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Candidates agree on slashing parking tax

Four candidates for Pittsburgh mayor on Wednesday supported lowering the city's 50 percent parking tax, saying the levy -- the highest in the nation -- stymies development and seriously damages the Downtown economy.

The major contenders in the Democratic primary, former City Councilman Bob O'Connor, City Councilman William Peduto, and Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb -- plus Republican candidate Joe Weinroth -- all committed to work toward rolling the tax back to 31 percent, although they differed on how cash-strapped Pittsburgh might go about replacing the revenue.

"A cut in the parking tax has to be the number one tax priority of the next mayor. It has to be. It's killing our businesses. It's driving up Downtown vacancy rates and it's halting development on the North Shore," said Lamb, 42, of Point Breeze.

Lamb said one parking facility operator told him business at the Downtown garage dropped by 200,000 parking customers in 2004, the year the tax hike hit.

O'Connor, 60, of Squirrel Hill, said it's doubtful the city realized any actual gain by the 19 percent increase, because the tax increase likely was offset by lost revenue from other sources that depend on Downtown visitors.

"Most cities our size don't even have a parking tax. It's outrageous that happened," he said.

The city's financial crisis prompted Mayor Tom Murphy and the City Council to increase the parking tax from 31 percent to 50 percent in early 2004. The move outraged commuters and Downtown business owners, who said parking costs would make people avoid spending time in the city.

The candidates spoke during a forum yesterday at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown. The event was sponsored by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy organization that has strongly opposed the higher parking tax. While the candidates touched on subjects ranging from Downtown development to allowing private companies to bid on garbage collection contracts, the parking tax drew the most attention.

Peduto, Lamb and O'Connor are among seven candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the May 17 primary. Murphy, the incumbent, is not seeking a fourth term. Organizers of the forum said they invited just the three Democrats who are leading in the polls, and Weinroth, who is unopposed for the GOP nomination.

Weinroth, 46, an attorney from Squirrel Hill, said lowering the parking tax "is the only way you are going to get people to consider coming back into town."

Peduto noted that as a member of council he tried to block the parking tax increase. Now that it is built into the city's budget, however, other sources of revenue must be located before it can be rolled back, he said.

The real answer to solving Pittsburgh's long-term financial problems is through the kind of tough positions that he's taken on council to curtail spending and have the city live within its means, Peduto said.

O'Connor said the revenue difference can be resolved through better management of the city's resources. Also, the state possibly could come through with additional help for Pittsburgh, he said.

Lamb said the city shouldn't count on help from Harrisburg.

"We know what we've been through the last two years. We've got to do it ourselves," he said. "We've got to cut expenditures in this government and increase revenues in this government."

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