Over his 12 years in office, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has led the county through a transformational period for the Pittsburgh region, though it hasn’t come without its difficulties – and occasional political clashes.
With less than a year to go in his final term, Fitzgerald spoke with City & State to recount his biggest victories, his most testing moments and shared some advice he has for the county’s next executive.This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
When you look at your last three terms in office, what are you most proud of that you've accomplished?
I'll start off with the census numbers. Going back to the 1950s, every time the census came out, Allegheny County would be losing population. It just was a matter of how much – sometimes double digits, sometimes 5%, 8%, 3%. For the first time, when the census came out in 2021, and for the first decade of the century, we actually grew again. That showed me people are voting with their feet and staying. Our young population – the 25-to-34-year-old age cohort – grew by 20%, which is almost double the national average of 11%. Our population grew in diversity a significant amount, we've had an 80% increase in the Asian American population, an 80% increase in the Hispanic American population, and over a 100% increase in the mixed-race population. We're becoming younger and more diverse and that's in large part because of jobs, the economy, quality of life, affordability – all those types of things that we really would work on has been something that we've been able to achieve.
Also in the 12 years since I've been county executive, whatever you paid in county property tax when I took office – we were paying $400, you're paying $400 12 years later – it has not gone up. Even with inflation, it is still the (same) amount. In doing so, we have increased our investment in infrastructure, we've done the 400 miles of road we were supposed to do and re-paved them all.
We've really reduced our bridge maintenance. The 500 (deficient) bridges that we own have gone significantly down into single digits. Our fund balance is the highest it's been – it's now over $50 million dollars. It was only $5 million – the Rainy Day Fund – when I took office. Our bond rating is the highest it's been in 40 years with Standard and Poor's and Moody's.
What's been the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your time in office?
Certainly the pandemic. I'd say I'm certainly not alone in that. But we were heading in a certain direction until March of 2020. And then, obviously, everything changed health wise, economically, – just about everything we did.
Do you have any advice for the person who will end up filling your position?
Advice starts with: work hard, come to work every day and be active, be collaborative, work with all of the partners that I mentioned.
You’re the public sector, but you’ve also got to work very closely with the private sector, with our universities, with the labor community, with the various community groups. I think to keep the momentum that we've been able to achieve over the last decade is going to take that type of collaborative effort.
In the past, you've described yourself as a “pragmatic progressive.” What does that mean to you and how do you think your ideology lines up with the voters of Allegheny County?
I think it lines up pretty well – because I think we are pragmatic, meaning let's get the job done. Let's meet the challenge. Let's solve the problem, whatever that problem might be. By “pragmatic progressive,” on the social standpoint, (I’m) for a woman's right to choose, supportive of the LGBT community, supportive of civil rights and diversity, and even economically, certainly to make sure that fair wages – fair working conditions, the wage and wealth gap – we need to work on closing some of that – the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
I think investing more in education and in skills and the type of things that will allow all workers and all people to move forward in a good way is something that I’m in favor of, but I'm not necessarily in favor of dismantling the free enterprise system.
The right to collectively bargain, I think, is a really important aspect. So, I think that would probably place me a little bit to the left of center, but I wouldn't be to the extreme left of center that would do things like immediately close off the fossil fuel industry and do that in a very fast and abrupt manner.
A unique issue to Allegheny County and Western Pennsylvania as a whole has been how to balance the economic advantages of natural gas with climate concerns. How do you strike that balance? How would you grade your job trying to balance these two interests?
A lot of those things that you're talking about get decided at the state and federal levels. When it comes to regulation and initiatives that come out of that, I think we've balanced it pretty well. We've been very strict in regulating pollutants. (We have) an 80% reduction over the last 12 years on hazardous pollutants. That's something we can be very proud of knowing that there's been a transition over the last decade or so away from coal towards gas. It's for lots of reasons, many of them obviously economic, but it has certainly had a vast improvement on the carbon footprint in this region, but also nationally. I think we could probably even do a better job of regulating the industry, but we don't tax the industry at this point with an extraction tax. That's something I'm very much in favor of, but don't have the authority locally to impose that. That's got to be done at the state level.
I think along those lines, we've been able to make some really significant improvements. We're going to be moving in a direction of more sustainability and we've been a big part of that. I instituted and we're building a hydroelectric plant that's going to use our rivers to generate the electricity that's going to power the courthouse, the county office building, the nursing homes that we have, our parks, our jail – all the facilities that we have are going to be totally off of fossil fuels when that hydro plant comes online.
There have been multiple reports about poor conditions in the Allegheny County Jail. What makes the county jail such a contentious and complicated issue?
I think there's certainly a national movement of national voices that want to talk about the way incarceration is done and carried out. There (are) 67 counties in Pennsylvania. We're one of only three in the whole state that has received and been accredited by the American Correctional Association. We worked very hard in lowering our jail population. In fact, earlier in my tenure the average jail population was around 2,700 inmates, it's down to under 1,500 right now – almost 40% or so reduction in what we've been able to do.
A couple of years ago, we had an issue with suicide and suicide rates in the jail. We brought in a national organization called the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and they made some recommendations that were very helpful to the operation of the jail. In almost three years since then, we've only had one suicide in that period of time. We look to try to find improvements in the way corrections are operated. For some folks, they don't like to talk about success. They want to try to highlight failure. That's a political reality that I think a lot of jails have to deal with. When Gov. (Tom) Wolf a number of years ago talked about closing the state correctional institutions, we were the first ones and I think maybe still the only one, in Allegheny County, that offered to have our state prison closed and that did come about. So, we've worked very hard to try to make some improvements along those lines. When those improvements occur, certain people get very quiet. But when there's something that obviously goes wrong, they'd like to trumpet that.
You have roughly a year left in office – what might your political or professional future look like?
I had a 30 year career in private industry, which I very much enjoyed. Now I've had a 12-year run – or 11-plus, at the end of this year it'll be 12 years. I'm a southwestern Pennsylvanian, I’m a Pittsburgher. I'm an Allegheny County resident. It's where I've grown up. It's where I was born. It's where I raised my family and my wife's from here. I'm going to stay here. It's where I want to be. I want to be involved in something along the lines of a university, economic development, workforce development – those types of things. Maybe a foundation. Something that I can use my talents and my energy and my desire to continue to connect people to opportunities that will help them improve their lives and keep them here as we try to grow this region.
So I don't see myself being a lobbyist for any of the private developers or private industry, but really to be something in what you would consider the nonprofit (sector) around economic and workforce development.
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