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Onorato promises to fix property assessment system

When Dan Onorato won his first election, beating a veteran office holder during a Democratic primary for a Pittsburgh City Council seat, it was so unexpected that a reporter came up to him at the victory party and asked, “Which one of you is Dan Onorato?”

A dozen years later, Onorato is a bit easier to pick out: He’s the guy on stage with Jim Roddey at all those county chief executive debates.

County Democrats see Onorato, now 42 and serving as county controller, as their bright hope for ending four years of GOP control of the county’s executive branch. If he wins, Onorato will start his four-year term on Jan. 5 with a $90,000-a-year salary.

Seizing on public uproar over the last round of property tax reassessments, Onorato has promised to reform an assessment system he frequently calls broken and unfair.

If elected, Onorato said he will block any reassessments until he and county council overhaul the system, cutting the taxes by 10 percent and whacking $24 million out of the county’s budget.

Onorato also has promised that the discount senior citizens receive under Act 77 should be applied across the board. Right now, only seniors making less than $30,000 a year qualify for the 25 percent property tax discount.

When the assessments do happen, the new valuations should be announced a year in advance so people have time to appeal, Onorato said. And he pledged to move those appeals to municipalities, so people don’t have to drive Downtown like they do now.

“Hearing officers could do it all with laptops,” Onorato said. “The process is the same; there’s nothing different but the room.”

He also said he will make the assessment office an independent department, out of the chief executive’s control. The position of chief assessments officer would be appointed to a single six-year term by the chief executive, pending county council’s confirmation.

But it’s tough to find good help these days. The last time the county opened the chief assessment officer position, only two people applied for the job.

If Onorato makes the position a once-and-done deal, the pickings will only get slimmer, said Joseph Sabino Mistick, a Pittsburgh political analyst and lawyer.

“I don’t know how you ask someone to come here for six years and then move to Hoboken,” Mistick said.

Onorato also must battle against the memory of the county’s old system of government, dominated by Democratic commissioners. Roddey supporters fear the patronage and nepotism of the pre-home rule system would return with another Democrat at the helm.

Dan Booker, an attorney with a Downtown law firm and chairman of Democrats for Roddey, said he admires Onorato and has supported him in previous races. But not this time.

“I think we’re having tough times in the county, and we don’t want to have the same fiscal troubles the city has run into,” he said. “I think Jim is less likely to get us into those problems.”

Onorato served on Pittsburgh City Council for eight years — though he left the post nearly four years ago to take over as county controller — and Roddey has tried to tie him to the city’s current fiscal crisis, while pointing out that Allegheny County is a relative financial rock.

The way Onorato sees it, the county is merely getting older, not moving forward.

Pointing out that Allegheny County’s population is the second-oldest in the nation — behind Dade County, Fla. — Onorato said he wants to keep young people in the area by appointing people under 38 to county boards and commissions.

But Onorato admits the county needs more than young board members: It needs more jobs.

While Roddey’s campaign says nearly 20,000 more people have found work in the county since he took office, Onorato claims Roddey misrepresents economic growth numbers.

“We have less jobs and 8,000 less people over the last four years,” he charged.

To turn the tide, Onorato said the county needs to build its infrastructure, not grant loans to corporations.

“Government does not create jobs,” he said. “Government creates the environment to grow jobs. Let the market take care of itself. If the market wants a Target, a Target will get built. They don’t need a loan from us.”

The county must first invest its money to clean areas polluted during Pittsburgh’s industrial heyday. Also, he would direct county funds to build roads and lay sewer and water pipes to places like the land surrounding Pittsburgh International Airport.

“There’s 800 acres right now that are ready and clean,” Onorato said. “They just need the infrastructure.”

Airports around the nation are surrounded by teeming economic hubs, he said, while “we have a gas station.”

The final pieces will fall into place when the Mon-Fayette Expressway is completed, the Route 28 corridor is widened and some kind of mass transit system is installed from the airport to Oakland through Downtown, Onorato said.

The current transportation system is a roadblock to 70 percent of the county’s land, making it too inconvenient for large industries and corporations to get to areas that are ripe for development, he said.

During a recent debate, Roddey criticized Onorato’s transportation proposals, calling them vague and reminding attendees that any project on that scale costs about $35 million a mile.

Besides that, federal and state governments — not counties — build most highway and mass-transit systems.

Even if his $24 million tax cuts were put in place, Onorato said the county has sufficient money for his infrastructure, as long as officials spend it in the right places.

The county’s economic development fund contains $50 million, he said. Every year, the county receives a federal block grant of $22 million, and $25 million flows in through bond proceeds, he said.

“We have this land,” Onorato said. “We could build entire international industries on it. We should use that as a selling tool.”


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