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Budgetball, Game One...

Mayor v. City Council seems at first like football

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Like the Steelers, the city government has adopted the punt as its main offensive weapon.

 

On Nov. 10, Mayor Tom Murphy unveiled a proposed 2004 budget that would be more than $40 million in the red. Since the city charter requires the budget to "remain balanced at all times," and for city council to adopt a budget by year's end, the mayor's action resembled giving council the ball deep in their own end with the clock ticking.

 

"The mayor punted," said Councilor Bill Peduto, at a Nov. 24 budget hearing. "And there's only one problem: He's not allowed to punt." But, Peduto added, "We're not allowed to punt it back." He argued for spending cuts and tax increases that would bring the budget into balance.

 

Of course, those cuts and hikes could be politically suicidal. "I'm getting the calls already ... [threatening that] if I raise any taxes, I'm out, I'm gone," Peduto told council Dec. 2. "If this person doesn't run against me, that person will." So on that date, Peduto and council allies tried to kick the ball right back where it came from. They proposed a resolution demanding that the mayor submit a proposed balanced budget. "We cannot debate an unbalanced budget," Peduto argued. "The mayor does not have the right to abdicate that responsibility: He has to present a balanced budget."

 

At the last minute, though, Peduto's team removed from the resolution language that would have halted council's annual death march of budget hearings until the mayor met its demands. One proponent of the amendment was Council President Gene Ricciardi, who later told City Paper that the hearings were useful because they conveyed to city residents "the harsh reality" of the budget crisis. The amended resolution passed on a 5-to-3 vote, with one abstention. Thanks to the change, if Murphy ignores the resolution, council is still stuck with the ball. Call it a blocked punt.

 

Murphy is using the proposed unbalanced budget as Exhibit A in his effort to have Pittsburgh designated as distressed by the state. Such a designation could allow the city to impose commuter taxes, and could give it more leverage in its efforts to squeeze contract concessions from unions. Murphy allies like Councilor Sala Udin have argued that balancing the spending plan could undermine the mayor's bid for distressed status. The first public hearing on the city's distressed status application was set for Dec. 9.

 

Minutes after the vote on Peduto's resolution, councilors were back in their offices, working on ways to cut spending. Councilor Jim Motznik says he has found around $15 million in savings from measures that include having the Pittsburgh Public Schools pay the entire cost of crossing guard service, closing all of the city swimming pools and cutting some capital projects. If council can't find $40 million in savings, he says, tax increases may be necessary.

 

Heads up, city residents. Looks like this punt is coming your way.

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