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Mason Impossible

A crumbling city building in a crumbling city

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I knew Pittsburgh was in for a bad week on Sept. 20, when black netting appeared on the façade of the City County building. Chunks of the building's exterior were reportedly in danger of falling off, and the financially strapped city can't afford to make repairs. Instead, netting was stretched above the structure's Grant Street entrance, preventing masonry from falling on the heads of public servants below.

 

 

That may or may not have been a public service, depending on whose head, exactly, was at risk. Still, what a metaphor for a city in distress: It looks like funeral bunting, or a black flag. It's as if pirates had commandeered local government.

 

But if we have been taken over by buccaneers, they are a strange crew: They threaten not to board other vessels, but to swamp their own. And their approach is less skull-and-bones than skin-and-bones. In the week after the webbing went up, both the city and the county's Port Authority disclosed spending plans that call for drastic revenue hikes and service cuts.

 

Mayor Tom Murphy released a proposed 2005 budget that included a 34-percent property tax hike. "I absolutely do not support this proposition," Murphy hastened to explain, warning such a tax increase "would devastate this community for generations to come." Murphy's hope is that the hike will be a "placeholder" increase until the state-appointed oversight board can lobby Harrisburg for a new tax structure. Murphy proposed the tax hike because state officials rejected Murphy's previous attempts to balance budgets, which included revenue from taxes that didn't yet exist. Apparently, Harrisburg prefers budgets to be balanced with taxes that would wipe the city out of existence.

 

Meanwhile, the Port Authority is facing a $30 million deficit, and preparing a budget that would hike fares to $2.50. The increase would make Pittsburgh's mass-transit system one of the most expensive in the country. The agency is also threatening to cut all weekend and evening bus service. The hope is that this budget won't be passed either, says Port Authority spokesperson Judi McNeill. "It's more of a wake-up call for riders and the public to let their legislators know about the importance of transit." 

 

The city and the Port Authority are both hoping that these budgets, and the outcry they'll produce, will help stir Harrisburg to help find a way to plug ongoing deficits.

 

The tactic has worked before: In May 2003, when the Port Authority last threatened similar service cuts and rate hikes, McNeil says, "We had business owners coming to us and saying, ‘No service after 9 p.m.? I run a restaurant Downtown. How are my employees supposed to get home?'" After the outcry, the state shifted some money around to get the Port Authority through the year, and now bills are pending that would allocate regular transit funding from the state sales tax. The measures "give us reason to hope," says McNeil.

 

In the meantime, though, it's hard to be optimistic when your budget is also your worst-case scenario. A hike in city taxes would put the squeeze on struggling families, and a scaled-down transit system would limit their choices to live or work elsewhere in the area. A year from now, we could very well have a city that is too expensive to live in, and too costly to leave.

 

The problems of Pittsburgh and the Port Authority are connected by more than just desperation: The failure of one will cripple the other. The city needs mass transit to bring in tens of thousands of commuters every weekday, and mass transit relies upon concentrated populations of riders to survive at all. Cutbacks in mass transit mean fewer Downtown restaurants and amusements, and a failing city that drives away business means more sprawl -- and that means more traffic jams, more pollution. Saving the Edenic paradise of Fox Chapel requires saving the city, but no suburb is an island: While you may be able to drive to the mall whenever you like, mass transit may be only the reason someone is at the counter to help you.

 

Hopefully, lawmakers will figure that out without needing to be hit over the head. At least, not by a chunk of our buildings.

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