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Murphy's Law

Anyone in charge who can go wrong, will

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With this week's election, Mayor Tom Murphy just got one step closer to looking for a new job. He probably won't find work as a goodwill ambassador. But I know a career Murphy might be good for: newspaper columnist. He's got just the kind of self-righteous recklessness the job requires.

 

On Oct. 27, for example, Murphy alleged that "the fix was in" in determining which casino operator would get the state license to operate slot machines in Pittsburgh. He made the allegation in a roomful of reporters -- a gathering of the local Press Club -- without offering any evidence except local "scuttlebutt." The ritual that followed was all too predictable. Just as they did after similar outbursts during the stadium-financing debate and the city's financial bailout, state officials denounced Murphy's remarks. And just as he did on those earlier occasions, Murphy ended up apologizing, citing frustration and his deep concern for the city.

 

Yeah, I know: Tom Murphy is complaining about deals being made behind closed doors? Ask the merchants of Fifth/Forbes -- assuming you can find any these days -- whether they think that's ironic. The mayor's play to "redevelop" Downtown retail by razing their buildings was conceived in secret, with minimal public input. Maybe what ticks Murphy off isn't the idea of a deal being made behind closed doors...so much as the idea that he's waiting out in the hallway with the rest of us. Welcome to civilian life, Mr. Mayor.

 

But hypocrisy, it's safe to say, has never been a hindrance for a career in writing newspaper columns. And Murphy's remarks do point to a larger truth: The high-handedness and fiscal recklessness of the Murphy days may outlive Murphy himself.

 

The fact is, city residents won't have much say in how gambling comes to town. Murphy has convened a local panel to recommend how best to bring gambling to Pittsburgh, but recommendations are all it can make. Ultimately, the real power rests with a newly constituted state "gaming" commission. That's probably why attendance has been so spotty at meetings of the local task force: As 12 years of Tom Murphy have taught us, the wishes of mere residents often don't count for much.

 

We also seem doomed to repeat Murphy's fiscal recklessness. In the old days, the mayor occasionally balanced his budget with phantom revenues -- money he had no power to collect. Partly as a result of that bad habit, we now have two state-appointed financial-oversight boards watching our money. These panels, of course, bring fiscal discipline by...balancing budgets with money they have no power to collect.

 

As Murphy noted in a Nov. 4 budget submission, financial overseers are requiring the city to assume that local non-profits, who pay no property taxes, will voluntarily pay the city millions of dollars for the next five years. The problem is that the non-profits have only volunteered to pay for three years. Overseers also demanded that Murphy budget nearly $2 million a year from the school board to help pay for crossing guards. They did so even though, as Murphy's submission puts it, the school board "has made clear their unwillingness to share in the funding of school guards."

 

You know you have a problem when Tom Murphy criticizes your budget assumptions as unrealistic.

 

State officials once denounced Murphy for compiling budgets that assumed other government officials -- like those in Harrisburg -- would do what he wanted them to: allow him to create new taxes. Now their own appointees are acting just as presumptuously toward the school board. Murphy was faulted for doing nothing about the most serious problems the city faced: its crippling pension obligations and debt service. But those are still the most serious problems the city faces. As City Paper reported Oct. 19 ["Passing the Buck"], last year's so-called "bailout" of city finances did almost nothing to reduce the debt. The city's pension obligations alone could still bankrupt the city.

 

In other words, we won't have Tom Murphy to kick around anymore, but closed-door negotiations and fiscal shenanigans will still be kicking our ass. The only difference will be that state appointees -- on the financial oversight board and its newfangled gambling commission -- who are calling the shots now. Whatever the outcome of Tuesday's elections, if you want government that is accountable, accessible, and responsible, the tally will be the same:

 

One mayor down, two oversight panels to go.

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