Pittsburgh city council is headed toward a showdown with the state legislature over the city's 45 percent parking tax.
On Sept. 25, Councilor Jim Motznik introduced legislation to freeze the tax at 45 percent for the next three years, rather than reducing it to 35 percent, as required by a state-mandated bailout plan. Maintaining the current rate would create an estimated $25 million in revenue, which Motznik's plan would divide equally between the city's debt and its underfunded pension account.
In accordance with the state's 2003 plan to put the city in receivership, the city reduced the tax -- among the nation's highest -- by 5 percentage points this year. Motznik pointed out that the reduction was intended to save commuters money, but a city-controller audit showed that parking costs haven't changed. Motznik's says his bill will keep the money in the city -- and out of the pockets of garage owners.
Of course, the legislation also contradicts the will of the state legislature, which controls other revenue streams the city depends on. But Motznik contended, "The Republican state legislature's mindset is that we spend money like drunken sailors, and we don't." Ordinarily, parking-tax revenue goes into the city's general fund. By earmarking the money for debt service and pensions, Motznik said, "We're showing the state we can be fiscally responsible."
Motznik's legislation received overwhelming support; the measure passed 8-0, with Councilor Bill Peduto abstaining. And even Peduto expressed sympathy for Motznik's goals.
"I can't support it because I'm not sure what exactly it will do for the [commuters] we're trying to help," Peduto said. "Even though I might not agree with this proposal, I'm not going to [vote against] an idea that might make a difference."
Motznik said the next step will be to begin a dialogue with the legislature, in hopes of resolving differences by the end of the year.
Mary Schenley might like a nice chocolate martini: Almost immediately following his parking-tax victory, Motznik produced the last will and testament of Mary Schenley, dated 1891.
Council was discussing the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy's plan to allow Atria's, a local chain restaurant, to build an all-glass restaurant at Schenley Park's Schenley Plaza.
"This will be Pittsburgh's version of Tavern on the Green in New York's Central Park," asserted Meg Cheever, president and CEO of the conservancy.
However, Motznik said the park should only be used for purposes described in Schenley's will.
"I'm not supporting it," Motznik said. "I think we have to defer to her will, and according to this, she wanted green space. She wanted it to be a free public park, and you want to get rid of green space to put up a restaurant."
Peduto countered that it's impossible to know what Schenley's wishes would be. The restaurant, which will offer both indoor and outdoor seating, will still allow people to enjoy the park, he said.
"I suppose we could hold a séance to try and bring Mary Schenley to the table," Peduto said. "This is a restaurant with a great menu and great service."
We're sure Mary would be fine with it -- after a couple of cocktails and a bowl of that crab bisque.