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Caviar Emptor

The budget-solution horse Roderick and Hillman rode in on proves to be lame

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The illusion that voters could hold Pittsburgh officials accountable for the city's financial mess died last week, in the third-floor courtroom of Judge Robert Kelly. There, Lawrenceville resident Jim Genco tried to impeach Mayor Tom Murphy all by himself, with some 4,000 signatures on his petitions, but no attorney to help him take on the two well-heeled lawyers arguing that Genco's effort was unconstitutional.

It was a good example, if one were needed, in how difficult it is for the average citizen to fight city hall. But even before Judge Kelly ruled in Murphy's favor a few days later, a question more hopeless than Genco's efforts hung in the air: Why bother?

Murphy has, after all, been reduced to a bit player in the farce that is Pittsburgh's financial collapse. He's sought more money and taxing power from the state, but no one in Harrisburg seems to listen to him anymore. And ever since his revitalization schemes resulted in crappy sports teams and empty department stores, few people in Pittsburgh seem to take him seriously either.

If we're going to impeach anyone, maybe it ought to be retired USX head David Roderick, who co-chaired a 30-member committee to "solve" the city's budget problems. Except, of course, that no one elected Roderick in the first place.

Given a choice, who would elect him? A Ligonier resident, Roderick hasn't played a prominent role in Pittsburgh's civic affairs for years. He's best remembered, if at all, for presiding over US Steel when it was shutting down local steel mills in the 1980s. He's not remembered for his skill at consensus-building. A Philadelphia-area congressman, for example, once suggested that Roderick form a committee to suggest ways his company could operate more efficiently. But oddly enough, Roderick didn't invite scrutiny of his operation: "Look," Roderick is quoted as saying in Ralph Nader's book The Big Boys, "I don't want one of those goddamned committees coming in here -- a priest, a Boy Scout, and a housewife -- telling us what to do."

Nevertheless, when state Sen. Jane Orie (R-McCandless) convened a panel to come up with a solution for thecity's budget problems, Roderick ended up in charge. His panel did include a housewife (Republican grande dame and panel co-chair Elsie Hillman) and a priest, Bishop Donald Wuerl. But Roderick's no Boy Scout, and neither were the rest of the panelists who devised the bailout plan.

Originally, Murphy hoped that a new tax on non-profits and firms that pay no business privilege tax -- including Roderick's old employer -- would produce $60 million in revenue a year. Roderick's panel, however, proposed a much smaller contribution. Non-profits would pay $3 million in voluntary payments, which is mere chump change. (In the 2002 fiscal year, UPMC alone reaped nearly 30 times that much in revenue.) And to capture some revenue from companies exempt from the business privilege tax, Roderick's panel recommends a $99 levy on every employee earning more than $10,000 a year -- whether they earn minimum wage or the millions brought home by the CEOs. That levy would raise less than $13 million, less than one-quarter of what Murphy wanted.

Workers themselves, meanwhile, will pay for a $50 hike in the occupational privilege tax; city dwellers will shell out another $60 a year for a new garbage-collection fee. Property taxes and parking fees will also be raised.

None of this is surprising, given the panel's composition: USX had two representatives in addition to Roderick; and Mellon and PNC Bank had three representatives each. PPG and Heinz both had two. Large non-profits like UPMC, Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt also had representatives. All these enterprises, and indeed just about every firm on the Roderick panel, are large employers whose tax exemptions Murphy has bemoaned for a year.

In other words, those whom Orie called upon to solve the city's budget problems were the very people responsible for creating them: tax-exempt employers and non-profits whose growth has undermined the city's tax rolls.

This is no surprise, perhaps. What is surprising is that the city's unelected business leaders, who've been so successful at winning tax breaks for themselves, may be as inconsequential as its mayor when it comes to giving some tax money back.

Orie convened the panel, but she's taken a no-new-taxes stand and is not supporting its recommendations. Doing so apparently risks alienating her suburban voters. Still, you can imagine how Orie's defiance went over with Roderick's crew: an elected official who doesn't follow the course set out by business leaders? The nerve! It's like your household help refusing to fold the napkins correctly.

Sure enough, Hillman was soon sniffing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "Orie invited this participation," and that while the commission worked "at her request," Orie "left us high and dry."

To think that politicians might ask for Elsie's opinion and then ignore it! Why, it's almost as if her voice doesn't count for anything more than, say, the thousands of people who voted against spending tax dollars for sports facilities back in 1997! For a guy like Tom Usher, the USX chieftain who served on Roderick's committee and who backed the sales-tax hike in 1997, it can't be fun seeing how the other half is governed.

Really, though, what's the world coming to when Elsie Hillman is treated no better than a...a...a common citizen? What next? Will she have to start showing up at City Council to be heard? Could she end up sitting in a courtroom someday, futilely trying to impeach a mayor who never listens to her?

Indeed, if Elsie can't get anything done, it's no surprise to see less powerful citizens lashing out with impeachment efforts. Murphy has it coming: For all his attempts to invoke the city's first post-war Renaissance under the beloved Davey Lawrence, Murphy has led Pittsburgh to a crisis unimaginable in Lawrence's day.

But maybe Pittsburgh's biggest problem isn't that Tom Murphy is no Davey Lawrence. Maybe it's that David Roderick is no Richard K. Mellon, the banking scion who acted as Lawrence's private-sector counterpart.

In those days, while Lawrence paved the way politically, Mellon lead the corporate community to make real sacrifices, accepting painful measures like smoke control to ensure Pittsburgh's future. Today, by contrast, the best business leaders can come up with is a token $99 -- and it seems they can't even get that passed.

And in Pittsburgh, if even an undemocratic group of elites meeting behind closed doors can't ram through a bogus tax solution, well...that's how you know you're really in trouble. And not the kind you can solve in a courtroom.

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