Allegheny County Council approves $799 million operating budget

Controller's office gets less money

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Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner will have to operate her office with less money and, likely, fewer people under a 2013 budget approved Tuesday night by county council.

The $799 million operating budget council passed includes $200,000 more for the controller's office than county Executive Rich Fitzgerald recommended for next year. He had proposed $5.7 million for the controller, but council, which has the final say on spending, raised that number to $5.9 million.

Still, the higher amount remains 7 percent below the $6.35 million budgeted for the controller this year. That decrease contrasts to a 2 percent overall increase in the operating budget for next year.

"This administration can defund my office, it can defame me, but it will not deter me from the work that I do on behalf of county taxpayers," Ms. Wagner said just before the budget vote.

The controller serves as the county's fiscal watchdog, and "increasing spending and decreasing accountability" was a bad combination, she warned.

Less funding for next year means layoffs of between 10 and 12 staff members are likely, she said in an interview earlier in the day.

Council also approved a new, lower real estate tax rate of 4.73 mills for next year, down from the current 5.69 mills. The millage reduction is required under state law to avoid a "windfall" tax increase resulting from higher assessments. The effect on an individual property owner, however, will depend on how each new assessment compares to the averages for each community and school district.

The operating budget approved by council matches almost exactly the comprehensive fiscal plan proposed in October by Mr. Fitzgerald. He indicated in a statement that he would sign off on the 2013 spending as amended by council.

"I'm very pleased with the budget that council passed this evening and am glad that we are able to move into 2013 with no tax increase and a lower millage rate," he said.

Next year's budget calls for no one-time sources of revenues and projects increases in the county's fund balance for emergencies.

Saying it would be an error to cut the controller's budget, Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, proposed providing an additional $247,000 to the controller, rather than $200,000 recommended by council's Budget and Finance Committee. Her amendment failed.

She was the lone vote against approving the operating budget, which passed 13-1. Councilwoman Amanda Green Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights, was absent. Ms. Heidelbaugh also voted against approving the new millage rate, which she said could be trimmed further. Council needed to look hard at the effectiveness and efficiency of all county programs, she said.

Relations between Ms. Wagner and the Fitzgerald administration have grown stormy during budget deliberations, with the two sides unable to agree even on what the current budget for her office is. County manager William McKain told council members last week that Ms. Wagner's office, which lost responsibility this summer for checking the accuracy of scales and gasoline pumps, was on track to spend only about $6.1 million this year. Ms. Wagner predicted operating expenses for 2012 would be closer to $6.3 million.

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