"I am delighted to work with you to craft a balanced budget that will be painful," Mayor Tom Murphy told City Council on Dec. 3, neatly summing up the bind that he has put both council and himself in. Murphy is, after all, deliberately driving the city off a fiscal cliff ... all the while contending that if the city is to reach the other side of the chasm, it can't have any backseat drivers.
Murphy's budget is not balanced: It's $42 million in the red. But Murphy proposed the budget at the same time he filed for financial distress status under Act 47, which provides financial assistance, and potentially new tax powers, to cash-strapped cities. The city charter requires all budgets to be balanced, but as Murphy told council, "If we are declared distressed, we can assume ... revenues from that declared status and use [them] in our budget."
Murphy noted that his own office had cut several positions, including three staffers who worked on economic development -- an area Murphy has focused on. While he estimated he gets a call from a business interested in locating here "once every other day," Murphy said he merely referred them to other agencies: "[I]n-house we don't have an economic development marketing team in effect." Still, he urged council members to "keep our eye on the ball," and hope for new taxing powers from the Act 47 process. And while he was willing to balance a budget should new taxing powers not happen, he urged council to leave the deficits in place until the Act 47 process plays out.
In fact, Murphy saved his harshest language for City Councilor Bill Peduto, who fretted that counting on non-existent revenue was a gamble too much like one the city took this year, when it budgeted revenue from new taxes the state never allowed. Peduto also noted that Murphy's budget still assumes a questionable $15 million in savings from fire and paramedic services: "I took a leap of faith last year," when the budget similarly claimed such savings to no effect, Peduto pointed out. Murphy acknowledged Peduto's doubts: "Without the cooperation of the fire union we are not likely to achieve all of those savings," he allowed. But he then faulted the Shadyside councilor for supporting the use of accounting tricks to reduce the pain of 731 layoffs Murphy announced late last summer. "[T]he moment we laid off people, you and others [urged] us to move those dollars [around]," Murphy chastised Peduto. When the city makes "tough decisions," Murphy said, "you can't go back and say, 'We didn't mean it.'"
You could say the same, of course, for driving off a cliff.