Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey in the Allegheny County Executive debate (Screenshot/KDKA)
PITTSBURGH — The two candidates for Allegheny County Executive met for a debate on Thursday, less than six weeks before the general election, with Democrat Sara Innamorato, a former state Representative, touting her ability to bring people together, and Republican Joe Rockey emphasizing his business experience as a former executive at PNC Bank.
The candidates are vying to replace Democrat Rich Fitzgerald, who is term-limited from seeking reelection. Only one Republican has been elected county executive since the position was created in 2000.
The hourlong debate gave insight into the candidates’ positions on several key issues affecting the county, including public safety and crime, property reassessment and the Allegheny County Jail.
Rockey said his public safety plan would increase the county police force by 10%.
“It is our mission to make Allegheny County the safest municipality in all of the country,” he said, adding his plan had been endorsed by county police, Pittsburgh police, state police and corrections officers at the Allegheny County Jail.
Pressed for a yes or no answer on whether she would add county police officers, Innamorato said if county police “would like more manpower, I would be in favor of that.”
In response to a question about the region’s homeless population, Innamorato said she would look at staffing levels to ensure county departments were working together “creating a system to move folks from the shelter system into safe and secure and supportive housing so that they become independent. That is going to require us building up that infrastructure, but also hiring up the people necessary to provide that care and support to the people who need it most.”
Allegheny County Jail
Innamorato said she was “thrilled” there would be a new warden after outgoing warden, Orlando Harper, announced his retirement in August. She also pledged to attend all the jail oversight committee meetings, something outgoing county executive Rich Fitzgerald has been criticized for not doing regularly.
“We had 21 lives lost in Allegheny County Jail in just a few years. That has eroded the trust between the community and people who run the jail,” Innamorato said. She added she would improve staffing, and focus on health care “to make sure that the care that people are receiving outside of the jail can be administered in the jail properly and efficiently.”
Rockey said he would conduct an assessment of the entire jail to find out what was and wasn’t working. “We will make sure that the next warden fully understands the challenges in front of him or her so that they are positioned to lead us to the kind of jail that we want, one where the community can be proud,” he said. “One where our corrections officers and our health care workers can have a high morale and provide the services that they desire and one where the individuals who have to be incarcerated are taken care of in a professional manner.”
Both candidates agreed that there was a need to replace the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, which closed in 2021, but both were wary of having a private company run the facility long term. The county announced it was going to contract with Latrobe-based Adelphoi to reopen the facility in January and run it, but Allegheny County Council voted this week to sue the county executive’s office, to determine if the council should have had a say in awarding the contract.
“If we have to stand up for a facility as quickly as possible, and we have to use an outside contractor, I’m OK with that,” Innamorato said, adding if that was the long-term plan, she would be opposed. She said if elected she would seek consensus on what a juvenile detention facility should include. “What I want to do … is to convene key stakeholders who have been working on this issue of injustice with impacted communities and say ‘how do we create a facility that is publicly run, that uses a unionized workforce and has adequate oversight’ so that we can actually control and design the facility that we want to see, and that our young people deserve.”
Rockey said Innamorato had previously spoken against reopening the juvenile detention center, which Innamorato said was not accurate.
“We absolutely need a juvenile rehabilitation and detention center, and if we start with a private company to get it off the ground. I agree with that,” Rockey said. “But I’m not sure we should be signing a five year contract.” He added that it was important to take action in the short term. “It is imperative that we have a juvenile rehabilitation center and that we get the people who are doing violent crime off our streets.”
Allegheny County uses 2012 as its base year to set assessed property values for tax purposes, and there has not been a county-wide reassessment since 2013. A judge decided last year that the county was using an inflated figure for its common-level ratio, as that figure is known, and ruled it should be lowered. But it’s led to a backlog of property tax assessment appeals, Rockey said.
“And accordingly, we are sitting in a place where without fixing the baseline of where we are, it is inappropriate to go and start to do a reassessment,” he said. “Reassessment is stealth for ‘I want to raise your taxes.’” He added he did not want to see senior citizens and others on fixed incomes see a tax increase due to a reassessment.
Innamorato has previously said she favored a new assessment because not having regular reassessments “disproportionately burdens middle-class, low-income, and Black families.”
On Thursday, she said the system in place right now was not working. “It needs to be reevaluated, reimagined. We need to design a new, modern, transparent, and fair system, and all policies are going to have to be on the table in order to do that.” She added, “if it is determined that we need to reassess, yes, I would.”
Asked by one of the panelists if she is a socialist, Innamorato said she was a pragmatic progressive, “in the sense that in order to hold office you need to work with people who believe different things than you on a common goal. And I’ve shown that,” she said.
Rockey said that while he is a Republican, he grew up in a union Democrat household, and would not support Former President Donald Trump. Trump, who has been indicted in four separate cases, is the current leading GOP candidate for the 2024 presidential election.
“Donald Trump is the definition of divisiveness, which is what is wrong with politics,” Rockey said. He called himself a “centrist” who would “lead from the middle and represent the majority of Allegheny County.”
Innamorato chided Rockey for identifying as a Republican: “Even after January 6, even after overturning Roe v. Wade, he’s still committed to a party that is trying to disrupt our election cycle.”
Rockey countered that the upcoming election “was not about national politics such as reproductive health care. The Allegheny County executive has no role in reproductive policy.”
One answer to making Allegheny County more diverse, Rockey said, is more jobs
“It is critical to the future of Allegheny County, that we grow jobs and that we grow the population. Otherwise, we will simply continue to decay,” he said.
Innamorato said her goal was to “use the power of county government to invest in communities that have been left behind, to uplift the voices of people who have not had access to our government for quite some time, and make sure we can actually live out our values.”
A second debate between the two candidates is scheduled for Oct. 3.
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