Rarely has the buck been passed so rapidly as on May 21, when Pittsburgh's five state-appointed fiscal overseers and Mayor Tom Murphy continued their hot-potato treatment of the city's budget meltdown.
At 12:03 -- three minutes into their meeting and without any discussion -- the oversight board rejected Murphy's five-year budget plan. They distributed a letter noting that the mayor's plan counted on $322.5 million in new taxes that the city isn't empowered to levy and allowed total spending to creep upward.
Board members offered no specific suggestions on how to balance the budget without new taxes, and didn't promise any such suggestions in the near future. A report it must release by June 12 "will not be definitive, it will be preliminary," said board Chairman Bill Lieberman. The board's April 12 report was also preliminary. When will the board produce definitive recommendations? "I don't know," Lieberman said.
"We are not really trying to tell the mayor how to run this city," added board member John Murray.
State law now requires that Murphy submit a revised plan by June 5. At 12:45, city Finance Director Ellen McLean said a new plan might contain deep cuts or steep tax hikes.
At 1:45, though, Murphy dropped the ball back into the board's lap, issuing a statement pledging to "cooperate fully" but asking the board for "specific suggestions for us to consider regarding new revenues and additional expenditure reductions."
In addition to a balanced five-year plan, the board reportedly wants control over city revenues and the power to veto any city spending item. Murphy's statement said state law doesn't call for giving the board such powers. Until they agree on the board's powers, the city and its authorities aren't allowed to borrow any money. That's not a problem yet, said McLean. "It could be an issue later in the year, when we need cash flow," she warned.