Connect conference unites municipalities on Port Authority resolution

By Gwenn Barney

Representatives from Pittsburgh and 36 surrounding municipalities broke both bread and new… Representatives from Pittsburgh and 36 surrounding municipalities broke both bread and new policy ground at the fourth annual Congress of Neighboring Communities Thursday afternoon.

At the legislative meeting, followed by a reception, representatives from local governments presented resolutions for the group to tackle in the coming year. This year’s goals addressed ways that the municipalities and city can collaborate to handle municipal-boundary-defying issues, including sustainable energy and Port Authority funding.

The congress, known as Connect, is a project of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. The idea for Connect sprung from the mind of Pitt professor David Miller in 2009, with its goal being to bring together municipalities and the city to arrive at policy decisions. Previously, no organization continually fostered collaborative policy work between the city and its surrounding municipalities.

“Connect is not trying to consolidate municipalities,” organization director Kathy Risko said. “We’re trying to take the policy structure we have and make it make sense.”

Connect project manager Jay Rickabaugh explained the reasoning behind GSPIA’s hosting the congress.

“The University is a great neutral convening ground for this sort of initiative,” he said. “If the city reached out to the suburbs, there would be suspicion on the part of the suburbs that the city was trying to take over and if the suburbs reached out to the city, there would be suspicion on the city’s part.”

Rickabaugh said that when Connect was first proposed to municipalities, there was concern that the city would dominate conversations because of its size and reach. However, according to Rickabaugh, this hasn’t been the case.

“The city’s demonstrated a quiet leadership,” he said.

Within Connect, separate committees specialize in given policy issues, such as transportation or blighted and abandoned buildings. At this year’s annual congress, which took place at the Twentieth Century Club on Bigelow Boulevard, members of Connect committees presented for the entire body resolutions the organization will take on for the next year. Members of Connect meet monthly throughout the year to continue to advance policy initiatives that expand beyond municipal boundaries.

All of the resolutions proposed at the event were passed by unanimous vote, and most were not debated or elaborated upon for more than five minutes. “[The monthly meetings] are largely where the work happens,” Risko said.

The singular exception to this lack of communal conversation was the transportation committee’s proposal that Connect lobby Port Authority, Allegheny County government and the state government to enact “a long-term sustainable public transportation funding solution to keep our region thriving.”

At the announcement of this resolution, Wendy Stern, Port Authority’s assistant general manager for planning and development, asked to speak.

She presented the congress with statistics related to the way the recently announced Port Authority service cuts would affect all 37 municipalities with representatives present at the meeting. The proposed cuts, totaling 35 percent of Port Authority’s current service, include the elimination of 46 of the 102 routes in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area as well as the discontinuation of service after 10 p.m. on all but 13 routes.

Stern cited statistics that stated 51 percent of commuters to Downtown and 25 percent of commuters to Oakland use public transportation to reach their destinations.

“People in Pittsburgh are much more likely to use public transportation than in other cities of a similar size,” she said. “For many people, public transportation is a lifeline to work, worship and everyday living.”

She said Port Authority is working with local unions to cut pensions in an effort to better balance its budget.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, also in attendance at the meeting, added to Stern’s statements information about the county’s plan to prevent the cuts.

He said the county’s efforts to eliminate the $65 million public transit funding hole involve a two-pronged plan of reducing pensions for the unionized Port Authority workers and seeking local contributions, such as donations from corporate sponsors. Fitzgerald said these tactics can “hopefully” produce $30 million. The remainder of the $65 million would need to come from state appropriations.

“We hope the state can come up with the $35 million,” he said. “I think it’s important that Connect and member organizations continue to push on this issue.”

After the speeches, the resolution was put to a vote and passed unanimously. In all, the congress passed 14 resolutions on a variety of policy topics this year.

For aspects of the year-round work that culminated in Thursday’s event, Connect employs student interns from GSPIA. Colby Howe, Rick Joyce and Jenn Zaffuto filled the intern positions most recently.

Zaffuto, who recently graduated from GSPIA with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and Urban Regional Affairs, spent two years interning with Connect.

At the congress, she gave a speech before its members presenting background information for a resolution from the committee on blighted and abandoned property.

Zaffuto said it was a GSPIA adviser who recommended she apply for the internship.

“She told me it was an organization that was good for self-motivated students willing to take a project and run with it,” she said.