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Pittsburgh cultural groups fear loss of RAD aid to help Port Authority

| Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, 12:50 a.m.

Leaders of several cultural groups expressed concern Tuesday about the Allegheny Regional Asset District using $3 million in sales tax revenue to help bail out the cash-hungry Port Authority.

“We are greatly concerned about the precedent this would set,” said Kevin Hiles, chief financial officer of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, which is slated to receive a $2.9 million operating grant in RAD's 2013 preliminary budget.

RAD supports “regional assets” with half of the proceeds of a supplemental 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County. Until now, money has gone to parks, libraries, stadiums and cultural groups.

“Does transit qualify? Sure, it's regional and it's an asset, but is that enough? That definition could include many things, (such as) roads, bridges and safety equipment,” said Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council CEO Mitch Swain during a public hearing on RAD's $88.5 million preliminary budget. RAD budgeted $60,000 for the arts council.

“If this (funding for Port Authority) occurs, then where does it stop?” Swain asked.

“We obviously respect the positions of the organizations who testified today, but we also believe that Port Authority is a public asset worthy of funding through the Regional Asset District,” Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said.

The preliminary budget includes $3 million for the Port Authority. Agency and county officials have said the money, along with $1.5 million from the county's drink tax, would help leverage $30 million from the state and help prevent sweeping service cuts and layoffs.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald wants a 10-year RAD funding guarantee. He did not immediately return a call for comment.

“Whether it's one year or 10 years, it presents an unprecedented challenge,” said Bill Powers, director of artistic operations at the Pittsburgh Opera, which RAD budgeted to give $140,000. Powers asked RAD for $150,000 in his presentation Tuesday.

“We all agree that transit is vital,” Powers said. “But we're hopeful that another resolution can be found.”

Helen Gerhardt of Pittsburghers for Public Transit said she supports using RAD money “to address this current year's transit funding crisis, but we understand that RAD funds are not a long-term solution,” calling increased state funding the answer.

Several Port Authority riders who spoke at the hearing also supported using RAD money, noting many people who attend RAD-sponsored events and venues rely on public transportation.

When Fitzgerald announced the funding plan in August, he said RAD was on pace to end the year with a $5 million surplus, based on sales receipts through the first half of the year — more than enough to cover Port Authority's request and still increase funding to other groups.

However, receipts have trailed off slightly since. Year-to-date sales tax revenue through October — from sales through August — is up 4.6 percent over the same period a year ago. At that rate, RAD would collect $3.8 million more than last year, or $87.5 million.

RAD Executive Director David Donahoe said his group will release the latest revenue figures next week.

The updated revenue figures, along with comments made Tuesday, could play a role in shaping RAD's final 2013 budget, scheduled to be adopted on Nov. 27, Donahoe said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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