Pittsburgh fiscal plan teeters on edge of approval

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A plan to curb Pittsburgh spending and possibly hike taxes appeared headed for a close vote, as state officials pushed it and union leaders sought to change or delay it yesterday in advance of a council vote set for today.

The new fiscal plan for the city, under state Act 47 for distressed municipalities, "is far too important to vote down," said council Finance Chair William Peduto. He said he detected "willingness" among state officials to include enough council-backed changes to the 300-page documents "that should be enough to get us to five" votes on the nine-member council.

Acting state Secretary of Community and Economic Development George E. Cornelius, who met with individual council members in an effort to win yes votes, wouldn't predict a vote count.

The state-written plan would cap raises, strip union powers and force a major infusion into the depleted pension fund even if it required a tax hike. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has said he'd seek state approval to tap commuters or nonprofits, or impose fees on hospitals and colleges rather than boost property or wage taxes.

Last week council tentatively approved the plan 5-3, with one abstention, but only after tacking on a slew of amendments. Mr. Peduto said yesterday that a compromise was emerging based on amendments sponsored by him, Bruce Kraus and Theresa Smith.

State officials are "working with us to form [the amendments] into a plan, not that they're going to be happy with, but that they're going to find acceptable," Mr. Peduto said.

Mr. Kraus said the most important amendments would preserve a Greenfield firehouse, restore a fifth week of vacation to veteran employees who lost it with the first Act 47 plan in 2004, and give all city workers a 2.5 percent raise next year.

The state-crafted plan would give city workers $1,000 bonuses but no raise next year, then pay hikes ranging from 2 to 3 percent in later years. Changing the bonus into a 2.5 percent raise would add $10.2 million in costs over five years, which Mr. Peduto said could be made up with better tax collection.

Swapping the bonus for a raise appealed to the police union, which has argued that the city is having trouble attracting and keeping good officers.

"If they go with 2.5 percent [raises] across the board, and then allow us to make some concessions" in return for longevity pay or other inducements "then yes, [the plan] is palatable," Fraternal Order of Police President Dan O'Hara said yesterday. He said the union plans to offer the city concessions that could save $1 million a year in contract talks that could formally start tomorrow, when negotiations with the fire union may also kick off.

Firefighters union leaders said they couldn't get a meeting with Mr. Cornelius yesterday and were urging council members to take a deep breath and help craft a better plan.

A deadline for passing the plan that state officials say falls today "doesn't exist," said International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1 President Joe King. His plan: "Everybody get together, and if there's a recovery plan needed" they can write one collectively. "You don't put deadlines on these things."

Act 47 leaders and Ravenstahl administration officials have said that they want a plan in place before police and fire contract talks start, to avoid court fights over whether it governs the coming pacts. Negotiations with those unions must start at the halfway mark of this year, the last in the current contracts.


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


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