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April 17, 2008

Chancellor sees benefits for Pitt in city-county merger

A proposed city-county merger likely could benefit Pitt and the area’s other colleges and universities, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg believes.

Nordenberg chaired the citizens advisory committee on the efficiency and effectiveness of city-county government — formed by Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and City of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl — that recently recommended that city and county residents vote on consolidation.

The advisory committee’s report calls for intensified efforts by city and county leadership to pursue cooperative ventures; the formalization of the current commitment by the two government leaders to work together through a “cooperation compact,” and an opportunity for city and county residents to vote on the desirability of consolidating the city and county governments, perhaps as early as 2009.

In addition to regional voters, the merger would have to be approved by the city and county councils, and by the state legislature, which would need to approve a voting referendum.

According to Nordenberg, the region’s troubling economic trajectory led the committee to stress the benefits of unified leadership and a common, regional vision for the future.

The 13 members of the citizens advisory committee met twice-monthly over 17 months, solicited input from more than 40 individuals with relevant expertise, went on a fact-finding visit to “Metro Louisville,” which consolidated city and county government in 2000, and commissioned a RAND study on economic development.

Expenses for the committee’s work were paid by local foundations, the report noted.

Following the April 3 press conference on the Pitt campus announcing the committee’s recommendations, Nordenberg told the University Times that a city-county merger likely would have positive effects for the region’s higher education institutions and their graduates.

“We believe that the recommendations in this report would elevate the region, and increase the likelihood that it would return to a place of greater economic growth,” the chancellor said. “That, obviously, would be wonderful not only for the University of Pittsburgh, but for all the colleges and universities in the region. The population loss is directly tied to low job growth. To the extent that we can stimulate the economy, more and more of our graduates will have the opportunity to stay here, which a lot of them have as their first choice.”

At last week’s Senate Council meeting, Nordenberg elaborated on his committee’s report, including the recommendation that the governments of the city and county be merged.

“Both the mayor and the county chief executive embraced all the recommendations, including that consolidation recommendation, which means that this is a proposal that likely will get a lot of attention in the months ahead,” he said.

“That’s good news and bad news for me. The good news is that the idea is being advanced; the bad news is I’m not done with the project,” which he will be asked to defend as it is debated, he said.

Nordenberg said he was heartened that Onorato and Ravenstahl were on board with the report’s recommendations, giving him a sense that the region has a good chance to change the status quo.

“I really don’t mean this as a political remark, but if you look at the economic trends in this region, they’re characterized by severe population loss, by anemic job growth, by wages that trail the wages that are paid in competitor communities — trends that really aren’t heading in the right direction,” he told Senate Council April 9.

“If you care about this region you have to at least take a serious look at how to create a more positive environment for growth. Almost all of us are interested in that because we’re here. We’ve chosen to be here and a lot of us have been here for a long time and we care about the Pittsburgh region,” Nordenberg said.

“Obviously, that also has implications for an institution like Pitt,” Nordenberg continued. “I remember when I was first named interim chancellor, [former senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences] Tom Detre gave me an article called ‘The Last Boola, Boola.’ The article focused on Yale, and said that as great as that university was, there were clear limits on its potential because of the community in which it sat and the problems it confronted on a daily basis just outside the walls of its campus.

“The basic point is that if you are an institution in a community, to a large extent what you can expect to achieve is a function of the vitality of that community,” Nordenberg said. “At Pitt, the notion that the city is our campus and that this is a great urban setting in which to get an education for life in 21st-century America has been part of our successes in recent years. So we really have a self-interest at stake as well as a stake as citizens.”

The 24-page report, “Government for Growth: Forging a Bright Future — Built on Unity, Efficiency, Equity and Equality — for the People of Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh,” can be read at

—Peter Hart

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