Ask Pittsburgh residents what they look for in a mayoral budget proposal, and their first response is likely to be, "No tax increases."
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's 2013 budget gives the right answer. His $469 million spending plan would keep property taxes at their current level, a fundamental goal that the mayor correctly recognizes. Any attempt to hike taxes on property owners at this point would be detrimental to the city.
The spending in his proposed budget is just $10 million more than the expected expenditures for this year. Likewise, the mayor's five-year financial projection, required in conjunction with the budget by the state Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, forecasts modest spending increases ranging from 2 percent to 3.6 percent between now and 2017.
The city's annual fund balance, now $48.6 million or 10.6 percent of the budget total, would go down in each of the next five years, but even that is not as problematic as it may seem. The level would remain well above 5 percent of the budget, which city Controller Michael Lamb said is the level recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association.
The budget would use state gaming revenue of $10 million to pay down legacy costs. That's smart, but even with the proposed additional $5 million toward pension liability, the city would continue to provide fewer dollars toward its pension obligations than it should, a long-term challenge that must be addressed.
The sorest point in the mayor's budget is on the revenue side, where contributions made by Pittsburgh's nonprofit sector remain unpredictable and entirely voluntary. That means the budget's anticipation of $3.2 million per year may be realistic, but it is hardly sufficient given the services provided by the city to some of the region's biggest employers.
That's where city financial overseers must take a more active role in seeking changes from the Legislature.