City leaders' budget bickering falls short

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It's easy to forget that the city's ruling Democrats are in the same party, because they rarely seem to be at the same party.

City Council Finance Chairman Bill Peduto called a council meeting Tuesday to discuss how much money the city has, and where it can find more. Mr. Peduto pointedly didn't invite Mayor Luke Ravenstahl or any of his team to walk down the hall and join in.

The mayor observed a couple of weeks ago that council's budget was based on parking rates going up a tick, and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority has yet to oblige with approval. So, Mr. Ravenstahl warned, the city might run out of money soon.

He's still irked that council nixed his plan last year to lease parking meters and garages to investors for 50 years to shore up the city's pension fund. That would have raised parking rates even higher than council has proposed, but nobody ever said Grant Street politics had to make sense.

Mr. Peduto has exchanged pointed letters with the mayor in recent weeks, but the councilman didn't invite the administration to this week's meeting because he said he wanted to establish a "baseline" without any obfuscation or personal attacks.

No obfuscation or personal attacks? That's a lot to ask in a building where everyone can remember every slight. The playground answer -- "well, he started it" -- may not actually be uttered before TV cameras on the fifth floor, but it's the translation for a lot of what goes on between council and the administration.

Council wanted to show that the budget wasn't as bleak as the mayor contended -- provided the mayor adheres to his December pledge not to be an obstructionist. That means his appointees approving the parking increases council proposed to raise more revenue.

Controller Michael Lamb partnered with council to produce its parking plan, and he may be a mayoral candidate in 2013. Mr. Lamb told council Tuesday that if the mayor doesn't like this proposal to fill the holes in the budget, he needs to think of another one.

Veteran Squirrel Hill Councilman Doug Shields said, "The play was sent in from the sideline and it doesn't seem like the team on the field wants to run it."

Councilman Patrick Dowd, whom the mayor handily defeated in the May 2009 primary, said, "We've given [the mayor] the tools. If he wants other tools, tell us. ... If you're on the executive side, I'm not sure what else you need."

People on the mayor's side say the council parking plan is flawed and incomplete. They still speak so wistfully of the leasing deal that it's almost like the final scene of "Shane," only here the little boy would be yelling, "J.P. Morgan and LAZ Parking! Come back!"

Scott Kunka, the mayor's finance director and chairman of the Parking Authority, said there's no stealth plan to bring back a private leasing deal. That, he said, is "paranoia."

But had that plan been approved by council, it would have been ready to go by this June. So if the city is going broke, what's holding up this plan to nudge the authority's garage rates upward?

There are debts that the leasing plan would have cleared that this plan doesn't, and there's another problem, Mr. Kunka said.

"We're not sure what rates council wants," Mr. Kunka said.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak is on the Parking Authority board, so I suggested Mr. Kunka ask her.

"The council member hasn't brought the council plan to the authority," Mr. Kunka said.

Councilwoman Rudiak said the council plan is legally adopted law that the mayor is required to carry out. Her chief of staff, John Fournier, said council has offered the proposed new rates to the mayor's office many times, most recently in an attachment to Mr. Peduto's March 31 letter. Regardless, it's the authority, not council, that must set the garage rates, Mr. Fournier said.

"Let's not be coy about this," Ms. Rudiak said. "All of this hemming and hawing is basically to create a new problem. Create a new problem so the public will be forced to accept [the administration's] solution."

It's so, so fortunate that all these people are in the same party and work on the same floor. Otherwise, communication could easily break down.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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