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Oversight Board's Budget Brief ...

... but legal bills may run long

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The City of Pittsburgh's 2004 operating budget is more than 300 pages long. The budget of the five-man Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority assigned by the state to fix the city's wobbly finances takes up just a quarter-page. But the board's apparent parsimony regarding paper costs may be matched by its liberality on legal fees.

 

The oversight board's budget, passed unanimously March 10, calls for spending $135,000 through June 30. Since the state has granted the board $200,000, it plans to close out the year with a $65,000 surplus. The city, by contrast, risks running out of money long before its budget year closes on Dec. 31.

 

There is one area in which the city seems far thriftier than its overseers: legal services. The city pays Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow $92,285 for a year's work. Assuming a 40-hour workweek, that's about $44 an hour, plus benefits. The oversight board, meanwhile, expects to pay its Solicitor Glenn Mahone and his firm ReedSmith $60,000 for its services from March through June. Mahone's contract says his rate is $425 an hour, and notes that ReedSmith will be discounting its fees by 10 percent, presumably shaving Mahone's rate to $382.50. Mahone's letter indicates that he'll assign other attorneys to perform certain tasks "to provide quality service at efficient rates." ReedSmith's junior attorneys bill $185 an hour, the letter says, which would be $166.50 after the 10 percent discount.

 

The board may have gotten its money's worth from Mahone on March 10. That's when about a dozen protesters showed up at the oversight board's meeting, wearing gags in protest of the board's prior penchant for closed-door deliberations with no opportunity for public comment. When a protester asked if there would be time for public comment, board Chairman James Smith initially responded, "Not at this meeting." But Mahone whipped out a draft public comment policy and even a sign-in sheet for speakers, defusing what could have been an ugly confrontation and a public relations disaster.

 

"I think it's very important that we get off on the right foot with the public," Smith said later. And when one protester used his three minutes at the microphone to rip the all-white-male board for being "not representative" and for "going out of its way to make it hard for people to participate," Smith was deferential. "It's important to point out that we did hear you," Smith said.

 

After hearing public comment, the board went into closed, executive session. Board member Jim Roddey said they had to talk privately about hiring an executive director, and about the Post-Gazette's lawsuit to force it to deliberate in public -- providing the novelty of a lawsuit demanding open meetings being used as an excuse for closing one. The board later announced that it had settled that lawsuit by agreeing to conduct its operations in accordance with the state Sunshine Act.

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