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'Clock's ticking' on Pittsburgh's shortfall

| Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011

Pittsburgh officials still have not identified how they will plug an annual $13 million hole in their operating budget, created last year when City Council dedicated parking tax money to shore up the ailing pension system.

The solution, according to city and parking authority officials, could include higher parking rates, higher taxes and cuts in services.

Councilman Bill Peduto and Controller Michael Lamb said it's up to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to renegotiate agreements with the parking authority, which pays the city $15 million annually for 9,000 metered spaces and 13 garages.

"The clock's ticking," Peduto said. "A new agreement has to be signed."

Ravenstahl's spokeswoman said it's up to council to deal with the Parking Authority board, whose members Ravenstahl appoints.

"We have to try to make the best out of a very bad situation we've been put in and move forward," Joanna Doven said.

But she added that Ravenstahl "won't sign off on any new taxes."

City officials said renegotiated agreements, parking rate increases and cost-cutting measures could generate an additional $10 million annually.

City finance director Scott Kunka, Ravenstahl's representative on the authority board, said the authority may not be able to provide additional money because it has its own debts to cover, about $110 million worth, and has to find ways to pay for parking system improvements, some mandated by City Council.

"(Council) simply cannot guarantee or pledge revenues of the parking authority back to the city," Kunka said. The authority is studying how much renovating four garages and replacing nearly 1,200 parking meters Downtown and in Oakland would cost.

Authority Executive Director David Onorato said the city and parking authority have, in essence, a contract.

"You just can't assume it will all change," Onorato said.

Last fall, council and the Ravenstahl administration battled over how to fund at least half of the city's $1 billion in pension obligations to avoid a state takeover of the retirement accounts for 8,000 active and retired employees. Ravenstahl pushed a plan in which a private operator would lease the parking system; Ravenstahl said it would have paid for needed upgrades to the parking system.

Council rejected that plan, and after floating several ideas, on New Year's Eve agreed to put $13 million in parking tax money in the pensions, a number that will rise to $26.7 million in 2018.

Council increased parking meter rates as part of last year's attempt to fund the pension; those increases take effect in June.

Several council members, along with Lamb, believe the Parking Authority can raise garage rates to make additional money for the city; Lamb said increases would still fall short of national averages.

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