Republicans attempting to shrink county budget

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Republicans on Allegheny County Council will try to find ways over the next few weeks to shrink proposed spending next year, Councilman Vince Gastgeb pledged.

"Republicans are always looking to make government smaller," said Mr. Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park. He said county Executive Rich Fitzgerald did a "decent job" in proposing a 2013 budget that is less than 2 percent larger than this year's. "But spending by every department still needs to be looked at."

Mr. Fitzgerald, a Democrat and former council president, took office as county executive this year. Mr. Gastgeb is chairman of council's GOP caucus.

Even without any amendments from Republicans, the 15 council members will have at least two 2013 budgets to consider when they vote next month on tax rates and spending.

Mr. Fitzgerald has proposed an operating budget that trims funding for Community College of Allegheny County and the office of county Controller Chelsa Wagner. Councilman William Robinson, chairman of council's Budget and Finance Committee, last week unveiled a similar plan, but one that would restore some money for CCAC and the controller.

Mr. Fitzgerald's proposed 2013 budget totals $799.4 million, while Mr. Robinson's plan totals $799.9 million.

Under the county charter, the executive must propose a "comprehensive fiscal plan," but council has the final say on finances.

Allegheny County is completing a court-ordered property assessment, and those new values will be used to calculate real-estate tax bills next year. Mr. Fitzgerald has proposed that the tax rate, now at 5.69 mills, should be cut to 4.73 mills next year to reflect the aggregate increase in assessed values. While the amount of county property taxes paid by each individual property owner is likely to change, state "anti-windfall" provisions require that the total amount cannot increase next year.

Council could take a separate vote to collect an additional 5 percent next year, but council members have indicated they have no plans to do so.

County spending was the subject of two days of public hearings last week. Elected officials, county manager William McKain and heads of outside agencies, including CCAC and the Port Authority, defended and answered questions about their 2013 budget requests.

The community college, the largest in the state, received $25.5 million this year from the county. Mr. Fitzgerald has proposed cutting that contribution down to $23.2 million next year, while Mr. Robinson wants to provide $25 million. Mr. Robinson also serves as chairman of CCAC's board of trustees.

College president Alex Johnson said Thursday that any cuts in CCAC's appropriation from the county would mean once again deferring maintenance and delays in completing other long-range projects. Several years of reduced state aid and accompanying tight budgets have resulted in hiring freezes and meant higher tuition for students, he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he was standing by his initial proposed allocation for the community college. CCAC got an additional $2 million in county funds this year, but it should not expect that all its future allocations would be based on that higher number, he said.

The $23.2 million he proposed represents an inflation-adjusted increase from the $23 million CCAC received in 2011, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

region

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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