This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters.
By Rich Lord and Charlie Wolfson
Candidates for Allegheny County executive made wide-ranging pledges to tackle the affordable housing crisis, fix property taxes and improve management of the jail during a vigorous town hall debate that also saw each of them defend their records and experience.
County voters are less than a month from picking nominees for a post widely viewed as one of the most powerful in the state. NEXTpittsburgh and PublicSource invited all executive candidates who will appear on the May 16 primary ballot, including six Democrats and one Republican, to the debate at Point Park University’s Academic Hall, hosted by the Center for Media Innovation.
Some 400 people either attended in-person or participated via livestream.
Challenged to be specific about their approaches to addressing the shortage of affordable housing, Sara Innamorato, a state representative who serves on the Allegheny County Housing Authority board, said she’d push for more use of Section 8 voucher funding to place current renters in homeownership. “I believe everyone deserves a safe, stable and affordable place to call home,” she said.
Michael Lamb, now Pittsburgh’s city controller, blamed the housing shortage in part on the liens and debts attached to many abandoned properties, which makes it impossible for new owners to take title. “We want to create a countywide tax claim bureau that’s going to expedite that process,” he said.
John Weinstein, the county treasurer, also proposed a tax claim bureau to clear debts on abandoned properties, but added that he’d build a countywide land bank and an office dedicated solely to connecting investors with properties.
Theresa Colaizzi, a former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member, blamed large nonprofits, especially UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, for buying up land and failing to provide housing and healthcare for displaced people. She repeatedly called the large nonprofits “the white elephant in the room” of the region’s governance.
“I think these people need to be held accountable for all the land they’ve bought up,” she said.
Property taxes: One candidate would reassess
Property has not been reassessed countywide since 2013, when a judge ordered the county to do it against Fitzgerald’s will. Fitzgerald’s administration never did another mass reassessment, instead using decade-old assessments to calculate most tax bills except where taxing bodies or property owners appeal. A court case challenging county assessment appeal calculations has thrown the assessment system into disarray.
Joe Rockey, a former PNC executive, said he’d first “fix the problem that we have in the current assessment process” which includes miscalculation of the taxes due from many recent purchasers of property. People who have been victimized by the miscalculation should be restored to “an even keel so every resident, every homeowner is treated fairly.”
Weinstein said a more transparent system and full-time appeals officers would better address the problems with the current system.
“I can’t support a reassessment until we can protect homeowners,” from potentially massive tax increases, said Lamb.
Innamorato was the only candidate to clearly call for a full countywide property tax reassessment, saying that the current system overtaxes Black neighborhoods. She added that she’d also implement a program that would protect longtime owner-occupants from steep property tax increases.
Will Parker, an app developer and frequent candidate for elected office, said the real issue is “racism in Allegheny County. … This is why I keep running. … Uproot the systematic oppression.” But he would not reassess.
PA PRIMARY ELECTION VOTER GUIDE
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Democrats and Republicans will consider a number of races during Pennsylvania’s primary election on May 16, while other voters may have contests to consider depending on where they live.
Jail: All would change leadership, but how?
No candidate expressed confidence with Allegheny County Jail leadership or operations.
“We’re not applying enough resources and raising the salaries to the level that we can hire well-qualified people, including mental health professionals,” said Dave Fawcett, an attorney who has sued the jail. He’d bring in independent third-party auditors with expertise in corrections.
Weinstein would bifurcate the jail’s leadership, with a warden in charge of handling inmates and corrections officers and an administrator to handle everything else. “The entire operation needs an overhaul,” he said. “The conditions are terrible. Roaches and rats.”
The jail “is going to require new leadership, and that leadership needs to be in concert with the community,” said Innamorato, who pledged to assemble a coalition including former inmates and experts to choose new jail leadership.
Probing candidate problems
The debate was moderated by NEXTpittsburgh columnist Tony Norman, PublicSource reporter Charlie Wolfson and journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In addition to questions submitted by the public, they asked each participant a question that uniquely highlighted their challenges as a candidate.
Lamb, for instance, was asked to address news that his office had employed an administrative assistant who may not have lived in the county and worked another job for a public school — both things city employees are forbidden to do.
“When we found out, she was terminated,” he said, adding that there “was never any actual finding of fact that she was living outside the city.”
Weinstein has built a potent political network in the county, and his campaign raised more than $400,000 in 2022, including six-figure checks from a labor union and a development magnate. He was asked why the public should have faith that he won’t favor huge donors.
“I’ve met a lot of people in Allegheny County, and I’ve made a lot of friendships with the business community,” he said, adding that his biggest individual donors “don’t do any business with Allegheny County whatsoever.”
Innamorato, who originally ran for the General Assembly as a Democratic Socialist, confirmed a questioner’s characterization that she is politically progressive, but said that doesn’t mean she can’t work with law enforcement, developers and other businesses. “I have experience working intergovernmentally across parties to get things done, to bring resources back this region” including roads, bridges and library improvements, she said.
Rockey was asked whether he would take any measures to undo protections Allegheny County Council has put in place to try to prevent any restriction on abortion following the Supreme Court’s decision last year ending the federal right to abortion. Republicans in the state legislature passed bills in recent years that would have tightened restrictions on abortion access in the commonwealth, but they were vetoed by former Gov. Tom Wolf.
Rockey denied that the county executive would have any real role in abortion regulation. “Certainly the role of the county executive is to protect people’s ability to get to the places they want to go” while also allowing “peaceful protest of anything that is going on inside of the county.”
For more on the race, candidates and issues check out the Executive Decision series.
Watch the full debate:
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Rich Lord is the managing editor of PublicSource and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.