Fitzgerald set to present Allegheny County budget

His first after reassessment, plan to drill

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New fees. Bond refinancing. Drilling for natural gas.

No one can say how county Executive Rich Fitzgerald plans to balance Allegheny County's 2014 budget -- and until now, he's held his spiral-bound planners close to the vest.

No more. Tonight, Mr. Fitzgerald will unveil his changes to an operating budget that already totals $799 million, his first after a contentious reassessment turned property values upside down and a plan to drill beneath public land opened the possibility of new revenue.

It will then be up to county council members, who have the final say on financial matters, to decide how much they like what the county executive is serving.

"It's fair to say there are a lot of good ideas floating around as to how to pay the bills," said William Robinson, D-Hill District, the council's budget committee chairman. "Once Mr. Fitzgerald makes his presentation, I think you'll begin to hear a few more of those. At the end of the day, the rubber is going to meet the road."

The executive has already made several pre-emptive strikes. Earlier this year, he proposed re-jiggering park fees to raise $700,000 in new revenue; last week, his staff presented a plan to raise another $800,000 by increasing medical examiner and public works charges.

Then there's the county's interest in natural gas drilling. County council voted in February with Mr. Fitzgerald's urging to allow drilling at Pittsburgh International Airport, a deal that could net the county $500 million.

The executive also is seeking proposals to drill beneath Deer Lakes Park, which he has said could get the county $2 million to $4 million up front and $700,000 a year in royalties.

But neither plan is likely to play much of a role in next year's budget. Because of Federal Aviation Administration rules, any drilling revenue from the airport must stay at the airport. And Mr. Fitzgerald has already said he's unlikely to sign a drilling contract at Deer Lakes until after council passes the 2014 budget, eschewing one-time budget fixes.

The executive's team has already weathered a setback in looking for savings. Earlier this year, a plan to refinance county debt fell apart as the market went south, evaporating the $10 million they had hoped to save.

All this makes Mr. Robinson wonder how the executive will make ends meet, especially when Mr. Fitzgerald has told council members several times he does not expect to raise taxes next year.

Council, of course, may have its own plans. Mr. Robinson says he wants to grow $50 million in new revenue next year, buffering the county's cash reserve and building a savings account to be tapped in emergencies. That amount almost certainly couldn't be reached without a tax increase or wide cuts.

But this isn't about next year, he says -- it's about the next decade.

"It seems to me we have to look beyond the immediacy of our situation to stabilizing the county's fiscal status," he said.

If Mr. Fitzgerald does propose a tax increase, he's likely to have an instant opponent in Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon. A fiscal conservative who is a frequent foil to the county executive, Ms. Heidelbaugh would rather look at governmental inefficiency.

She remembers losing a vote against a tax increase in 2011 after being told there wasn't any new money to be found in the budget -- only to have a fee increase net $12 million a few months later.

"I always doubt when someone says we searched everything and we can't find a penny in savings," she said.

region - reassessment

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497. First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM


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