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All Crossed Up

Who's in charge here, anyway?

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"See if it says anything in there about whether I still have a job," the school-crossing guard asked as I pulled the morning paper from the news box. "Somebody just leaned out their car window and told me I was losing my job."

 

A lot of city employees woke up to that uncertainty May 26, when one of the city's two financial oversight panels was scheduled to unveil a Pittsburgh bailout plan. For most employees such doubt was nothing new; hundreds of city workers were laid off late last summer in an attempt to stanch the city's financial wounds. What is new is that rank-and-file employees aren't the only ones whose futures have become hazy.

 

In recent weeks, two of Mayor Tom Murphy's top lieutenants have split town. Mulu Birru, the head of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, announced he was leaving for Detroit. This just a few months after Steve Leeper, who got the stadiums built, lit out for Cincinnati. At this rate, all the key administration figures will resign before we get to vote them out.

 

That's assuming former county executive Jim Roddey gives us the chance, of course. A member of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority -- a panel chosen by the legislature to oversee the city's fiscal policy -- Roddey has reportedly weighed a proposal to abolish the mayor's office and city council entirely. (Not long afterward, in a moment few Pittsburghers noticed, and even fewer would be surprised by, Roddey went on cable news channel PCNC and said he wouldn't mind being mayor for a term himself.)

 

A second oversight panel, meanwhile, is content merely with getting rid of some of the departments the mayor presides over. On May 26, a team of Act 47 coordinators -- charged with bailing out Pittsburgh when the state deemed it "financially distressed" last year -- unveiled a rescue plan that includes wage freezes and job cuts. Among other things, the plan recommends the engineering department be eliminated, while arson investigation and other services would be turned over to the county.

 

But even as the Act 47 team recommended such services be scrapped, others were seeking to scrap the Act 47 team. State Sen. Sean Logan (D-Monroeville) has publicly called on Gov. Ed Rendell to dissolve the Act 47 process. Logan notes that the legislature already created the ICA panel, making Act 47 unnecessary. "We're headed down two separate paths," he says, "and we're funding both of these organizations to the tune of millions of dollars." In a letter to Rendell, Logan called the two boards "a joke at the expense of taxpayers."

 

The punchline is that, while the ICA has yet to float a substantive proposal of its own, the plan released by the Act 47 team on May 25 runs to more than 200 densely packed pages. Its recommendations range from the massive -- creating new taxes and revamping the city bureaucracy -- to the miniscule, like advising that bureau inspectors be given hand-held computers to log fieldwork. It's enough to make the ICA look like...like...handpicked appointees chosen by state legislators to stick it to the highly unpopular Murphy. (Not that I'm suggesting anything, of course.)

 

Crossing guards will be happy to know the Act 47 plan won't cost their jobs, though if it is approved by City Council and the mayor, it will mandate wage freezes and insurance hikes on all city employees. And that's just the beginning. The most controversial proposal is a new "payroll tax," which would charge every employer $5.25 each month for every worker, plus a 0.3 percent tax on the entire payroll. Other business taxes would be reduced somewhat, although workers would see their once-a-year occupational privilege tax skyrocket, from $10 a year to $120.

 

If these plans sound familiar, it's because similar notions were proposed last year by a committee headed by Elsie Hillman and retired businessman David Roderick. Murphy liked the new taxes so much that he factored those taxes into that year's budget -- even though he needed the state's approval to levy them. They never went anywhere.

 

This time, though, the Act 47 team did what Hillman's committee couldn't do and what Murphy chose not to do: provide a real-world alternative if the legislature rejects the new taxes. If the legislature doesn't approve the taxes by July 30, the team has proposed what it calls a "safety net" solution. (If Act 47 does nothing else, it has at least abandoned the phrase "Plan B.") That's a responsible thing to do, of course...and in the upside-down world of Pittsburgh's budget crisis, that's precisely the problem.

 

The optional plan is less a "safety net" than a snare, a Burmese tiger trap that could impale leaders who don't step carefully. Under Act 47, a financially distressed city can impose a wage tax on commuters and residents alike; that's what the plan proposes doing if the legislature rejects the payroll taxes.

 

The "safety net" would entangle city residents most, by hiking wage taxes a half-percentage point and hiking property taxes to boot. (Unless you are a city resident earning less than $22,000 a year and renting your home, you're better off under the initial scheme.) The impact on most suburban commuters will be smaller, but Logan, for one, still opposes it. A commuter tax, he wrote Rendell, "will only pit the city...residents against the suburban...residents."

 

It may be too late to avoid that in any case. Even if the city approves the Act 47 plan -- a big "if," given that it cuts the jobs of firefighters and other politically powerful groups -- it seems unlikely that Harrisburg will meet the end-of-July deadline. This is, after all, the same legislature that has dithered for years over choosing whether to make square-dancing or the polka the state dance. And Logan warns that if Act 47 conflicts with the recommendations of the ICA, the future very likely holds "a court battle, which again will be at the expense of the taxpayers."

 

You know Pittsburgh is in a leadership crisis when not even the unrepresentative, handpicked appointees can get things done. Murphy's old guard is leaving town; would-be new leaders -- on City Council and elsewhere -- will be sure to review bailout proposals with an eye toward their own prospects in next year's mayoral election.

 

So if you're a crossing guard or a taxpayer, you might as well believe what you hear from the window of a passing car. This is drive-by governance, and no one knows who to call in case of an emergency.

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