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Flaherty blasts Onorato on Allegheny County debt

| Wednesday, April 27, 2011, 12:00 p.m.

Allegheny County's habit of overspending has gotten so bad that it owes nearly as much as it earns in a year, according to a report released on Tuesday by county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty.

Flaherty, a Democratic candidate for county executive in next month's primary, accused incumbent Dan Onorato and County Council of increasingly using borrowed money to hide annual shortfalls.

"Every year, we've tried to recommend the administration and council do some long-term planning," Flaherty said in a news conference at the county courthouse, noting reports of the county's cash crunch that emerged last fall. "We thought it almost amounted to a crisis last year, and we think the same thing this year."

In his Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2010, Flaherty said that for at least two years, the county overestimated revenues and underestimated spending. The gap led to overspending by $15.8 million in 2009 and $33 million in 2010, he said. Debt soared by $120 million over five years to more than $728.2 million, Flaherty reported.

But Onorato accused Flaherty of distorting the outstanding debt, saying the figure is unaudited. The last audited figure showed the county had $655.8 million in debt as of Dec. 31, 2010, and the figure was about the same -- $651.5 million -- when Onorato took office seven years ago, he said in a phone interview.

Onorato also noted that the county's financial reserves increased to $20.4 million in 2010, up 15.3 percent since he took office in January 2004.

But Flaherty said the county only has that balance because it uses state reimbursements for capital projects -- such as road and bridge repairs -- to plug holes in its operating budget. Last year, the county used $48.9 million transferred from the capital fund to cover its day-to-day expenses, Flaherty said.

"When you do it year in and year out now, it's really a sign of fiscal distress, and we need to correct it as soon as possible," said Flaherty, 49, of Mt. Lebanon.

Onorato said that the county has used the reimbursements for operating costs for a little more than two years and that it has the legal right to move the money around.

"It's only a situation if you budget for using it consistently, going forward, and we have not done that," Onorato said.

Former County Council President Rich Fitzgerald, Flaherty's primary opponent, said Flaherty shouldn't be telling other administrators to cut spending while his office spent "tens of thousands of dollars" putting stickers with his name on them on gas pumps.

The controller's office is required by state law to put stickers on all gas pumps, spokeswoman Pamela Goldsmith said. They assure consumers that the pumps have been checked for accuracy. Putting Flaherty's name on them doesn't change the cost, she said.

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