Sooner or later, everyone who criticizes the wisdom of our leaders hears the same retort: "If you know so much, why don't you run for office, smart guy?"
Well, here's one reason: Getting elected is for suckers. Just ask the five guys appointed by Harrisburg to sit on the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a panel charged with overseeing the city's budget for the next seven years. So far, at least, the ICA is getting to run the city without having to bother to run for office -- or face the flak that comes with the job.
Consider June 29, when City Council was confronted with the ugly choice of voting for a financial rescue package proposed by a different financial panel, the Act 47 coordinators. The Act 47 team had proposed a financial recovery plan that included $33 million in layoffs and other budget cuts, and labor leaders were pleading with city council to do anything but vote for it.
"Delay this, postpone it," urged Joe King, the president of the city's firefighters union. Even if the Act 47 plan died, he argued, "We have another vehicle in place, and that's the oversight [committee]."
Council voted for it anyway. But just a week later the ICA panel -- supposedly the answer to Joe King's prayers -- responded to the hated Act 47 plan not by rejecting its cuts, but by demanding another $17 million in savings on top of them. So much for taking "another vehicle."
You'd think such a betrayal would inspire as much outrage as council's vote. But there's been hardly a peep of objection from King or anyone else. Part of the reason is the ICA hasn't bothered to explain where their $50 million figure came from, other than it being a nice, round number. In a July 6 letter, the ICA blithely asserts that the savings can come from "reduced expenditures and enhanced assistance," but doesn't say what those might be. This is the same kind of budgetary practice -- making up numbers for revenues or savings that don't exist -- that the ICA and others have faulted Mayor Tom Murphy for.
Promising to cut the budget without saying how is classic politics, of course -- so much so that it ticked off the politicians at council's July 20 meeting. ICA board members, charged Twanda Carlisle, "have to come to our community" and not "sit in an ivory tower and think that they know."
"We need to make sure that the ICA board members become part of the fabric of City Hall," offered City Councilor Gene Ricciardi.
The problem is that City Council is a cotton/polyester blend, and the ICA board prefers silk ties and cufflinks. Why dirty your hands by discussing solutions in public?
Sure enough, Murphy recently gave notice that he and the ICA are making progress on coming up with that $17 million; the Post-Gazette reported that Murphy is "delighted" with the discussions so far. The new plan should be unveiled in early August. In the past, Murphy's closed-door deal making brought us lucrative contracts for firefighters and employers seeking tax subsidies, the very deals that helped put us in this situation. Now we have to hope that similar backroom negotiations will get us out of it.
It might be easier to have faith in these negotiations if the ICA board's chairman weren't also looking to make a deal of his own. Emboldened by the passage of gambling legislation in Harrisburg, Bill Lieberman is pondering an investment in a slot-machine parlor here. While Lieberman says he'll seek approval from the state ethics commission if a slots deal goes through, Ricciardi has already pushed a bill preventing city officials from investing in gambling.
Arguably, a gambling deal wouldn't make Lieberman any more conflicted than his fellow board members. ICA member John Murray, for example, is the head of Duquesne University, a non-profit that has contributed to the city's financial troubles by not contributing to its tax base. James Smith works in financial services, a field that enjoys an exemption to the city's business privilege tax.
Still, Ricciardi argues that a new slots parlor could make special demands on city services, like added police presence. If such demands were backed by a guy who controlled the city's purse strings, it would be hard for the city to say no. Besides, says Ricciardi, "If the mayor went for a license, the town would be in an uproar."
That, my friends, is why it pays to be an appointee.