City budget hike won't happen

Oversight panels won't allow attempt to spend more

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A proposed loosening of Pittsburgh City Council's purse strings has been nixed by state overseers, threatening to lead to another in the city's annual series of budgetary brouhahas.

Council wants to boost its spending power by $212,000 to cover staff costs and to retain its own attorney. Seven members asked Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to put that increase in his proposed 2007 budget, and he obliged.

But members learned Monday that the state-appointed Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority won't go for the hike. The ICA is set to meet Friday to vote on the budget, and without its stamp of approval, it's back to the drawing board.

"I understand that they are, quote-unquote, concerned about that number," said Council President Doug Shields of the $212,000 increase. He said he'd be willing to negotiate, but the ICA and another state-picked watchdog, the Act 47 recovery team, haven't shown interest in talking.

"I'm prepared to make a deal," he said. "I'm not prepared to get run over by an ICA truck."

Council and its clerk's office are set to spend $1.7 million this year, and want $1.9 million next year.

The increase includes $134,000 more for staff, including a 2.5 percent raise for each council member, to $55,029, and boosts to aides that would average 5 percent. Council members last got a raise in 2003.

The increase also includes $70,000 so council can hire its own attorney. The lawmakers have wanted one ever since the late Mayor Bob O'Connor fired Solicitor Susan Malie in July.

The rest is for postage and other costs.

Council and clerk spending would still be a tiny fraction of the proposed $429 million operating budget, Mr. Shields said. "There's certain political factions here that think we should work for nothing."

The ICA voted Friday to ask the state for $899,000 to cover its costs next fiscal year. That's up from $632,000 this year, an increase driven by the desire to hire consultants to study the city's accounting software, its workers' compensation spending and options for changing the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Mr. Shields said the Legislature should scrutinize that request.

Neither the ICA's chairman nor its executive director could be reached for comment.

Councilman Jim Motznik was the only council member who did not sign the request for the budget boost. He said there's "no way [the other seven members] should increase council spending at a time like this."

With the city facing an uncertain financial future, council should hold all raises to 2.5 percent, and shouldn't hire its own attorney, he said.

Yesterday Mr. Motznik's proposal for a voter referendum on cutting council from nine to seven members, perhaps saving $300,000 a year starting in 2014, was defeated by a final vote of 6-2. He and Councilman William Peduto voted for it.

Mr. Peduto said he's concerned about "phantom revenues" in the proposed budget and five-year plan. It counts on $17.7 million from a yet-to-be-built slots casino next year, $10 million from the state each year, and $5.7 million annually from nonprofit groups starting in 2008 -- none of which is guaranteed, he said.

"I'm not going to vote for that," he said. He wants to see a plan to lobby the state for help with the city's pension, health insurance and debt problems.

The budget must win the approval of both the five-member ICA and council by year's end.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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