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The Fudge-It Budget

A council likens Murphy's budget to a turd, and that smells about right

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Here's one way you could tell Mayor Tom Murphy's 2004 budget was going to get an unusual degree of scrutiny: Shortly before council met on Dec. 31 to vote on the plan, City Councilor Jim Motznik could be seen just outside council chambers pulling on a pair of what looked like surgical gloves.

 

Motznik didn't wear the gloves during the council meeting itself, of course. That would have been silly. Instead, he showed up wearing a pair of bright yellow rubber boots symbolizing the fact that the mayor's budget was, as he put it, "a bunch of crap." A former public works employee, Motznik propped his feet up on the table and noted, "I thought I was out of the sewers." Like an indulgent uncle, Council President Gene Ricciardi tried to restore some decorum by asking Motznik to take his feet off the table, but a few minutes later Councilor Len Bodack appeared with a roll of toilet paper that ended up on Motznik's desk.

 

Childish? Perhaps. But council still behaved more maturely than Murphy during the budget process this year.

 

Motznik's gloves notwithstanding, usually Murphy's budgets aren't given a very thorough examination. When Murphy presents a spending plan, councilors generally only turn their heads and cough, or at least look away. Last year, they approved Murphy's 2003 budget with little dissent, despite the fact that the budget included $29 million in revenue from taxes that required state approval to levy. It also included $15 million in savings from a merger of paramedics and the fire bureau that the city had no power to enforce. None of that happened, of course, and the result has been layoffs and a filing with the state to be recognized as "financially distressed" under Act 47.

 

This year, Murphy only proposed a budget with $26 million in revenue from taxes that didn't exist, which for him may be a step toward fiscal responsibility. Even that was a compromise: Murphy originally proposed a budget that was $42 million out of balance, a deficit Murphy said the state would fill once the city was deemed distressed. When councilors protested that the city charter required them to pass a balanced budget, Murphy gave them one -- sort of. The morning of Dec. 31, Murphy floated a budget that included $26 million from a tax on commuters...yet another tax that doesn't exist yet.

 

This was about when the roll of toilet paper appeared in council, though you could argue that Murphy's latest budget proposal made the display kind of redundant.

 

For the past decade, Murphy has insulted residents by pursing development schemes they didn't want. He has insulted suburbanites by insinuating they are racists, and he has insulted their elected leaders in Harrisburg by insinuating they are incompetent. And in the waning hours of 2003, he managed to insult the intelligence of just about everyone in the region. After a year in which Pittsburgh was wracked by the ruinous failure of his last budget, Murphy came out and proposed another one just like it. If he was trying to confirm everyone's worst expectations, he succeeded.

 

The only people who defied those expectations were Motznik and four other councilors, who defeated Murphy's proposal by a 5-4 vote, and then proposed a budget of their own. Along with councilors Bill Peduto, Twanda Carlisle, Alan Hertzberg and Council President Gene Ricciardi, Motznik advanced a $387 million budget that didn't count on money from the state, froze in place layoffs and pool closings Murphy made last summer, and shifted some salaries to a different budget.

 

Many of these changes represent mere fiscal sleight-of-hand, and council's budget depends on revenue that doesn't exist, too. Among other things, it anticipates some $9.5 million in cash from the city's various authorities, and some of them don't have the money either. The Sports and Exhibition Authority, for example, has a $1.6 million deficit, accounting for more than 13 percent of the money it spends maintaining the city's stadiums and convention center. The SEA hopes to fill the gap with revenue from slot machines, which the state legislature also hasn't legalized yet.

 

In other words, under the mayor's plan, our budget would have depended on non-existent revenue; now it depends on money from other governments whose budgets depend on non-existent revenue. In Pittsburgh, that's what we call progress.

 

For some, that isn't good enough. That "you call that real money and scoff at other proposals is laughable," charged Sala Udin, who supported Murphy's plan at the Dec. 31 meeting. But the mayor and his allies have little basis for lecturing others about fiscal responsibility. At one point, Udin tried to fault the council budget for including an extra half-million dollars in amusement tax revenue -- even though Murphy's own budget included the exact same increase.

 

But at least council's plan involves things the city can try to do for itself, rather than hope the state does for us. Council's budget is a plan that needs to be acted on, to be sure, but Murphy's budget was literally a plan for inaction.

 

Too bad he doesn't just stick to it himself. As this issue goes to press, Murphy was pondering a veto of council's budget. And on Jan. 4 he told reporters the spending plan was based on "wishful thinking."

 

Let me say that again: Tom Murphy says council's budget is based on "wishful thinking." The mayor who counts on money from taxes that don't exist. The mayor who budgets savings from mergers that haven't been realized.

 

About the only wishful thinking going on in Pittsburgh these days is the widespread hope that Murphy might resign. He's not going anywhere, and the budget battle isn't over. Under Act 47, a coordinator selected by the state will review the city's finances and then propose a "recovery plan" to get it back on its feet. Council's savings and revenue proposals may be deleted; new sources of revenue and cost-cutting could be added. Murphy will certainly try to have some influence over that process, and he still holds sway over the authorities that city council wants to tap for cash.

 

The numbers in this year's budget may change, but everyone has Tom Murphy's number now. He used to boast about making the tough choices; it was how he justified pursuing development schemes and other initiatives that voters rejected. But he was only effective when pursuing his development fantasies; when it comes to dealing with political and fiscal reality, his ideas have proven about as bankrupt as the city he's been claiming to lead.

 

But don't expect him to apologize for it. In fact, in the weeks and months ahead, Motznik may want to leave the boots behind. If the past year is any indication, he -- and the rest of us -- may need hip waders instead.

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