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Pittsburgh's challenge, by the numbers

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh's next mayor, effectively chosen in the Democrats' May primary, will be elected by the people, of course. But if past is prologue, he'll be elected by barely a quarter of the registered electorate and by an embarrassingly small percentage of the city's population.

And while any mayor must serve the people, such abysmal statistics represent the perfect opportunity for the new mayor to serve something else — some very troubling numbers.

Those numbers are documented by the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in the third update to its benchmark city study, which originated in 2004.

The study's methodology redefines “comparable” by creating a “benchmark city” that is “an amalgamation of four geographically dispersed regional hub cities of various population size” — Columbus in neighboring Ohio, Charlotte, Omaha and Salt Lake City. And it shows that while Pittsburgh has made some progress in reining in the size and bite of government, it has much work to do. To wit:

• Pittsburgh spends 46 percent more on a per capita basis, a 2 percentage-point improvement from a decade ago

• It collects 57 percent more in taxes on the same basis, a drop of 5 percentage points from 2004

• It has staffing levels per 1,000 that are 32 percent higher

• It carries 64 percent more debt per capita (but that's 169 percentage points better than in 2004)

• Authority staffing is an astounding 154 percent higher than the benchmark city; authority assets are 405 percent higher. Believe it or not, that's an improvement from a decade ago.

• Per capita school spending is 36 percent higher, down from 79 percent higher in 2004

• Per capita school taxes are 73 percent higher than the benchmark city, but down from 114 percent higher in the original study

• Per pupil spending is 95 percent higher (ouch), an 11 percentage-point improvement

• Yet the number of students per 1,000 residents is 29 percent lower, a gain of 9 percentage points from 2004

• The average funded ratio for Pittsburgh pensions is 13 percent lower than the benchmark city. But it was 43 percent lower in the first study

• Its net bonded debt per capita is 64 percent higher but a far cry from being 233 percent higher than the benchmark city last decade

• Workers' compensation payments are 307 percent higher (double ouch), down from 344 percent higher

• The numbers for fire and police spending per capita were 39 percent and 7 percent higher, respectively, but down, by 21 percentage points and 11 percentage points, respectively.

“Despite some modest improvements in the debt level and pension plan funding over the last 10 years or so, the City of Pittsburgh's per capita spending, taxes and employee count are still far above the same measure for the cities in the benchmark sample,” says Allegheny Institute President Jake Haulk.

While your number-bombarded eyes surely are about as glazed over right now as is that ham cooking in the oven this Easter Sunday, these numbers must garner critical attention from Pittsburgh's next mayor.

For even with the improvements, it's strikingly clear that Pittsburgh, still in the equivalent of state receivership, taxes too much, spends too much and is overstaffed for its size.

And the mayor who can slay such dragons will be the mayor remembered for ushering in a true renaissance.

Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

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