Money muddle: Why did nobody keep track of city police fees?

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Ask a group of children who ate all the candy, and listen as each one answers, "Not me."

That's how the explanations from city officials sound when they're talking about who was supposed to be keeping track of a system that charges private businesses a fee when they contract for off-duty details through the Pittsburgh Police Bureau.

In 2006 and 2007, city officials were worried about the cost of a series of lawsuits stemming from police actions while officers were working private details, so they decided to institute a fee that would keep those expenses off the backs of taxpayers. Since then, an hourly fee of $3.85 has been tacked on to every shift worked by an off-duty officer, and the businesses that hired them paid it.

But what started as a good idea went wrong almost from the start.

City Council never passed an ordinance specifically authorizing the surcharge fee on officers' moonlighting jobs, even though municipal charges are supposed to be properly authorized and bear a direct relationship to the cost of the service being provided.

Nonetheless, the dollars flowed in -- millions of them -- without a specific city fund set up to hold the money. Companies sent their payments to the bureau's Special Events Office, where no distinctions were made between money that was earned by officers and the surcharge fee. Checks then went to the bureau's Office of Personnel and Finance, where they were recorded and totaled. Then they were sent to the city's Office of Management and Budget, which was to deposit them into city bank accounts.

Nobody was comparing the invoices to the deposits to make sure all of the funds were going where they should.

And, until recent investigations by the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Post-Gazette, nobody was asking many questions about all of this.

In short, nobody was responsible.

The corollary to that? Everybody was irresponsible.

Council now is promising to remedy some of the problems. President Darlene Harris introduced a bill that would codify the $3.85 charge. Councilwoman Theresa Kail Smith proposed another, which would set up a fund to hold both the fee income and the money generated by officers' moonlighting.

That's a fine start, but it is just that. The answer to how any of this was possible is far from complete. Once that's clear, more fixes will be in order.

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