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Editorial: Cranmer's county

He took a political risk and got government back on track

Tuesday, September 01, 1998

It's hard to say whether Commissioner Bob Cranmer achieved his political objective last Thursday night in delivering Allegheny County's first "state of the county" speech.

The red, white and blue bunting, the rented Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and the brass band playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" may have been a bit over the top. But no one can fault Mr. Cranmer for explaining the lesson and the merits of putting policy over politics.

The Republican commissioner, who will pass his chairman's gavel to Democratic colleague Mike Dawida this Thursday, knows all too well the pain and risk of an intra-party split. He and running mate Larry Dunn, of course, broke 60 years of Democratic domination with their stunning election in 1995. Then they nearly broke the county.

On the new majority's first day in office, the commissioners cut property taxes by 20 percent (on top of a 6 percent cut by the departing Democrats) and froze property assessments for five years. Trouble was, they had no detailed plan for how to pay for either consequence.

Soon enough, the county was depleting its cash reserves, laying off workers, freezing pay, getting its bond ratings downgraded, letting the park grass grow and being sued by taxpayers for an assessment system that gave breaks to well-to-do property owners. It told the city, in effect, that it was on its own and that Mayor Murphy shouldn't look to the county for help on major capital projects.

The turmoil was actually worse than that. The Republican duo began pushing the privatization of county agencies, then backed off. The commissioners hired Budget Director Rowan Miranda away from the city, then drove him out with the administration's sheer ineptitude. Commissioner Dunn tried to load the Port Authority with political hires and, soon enough, PAT's longtime and much-praised chief, William Millar, was lost to a job in Washington.

Somewhere in that inglorious second year of the new majority, Mr. Cranmer realized that this wasn't government, this was a travesty. In the summer of 1997, he made what he termed "one of the most important decisions in my administration, in my career, in my life." And, in the history of Allegheny County.

He split with Republican Dunn and formed a new majority with Democrat Dawida.

The year that followed was not exactly the Age of Aquarius, but the county got its financial situation under control, it began reforming the property assessment system, it resumed its partnership with the city and even the grass got cut. It may have a way to go, but county government's credibility is on the way to being restored.

It all began with a daring leap taken by Bob Cranmer, the former party chairman who was bold enough to reject his party's top elected official when he saw the politics overtaking the policy. No one knows where the gamble will ultimately lead Commissioner Cranmer, but it was a decision that led Allegheny County in the right direction.

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