Pittsburgh Plans the World’s Most Complete Experiment in Federated City Government
Director, Bureau of Government, University of Michigan
The American City. Vol. 36, May 1927. pp. 596-598.
After four years of labor, the Commission created in 1923 to study municipal consolidation in the Pittsburgh area has at last secured the second and final passage, by the Legislature of Pennsylvania, of a constitutional amendment authorizing the establishment of a Greater City of Pittsburgh co-extensive with the present county of Allegheny. This amendment will be submitted to the people of the state in the fall of 1928. If they approve it – as seems highly probable – the Legislature of 1929 will be called upon to adopt a charter for the Greater City which in turn will be submitted to the double test of a majority vote in the county as a whole and a two-thirds majority in at least sixty-three of the existing cities, boroughs, and townships of the county. Pittsburgh will then assume the census status of one of the world’s great cities, with a probable million and a half of inhabitants. It will become the world’s largest city in area, 650 square miles, and will offer the most complete experiment ever tried in federated city government.
The amendment provides for the transfer to the new metropolitan government of all the powers of the county of Allegheny and of such ordinary municipal powers as are not left to the existing local government units of the county. These units are to be preserved with their present boundaries and forms of government as “municipal divisions” of the Greater Consolidated City with the “constitutional and legal capacity of municipal corporations.” The amendment specifically reserves to them “the power to lay and collect taxes and to incur indebtedness”; the “power to own, construct, maintain, operate or contract for all kinds of public property, works, improvements, utilities or services, which shall be within the municipal division and principally for the use and benefit of the inhabitants thereof”*; the power to maintain local police and fire departments which may be supplemental to the police and fire departments of the consolidated city; and the power to determine, within the total allowed by the constitution, the proportions of debt-incurring power which shall belong to the municipal division and the Greater City. All other powers may, although they need not, be granted by the charter to the consolidated city. It is to be noted that the amendment does not at all refer to education or authorize any change in the present system of school administration.
Obviously, the working-out of the adjustment of authority between the city and its divisions will require a very careful study of the whole governmental situation in the county of Allegheny. This, the Commission, which, on April 11, received from the Legislature a continuation of its powers, proposes to carry on with the aid of the best expert talent available. The terms of the amendment are happily broad enough so that they will not serve as a handicap to the adoption of the best policies which may present themselves with regard to the various problems involved.
This is particularly true with regard to finance. The amendment does not affect the existing laws with regard to assessment or taxation in the municipal divisions. The present City of Pittsburgh will continue, as a municipal division, with city powers, to be controlled in these matters by its own “graded tax law” which has attracted such wide attention. The amendment authorizes the Legislature to confer on the consolidated city the power of levying special assessments on the district plan which is not now enjoyed by Pennsylvania cities, thus opening the way to major improvements now impossible.
In connection with the making of special assessments, the amendment requires the classification of property into urban, suburban, and rural, upon the theory that different principles, with regard to the spread and the intensity of benefits conferred by an improvement, apply to the urban, suburban, and rural districts of the vast area included in the city, for, it must be remembered, we are not dealing with an ordinary city. It has been contended by some that, because of the wording of the section, this classification must be applied to assessment and taxation in general. Eminent legal opinion contradicts this assertion. Certainly no such result was intended. Assuming, however, that the classification of property as urban, suburban, and rural is required for ordinary tax purposes, there is ample ground for it in the diversity of the property in the 650 square miles of the new Pittsburgh. Otherwise, no limitations are placed on the Legislature with regard to assessment or taxation and the way is open to the adoption of the best system which the researches of the Commission and its experts may devise.
Apart from such questions of detail as must be patiently and scientifically worked out in the next two years, the amendment promises enormous benefits to Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities and valuable suggestions to students of municipal affairs everywhere. Instead of 124 separate cities, boroughs, and townships, now entirely independent, with no correlation in their efforts to meet problems truly common to the whole region, there will be a single regional government to care for common needs, and 124 units of local government with powers adequate to those needs which are particular rather than general, which powers include their own taxing and bonding power for local necessities. The Pittsburgh area, more than any other region, presents at once aspects of unity and diversity. The irregular surface of the ground has forced industry and population to follow the lines of the streams and valleys. They extend like the blood-vessels of a gigantic body over the whole district. But in between these threads of development are wide open spaces inevitably thinly populated. Each community is separate in a large degree from every other, with its own life, independence, ambitions – and, it must be admitted, prejudices. Nevertheless, they all center on the “golden triangle” at the junction of the two great rivers and have common problems of transportation, traffic, sanitation, health, flood control, etc. Every lover of progress should hail with joy this bold and far-reaching effort to reconcile and fit together the demands of regional government and local independence.
*This does not include main traffic streets or trunk lines for sewers, power or water service serving more than one municipality.