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Chief executive race focuses on county economy

Jim Roddey works in the middle of a giant campaign ad.

Standing in his office in the County Courthouse, Downtown, Roddey can look out on a city flirting with bankruptcy. But the chief executive of Allegheny County says all’s well on his side of the window.

Roddey, a Squirrel Hill Republican running for re-election against Democratic challenger Dan Onorato of Brighton Heights, likes to call Allegheny County an island of fiscal responsibility in a sea of fiduciary chaos.

Roddey said he’s managed to balance the books, put $27 million in the county’s savings account, create 20,000 new jobs and kick-start the new home rule government during his four years as the county’s first chief executive.

And, Roddey quickly points out, he did it all while the nation’s economy tanked and the region’s economic engine — Pittsburgh — ran low on gas.

He also presided over countywide property reassessments that infuriated thousands of county residents and led to years of appeals.

County Coroner Cyril Wecht, who lost to Roddey in the 1999 chief executive election, said the reassessments will be costly to Roddey.

“Jim Roddey was a political virgin (in the last election). He was a fresh face,” Wecht said. “But Roddey is going to be paying the price for the tax assessment business — which was not his creation. But I think he made a very big tactical error.”

Wecht said Roddey should have challenged the work of Sabre Systems, the Ohio-based company hired by the previous county administration to oversee reassessments.

“His biggest negative is the assessment debacle,” said Joseph Mistick, a Pittsburgh political analyst and lawyer. “That’s just been a disaster. It was a model of mismanagement.”

Onorato has jumped on that issue.

Making property tax assessment reform a pillar of his campaign, the county controller regularly calls the assessment system broken and unfair, pledging to fix it if he’s elected to the four-year term that begins Jan. 5 and carries a $90,000 annual salary.

Roddey has defended his administration’s role in the court-ordered reassessments, saying it was a decades-old problem he inherited and dealt with properly. Roddey also claims to have a plan to reorganize the Office of Property Assessments, but has not released any details.

The real story, he says, is the county’s job growth during a national recession.

“This economic downturn was the worst in 50 years,” Roddey said, adding that Allegheny County added 20,000 jobs under his watch. It’s a figure hotly challenged by Onorato, who said that at most only about 1,300 jobs were created. And overall, Onorato said, the county’s population dropped by 8,000.

Critics say Roddey hasn’t fully delivered on his economic development promises.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said county Councilman John DeFazio, a Shaler Democrat. “Did he do what he promised• I don’t think that happened, and I think that will hurt him in this election.”

The next wave of job growth will come from across the Atlantic, Roddey said. He said he already has hired “agents” in European nations like Great Britain and Germany who lobby corporations to get them to visit Allegheny County.

“(The U.S.) is still the largest and most important market in the world,” he said. “This is still the market everyone covets.”

Cities like Houston, San Diego and Cleveland have, through agents of their own, become destinations for foreign business leaders seeking fertile corporate ground. Once they come to Allegheny County, the region’s health care, quality of life and proximity to places like New York City will seal the deal, Roddey said.

If re-elected, Roddey said he would also offer those companies low-cost loans. The loans would contain reward and penalty clauses tied to the number of jobs a company creates here.

Onorato says that’s a waste of taxpayer money. The government should provide infrastructure — roads, sewer and water lines and clean land — and let the market take care of the rest. There’s no need to pour money into corporations, he said.

Though both candidates agreed to keep US Airways negotiations out of the campaign, both also agree that the result of those talks could shape the county’s future.

US Airways — the major carrier out of Pittsburgh International Airport and employer of more than 7,000 workers in the region — is at best a short-term prop for the airport’s viability, Roddey said.

After haggling with the airline for months to convince US Airways to keep its hub in Pittsburgh, Roddey recently criticized the company’s business plan as being unworkable, and predicts the airline is flying headlong into insolvency.

He has begun negotiating with several smaller discount carriers, and hopes to land a commitment in the near future. At least one of those carriers is close to moving in, he said.

“Hopefully, US Airways will stay,” he said. “But we will not be held hostage by one carrier.”

The county’s four-year-old government needs more work, too, he said. Six row offices — which Roddey called “old holdovers of patronage and nepotism” — should be eliminated. Also, the county must consolidate more services with the city of Pittsburgh.

Merging the city and county emergency dispatch centers saved $1 million, he said. But the city and county can save more by consolidating things like mail services, public works, purchasing, computer services, fleet management and fire and police academies, Roddey said.

For the county, that will amount to about $3.3 million in annual savings, Roddey said. During his recent budget address to county council, he said the county should use that money to increase the Act 77 property tax discount for senior citizens to 30 percent.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” he said. “We just haven’t made enough progress yet.”


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