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City Council majority sets new direction

Sunday, January 04, 2004

America's slowest moving soap opera, "Pittsburgh Circles the Drain," ended its second smash year with a New Year's Eve twist.

Mayor Tom Murphy, who lost his clout in Harrisburg years ago, found he didn't have much on Grant Street either. His long compliant City Council rebelled. It tossed Murphy's proposed budget and approved a leaner one, five votes to four.

Council's budget was $20 million smaller than the one the mayor proposed, because it leaves the property taxes and wage taxes where they are. It does kick up the parking tax by five percentage points, but it doesn't give residents any immediate reason to split town. Keeping people in Pittsburgh so they will continue to pay the lion's share of taxes is Job One for the city and state.

But this budget, while better than the mayor's, still has a bit of that ethereal quality we've come to associate with recent city spending plans. Though it doesn't rely on any taxes not yet approved by the state, it retains the sense of putting off the reckoning.

It keeps all of the city's 32 pools and 19 recreation centers closed. That's a relatively easy call in January, but come Memorial Day, people will be clamoring for chlorine and water.

This budget also relies on a $9.5 million increase in payments from the various city authorities, such as parking, water and sewer, housing, urban redevelopment and the strapped Sports & Exhibition Authority. Council has no control over these authorities.

Councilman Jim Motznik, of Overbrook, who led the Gang of Five in rebuffing the mayor, realizes this budget can work now only if the Murphy embraces it. The mayor controls the authority boards.

"If he wants council to look bad, he can do that," Motznik said of the mayor.

On the other hand, if the mayor can squeeze another $9.5 million out of the authorities, the suburban legislators' argument that the city is not cutting fat would be on even shakier ground.

"The money's there," Councilman Bill Peduto said. "I wouldn't have put it in the budget if it wasn't."

This line item has the look of one of those one-time accounting tricks that has gotten the city into trouble in the past. But with the city only "a big snowstorm away from bankruptcy," the authorities can't sit on any money, Peduto said.

We won't know for a while where or whether these millions exist, but Murphy doesn't have much room to maneuver. He has until Saturday to approve or veto the budget, and his hand is bound to be weaker in 2004.

Murphy lost two of his more reliable votes on council -- Barbara Burns and Tucker Sciulli -- when the new year began. New council members Luke Ravenstahl and Doug Shields will be sworn in tomorrow, and neither man owes anything to the mayor. Both have been meeting regularly with the council rebels.

Motznik believes that Wednesday's vote was a turning point. He and Peduto, Twanda Carlisle, Alan Hertzberg and Gene Ricciardi threw in together and threw out the mayor's budget that called for big property and wage tax increases on June 1 if the state didn't offer other options.

This budget cuts services first and allows for reopening some pools and rec centers if the state restructures taxes. Council will no longer do what it did a year ago and approve a mayoral budget that presumes state approval of taxes the city cannot currently impose.

"This sends a sharp message that we're not going to sit around and accept how things are," Motznik said.

This fluid council coalition is "not a group out to get Tom Murphy," Peduto said. "It's a group to change the direction for the city."

That direction will be toward smaller government with more focus on city neighborhoods, Peduto said. Big projects will have to be shared with Allegheny County.

"We can't afford to be the economic development engine for Western Pennsylvania."

Right now, Pittsburgh can't even afford swimming pools. That's life in a distressed city where nobody is left to carry the mayor's water.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at or 412-263-1947.

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