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Cranmer, Dawida say county solvent; Dunn takes credit

Tuesday, May 12, 1998

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A mere 13 months ago, Allegheny County Commissioners Bob Cranmer and Mike Dawida were acting like Chicken Little, warning of possible financial doom for the county if big spending cuts weren't made.

Dawida, a Democrat then on the outs in the Republican controlled administration, even invoked a B-word -- bankruptcy -- to describe the gravity of the situation.

But yesterday, the only B-word Cranmer and Dawida, now the governing majority, were tossing around was balanced, as in budget. They're not quite there yet, they said, but their goal is to produce a balanced spending plan by 1999.

They said spending cuts, layoffs and other austerity measures implemented after they ousted Commissioner Larry Dunn as chairman last August left them just $9 million short of a balanced budget. That's after operating deficits of $55 million in 1996 and $17 million in 1997, according to budget office figures.

"Those things basically put us in a situation now where we feel very comfortable in saying to the people of Allegheny County that your finances are in good shape and that we have eliminated the problem," Dawida said at a news conference yesterday.

But to hear Dunn tell it, the Cranmer-Dawida claims suggested another B-word: baloney.

Dunn was incensed that they took credit for slashing full-time county employment from 7,226 people in January 1996 to 6,200 on April 30, 1998, producing an estimated $35 million in savings.

He said many of those cuts occurred while he was chairman. During his reign, personnel bottomed out at 6,266 in June 1996 but rose to 6,349 by last August.

"It is dishonest to try to mislead the public into thinking that their recent actions had anything to do with the budget savings brought about from my carrying out the 1996 payroll reduction plan," he said.

Dawida and Cranmer said the county's general fund balance, which fell from $82.3 million at the end of 1995 to $27.3 million a year later, had rebounded to $58.8 million and that the deficit had been cut by nearly $45 million.

The jump in the fund balance was caused largely by a $36.7 million cash infusion from the sale of delinquent tax liens. Nearly $38 million of the fund balance is targeted for specific reserves or bills, the largest being $22 million to pay for a countywide reassessment. The unreserved fund balance stands at $20.9 million.

To make up the $9 million shortfall, Cranmer and Dawida plan to look for ways to cut health insurance, workers' compensation, energy and space leasing costs. They may also look at privatization, an issue that ripped apart the Dunn-Cranmer alliance.

Dunn maintained the $58.8 million fund balance -- which Budget Director Carmen Torockio described as a "nice, comfortable number" -- validates his view that there was never a budget crisis. He reiterated his contention that it was manufactured so Cranmer and Dawida could "grab power."

"County finances are back on track because of the policies that I was able to implement before Bob Cranmer went south on me," Dunn said.

But Torockio said the rating downgrades by three bond rating agencies between June 1997 and January, plus deficits the last three years, show that the financial crisis was real. He also said the county last February had no money and had to borrow $4.3 million while awaiting tax revenues.

Dunn said downgrades were the result of the "chaos caused by Bob Cranmer."

Cranmer's office had no comment on Dunn's claims.

Dawida spokeswoman Karen Hochberg derided them.

"Commissioner Dawida will continue to run the government while Commissioner Dunn continues to run for office," she said.



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