How other mayors might have handled the pension crisis

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Former Mayor Sophie Masloff, 93, has been observing Pittsburgh government for half a century, but she can recall no precedent for the parking-for-pensions logjam that has dominated city politics for the past three months.

"I was in council for 12 years before I was mayor, and then [I was] the mayor, and I never saw anything this bad," she said this week.

The root of the problem, she said, may have been a process that allowed bickering to break out before consensus was reached.

"What I would have done is get them all together in a room and knock heads before it became such a public issue," she said.

Even the architect of Pittsburgh's public-private consensus building, post-war Mayor David Lawrence, didn't always get his way immediately, according to Morton Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics, who worked in the subsequent administration of Mayor Joseph Barr.

There were political rebellions over smoke control and the burning of coal in homes, among other things. Mr. Lawrence's ability to forge coalitions, though, eventually won the day, and mayor-council relations have since been modeled on his example.

Until now.

"It seems like everybody has squared off and they aren't really communicating anymore," state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said Wednesday. "What people feel out in the community is this sense of dysfunction."

The dysfunction comes as the city wrestles with a pension-funding problem that threatens to bring fiscal calamity.

Absent so far is a solution that is agreeable to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and a council majority on how to get some $220 million into the pension fund, and fast. If the fund doesn't have, by year's end, enough in it to cover half of its long-term obligations, then state law dictates an end to city management of its retirement assets. That could lead to tax hikes or service cuts.

"I don't think that we'll get any farther than we are," Mr. Ravenstahl told council Wednesday, after saying he'd veto -- but maybe implement -- the latest in a long series of council proposals.

Councilman Doug Shields called the mayor's stance "obstructionism. This is not cooperation. This is trying to find a way out."

Mayors past might have taken approaches different from that of Mr. Ravenstahl, who has pitched his plan by rallying union leaders and courting public support.

"I think [Mayor Dick] Caliguiri would have probably ushered around him a broader coalition of corporate and other [influential] folks," said Mr. Ferlo. He would have also tried to "out-organize [council members] on the district level," bringing neighborhood pressure to bear on recalcitrant city lawmakers.

Mostly, though, he blames council members who "want to assume the role and relationships and duties of the executive branch" and are generally "anti-Luke."

Bruce Campbell, who was executive secretary to Mayor Pete Flaherty in the 1970s, called the current majority that opposes the mayor's lease plan" the most responsible consensus of council that I've seen in decades."

If Mr. Flaherty were mayor today, he wouldn't be trying to lease assets, Mr. Campbell speculated. He'd instead try to increase employer and employee contributions to the pension fund, trim benefits for future employees, and tighten up money management.

He said Mr. Flaherty also faced a smart and "combative" council, but overcame resistance through a mixture of popularity, bravado and good communication.

Mr. Flaherty met with council every Monday morning in his office. "I think it was very useful for communication, because they knew what he was doing, and he knew their concerns," said Mr. Campbell. "But when he made up his mind, he did not flinch. He did not back up."

It would be impossible for a mayor today to privately host all of council, because laws require that meetings of legislative bodies be public. Mayors including Mr. Ravenstahl have gotten around that by meeting with council members three at a time.

Current council members have complained more loudly than most of their predecessors that the mayor doesn't return their calls and avoids or cancels meetings.

"I, as an elected official, have not been able to talk to the mayor," council President Darlene Harris said.

More regular communication could have given Mr. Ravenstahl an opportunity to gauge council support at the front end of the painstaking, competitive process that led to a $452 million parking asset lease bid. Participants have said that there was no real effort to count votes until after the September release of the final bid.

Before the late Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster floated the 1 percent Regional Asset District sales tax in the 1990s, he built a coalition, according to Ira Weiss, who was then county solicitor. Brought to the table early were Ms. Masloff, the county's legislative delegation, influential philanthropists and managers of the many libraries and arts groups that stood to gain from the tax.

"Mr. Foerster was able to build a large coalition of support that was willing to undertake a difficult thing: To convince the Legislature and the county people that the initial pain of a new sales tax was far outweighed by the long-term benefits," Mr. Weiss said. "Elected officials who have core principles which guide their policy initiatives can command a lot of respect."

Mr. Ravenstahl created a panel, including business representatives, that set parameters for a parking lease. However, he never got public statements of buy-in from business leaders, settling instead for acquiescence.

Overall, the kinds of parking rate increases contemplated in most of the pension rescue plans "are bad" for Downtown, said Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. But an increase in rates could help to free up some spots Downtown for short-term visitors looking to shop or to eat as daily commuters seek cheaper places to park, he said.

"If it is going to cost more, the customer ought to get more back than just parking," he said, adding that any hikes need to be accompanied by improvements in customer service, garage upgrades and high-tech innovation.

Even the best politician might have had a tough time getting this council to approve a pension fix, for two reasons. First, the problem is decades in the making. Second, mayors aren't as powerful as they once were.

When Mr. Flaherty was mayor, cities didn't have to save money to cover future pension outlays, but instead paid retirement benefits as they came due. Under the Caliguiri and Masloff administrations, state law compelled cities to save, but efforts to fund future pension costs were sporadic. Mayor Tom Murphy's infusion of borrowed money into the retirement pool was eroded by stock market losses.

"This is a problem that is multidimensional, and people need to come together around how to deal with that," said Mr. Murphy. "I think the blame can be shared, including by the [city's] two [state] oversight committees, the mayor and city council. In this case, it's the mayor's job to reach out and try to include council."

When David Lawrence reached out to council, he was extending his hand to a body elected citywide on a ticket he led and beholden to him for Democratic Party support and patronage jobs. The world has changed, according to Mr. Coleman.

"City employment is not what it used to be and patronage is not what it used to be," he said, pointing to the emergence of public employees unions and civil service rules.

In today's by-district council elections, candidates have been able to overcome mayoral favorites. Current members Bruce Kraus, Natalia Rudiak, R. Daniel Lavelle and Patrick Dowd all beat allies of Mr. Ravenstahl.

"That would have been unthinkable for Lawrence to lose [council races] in organization wards," said Mr. Coleman.

None of the council members who beat Mr. Ravenstahl's allies has supported the mayor's lease plan. Nor have Mr. Shields and William Peduto -- both foils to Mr. Ravenstahl -- nor Ms. Harris, who has drifted from mayoral supporter to skeptic.

In such an atmosphere, can a problem as big as the pension gap be solved?

"I don't think it's too late," said Ms. Masloff. "I think it's imperative. It would be terrible to let the state take over. ... What they have to do is get in a room and compromise."

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542 Jim O'Toole: or 412-263-1562 Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548. Mark Belko contributed.


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