Mayor sets budget goals

Ravenstahl's speech amounts to campaign for full term in office

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Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl looks over the crowd in the City Council chamber as he waits with director of communications Dick Skrinjar to propose his city budget.
Click photo for larger image.

Graphic: 2007 Budget goals

Making what amounted to his first campaign promises, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said yesterday that the city will solve more crimes, clean up more lots, sweep more streets, prune more trees and board up more houses next year than this year -- all on roughly the same budget.

His budget presentation to City Council lacked suspense -- the $420 million plan has been public since Sept. 21 and was approved by state overseers Oct. 20.

But his speech was pregnant with campaign import, even borrowing from Mayor Tom Murphy's 2001 phrase book, saying the city must "shift our mind-set from one of managing decline to one of building a Pittsburgh for the future."

Councilman William Peduto, a likely mayoral candidate next year, immediately criticized the five-year plan accompanying the budget, saying it contained "phantom revenues."

"Our five-year plan isn't a plan for recovery," Mr. Peduto said. "It's a plan for disaster."

"I don't agree with those assertions that we are not moving in the right direction," the mayor shot back in a news briefing. "I'm not willing to sacrifice the city budget and use the city budget process to talk about political and personal agendas."

   
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The mayor's 357-page budget does not raise taxes. It complies with state law by trimming the parking and business privilege taxes, and goes a step further by halving the amusement tax charged on tickets to events by nonprofit groups.

Mr. Ravenstahl said the city will end this year with $57 million in its savings account, and add another $5 million next year. Just three years ago, the city had almost no savings and was in the process of being designated as distressed under state Act 47.

Mr. Peduto said the five-year plan overestimates deed transfer and parking taxes, and state and nonprofit contributions. That, he said, would lead to yawning deficits beginning in 2008.

A consortium of nonprofit groups has said it doesn't plan to give the city money after 2007, but the city's plan counts on $5.7 million a year from such organizations through 2011.

Mr. Ravenstahl noted that the budget has been approved by the state Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority and Act 47 recovery team, as well as state Budget Secretary Michael Masch.

"It's my belief that we will be able to successfully get those revenues from the state and from the nonprofit community," he said. "They've been great partners in the past."

Mr. Peduto urged Mr. Ravenstahl to exercise the city's right to reopen its contract with firefighters and try to trim the Fire Bureau's $50 million allocation.

The mayor said he'll sit down with the union and fiscal overseers to evaluate whether to reopen the contract with 626 firefighters. He said it was "unclear" that reopening the pact would bring savings. "There would be potential for actually increasing the fire budget" if binding arbitration comes into play, he said.

He said he'll honor the late Mayor Bob O'Connor's "commitment to safe and clean neighborhoods," in part with measures like a $200,000 allocation to rodent control and a $500,000 boost in spending on roving redd-up crews. The mayor said he also is expecting more from his department heads and employees.

He said the "performance measures" sprinkled throughout the budget allow the city "for the first time ever to have a measurement, to hold our employees accountable, to hold our directors accountable."

The goals got a cautiously positive response from city unions, which are expected to be active in the mayor's race.

Fraternal Order of Police President Jim Malloy said he was glad that Mr. Ravenstahl plans to increase the number of uniformed police to 900 next year -- a long-held goal for which the mayor had previously provided no timetable.

But Mr. Malloy said boosting the number of crimes city detectives are expected to solve, on average, from 66 this year to 72 next year will be tough. "Sixty-six is a hell of a lot of crimes to clear, let alone 72."

A spokesman for the Pittsburgh Joint Collective Bargaining Committee, which represents around 330 public works employees, said its leadership would work with the mayor to achieve the goals, as long as any "changes which impact the terms and conditions of employment" are subject to collective bargaining. The committee's contract with the city expires at the end of this year, and negotiations on a new pact are under way.

"All of these would be very attainable, provided you have the staffing and the equipment necessary to get the job done," said Teamsters Local 249 Vice President Joe Rossi, whose drivers are key to meeting goals from trash collection to tree pruning. To meet several of the goals, the city will have to hire and buy equipment, he said.

He said the city plans to collect trash for Wilkinsburg starting Jan. 1, stretching its manpower and equipment thinner. The administration did not immediately provide details of the arrangement.

Council members other than Mr. Peduto said they like the budget, which they will vote on, but won't significantly change.

"I'm very pleased that the budget really does focus in on the most important people here, and that's the residents," council President Doug Shields said.


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


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