Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The unbearable lightness of being Allegheny County

So we are now well under a month before the fall election. Really!   Don't believe me?  Check Google or something. 

The title race as best one can tell is the race for Allegheny County Executive.   Let's go out on a limb here and make a prediction.  Given general lack of interest, nor any closeness in the race, nor any other mitigating factor this could be the county race with the lowest recorded turnout ever.  In absolute number of voters, or any metric of voter participation you wish.  Low turnout is not news.  The 'ever' part could be.

Do I have some model predicting that?  Not really.  Call it gut feeling, but it also is the case that even Mark Rauterkus isn't running for anything.  Clearly a sign this isn't a cycle of much interest to anyone. 

There is this race for county executive.  The news folks are trying to do their duty following it, but it comes as close to trying to draw blood from a stone as it gets.  One survey suggests it is borderline close to being within single digits close. 41-31 seems to be the numbers.  I'm pretty sure the straight party line voters on the Democratic side will give Fitz a larger number than that right out of the box.  Personally I suspect Fitz is up by 10 points just among Republicans, but we will see how it turns out.  The only outstanding question is how uber-low turnout will impact the final results.

Should we care about the County Executive race? I'm not sure I have an answer. As much as the debate seems to be focused on taxes and spending as is de rigeur for most races..  what does the county really collect in taxes or spend?   In terms of impact on individual pocket books, county government is almost not a factor; certanly the smallest factor of all the layers of government that impact your checkbook.  The county as we know it is mostly a pass through of state funds for state mandated programs without much leeway for the county to change in any way.  What is left in terms of local tax collections funding general purpose government functions, the county pales compared to just about every other level of government.  So when the debates center around how much less the county can spend, you really have to wonder what there is to debate at all.

Don't believe me. Let's just take residents of the City of Pittsburgh.  Here is what I get for the comparative tax collections for the major taxes hitting residents.  Are there other taxes? Of course.  Lots of the other taxes and fees are not directly tied to the resident voters who will be voting for respective. So just for simplicity, this focuses just on the major tax categories of income, property and sales taxes.

So the punch line in comparative tax revenues per capita you get this:

Is per capita the very best metric for this?  Probably not.  But pick your poison and I can't imagine it works out much different if you worked it out per household or something like that.

So for the mythical average resident of the City of Pittsburgh, the taxes collected by local city and school district are nearly 9 times what Allegheny County gets.   I bet if you really parse and figure what fraction of county expenditures could ever really change much, you really have to wonder what a county executive can really impact beyond the sheer bully pulpit he or she gets.  Is the goal a zero revenue, zero expenditure county government?  It becomes more an existential debate at some point. 

I did just leave out the RAD taxes which are not technically collected by the Allegheny County governmnet.  But the Regional Asset District is coterminus with Allegheny County and it's board is essentially appointed by the county. For all intents and purposes it is an extension of the county, but we live with the illusion that it is independent.  If we were to add it in, RAD sales tax revenues were ~$81 million in 2010.  So it would be an additional $66 per capita annually for county residents.


Anonymous BrianTH said...

The County also appoints PAT's board, and generally has a significant role to play in transportation policy. That's reason enough for me to care.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 6:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading this post I'm left to wonder how Onorato thought being County Executive was qualified him to be Governor.

Thursday, October 13, 2011 4:19:00 PM  

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