If there truly is strength in numbers, the nascent organization CONNECT eventually could pack some power on behalf of a good cause.
The Congress of Neighboring Communities includes leaders from Pittsburgh and 34 adjoining municipalities and was formed in recognition that those suburbs which share a border with the city also share many of the same problems and challenges. The group's mission, in broadest terms, is to keep the members talking so they can work together to improve economic conditions in the region.
The member communities are home to 680,000 residents - 310,000 of them in the city - which represent 56 percent of Allegheny County's population, 80 percent of its transit riders and 75 percent of its jobs. Despite those big numbers, the 13-month-old organization is off to a slow and cautious start.
Suburban communities already cooperate extensively through the eight Councils of Government in Allegheny County, participating in joint purchasing plans, for instance. CONNECT, as a broader subset of the municipalities in the county, presents significant opportunities for expanding those efforts, particularly on mass transit, sewer and water service and public safety, including ambulance and fire protection.
In some inner-ring suburbs, underfunded ambulance services and depleted volunteer fire departments struggle to serve their communities, while across the border Pittsburgh deploys a paid, professional corps of firefighters and emergency-rescue personnel. Suburbs are challenged by the rising costs of trash pickup by private haulers, police protection and snow removal, while the city may have the ability to extend such services into neighboring communities.
There is real opportunity for teaming up for mutual benefit, but during a recent meeting with the Post-Gazette editorial board, CONNECT leaders seemed to have no near-term concrete plans for achieving savings or efficiencies.
The University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and David Y. Miller, associate professor and director of The Innovation Clinic there, has served a valuable role in bringing together these neighbors, who despite proximity still exhibit a certain amount of suspicion about each other's motives. Our hope is that Pitt's efforts as a neutral broker will inspire and drive the parties to deliver tangible gains.
CONNECT offers enormous potential for sharing public services and appears intent on doing rather than studying, but at this point, members seem to be going out of their way to avoid any talk of such joint efforts, let alone the C-word - consolidation. If municipal leaders are serious about speaking with one voice for the region, though, they eventually will have to deal with the elephant in the room, the current governmental structure that includes 130 boroughs and townships and 43 school districts in a single, expensive county.