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A Cure for the Common Budget?

City Council hopes to add sizzle to a boring spending plan

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Mayor Tom Murphy's latest budget proposal weighs in at 580 pages, but is light on new ideas. Its careworn solutions to the city's chronic deficit: cut workers and employee benefits, and beg the state to let the city levy new taxes on workers and businesses.

 

Where's the innovation? Maybe in City Council. Written off by some (including this writer) as increasingly irrelevant, council seems determined to make its mark.

 

The city expects to spend $76 million on fringe benefits, consisting mostly of health insurance for its 3,500 workers. That's up $3 million from last year. Councilor Doug Shields wants the city to join the state's health insurance plan, saying the lower premiums the state negotiates could save the city $7 million a year. The idea has been floating around since May, but neither Murphy nor the city's two state-appointed fiscal overseers have seriously pursued it, Shields says.

 

The budget calls for slashing the number of city meetings that are televised. Councilor Bill Peduto wants the city to expand its TV production capabilities by getting contracts to televise Allegheny County Council and Pittsburgh School Board meetings, too. Both county council and the school board are considering creating their own television production shops. "It's a waste of money to build three when we only need one," Peduto says. He'll try to save money and the city's camera crews in November, when the budget comes before council.

 

How about selling ads on city fences, benches, recreation centers, parking garages and even parking tickets? A spending blueprint by Gov. Ed Rendell's hand-picked budget gurus, approved by council in June, called for $2.9 million worth of ad sales in 2005. The latest budget includes just $500,000 in sales. That's in spite of the fact that Squirrel Hill resident Les Ludwig has been begging city officials for months to let him sell ads. All Ludwig wants is a 4 percent commission, which he figures is "less than what it'll cost anyone at the city to do it." Ludwig has been building support on council.

 

Murphy's new budget is based largely on one crafted by Rendell's team, plus changes that came out of negotiations with an oversight board named by the governor and legislative leaders. The budget goes first to the oversight board for approval, then to council, which will likely be under pressure to approve it. "We're basically being served up whatever they want us to do, and I guess they're expecting us to roll over," says Shields. Without more innovation, he says, "I'll be a no vote."

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