The Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area -- the region encompassing Allegheny, Fayette, Washington, Westmoreland, Beaver, Butler and Armstrong counties -- has the greatest number of local governments per 100,000 residents of any metro area in the United States. Coordinating the actions of these 460 local governments to promote economic development and job creation in the region as a whole will be one of the toughest challenges the area faces in the years ahead.

The way to meet that challenge is to bring municipalities to the table and forge a consensus that we are all in the same economic boat. If every municipality has an oar and rows in a different direction the boat won't make much progress. But if everyone works together to row in the same direction, we will all move forward.

Let's be clear on one contentious point: This doesn't require erasing all municipal lines and creating one government for all of southwestern Pennsylvania. What it does require are mutually beneficial partnerships between governments.

The home rule authority of local governments is important because it ensures the direct accountability of government officials to local residents and allows each community to develop in accordance with the desires of the people living there. But dividing the region into so many local governmental jurisdictions can also lead to fragmentation, which arises from the absence of a single government with the power to look out for the well-being of the entire region. Throughout the United States, economic stagnation or decline has been most common in areas with high levels of government fragmentation.

Fragmentation tends to produce competition between local governments seeking to attract and keep jobs and businesses in each individual community. This works against efforts at cooperation to bring economic development to the region. In contrast, when communities work together and spend less time fighting over every slice of the economic development pie, they can focus their attention on baking a bigger pie.

Municipalities are increasingly interdependent, as people commute across local boundaries to work and shop. It's common for a family living in one community to have the husband working in a second community, the wife working in a third and to have the couple and their children go to shops and restaurants in other communities on a regular basis. This means a paycheck generated by a job in one municipality will be spent on goods, services and taxes in several surrounding municipalities.

Desirable housing, a strong urban core, an effective transportation system and open spaces are all important attributes of economically growing regions. These attributes can be fostered most effectively by practicing regional decision-making. In addition, the business environment faced by private-sector decision-makers is shaped by the policies of municipalities across the metro area, putting a premium on the need for localities to work together.

Allegheny County governments have a history of cooperation. An example of this would be informal agreements among two or more municipalities to share expensive equipment for public works projects and emergency response. Other examples would be more formal service and purchasing agreements, along with the operation of Councils of Governments encompassing many jurisdictions.

Allegheny County, its municipalities and business and community groups have tackled tougher cases of cooperation as well. For example, the governments and groups successfully negotiated plans to share property tax revenues generated by newly constructed developments -- such as shopping centers and office complexes -- that straddle municipal lines. This enables municipalities to work together to bring new businesses to the area. Communities have also cooperated to create the Regional Asset District, which redistributes some sales tax revenue among municipalities and helps fund facilities that serve the entire county such as the Pittsburgh Zoo.

Case studies of other regions have shown that when regional cooperation expands, regional economies grow stronger.

Disjointed decision-making across many governmental entities can create an unattractive environment for growth and development of wealth-generating, regional-export businesses. Inconsistencies in policies among local governments may create conflict among municipalities that can kill efforts to bring in new employers and even drive out existing businesses.

We can see the benefits of regional cooperation by looking at success stories from other parts of the United States.

In one case, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota established a regional council to provide decision-making and policy oversight primarily in economic development and land-use planning, as well as some region-wide services and functions. The Minneapolis-St. Paul council provides planning, decision-making and policy oversight for regional growth, affordable housing, regional parks, and regional services such as aviation, transportation, open space, water quality and water management. There is regional revenue sharing to even out fiscal resources to local governments, and some services are provided regionwide.

In another example, Portland, Ore., built on its history of regional cooperation among special service districts and councils of governments to control sprawl by centralizing decision-making for transportation and land-use planning policy, as well as authority for regional service functions.

Rebuilding the regional economy does not mean subsuming local control over services. It means making decisions that affect the regional economy at the level of government that will most effectively create maximum benefit for the region and its people. Ahead of the curve.

Sally Sleeper is a management scientist at the RAND Corp. in Pittsburgh.

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