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Don't fault Tom Murphy for stadium deals

Sunday, April 01, 2001

A young Rooney wanted to represent the North Hills in the state Senate, but was blown out after his opponent showed Three Rivers Stadium blow up in a scathing television ad.

Jim Rooney, a Democrat, probably would have lost anyway, but he wouldn't have lost by 10,000 votes. The hit that Jane Orie put on this campaign neophyte knocked him out of the game.

So I had to wonder if City Council President Bob O'Connor might try to borrow the video in his bid to unseat Mayor Tom Murphy. No politician is more responsible for the new stadiums than Murphy, and O'Connor used the stadium issue against Murphy in a mayoral bid four years ago. O'Connor later came around to support public funding, but so did Orie, and that didn't deter her.

I called O'Connor's office and was directed to his young campaign manager, Mike Mikus. Ten minutes on the phone with Mikus and it was clear that O'Connor will try to attract anti-stadium voters, but in a more roundabout way.

"The biggest problem is not the stadiums themselves," Mikus said. "It's that at the same time we're opening up two new stadiums, schools are closing down and taxes are going up."

Murphy's priorities were skewed, in other words. It's not what the mayor did, but what he didn't do. Downtown Tom fiddled while neighborhoods suffered, according to O'Connor.

That's grounds for legitimate debate, and also smart strategy for O'Connor. Though a Pennsylvania Poll last month showed that likely Democratic voters didn't approve of the way Murphy secured public funding for the stadiums and the convention center, that issue is now the least of their concerns.

Maybe that's because, as the dust clears and PNC Park opens, the anti-stadium crowd within the city limits is finally facing an uncomfortable truth: City taxpayers made out like bandits on this deal.

That's no April Fool's joke. Think about it.

Like everyone else in Allegheny County, city residents subsidize these stadiums through a sales tax -- as we all did for Three Rivers Stadium. For every 77 cents you or I pay in state and local sales tax, about a penny goes toward the football stadium and the ballpark.

It's an open question whether sports tourists and conventioneers will provide enough return on this investment to make it worth Pennsylvania taxpayers' while, though the hundreds of new hotel rooms opening in Pittsburgh are an encouraging start. What we do know is that while the two teams and citizens of the entire state and county finance this $943 million project in the heart of the city, the city's general fund contributes nothing, even as old city streets are restored and a striking riverfront park emerges.

That's not the only reason the stadium implosion looks better up close than from 10 miles away. The city should get about $7 million in parking and amusement taxes from the new stadiums' patrons, most of whom will drive in from out of town to set attendance records. That's almost 2 percent of the city budget. That's $7 million that residents won't have to pay. That, coincidentally, is just enough to cover the Homestead Exclusion that will save every city homeowner $108 on property taxes this year and every year. The city is the first and only municipality in the state to enact this exemption.

In short, city residents are paying in pennies and getting back dollars.

So, by all means, let's get on Murphy for what he hasn't done in eight years. Neither he nor anyone else has effectively lobbied to get more state money for public schools. Murphy also should have to explain why he didn't spend more of his energy in the neighborhoods and less fighting with local merchants over an ill-conceived plan for Downtown shopping that finally sank of its own weight.

Murphy could lose on such issues. But if we vote him out because he convinced the state and county it was in everyone's interests to keep Pittsburgh a major-league city, city homeowners ought to forfeit their Homestead Exclusions.

Brian O'Neill's e-mail address is boneill@post-gazette.com.

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