Recent action by Allegheny County Council has filled one-third of a $15 million hole in the county's operating budget.
Council unanimously approved the transfer of $5 million to the 2011 operating budget from a separate drink-tax fund. The money will be used to reimburse the county for contributions it has made toward Port Authority capital projects.
That move was part of what county Manager Jim Flynn described to council as a four-pronged plan proposed by the administration of County Executive Dan Onorato to deal with less state aid this year.
Before they voted to reallocate the money at their business meeting on Tuesday, several council members sought assurance that the transfer of funds would be legal.
Then-Common Pleas Court Judge Judith Olson ruled in 2009 that money collected under the county's alcoholic beverage and car rental taxes could be used only for specified mass transit expenses.
County solicitor Michael Wojcik wrote in a legal memorandum that the Onorato administration's plan to use those funds to pay debt service on Port Authority bonds was consistent with Judge Olson's ruling. The Port Authority operates the county's bus and light rail systems.
A second leg of Mr. Onorato's plan to make up for lost state aid calls for transferring $5 million in hotel tax revenues to fund county parks.
Hotel tax money can be used for "regional tourist promotion activities." Mr. Wojcik wrote that support for special events, upkeep of park amenities like wave pools and skating rinks as well as "general operation" of the county park system all were appropriate uses of hotel tax money.
That proposed shifting of county funds did not require approval of council, Mr. Wojcik concluded. While council action was needed to approve new projects, the proposed transfer of hotel tax money to parks funding would simply replace missing state money, he wrote.
Several council members, including Bill Robinson, chairman of council's budget and finance committee, said they had concerns about that procedure. "We would prefer to see all [budget] transfers handled through legislation," Mr. Robinson, D-Hill District, said.
Council members asked their solicitor, John Cambest, to do his own review of the law as it affects Mr. Onorato's proposals for rebalancing the county budget.
One of the two other "prongs" in Mr. Onorato's budget revision plan calls for trimming $2.5 million from the county's $22.8 million contribution to Community College of Allegheny County. Mr. Onorato has said he did not need approval from council to withhold those funds.
CCAC also faces a $3.5 million cut in its direct state assistance.
In response, the community college has frozen hiring, eliminated raises for administrators and announced a spring semester tuition increase.
The final $2.5 million in savings is to come from changes in Department of Human Services contracts for programs at the county jail.
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1159.