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Talking Department Heads -- Finally

Minions make case for city tax shift and hear beefs, but mayor a no-show at public hearings

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Nearly a year after the City of Pittsburgh's pleas for more revenue began, nearly three months after crippling layoffs were announced, and just nine days before a 2004 budget is due, Mayor Tom Murphy's administration finally took its case directly to the people. In two Nov. 1 public hearings at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall on the South Side, 15 city administrators sought to show that the city's $386 million budget is already cut to the bone by offering a blizzard of statistics.

 

Among the numbers: The city spends $68,633 on snow removal for every inch of snow that falls, $283,494 to staff one ambulance for eight hours per day for a year, $1.5 million a year on gasoline, $3.5 million on electricity for street lights and traffic lights and $5.9 million on workers' compensation costs. It costs $2.9 million to maintain city buildings with a total square footage comparable to the U.S. Steel Tower (which is a lot less than the $7 million paid by private owners to maintain the rusty office edifice, Department of General Services Director Dale Perrett said). Those items aren't easily cut, and the two-thirds of the budget that goes for salaries and benefits has already been trimmed by layoffs. The only exception offered to the lean-and-mean story line was the Bureau of Fire, which has seen its costs skyrocket by 77 percent since 1992. Murphy authorized much of that increase, but now wants to merge the fire and emergency medical departments, and has met stiff resistance from the firefighters union.

 

One notable absence from the phalanx of department heads and deputy department heads who faced the public was their boss. "The mayor's not available," was the only explanation offered by Deputy Mayor Robert Kennedy. The hearings were held at the request of City Council President Gene Ricciardi, who did attend, and said he hoped citizen input would help shape the 2004 budget.

 

Residents peppered the panel with questions about street cleaning, school taxes, the tax exemptions enjoyed by many businesses, recreation center closures, the impact of the layoffs -- and Kennedy deftly deflected their ire toward the state legislature. The legislature has failed to act on the mayor's requests for authority to tax served alcohol, payrolls and people who work in the city. "As long as we have legislators in our region who are looking for excuse after excuse after excuse as to why there's not a problem [with the city's tax structure], we're not going to get there," said Kennedy. He held out hope that the legislature would act by Nov. 10, but that seems unlikely (see Political Footballs, page 15). Since the city's expenses are on pace to outstrip revenues by some $60-80 million next year, the city circa 2004 may be leaner and meaner still than the one the mayor's minions defended.

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