Hey kids! Tommy has big news. Being naughty can actually work in your favor at Christmas time. All you have to do is become a mayor, and ask that your city be declared distressed.
On Dec. 9, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy went to see the governmental version of Santa Claus: state Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Yablonsky. Though Yablonsky Claus lacks the beard, bulk and excessive joviality of most mall Santas, he has the power to declare Pittsburgh a distressed city. That's what the mayor wants for Christmas, because being declared distressed might give him the power to tax suburbanites and get rid of some firefighters.
The mayor didn't have to sit in Yablonsky Claus' lap, but he did have to say whether he'd been naughty or nice. He said his proposed budget for next year would have the city spend $56 million more than it would receive. That's naughty. He blamed it on the suburbanites, businesses and organizations that use the city but don't pay much in taxes. That sounds nice! And he said the problem started before he was mayor. Nice for him. But then he said this: "We frankly felt in early 2002, or in 2001, that the city would not be able to grow enough or cut expenses enough to overcome its narrow tax structure." Still, in 2001, he gave the firefighters a big raise and a no-layoff contract, and he didn't even try to fix the tax problem until late 2002. That's naughty.
City Councilor Alan Hertzberg told Yablonsky Claus that the city spent more than it took in almost every year since 1994. Very naughty!
You know how those mall Santas give you a little wink and a pat on the fanny, leaving you sure you'll get that Hot Wheels T-Wrecks PlaysetTM you've been dreaming of? Murphy got just such a wink and pat. Yablonsky Claus brought along some consultants from a company called Public Financial Management, which his agency hired to look at the city's piggy banks. The consultants said Pittsburgh should be declared distressed. Yablonsky Claus doesn't have to accept the consultants' recommendation. But maybe he already has. You see, consultants are a lot like the new Personalized He Knows Your Name ElmoTM: You program in what you want them to say, squeeze their hands, and they say it. And who programmed Yablonsky Claus' consultants? Not Rudolph!
When you're asking for distressed status for Christmas, the naughtier, the better, apparently. It doesn't hurt that Yablonsky Claus works for Gov. Ed Rendell, who is the mayor's one big friend, and who does look increasingly like Santa.
Yablonsky Claus has until Jan. 9 to decide whether Pittsburgh is distressed. If he says yes, it could still be four months before there are any new taxes for Pittsburgh, and even longer before the mayor can fire some firefighters. Meanwhile, the firefighters are threatening to sue to keep the mayor from getting his present, and suburban legislators are trying to make new laws to keep distressed status out of his stocking. So the mayor might not be playing with his new toys for a while. But if this turtle were a suburbanite or a firefighter, he wouldn't be doing much ho, ho, ho-ing this holiday!