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The kindness of strangers

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Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, 5:05 p.m.

As Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff neared the end of her term in the early 1990s, a critical piece of legislation that she had been pushing for years awaited action in the state Legislature. Shortly thereafter, the Regional Asset District (RAD) was born, a dedicated 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County, one-half of which goes to those cultural and recreational activities that enrich life throughout the region.

With the unflagging support of the region's political, business and cultural leaders, the boundless generosity found in these hills and valleys was affirmed.

Up to that point, Pittsburgh taxpayers carried most of the burden. In boom times, when Pittsburgh was the hub of the nation's industrial might, the city could easily pay for these regional assets. But population shifts and the relocation of corporate headquarters and office parks outside the city limits changed all that.

Together with Masloff's decision to transfer the Highland Park Zoo, the National Aviary and Phipps Conservatory to nonprofits, RAD funding saved our cultural heritage. Most of the attractions now are flourishing, run by folks with a passion for each of them, away from the necessarily miserly eye of government bean counters.

Recently, another diverse group of leaders joined efforts to solve a different regional problem, the ongoing struggle to properly fund public transportation. Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald has cobbled together a budget for the Port Authority that will eliminate service cuts and save jobs, requiring givebacks from the union, a funding boost from the county and the commonwealth and a little help from RAD funds.

Only the cultural groups balked. And their reluctance was bolstered by Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who did not hear the call for leadership. These groups, to which so much has been given, forget that RAD funds are a gift, not an entitlement, and they oppose even this stabilizing fix while a permanent solution is sought for public transit.

People who ride buses also pay the extra 1 percent sales tax. They are performers, crew, staff, ushers, janitors and patrons. And the service cuts that will be avoided through civic cooperation include many of the weekend and late-night routes that these same folks rely on. Even without these factors, though, good Pittsburghers should be willing to help.

Many struggling arts groups owe their existence to RAD funding. And some of the larger organizations operate like private corporations, paying fabulous salaries to their leaders, all the while seeking increased RAD funding. Nearly $98 million in RAD money will go to these groups this year and Fitzgerald is requesting a mere $3 million for public transit.

“I've always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Blanche DuBois said in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Thanks to RAD funding, our region's cultural institutions have done the same for 20 years.

Now, other folks in our community need a little help and our treasured cultural and arts organizations should step aside and be certain to do nothing to detract from the beauty that they have brought into our lives.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill. Email him at:

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