Last act: Onorato's final budget reflects lean times

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Outgoing Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato presented his last budget to county council Tuesday and, like the previous seven, it was balanced without proposing a property tax increase.

That's a relief and no small achievement, given the federal and state budget cuts that drove much of its contents, but it does not mean Mr. Onorato's $730 million spending plan for 2012 contains much good news.

It includes $37 million less in spending, a 5.1 percent reduction from this year, and would eliminate 120 jobs through attrition. That's on top of the 686 jobs Mr. Onorato cut from the payroll during his two terms as executive.

His proposal includes $33 million less in state and federal aid than was anticipated this year, and all departments except the John J. Kane Regional Centers, the county nursing homes, would receive fewer county dollars next year. Mr. Onorato said they were exempted because of the significant downsizing they've already seen.

The Office of Children, Youth and Families would absorb the largest share of cuts, $19 million, and community college would lose $7 million on top of a $3.5 million state cut that triggered both a hiring freeze and a tuition increase earlier this year.

It is lamentable that, as the needs of working families expand, government's ability to provide assistance is shrinking, but we must agree with Mr. Onorato that his hands were tied. He also pointed out that those departments, in his prior budgets, did not take as large a hit as public works and other parts of county government.

The much-maligned drink and car rental taxes, which he proposed and council enacted to fund the county's share of public transit costs, did their job. They drew $36.8 million, more than the $27.5 million necessary to trigger another $183 million from the state. The remaining sum pays debt service on prior Port Authority projects, something that otherwise would have to be covered by the operating budget.

Now the tough decisions fall to county council, which must enact a budget by Dec. 6. Mr. Onorato has given them a solid foundation.

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