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Playing Catbird and Mouse

City Council weighs going beak-to-beak with the oversight board

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Pittsburgh council had a lot of questions July 28, as it started debating how much governing power to cede to the state-appointed oversight board. Examples: How much tax revenue would the oversight board control? Would the city be allowed to tweak its budget in mid-year? And what, exactly, is a catbird, and who is in its seat?

 

State law says that neither the city, nor its authorities, can borrow money until council and the mayor sign an agreement with the five-man oversight board. That board may also be the only entity that can convince the state legislature to give the city more power to tax businesses and workers. Mayor Tom Murphy negotiated an agreement with the board that would give it veto power over city budgets. If the city strayed from its board-approved budgets, the board could intercept tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue.

 

But council must approve any such agreement, and several councilors want to limit the amount of tax dollars the board can seize, and the circumstances under which the board can seize it. Council also wants female and African-American additions to the all-white-male board, and some councilors are seeking a ban on overseers owning stakes in gambling operations. Finally, they're ticked because the board has refused to send anyone to meet with council publicly. "They have to respect this body," said Councilor Len Bodack. "If they don't do that, I don't see us signing an agreement with them."

 

After about 90 minutes of such talk, Councilor Alan Hertzberg urged council to "wake up" and consider working with the oversight board. "We're the ones who are running out of money here. ... We're not in the catbird seat. They are!"

 

Councilor Bill Peduto said he wasn't sure what a catbird seat was.

"It's not this seat!" said Councilor Sala Udin, pointing to his own.

 

"Whatever a catbird seat may be, I believe that we sit in it," said Peduto. He noted that the city is distressed, and can therefore petition the Common Pleas Court for the right to charge a commuter tax. Since suburban legislators fear the commuter tax above all else, it's the "trump card" that could convince them to approve new taxes, he said.

 

"We shouldn't be talking about catbird seats and leverage," oversight board Chairman Bill Lieberman later told City Paper. "We should be talking about partnerships." Still, Lieberman said he wouldn't come before council: "A public forum for everyone's views is not the way to negotiate an agreement," he argued.

 

Council President Gene Ricciardi attempted to kill the proposed agreement and force Murphy to negotiate a new one, but failed on a 3-5 vote. So council will continue to weigh the agreement into August, and maybe even September, when the city is expected to start running dangerously low on cash.

 

A catbird, for the record, is a relative of the mockingbird native to the American South, known for its mew-like call. Because catbirds stay high in trees to avoid predators, the "catbird seat" has come to mean "a position of ease," according to Evan Morris' syndicated column, The Word Detective. Given that definition, one thing's for sure: City residents are not in the catbird seat.

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