County Council debates referendum on drink tax

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Allegheny County Council yesterday debated a referendum question that could ask voters to approve a reduction in the county's 10 percent drink tax, but only if they want a property tax increase.

Council's referendum question, supported by the majority Democrats, is an attempt to counter a group of restaurateurs and bar owners who are challenging the drink tax in court and with a drive to put the levy to a referendum vote in November.

The group, Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation, started a referendum drive in June to ask county voters to reduce the county's 10 percent drink tax to 0.5 percent.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who implemented drink and car rental taxes in January to fund the county's $30 million subsidy of the Port Authority, has consistently said a repeal or reduction of the drink tax would force him to raise property taxes by as much as 25 percent.

County Council's proposed referendum would require an increase in the property tax to make up for the revenue lost from the reduction in the drink tax, but officials have not calculated how much of an increase.

"I believe this is a balanced budget proposal," said council President Rich Fitzgerald.

Mr. Onorato on Monday said he believes the referendum question proposed by the restaurateurs is illegal because it will throw the county's 2008 budget out of balance. He added that he has not ruled out challenging it in court.

The majority of Democrats on council, who voted to implement the drink tax, are planning to counter the group's referendum question with their own question.

In a 9-4 vote Mr. Fitzgerald's proposal was denied a second reading, which is required for instant approval. Instead, it was sent to council's committee on government reform. All four Republicans on council voted "no."

Council members plan to hold special meetings on the referendum question in order to meet an Aug. 5 deadline, when ballot initiatives must be received by the county elections office.

Beyond the referendum debate, council members also discussed a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about a long-standing practice of the Democratic caucus, which holds closed-door meetings with enough members present to form a quorum of council.

Councilman John DeFazio, D-Shaler, the chairman of the 11-member Democratic caucus, asked County Council Solicitor Jack Cambest and county Solicitor Mike Wojcik for an opinion on whether the meetings violate Pennsylvania's open records and meetings laws.

"Violation of the Sunshine Act requires deliberative actions to happen [in caucus meetings with a quorum]," Mr. Wojcik said, adding that based on his understanding of the meetings, there is no violation.

Both Melissa Melewsky, of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, and Tom McGough, an attorney at Reed Smith who represents the Post-Gazette, contend that council is in violation of the Sunshine Act. Mr. Cambest, who has been council's solicitor since 2003, told council that Ms. Melewsky and Mr. McGough "are dead wrong."


Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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