Allegheny County will likely restore $200K to controller

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When Allegheny County Council meets on Tuesday, members will be poised to pass a $799 million operating budget that mirrors in almost all respects the 2013 spending plan proposed last month by county Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

The biggest change likely to be made by council members is allocating $200,000 more for the office of county Controller Chelsa Wagner than Mr. Fitzgerald recommended in his "comprehensive fiscal plan."

During their budget deliberations, members of council's Budget and Finance Committee considered, but ultimately rejected, amendments to raise funding for the county controller by as much as $400,000 more than Mr. Fitzgerald proposed.

The county executive warned that he would veto larger amounts, but he wrote in a Nov. 29 letter to council that he would accept the $200,000 figure. "While I do not believe [the money] is necessary or warranted, I respect Council's budgetary authority and can compromise on this issue," he wrote.

The county charter requires that the executive propose operating and capital budgets, but the final word on spending and taxes rests with council.

Testifying at four budget hearings or committee meetings, Ms. Wagner has argued for what she described as "flat funding" for 2013. She asked for $6.35 million for next year, a number equal to what was budgeted for her office for 2012. The $5.7 million Mr. Fitzgerald's administration had proposed would require layoffs, she warned.

She softened her position last week, telling members of council's Budget and Finance Committee that she believed she could find another $200,000 in savings in her department. A budget of $6.1 million next year would allow her to retain all current workers and fill four additional critical positions, she said.

The controller is on track to spend $6.1 million this year, and that lower number should be the base for calculating her 2013 budget, county manager William McKain told council. The $6.3 million figure is based on a staff of 93, while the controller actually employs 86, he said.

The $5.7 million proposed by Mr. Fitzgerald for 2013 includes enough money for salaries and fringe benefits for 86 employees, he said.

Following a party-line vote, the Budget and Finance Committee voted down an amendment sponsored by Councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, that would have cut most county departments by 1 percent. His plan also would have provided an additional 2 percent, or $114,000, for the county controller above what Mr. Fitzgerald proposed.

Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, said she was concerned that Ms. Wagner's office was the only row office to face an actual decrease in year-over-year funding. Serving as the county's financial watchdog, the controller provides important fiscal oversight, she said.

Councilman William Robinson, D-Hill District, called the proposed $200,000 increase in Ms. Wagner's budget a compromise between what Mr. Fitzgerald proposed and what Ms. Wagner requested. "Nobody [on council] is prepared to give her the number she wants," Mr. Robinson said. He chairs the Budget and Finance Committee.

What council members referred to as a $200,000 increase for next year was still a $450,000 cut compared to this year's budgeted amount, Ms. Wagner said. This year her budget was $6.35 million, while $5.9 million now is proposed for 2013, she said.

New, higher property assessments are to take effect in 2013, and the county is required to drop the millage rate to avoid "windfall" increases in tax revenue. In addition to approving the budget, council will take final action Tuesday on an ordinance that would trim the rate to 4.73 mills from this year's 5.69 mills.

Ms. Wagner and Mr. Fitzgerald, both Democrats who took office in January, have tangled on several occasions. Their most public disagreement involved who should oversee the work of three weight-and-measures employees. Those workers test scales, gas pumps and other measuring devices for accuracy.

Originally part of the Department of Administrative Services, which is overseen by the county executive, the weight-and-measures employees had been transferred to the controller's office in 2008. When Mr. Fitzgerald asked to have the duties returned to the executive branch, Ms. Wagner protested. County council, however, approved the change.


Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159.


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