Ravenstahl's challenges go beyond November

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Luke Ravenstahl has been running for mayor for three years.

The tragic circumstance that thrust him into the office and the ambition that led him to defend it have combined to keep him looking over his political shoulder from the day he took the oath to succeed the late Bob O'Connor in 2006.

During that relatively short span, he's faced a threatened primary challenge; a special election for the balance of the O'Connor term; another primary earlier this year; and, now, a general election Nov. 3 against two independent challengers, Kevin Acklin and Franco Dok Harris.

Barring a huge upset, the November election will give him an electoral respite -- time, finally, to look forward to his first full term in the big corner office on the fifth floor of the City-County Building.

But his likely victory with the voters would set the stage for what may be his toughest political challenge yet, a struggle to enact new taxes or fees to buttress his city's tottering finances. It's a battle that could test his long-frayed relations with City Council and Pittsburgh's traditionally tense ties with the state Legislature.

It could also redefine the city's relationship with the giant nonprofit institutions, the "eds and meds" that Mr. Ravenstahl and other civic cheerleaders praised to the world press throughout the G-20 summit last month.

Mr. Ravenstahl's 2010 budget is due to be submitted to council the Monday after the election. In it will be a line item that amounts to a $15 million plea for the revenue needed to avoid a tradeoff between the city's crying infrastructure needs and its massive debt and pension burden.

The city was a fiscal ward of the state before Mr. Ravenstahl took over. The state-enforced belt-tightening he's presided over kept the budget in the black and allowed the city to fund street-paving and other long-term work from a modest operating surplus rather than from long-term borrowing. But everyone agrees that the surplus will deteriorate.

The bleaker fiscal picture is "a big part of the reason that our 2010 [budget] has a $15 million line item that we've yet to be specific on," Mr. Ravenstahl said Friday. The five-year plan approved by council and the state's oversight panel this summer includes a menu of possibilities to fill that upcoming gap.

Mr. Ravenstahl said his administration remained flexible but was leaning toward some combination of proposals for taxes on hospitals and college students.

"We're not talking significant percentages," he said. "For example, one-tenth of 1 percent on a hospital bill is right now what we're looking at, so somebody that would have a $17,000 hospital bill would be taxed $17 ... so when you consider the small amount, relatively speaking, of the tax, we think it's reasonable and worthy of consideration.

"The same goes with the tax on students. Right now, we're considering a levy of 1 percent on tuition. To a Pitt student, I believe it equates to roughly $135 per year. So these are not necessarily great solutions, but in the grand scheme of things, when you consider where the city is, what city taxpayers pay, the challenges that we face, [they are] reasonable solutions to the problems given no other option of help from Harrisburg."

The mayor said he discussed his proposals with hospital and university officials and sought their suggestions for alternatives.

"[They are] not happy about it but I've explained to them it's my position that the city needs $15 million and we need to identify it this year."

Council and one of the state's overseers endorsed the broad concept of new revenue measures this summer. Enacting a more specific plan that would inflict pain on specific constituencies may prove to be more of a political challenge.

"I think it's a tougher political sell than they think it is," said city Controller Michael Lamb, who has been a supporter of the administration's austere budget policies.

To get his way, Mr. Ravenstahl must depend on a council with which he has frequently clashed.

"What I can tell you is that the existing relationships we have, in many cases, are not beneficial to the residents of the city," Mr. Ravenstahl acknowledged.

"I think what's been unique in my three years, from day one and even as we sit here today, I've constantly been running for office," he said. "One of them [Councilman Patrick Dowd] ran against me. Another one [Councilman William Peduto] started to, a third [Council President Doug Shields] had indicated his interest, and so that political battle that they've been engaged in really has been unhealthy for city government."

Mr. Shields countered that it was the administration that had allowed political fights to impede cooperation on policy.

"That's a critical area for him to contemplate -- what adjustments is he going to make to promote unity?" Mr. Shields said. "I would characterize myself as an honest critic; I would not have any difficulty in working with this administration."

One controversy of Mr. Ravenstahl's first term was the battle over the award of a sign permit, in violation of city regulations, to Lamar Advertising, a firm whose executive had contributed to his campaign. Scrutiny of the issue led to the ouster of the city's development chief. Mr. Shields called on state and federal prosecutors to investigate.

Mr. Ravenstahl discussed the issue with an even tone, but its memory clearly still rankles him.

"When you look back and consider some of the things that have been said -- I mean literally accusations that this administration should be in jail, or I should be in jail, or I've broken the law, some of the personal attacks that they make -- it's very difficult for me to deal with somebody that believes that or at least says that."

The mayor insists he wants better ties in the future, but added: "Right now, I don't sense the other side of the hall, the majority of the other side of the hall -- I do have some good relationships -- being genuine about putting the past behind us. If they're genuine about it, then we're genuine about it, but it's hard for us. We can't make the entire lift; it has to be a two-way street."

Despite some rocky patches on a different road, Mr. Ravenstahl's administration cobbled together a significant recent victory on another intractable financial issue before the state Legislature. And it was notable that the victory came with a rare show of unity with Mr. Shields.

Late this summer, the city felt threatened by a municipal pension measure in Harrisburg that would have imposed sweeping and potentially costly changes on Pittsburgh's badly underfunded plan.

Mr. Ravenstahl won a crucial two-year delay in the state proposal to assume control of the city's plan. That will allow the city to attempt to move the fund toward solvency by leasing the city's parking garages.

Along the way, the administration acceded to a compromise that stripped the bill of several controversial features opposed by the city's unions. Some Democratic lawmakers felt bruised by the compromise after they had taken difficult stands against the union positions.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, although an enthusiastic supporter of the mayor overall, said, "I do think he has to work on his relationship with the state House and Senate. ... I thought we were working together in including reforms [that] would have upset certain constituencies; we were willing to bite the bullet."

Mr. Ravenstahl rejected some lawmakers' criticisms that he had not been sufficiently engaged with them early in the debate, although he did concede that "there were communication issues that could have been better."

What the mayor and local lawmakers do agree on is that the Pittsburgh pension plan finally prevailed after a high-stakes meeting with legislators in Mr. Ravenstahl's office. Offering a show of unity there were administration and union officials, Mr. Lamb, the controller, and council members including Mr. Shields.

One of the most powerful senators from Allegheny County, by virtue of her leadership position in the upper chamber's majority, praised the mayor's efforts to establish rapport with Harrisburg.

"He visited my office about four or five months ago; he sat down with me seeing how he could improve relations," said Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless. "From that point on, I have to admit, it has been a very good working relationship."

The Legislature, for decades, has been a reliable bulwark for the big nonprofits against the city's effort to extract more revenue. The lawmakers will be courted to serve that role again as the mayor seeks his $15 million.

But Mr. Ravenstahl professes to be an optimist.

"I think what we've proven is that anything is possible in Pittsburgh on the heels of the G-20," he said.

Politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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