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Deadline, Schmedline

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Allegheny County may expect its residents and business owners to pay their taxes on time, but when it comes to reviewing the efficiency of its own operations, deadlines apparently don't apply.

Under its Home Rule Charter, Allegheny County is obligated to "protect the taxpayers of Allegheny County by requiring that each County department, agency and function is subject to" review every four years. Each so-called "sunset review," according to the county's administrative code, examines each department's programs and services to determine whether cuts or changes would benefit the county.

The problem, however, is that the sunset review is more than three years overdue. And on Aug. 24, three Republican county councilors introduced legislation to put an end to the delay, requiring the county to complete the review within six months.

"It's absolutely cheating the people," says co-sponsor County Councilor Matt Drozd (R-Ross). By now, the review "should have been done," he adds.

Sunset reviews are the responsibility of County Manager James Flynn Jr. According to the administrative code, the county manager must complete the review and "recommend to the Chief Executive and the County Council the modification or elimination of any department, agency or function that no longer meets the needs of the county's taxpayers."

After receiving the county manager's recommendations, county council "may adopt an ordinance or resolution" to continue the department for another four years, eliminate the department or "[r]eorganize the department subject to evaluation and review."

But without a sunset review, council's hands are tied. And they've been that way since 2007, when the first and only sunset review was completed.

"It's kind of disheartening that this has taken as long as it has," says Eric Montarti, senior policy analyst for the Allegheny Institute of Public Policy. "What kind of message does this send?"

Montarti, who published a policy brief about the overdue sunset review in March, points out that county residents must make sure they pay their property taxes on time, just as bar owners are responsible for their drink-tax payments each month. So he has trouble understanding why the county can't meet department-review deadlines spelled out in its Home Rule Charter.

"It's a fundamental charter duty," he stresses.

But the missed deadline doesn't come as much of a surprise. In 2003, the county passed legislation mandating the creation of a searchable online database of campaign contributions made to elected officials. The system was supposed to be fully operational by January 2007; it wasn't established until the spring of 2009.

"I hate to say so," Montarti says, "but it sure seems like a trend."

Montarti says delaying sunset review is of particular concern because it's important for the county to evaluate the efficiency of its departments. For example, he says, perhaps the county's Parks Department performs many of the same functions as its Public Works Department. "Maybe they should make a recommendation that [the two departments] merge," says Montarti.

Drozd, who recently sponsored the sunset review legislation along with Vince Gastgeb (R-Bethel Park) and Chuck McCullough (R-At Large), says the county could benefit from "a tremendous amount of restructuring."

"There's a lot of waste we could consolidate," he says.

According to county spokesperson Megan Dardanell, Drozd may soon get his wish. The wait for the review, she says, is almost over. "The sunset review is in the draft stages and should be ready by the end of the year," she says.

As for the three-year delay, Dardanell says there's an explanation: "We've had a lot of changes in county government" since the last review was completed, she says. Among other changes, she says three row offices -- Prothonotary, Clerk of Courts and Register of Wills -- were consolidated in 2008 to become what is now the Department of Court Records.

"Because of all the changes, [the review] was delayed so we could have a more meaningful review," Dardanell says. "We needed to allow them to operate" before conducting the review.

Even without a full sunset review, she adds, the county routinely examines its operations during yearly budget discussions.

"They kind of do it every year in the fiscal plan," agrees County Council President Rich Fitzgerald (D-Shadyside). "It's basically done on an ongoing basis."

Fitzgerald says he doesn't see the need to eliminate or drastically restructure any county departments. "For the most part," he says, "I think the county does have its house in order."

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