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Why Tommy Can't Lead

Welcome to Pittsburgh, where we make things better by making them look worse... and vice versa

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The emergency medical technician standing on the steps of the City County Building couldn't talk. Although she was attending one of several protests about city budget cuts, city employees are barred from speaking to the press while in uniform. But she gave me a phone number to call when her shift was over.

"When's a good time to reach you?" I asked.

She looked up through tear-reddened eyes. "In 30 days, anytime."

To talk to an EMT, or any of the 730 other city employees who have been laid off to help the city stay afloat in the face of a $60 million budget deficit, is to know that the city is facing a crisis. But to listen to those employees' supervisors is to be a little confused about what that crisis is.

At an Aug. 20 city council meeting, for example, Emergency Medical Services Chief Douglas Garretson acknowledged that cutting two dozen EMTs "comes with some degree of pain and some degree of challenge to providing service," but maintained, "I believe we can meet that goal." That sentiment was echoed by city Operations Director Robert Kennedy and police Chief Robert McNeilly, who assured councilors that while the jobs being cut weren't "fat," the layoffs wouldn't affect the city's ability to respond to emergencies.

That may sound contradictory: After all, if the city can cut jobs without cutting essential services, how essential were those jobs to begin with? One can already hear some taxpayers grumbling: If McNeilly can put more officers on the streets by disbanding the horse-mounted patrols, for example, why didn't he do it long ago?

McNeilly and the others were in a tight spot, of course -- the kind you might need a firefighter to get you out of. (Fortunately, the city won't be losing any of those, thanks to job protections Murphy granted to their union during the 2001 election). City officials don't want residents panicking about layoffs, but they don't want anyone complaining about having paid those workers before, either. And with Mayor Tom Murphy pleading with state legislators for the right to levy $60 million in new taxes, the chiefs have to send another mixed message as well: They have to help convince state officials that the city is about to be consumed by a budget crisis, while simultaneously insisting that it can handle emergencies.

But if you really want to see city officials talking out of both sides of their mouths, watch their reaction to a short-term bailout plan proposed by City Council President Gene Ricciardi.

Ricciardi's plan is to raise the city's parking tax by 20 percent, defer spending on certain amenities including bike trails, and transfer the salaries of some city employees from the city's operating budget to its capital budget. Ricciardi claims those changes will save more than $12 million, making layoffs unnecessary.

Not surprisingly, Ricciardi's plan has been warmly embraced by many city employees, but not by the one who counts most: Mayor Murphy.

Murphy claims that Ricciardi's plan isn't a long-term solution, and he's right; it isn't. But neither is laying off 731 workers, as Murphy himself admits. "The cuts we make today are not only painful," he announced at an Aug. 6 press conference, "they are also only a short-term measure to ensure our solvency through year-end." The layoffs will save only $6.5 million, nowhere near enough to stave off fiscal collapse in the face of a $60 million deficit.

So if you're a taxpayer or a city employee, the choice seems like a no-brainer: We can either pursue a plan that cuts 731 jobs without improving the city's long-term finances, or a plan that won't cut 731 jobs without improving the city's long-term finances. Yet Murphy has already complained to the Post-Gazette that Ricciardi's plan will only solve a "three-month problem" leaving the city to face "the same difficult decision of laying off the very same people again in January."

That might be true (although Murphy's plan might leave the city facing the difficult decision of laying off a whole new group of people next year). But that's not the real problem with Ricciardi's proposal.

The real problem with Ricciardi's plan is that it might actually work. It could keep the city solvent until the end of the year without all the catastrophic cuts the mayor supports. That's why, in the weird logic of Pittsburgh's budgetary crisis, it can't be allowed to succeed.

Sounds stupid, doesn't it? But the city's tactics seem to presume that state legislators are even dumber. Without the crisis caused by these layoffs, see, Harrisburg might not feel any urgency to act on Murphy's tax requests. Legislators could then let things slide until the real crisis comes next year -- by which time it'll be getting perilously close to re-election season, when no one wants to be accused of supporting new taxes.

Understandably, using layoffs to mobilize political pressure has left city employees feeling like pawns. But the ugly truth is that politics often is a chess game. It may be true that only a crisis can motivate the legislature. But that's not what Murphy has been saying publicly.

Just minutes after announcing the layoffs on Aug. 6, Murphy told reporters how successful the city's lobbying efforts had already been. While tax imbalances have plagued the city for nearly a half century, he said, ".

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