Zappala, Fitzgerald reach apparent detente on Allegheny County drug enforcement

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After an evening that saw its share of shouting, finger-shaking and Springsteen references, Allegheny County has a 2014 operating budget -- but several county council members aren't happy about how they got there.

County council approved the $817 million financial plan with a 12-3 vote, passing a budget that has no property tax increase. It's a 2 percent increase over the 2013 budget and includes an additional $2 million for the county's fund balance.

Much of the debate Tuesday night centered on the district attorney's office, which has been the cause of considerable hand-wringing on council.

It all started last month, when District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. disappointed in the $15.8 million allocation proposed by county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, asked council last month for an increase to help form a task force that would fight crime in eastern suburbs.

In doing so, he threw the county police under the bus, saying they've gotten out of the business of busting drug dealers.

His cause caught fire with council, who appeared poised to grant the district attorney more than $16.5 million. But it also attracted the ire of Mr. Fitzgerald's administration, with top leaders suggesting Mr. Zappala stick to prosecuting.

Mr. Zappala later met with Mr. Fitzgerald and announced Tuesday he had reached a compromise: a budget of $16.2 million and a promise from Mr. Fitzgerald to work together on developing a comprehensive crime-fighting plan.

This came as bit of a surprise to some on county council, which has the final say on all budget matters. Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, suggested Mr. Fitzgerald had overstepped his bounds by brokering a deal with the district attorney. She fiercely -- and unsuccessfully -- fought to keep funding for the task force, which she hoped would stem violence in hard-hit communities.

"There was a conversation between two groups that don't appropriate one cent," she said. "It's a turf war that doesn't care about the people that we are sworn to protect. Don't let anybody say anything different."

Council member John Defazio, D-Shaler, proposed the operating budget with the $16.2 million allocation and said he did so without prompting from the administration. He had already crafted a $16.1 million proposal and modified it slightly after hearing news of the agreement from Mr. Zappala, he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald lauded the operating budget, saying he's proud his staff was able to submit a proposal that increases services without increasing taxes. As for Ms. Heidelbaugh's concerns, he said he never intended to take power that rightfully belongs to county council -- but he does see himself having a prominent role in the county's finances.

"I ultimately sign the budget," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "The fiscal condition of this county is largely in part under the county executive's auspices."

All that aside, council got a black eye earlier in the evening, when it failed to vote on a $50 million capital budget, leaving highway and transit projects in jeopardy.

The proposed capital budget collapsed because of one $500,000 item: a grant to the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, currently in foreclosure.

After arguments, council budget committee chairman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, withdrew his budget proposal, leaving council without any options. It will have to develop a new capital proposal in committee; the next budget meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday.

Mr. Fitzgerald said not having a capital budget come January could prove detrimental.

"The capital budget was blocked by a small, irresponsible, obstructionist faction of council," he said. "They need to realize there are projects moving forward."

Andrew or 412-263-1497.

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497. First Published December 3, 2013 10:54 AM

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