Ravenstahl delivers final budget address

As his administration prepares to hand the reins, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl delivered his final budget address Tuesday, reflecting on the financial progress the city has made under his seven-year administration.

"I couldn't be more pleased with how far we've come. We have taken the city from the brink of bankruptcy to financial recovery, and we have done it together," he said in a 4½ minute speech. He cited the city's numerous bond upgrades from three credit rating agencies, seven consecutive years of balanced budgets and a dramatic reduction in the city's debt load.

"Through the hard work and dedication of so many, we've become a model city for transformation and success in municipal finance, and we have charted Pittsburgh's path beyond recovery."

The mayor delivered his remarks to a packed house in city council chambers, where the audience included much of his cabinet, department heads and dozens of activists who were there to speak to council in support of Leon Ford, a young man who was shot by a police officer in Highland Park last year. Mr. Ravenstahl received a standing ovation and a hug from council President Darlene Harris at the conclusion of his speech and did not take questions from reporters as he exited out a back door that connects his office to chambers.

The mayor's $480 million budget contains marginal, across-the-board increases for departments and holds the line on taxes. It also maintains a healthy reserve for the city, which is expected to run a surplus this year thanks to better-than-expected earned income tax revenues and underspending.

It also contains the imprimatur of the mayor-elect, Councilman Bill Peduto, who proposed several new positions in city departments that are listed "as needed" in the budget.

The address is required by the city charter and marks the start of the budget process for city council, which will have to weigh proposals by Mr. Peduto to add new positions to the mayor's office and to restructure the Department of Public Works.

Kevin Acklin, the head of the transition team, said the nascent administration wants to take full advantage of Mr. Peduto's remaining months on council to shape the budget so it can hit the ground running when he's sworn in at the start of 2014.

Those proposals include making the "as needed" positions a concrete part of the budget and also altering the staffing of the mayor's office to include five cabinet hires that were announced last week. Mr. Peduto plans to eliminate some positions in the mayor's budget proposal to accommodate the new hires, whose salaries will exceed those of current mayoral staff.

Mr. Acklin said the new administration wants to see a "general restructuring" of the department of public works, which is currently divided into five sub-departments.

"We worked pretty hard over the summer looking at the best way to organize that department for the purpose of delivering services to residents," he said.

The first version of the budget was presented at the end of September to a state oversight board, the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, and was approved about a month later with a small change to requirements for pension funding.

The budget released Tuesday by the mayor includes some amendments from the initial draft. A line item for overtime pay for firefighters has been increased by $1.5 million because of updated projections that show that line item will trend higher this year, deputy finance director Cathy Qureshi said.

The projections also show that the city will collect around $3 million less in real estate revenue than the $130 million it had anticipated. The mayor cut the millage rate at the start of this year by about 30 percent to blunt the effect of a countywide property reassessment that dramatically raised the value of many parcels. The city "erred on the side of taxpayers," Ms. Qureshi said.

But it appears the millage may have been cut too far. Still, while Ms. Harris suggested an adjustment was in order, Ms. Qureshi said the administration did not plan to increase the rate. And Councilman Ricky Burgess, chair of the finance committee, said he would refuse to introduce any legislation increasing taxes.

This year, because of an unexpected boon in earned income tax revenue, the city will still run a surplus that likely will cover the shortfall in real estate tax revenue.

Mr. Ravenstahl also highlighted some parts of his $52.5 million capital budget, released Tuesday, in his speech, including a $5 million investment in the city's fleet. The budget also includes $2.2 million for various projects for Parks and Recreation facilities, including construction of new spray parks, and construction of two community centers in Riverview Park and Beechview.

"We won't forget that our residents deserve neighborhoods with the best amenities," he said. "From spray parks, to senior centers, to ball fields, we continue to prioritize building and maintaining critical infrastructure cityside."

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published November 12, 2013 11:02 AM

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