Maybe Mayor Tom Murphy isn't running for re-election after all.
Speculation about his intentions began a few weeks ago, when Murphy began touring city neighborhoods, buffing up his image while explaining the city's dire financial plight. But halfway into his tour, Murphy announced that the city is putting a hold on some $13 million earmarked for revelopment projects in the very neighborhoods he's visiting -- money that community groups had already begun to spend. Politically speaking, that's the equivalent of kissing babies and then pushing their carriages down the steps.
In a March 26 letter to city council, Murphy explained that the money was being held pending "a discussion about reserving these funds to cover [future] expenses." Next year, he wrote, the city will need to spend $14 million in long-term spending like street paving and vehicle purchases. And given the city's financial straits, he wrote, "the only sources of funds for infrastructure and other capital projects [for 2005] may be the funds we save in 2004." Funding for community development might have to be sacrificed now so that in the future, the city could "keep the basic services and infrastucture of the City intact."
Now there's a novel thought: putting the city's day-to-day needs ahead of urban revitalization schemes. Too bad Murphy didn't have the idea sooner, like when he brought Lazarus to town. Or Lord & Taylor. Or two new stadiums. Too bad the people he's sacrificing aren't out-of-town chains, but community activists who live here.
"I'm at a loss to explain it," says Mark Fatla, executive director of the Community Technical Assistance Center. "I don't see how it's useful in terms of restructuring [city finances]. I don't see how this is useful to him politically. I don't see how it's useful period. I could understand if there were some political gain from it, but I can't figure out what the hell the motivation is."
Of course, Murphy likes to portray himself as a political martyr, a man of principle (as opposed to those grubby pandering politicians who do things people actually want). He recently expressed a willingness to put his "political neck on the chopping block" to help the city get new tax revenues. Not everyone saw this as a noble pose, since one sure way to advance your political career is to say you're willing to sacrifice it. As the city's community groups know, it's not just Murphy's neck on the chopping block now: It's that of the community-development staffers whose jobs depend on city funding, and the future of neighborhood projects that depend on those staffers. "If you want to fall on your sword, that's fine," says Fatla. "But don't cut off our heads with it first. This is like the servants being buried inside the pyramid with the pharaoh."
Fatla estimates that some 30 community developers may lose their jobs citywide. "Think about all the projects they're working on," he says. "Maybe the staffer is working on a storefront renovation or a housing project. Taking them out of business will cost the city more in the long run. The house will sit vacant longer, that storefront won't get done as soon."
While Fatla says "I like the mayor as a person," and that he understands the city's plight, he may file a lawsuit demanding the money be restored. Many of the community groups he works with signed contracts with the city for the money, and built their budgets around the expectation that the city would reimburse their expenses. "You can't just void an existing contract," says Fatla. If you could, there'd be a few less city firefighters on the payroll today.
The only way to toss out a contract is to file for bankruptcy, and "I don't think they're bankrupt financially," says Fatla, a lawyer by training. "They're bankrupt in terms of leadership."
Murphy staffers claim Act 47 made them do it. Pittsburgh has been deemed a financially distressed city under that law, and as such the city is largely subject to the dictates of state-appointed "coordinators." In a March 25 letter notifying community groups of the funding suspension, City Planning Director Susan Golomb wrote, "[T]he City is waiting for clarification from the Act 47 Coordinators on which contracts should proceed....Until we receive this clarification, the Mayor's Office has asked us to direct our groups to cease work on all contracts as of the date of this letter."
Thing is, eight days before the date of Golomb's letter -- with city council already upset about Murphy's delay of one project -- Murphy's right-hand guy told city council that the city had all the clarification it needed. Mayoral deputy Tom Cox told council that the Act 47 coordinators "weren't telling us to let the city go from an investment point of view." Instead, they were telling city officials to "just kind of watch costs." Cox said that reviewing projects was Murphy's decision: "We just felt...it was time to take a look at [spending]."
That reply didn't satisfy Councilor Doug Shields. Shields charged that Murphy's decision to halt projects first and ask questions later "goes to the whole issue...of how we're going to communicate....I'm not going to sit here and have the body ignored."
"We'll be happy to make this a two-way street," Cox replied.
Apparently, however, the Murphy administration has its own idea of a "two-way street": Murphy's way or the highway.
You might think that living under Act 47 would make the Murphy administration more hesitant about using his power, for fear of running afoul of state overseers. But if anything, it is using Act 47 as an excuse to grab even more power. Cox had assured council that there was "no intention on our part to pick and choose" which projects went forward, and that "we're well aware" that the budget represents "the choices of council." But obviously Murphy is seeking to rewrite those choices; his March 26 letter requests that "Council and the Mayor's Office work together to evaluate, and as necessary, to re-budget the remaining funds." Which sounds reasonable. Too bad the mayor's office didn't "work together" with anyone to suspend the funds in the first place. They just went ahead and did it.
By Cox's own admission, state overseers -- who are charged with monitoring city spending -- aren't asking for this to happen. The groups Fatla serves don't want it to happen, and council didn't know it was happening. The only person who stands to gain from this is Murphy. He has a new club to beat up an increasingly hostile council, a council made up of potential rivals in next year's election. And he has a carrot to offer to community-development groups who want to have their funding restored.
Come to think of it, maybe Murphy is running for re-election.