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Harris wants city to retake financial reins in Pittsburgh

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 11:38 p.m.

City Council President Darlene Harris says its high time for the state to release Pittsburgh from financial oversight, but at least one of her colleagues disagrees.

Harris wrote to the Department of Community and Economic Development asking Secretary C. Alan Walker to end oversight because she said it diminishes Pittsburgh's credibility and reputation.

One of Pittsburgh's two state-appointed overseers — the Act 47 recovery team — recommended in October that Walker grant the city financial independence. The other team, the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, would retain state authority to approve city budgets.

“It's been seven months, and we haven't heard anything back,” Harris said on Tuesday.

Harris noted that the Act 47 team sent a report to Walker for review after a November public hearing in which team members testified that city finances have drastically improved. The city balanced its budgets for the past six years, reduced debt to about $450 million and raised its credit rating from junk-bond status, though it still has a $1 billion employee pension liability.

Councilman Bill Peduto, a Democrat favored to win the Nov. 5 election and become mayor next year, said police and fire union officials influenced Harris' letter last week because they want the city free to negotiate contracts in 2014. Under Act 47, union contracts must be based on the city's ability to pay, he said.

“It's being pushed by the police and firefighters,” Peduto said, adding that prior excessive employee contracts helped push the city toward bankruptcy.

Peduto said he would argue against release when he meets next week with Gov. Tom Corbett, legislative leaders and DCED officials. He said Pittsburgh has plenty of financial problems to overcome. “I'm going to Harrisburg to make sure we don't make the same mistakes,” he said.

Harris and Darrin Kelly, a trustee with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1, denied union influence on the issue. Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, could not be reached.

“That's absolutely false. Do we want an answer? Absolutely,” Kelly said.

DCED spokesman Steven Kratz could not provide a timetable for a decision, saying the department continues to talk with Act 47 coordinators Dean Kaplan and James Roberts and review their report. Kaplan's office referred questions to DCED, and Roberts did not return a phone call.

“We want to make sure that, if they're released, they're not going to end up back in Act 47 several years down the road,” Kratz said.

Councilman Corey O'Connor, who supports termination of oversight, speculated that DCED is awaiting the change in the city administration and potential results of a federal investigation into city contracts and police spending.

“Were certainly taking everything into consideration in moving forward,” Kratz said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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