County council GOP suggests borrowing to prevent a tax hike
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Republicans on Allegheny County Council say borrowing an extra $5 million next year offers a way to head off both major cuts to human service programs and avoid a 1-mill property tax hike.
Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, proposed a budget amendment Tuesday night that would increase a proposed 2012 bond sale from $46 million to $51 million. The additional $5 million would be transferred to next year's public works department budget, where it would be used to pay for activities or projects that provide multi-year benefits. Mr. Gastgeb said that move would free up $5 million in the public works budget that could, in turn, be shifted to human services programs such as family counseling centers.
That second transfer would trigger as much as $17 million in additional state support for children, youth and family programs.
Mr. Gastgeb presented his amendment on behalf of the four-member GOP caucus at a meeting of council's budget and finance committee. A vote on his measure and other budget amendments is set for Tuesday.
Council, which has the last word on county budgets, now has three major spending alternatives to consider for next year.
The GOP plan, option three, closely resembles the original no-tax-increase spending plan proposed in October by county Executive Dan Onorato, but it would restore money for human services.
Both the GOP and Mr. Onorato plans differ markedly from a budget proposed by Councilman William Robinson and eight of his Democratic colleagues. That plan, option two, would increase property taxes by 1 mill, raise overall spending by about 2 percent next year, replenish the county's fund balance and restore deep cuts proposed by the Onorato administration in allocations for the Community College of Allegheny County and the human services department.
Mr. Onorato's bare-bones operating budget -- option one -- would avoid a tax increase in 2012 but would require trimming operating spending by 5 percent compared to this year. County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty also warned council that Mr. Onorato's financial plan contains overly optimistic revenue projections and underestimates next year's expenses.
Almost all of the 100 people who testified at council budget hearings earlier this month said they opposed Mr. Onorato's plan because it cut so deeply into allocations for CCAC and social service programs.
The GOP and Onorato options have their defenders.
R. Kevin Brown Jr., the president of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh, said his organization generally opposed putting any extra burden on homeowners. An increase in the real-estate tax rate in the same year as a new countywide reassessment takes effect would be a "double whammy" for many property owners, he said after the committee meeting.
Councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, told his colleagues he had talked to 100 of his constituents and all said they opposed a tax increase.
Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, and Mr. Gastgeb exchanged harsh words after Mr. Finnerty said the GOP plan to shift money into and out of the public works budget "may be legal but not ethical."
Mr. Gastgeb bristled at Mr. Finnerty's suggestion that his proposal was improper and said Democrats had supported similar transfers in years past. Mr. Finnerty later said he never meant to call any of his colleagues unethical.
Mr. Robinson, who heads the budget and finance committee, told council members that they were to address all their remarks to him and not hold one-on-one conversations. Should they continue to argue, he said he would refuse to consider any of their budget amendments.
First Published November 23, 2011 12:00 am