Ravenstahl holds course on city budget

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More neighborhood clean-ups, improved technology and lower taxes are the centerpieces of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's first budget, unveiled yesterday. Footing the bill is the hoped-for slot machine casino that state officials have not yet licensed.

The $429 million spending plan is not a dramatic departure from this year's $427.5 million blueprint. But it is the first glimpse of the 26-year-old mayor's governing plan, coming at a time when the city has a healthy bank balance but is facing lean years to come.

The mayor canceled a series of Washington meetings with U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and other members of Congress yesterday morning, and instead returned early to Pittsburgh to "give my stamp of approval to the budget" before its submission to state overseers, he said.

"There were no problems or issues," he said of the sudden change in plans. "It was just simply making sure we had everything in place to submit in a timely manner."

The budget was delivered to the state-appointed Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority on deadline. Another state watchdog, the Act 47 recovery team, also got it.

If the ICA approves it, City Council gets the final word at year's end.

"The big positives I see out of the budget are an expansion of the redd-up program and technology advances in the Bureau of Building Inspection," said council Finance Chair Dan Deasy.

The redd-up campaign, started by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, involves a special public works crew that does intensive cleanups of neighborhoods, targeting dilapidated houses, abandoned cars, illegal dumps and weedy lots. Mr. Ravenstahl said he won't hire new employees, but will shift existing workers into a second redd-up crew.

"I think that residents of the city of Pittsburgh now have pride in their neighborhoods, and now feel that the city cares, and that's important," he said of the doubling of the effort.

His stamp on the budget includes introduction of new technology into the city's customer service, building code enforcement and policing.

The plan includes $120,000 to create a new problem line, similar to the existing 911 emergency phone number, that would be in operation within months.

"Whether it's a pothole that needs patched, whether it's a tree that fell across the road, whether it's a street that needs salted, [residents] can dial 311," said Mr. Ravenstahl, and the complaint will be routed to the proper department.

He'd also automate building code enforcement, put mobile computers in police cars, and lower energy costs by using bio-diesel fuel and buying hybrid vehicles.

Mayor's office spending would go down by $28,000, but spending on council and its clerk would rise by $212,000. Both the mayor and council members would get 2.5 percent raises, the former to $96,511, the latter to $55,029.

Mr. Ravenstahl said he is committed to boosting the number of uniformed police from 845 to 900 but is still trying to figure out how quickly he can achieve that.

He said he has not decided whether to seek concessions from the firefighters union next year, as he can under their contract.

The budget's biggest dice roll is inclusion of $17.7 million in casino revenue. The state Gaming Control Board is expected to award a license to operate a Pittsburgh casino to one of three competing groups in December.

The casino would then still have to be built, but the operator will be allowed to erect a temporary facility so the city and state can start collecting gambling revenue as soon as possible.

"The Act 47 coordinators and the ICA encouraged us to include those numbers," said Mr. Ravenstahl. If the funding doesn't come in, the city can lean on a savings account that is expected to bulge to $57.3 million by the end of this year, according to the budget.

He said he has not gotten any state guarantee to make up the revenue if the casino process is delayed. That's bound to be an issue when the budget reaches council.

"I will require that both Act 47 and the [ICA] provide council with assurance that the [casino] money will be there," said Councilman William Peduto.

The five-year plan included with the budget indicates that the city hopes for $10 million in new annual aid from the state, starting in 2008.

State officials said they have a good working relationship with the new mayor but were still reviewing the 360-page document.

"We fully intend to keep our commitment to participating in Pittsburgh's financial recovery, but we need to determine whether the city's assumptions are consistent with current state budget allocations," said state Budget Secretary Michael Masch.

The budget includes a state-mandated 5 percentage point cut in the parking tax and a halving of the tax on gross business receipts, costing the city $9 million. Mr. Ravenstahl said it also halves the amusement tax paid by nonprofit arts groups, from 2.5 percent to 1.25 percent.

Parking and business taxes will continue to drop through 2010. By 2009, the city will be dealing with a budget deficit again, and by 2011 it will have burned through all of its cash reserves, according to the five-year plan.

"When the time comes for us to have to receive some help from the state, we'll have a good story to tell on what we've done on our end to cut expenditures," the mayor said.

"This year is the easy year," said Mr. Peduto. "Each year it will become exponentially more difficult to balance the budget."

Mr. Ravenstahl's budget counts on virtually no growth in property tax collections through 2011.

It includes a new Business Assistance and Retention Team that would streamline city permitting processes and hold the hands of businesses seeking city approvals for expansions.

"When I was on Pittsburgh City Council, this [team] was something I had started to work on," said the mayor, who ascended from the post of council president upon Mr. O'Connor's Sept. 1 death.

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


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