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Editorial: Commissioner Foerster

A tireless, devoted and visionary public servant

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

Tom Foerster was a giant of Allegheny County government. He served longer as county commissioner than anyone, built more facilities than anyone and will leave a mark on his county that is indelible.

Though he was 71 at the time of his death yesterday, retirement was not his style. Until his recent illness, he was looking forward to serving as a county councilman in a new form of government that was the product of a reform he had set into motion in his last term.

His desire to become one of 15 council members after being the powerful chairman of three commissioners - not unlike a governor returning to the state Senate - puzzled even his supporters. Couldn't he get the government out of his blood? Was it a way to go out a winner, after losing the Democratic nomination in 1995? Or was it, as he insisted, his way of ensuring that the new system got off to a flying start, with the councilman from Troy Hill providing guidance, statesmanship and the steady hand of a veteran?

It was all three. And the experience that a healthy Tom Foerster would have brought to the table was considerable, given his years in the state Legislature and the county courthouse.

He had the vision to have the county bank undeveloped land in the western suburbs for construction of a new international airport that would be proclaimed one of the nation's best. He had the compassion to set up a system of four "mini-Kanes," geographically diverse nursing centers that replaced the county's single, antiquated Kane Hospital.

He had the foresight to develop and sustain an accessible, sophisticated community college system that offered education, employment and, ultimately, better lives to its students, many of whom had little resources. He made the commitment to expand the county parks and modernize their facilities to the point that today they remain any family's biggest recreation bargain.

But Commissioner Foerster's legacy was not one of just bricks and mortar and wave pools.

He was a principal advocate of the Regional Asset District tax, the one-cent county sales tax that reduces the burden on every municipality's property taxes while providing a stable, predictable funding stream for the public's cultural, educational, historic and recreational assets. He initiated action on ComPAC 21, the study and reform process that this year replaced a three-commissioner form of government that often had to go to Harrisburg for power and authority - with a county executive and County Council under a home-rule system that keeps more decision-making here at home.

Although Commissioner Foerster was a devoted, tireless and politically astute public servant, he was not a perfect one. (Who could be for 28 years?)

He missed an opportunity during the Skybus debate of the '70s to begin work on a modern, countywide system of mass transit. Despite his concern for human services, he did little to stop caseworkers in children and youth programs from becoming overworked and underpaid. He did not foresee the property assessment crisis that would help elect two Republican commissioners for the first time in half a century. And his last term was marred by signs that he was losing his grip on a vast and expensive county apparatus.

These were mere chinks in the Foerster armor, though, and on balance the commissioner left county government and programs in far better shape than he found them. His death, unfortunately, deprives the county of one more service that the former commissioner may have been able to deliver: mentor to a fledgling and, one hopes, more responsive government.

But over a distinguished career, Allegheny County has already gotten its fair measure - and more - from Tom Foerster. Farewell, good friend. And thank you from us all.

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