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$4 million in RAD cash averted '94 Pittsburgh Symphony strike

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

In the fall of 1994, Mayor Tom Murphy and Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster made an unusual promise to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: $4 million in public money would be provided to help the orchestra avert a strike by its musicians.

The promise, which was not made public, led to a last-minute agreement that called for a four-year wage freeze for musicians, followed by a 24 percent wage hike in the 1997-98 season that compensated them for the period in which their salaries were static.

The $4 million pledge was later fulfilled by four capital grants made to the PSO by the Allegheny Regional Asset District between 1997 and 2000.

Some arts leaders are wondering if a similar deal between politicians and the orchestra might be arranged this year to help the PSO through its financial difficulties and current negotiations with musicians.

"I'd hope that any extraordinary gift to the symphony in these economic times would not have to come at the expense of other arts groups," said Mark Weinstein, general director of Pittsburgh Opera. "That would be bad for the community."

In 1994, the orchestra was reeling from the effects of a recession and trying to reduce a deficit, lessen its dependence on its endowment, attract larger audiences and bargain a new contract with its musicians -- goals it faces again today.

At least two former orchestra board members wonder if the 1994 pledge allowed the PSO to quickly solve its money problems without seeking a more dependable source of revenue or increased individual giving.

Murphy said last week that he and Foerster, who died three years ago, were concerned about a series of strikes in the city in the early 1990s and feared a strike by the orchestra would be a high-profile dispute that would further tar the city's labor relations image.

One 1994 strike was by workers at Allegheny Ludlum, a steel company run by Richard P. Simmons, chairman of the PSO board both in 1994 and today. Simmons said yesterday he was "deeply involved" in the meetings that led to the deal, and said the politicians acted after prominent citizens, whom he would not name, indicated they did not want a strike.

Labor shutdowns do not appear to be part of the equation this year. Negotiations with the musicians began last month with no public talk of a strike.

The $4 million organized by Murphy and Foerster from the asset district came in grants earmarked for a $6.8 million Heinz Hall renovation that was completed in 1995. Because operating funds paid for the renovations, the grants replenished the orchestra's operating budget, which is used to cover expenses such as musicians' salaries, benefits and pensions.

"It was understood by the [asset district] board that this was a reimbursement," said David Donahoe, executive director of the asset district. "They were replacing funds that had been used [for the renovations]."

The board awarded the $4 million through the asset district's capital grants program, which was funded from excess reserves. Other arts groups, including the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Kuntu Repertory Theatre and Silver Eye Center for Photography, received capital grants from those reserves, but the amounts were significantly lower than the PSO grants.

Current board member Dan Griffin, who joined the asset district in 1998, and David Matter, board member between 1994 and 1998, recalled that a promise by politicians was linked to the PSO's capital grant requests but didn't remember discussions during board meetings about the looming strike that precipitated the $4 million pledge.

"I don't know that we got that detailed," Griffin said. "There seemed to be an agreement that we were being asked to uphold and we did. We had the ability to say 'no,' but the people who appointed many of those [board] members made that agreement."

Linda Dickerson, who was the first person to chair the asset district board, said that before she left in 1995, she recalled board discussions about the PSO's need for money.

"There was some substantial pressure put on [the asset district by the orchestra] to consider a significant contribution," Dickerson said. "At the time I was leaving, the board was debating the pros and cons of that. There were other financial factors motivating them, but the [threatened] strike was the driving force."

Would the asset district have provided the $4 million had politicians not promised the money?

"That's awfully hard to judge," Matter said. "Obviously you pay more attention when governmental leadership expresses support for it, but when I was on the board, there were times when people simply disagreed with requests from the mayor. At the time, the mayor and commissioners would write letters to us and sometimes they were supported and agreed with and sometimes not."

Asset district grant applications are due July 17, and the prospects of a similar deal being made today look slim. For one, the asset district has less county sales tax revenue to distribute now than in the late 1990s.

"We just don't have the same capital funds as we did in those days," said asset district board member Wesley Blaha. "We were in a much more affluent situation then. I can't speak for the board, but I think that, to any organization considering a capital request for '04, I'd almost say, don't bother."

Griffin, who believes the PSO is just as important to Pittsburgh as local sports teams, said he intends to be open-minded about whatever amount the PSO might request from the asset district.

"But are we in the business of pulling people out of financial distress?" Griffin asked. "It's going to be a long, hard discussion."

Caroline Abels can be reached at cabels@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2614.

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