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Pa. County Hopes Construction of New Court Campus Can Revive City

Fri February 13, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Ramit Plushnick-Masti - ASSOCIATED PRESS

MCKEESPORT, Pa. (AP) Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. doesn’t see the dilapidated buildings or alleys that have long been the turf of drug dealers when he looks at an almost empty lot in this rundown city.

Instead, he envisions a $35 million public safety campus with the state’s first decentralized court, a unified police force serving dozens of communities, social service agencies and a district judge. Nearby, property values rise, attorneys move in, restaurants and shops open to serve new clientele.

Zappala and other planners of the suburban Pittsburgh campus say the project will help revitalize the region while making county courts accessible to an area that disproportionately needs them. Only about 16 percent of the county’s population of 1.2 million live in what is known locally as the Mon Valley, but about 25 percent of divorce and child related cases and 23 percent of criminal complaints originate there, Zappala said.

“This is going to happen. We just need to figure it out,’’ said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, who is leading the project and hoping to get some funding for it from the economic stimulus package President Barack Obama is expected to sign soon.

Onorato said he has already lined up about $6 million worth of leases — including about five county social service agencies that would move into the building, county police, McKeesport police and six courtrooms for preliminary hearings — that would help pay for construction.

He also is looking for additional partners, such as the YMCA, which could open a family center on the campus. Zappala estimates about 66 percent of the funding could be covered by federal and state grants.

Other U.S. cities have successfully decentralized their courts, including the California towns of San Diego and Sacramento.

Battered when steel fled, McKeesport has seen its population decline by 14 percent since 1990, with just 22,000 people living in the city 15 mi. east of Pittsburgh today. Almost 25 percent of McKeesport families live in poverty, nearly 15 percent higher than the rest of the country.

The town’s main street is a series of boarded-up buildings speckled with a few banks, check-cashing stores, a rundown CVS and a handful of family owned businesses. A riverfront industrial zone that was once home to the steel mill that made the city prosperous is now only partially occupied.

At the weed-filled lot where the new campus is planned, McKeesport Mayor James Brewster envisions new buildings, a bustling work force, restaurants, gas stations and even a hotel.

Across the street is “The Independence Zone,’’ where Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh are building “green’’ housing that talks to elderly residents, telling them when they’ve taken the wrong pill or turning on the lights when they get up at night to use the bathroom. A model is already up and several more are planned.

“It’s going to be more than choosing which police departments go in there and which agencies move into that campus. This is going to be a destination point,’’ Brewster said.

If all goes as planned, groundbreaking for the campus will be in 2009 and parts of it will be open by late 2010. Officials estimate that municipalities could save tens of thousands of dollars annually because of the new campus.

Its center will be the court, expected to provide about 200,000 residents in 33 communities in the eastern part of the county easier access to district judges, and possibly a rotating common pleas judge. There will be a secure evidence room, police offices and a lockup.

The new court will save hours for regional police who now trek to downtown Pittsburgh — a ride that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on traffic — to book arrests and for arraignments.

Ray Billotte, district court administrator for Allegheny County, said the president judge has already approved moving the region’s preliminary hearings, currently heard in about seven different locations, to McKeesport.

In addition, the site will have adult and juvenile departments, pretrial services, family services — including those relating to custody, child support and divorce issues — bail agents and probation officers, Billotte said. In the future, a Common Pleas judge may work from McKeesport, but that has to be approved by the state’s high court.

Another part of the project involves merging police departments. McKeesport spends $3.5 million a year on its department of 60 full- and part-time officers, some of whom specialize in narcotics, Brewster said.

Already, McKeesport gives services to Dravosburg, a nearby town of just over 1,800, for $135,000 a year. The city has offered to do the same for Versailles, and Brewster — at Onorato’s instruction — is planning to meet with about seven other municipal leaders to see if a regional department can be established.

In Pennsylvania, home to more than 2,500 municipalities, merging services hits a nerve. But in tough economic times cost-cutting could be tempting and the county will fund the move to the new campus, Onorato said.

“This can be a win-win for every community that participates, it can be a win-win for every police department,’’ Brewster said.

Zappala, the district attorney, believes McKeesport is just the beginning. About 7 miles away in Braddock, an even more economically devastated area, local police coupled with federal agents in October to round up 78 people accused of being key drug traffickers.

Within days, Zappala gathered Onorato, a Catholic bishop from Braddock, and officials from the town’s biggest stakeholders — the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and U.S. Steel. He pitched a plan to use hundreds of acres of county-owned property to build a secure college campus paid for by a U.S. Steel endowment. The campus would attract businesses to long boarded-up downtown buildings, Zappala believes.

“We’re taking the worst possible circumstances…and we’re talking about a future for those areas,’’ he said.

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