New Pittsburgh budget office director says 'sky's the limit'

When he was hired in May as the acting director of the city's Office of Management and Budget, Sam Ashbaugh found that, in some ways, little had changed since he worked for Pittsburgh's budget office in the late 1990s.

For one, there were the familiar carbon-paper forms sent via inter-office mail for personnel requisitions, used when departments want to fill a vacant position.

"It's time consuming, things get lost in the mail and it's just not a good way to do business," said Mr. Ashbaugh, 42, who grew up in Spring Garden and has split the past 20 years in various government and government-consulting positions. "When I came back, [I was] amazed that there are some processes that are still in place, the way we always used to do them."

Mr. Ashbaugh was interviewed by council members at a confirmation hearing last week and is expected to be confirmed during a vote today. 

“People were impressed with his experience,” said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who heads the council’s Finance and Law Committee and worked with Mr. Ashbaugh briefly at the consulting firm Deloitte. “I think it's particularly helpful not only that he had experience within the public sector working for the city in the past but he's also had experience in the private sector."

Mr. Ashbaugh, whose first job with the city was as an intern in the mid 1990s, has worked with Government Finance Officers Association in Chicago, Pennsylvania state government and the Philadelphia school district as well as stints as a Pittsburgh City Council staff member and with the city's budget office overseeing public safety bureau spending. He leads an office that Mayor Bill Peduto returned to a standalone entity, a reversal of former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's decision that put it under the Department of Finance. That department is headed by Paul Leger.

"The goal with the finance department under Director Leger is to be responsible for not only all revenue, tax collection, but also debt management, treasury and cash flow, real estate, property management and oversight of the pension funds. So that right there is a large portfolio and having one person oversee that is a full-time job, let alone having all the budget functions under one director as well," Mr. Ashbaugh said.

The Office of Management and Budget is responsible for the city's operating budget, about $487.1 million this year, development of the city's capital and Community Development Block Grant budgets, as well as purchasing functions and asset management.

"We work with every department,” he said. “We are involved in financial issues, strategy issues, administrative issues, you name it. We touch everything.”

The mayor has tasked him and his staff with developing a 10-year plan for addressing the city's crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure, a critical area noted in the report prepared by the city’s financial overseers under the state’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities. He also will be responsible for developing a new grant-management policy to ensure departments apply for grants that conform to city priorities, automating some city government functions, installing best practices in financial management and procurement and steering the city toward “performance-based budgeting.”

“If you look at the budgets today they really just have a lot of line items. It doesn't really tell you what departments' goals and objectives are.... nor what they've achieved," he said. "With performance-based budgeting we want to flip the script and, instead of focusing on how much departments spend, focus on what they achieve."

His office also will work with the city’s Department of Innovation and Performance on ways to maximize the possibilities of the comprehensive financial management system that the city is still struggling to install, as well as revamping the budget process itself, which is still largely carried out via individual spreadsheet templates sent out departments. The challenge is what to focus on first.

"Our job ... is to look at opportunities to continue to deliver services more efficiently and effectively,” he said. “If you look at the last few years, Pittsburgh has been getting great attention for everything going on in the city. It' s the ’it’ place to be. I think the sky's the limit.”

Robert Zullo:


Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo.

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