Allegheny County controller argues cuts would hurt auditing

Council holds budget hearing

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Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said Wednesday she would have to lay off as many as 20 people if her budget is cut by almost $650,000 next year.

That loss of staff would mean a reduction in the number and type of audits her office could perform, she told members of county council. The ultimate result could be higher costs elsewhere in county government, she warned.

Ms. Wagner was the only county official to speak at the first session of a two-day public hearing on a proposed $799 million operating budget for 2013. The hearing will resume at 3 p.m. today in the Gold Room of the County Courthouse, Downtown with Ms. Wagner facing additional questions from council.

While county Executive Rich Fitzgerald proposes a spending plan, council has the final word on both the budget and tax rates.

Ms. Wagner, who serves as the county's elected financial watchdog, asked council to restore the money Mr. Fitzgerald's proposed budget cut from her office. She asked council for "level funding" matching this year's $6.35 million next year and not the $5.7 million Mr. Fitzgerald proposed.

Council members noted that the duties of her office have been reduced. Responsibility for weights and measures, which includes checking store scales and gasoline pumps for accuracy, was removed earlier this year from the controller's office and placed under the county executive.

That change would account for only a small portion of any reduction in her budget, Ms. Wagner said. The approximately $150,000 in salary savings for her office resulting from the transfer out of three weight-and-measures employees is just about equal to the costs of contract-mandated raises and higher health-care expenses for the remaining workers, she said.

Ms. Wagner and Mr. Fitzgerald, both Democrats who came into office in January, have clashed several times. The controller is the only row office to see a proposed reduction in Mr. Fitzgerald's budget proposal.

Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for Mr. Fitzgerald, gave several reasons why Ms. Wagner's budget request had been trimmed. Money for controller's office computers already was in the county's capital budget, Ms. Downs said. Ms. Wagner employs a solicitor and has contracts with two other attorneys for legal services. Much of that money could instead be redirected to pay auditors and analysts involved with the core functions of the controller's office, Ms. Downs said.

Ms. Wagner appeared to have found one ally in Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh.

Ms. Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, said the watchdog role of the controller was important in Allegheny County, where members of one party hold almost all political offices. "I'd like to see the funding [for the controller] restored," she said.

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Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159.


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