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Panel says city can avoid bankruptcy, big cuts

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

The mayor's committee charged with recommending repairs for Pittsburgh's finances reached consensus Friday on a plan that would close the city's projected $40 million budget deficit next year without resorting to bankruptcy-type protection or drastic cuts in services.

The nearly two dozen members of Mayor Tom Murphy's PGH 21 committee who met at the Regional Enterprise Tower were in agreement on a "long-term blueprint" that could fully solve the city's recurring fiscal problems, said co-chairs Paul Renne and Doris Carson Williams.

"Who wants to do half a loaf?" Williams said after the 2- 1 / 2 -hour meeting.

Committee members have discussed options ranging from merging public safety departments, to selling off more city assets, to seeking state help. The co-chairs said their final recommendations will not call for draconian measures or one-time revenue fixes similar to those used in the past.

The finance panel, which was appointed by Murphy in March, plans to make its recommendations public on Monday. Murphy is scheduled to present his budget proposal to City Council on Tuesday morning.

Renne and Williams declined to discuss specific recommendations, but did say the city cannot afford to make many more service cuts.

Renne also ruled out seeking bankruptcy-type protection under state law. Murphy said earlier this fall that Pittsburgh might have to use state Act 47 if it cannot resolve its annual budget crunch, which forces the city to resort to quick fixes to meet state law requiring balanced budgets.

"From the city's perspective, I don't think we as a committee would have done our job if that was in fact our recommendation," Renne said.

Pittsburgh's annual structural deficit typically is about $25 million — the amount by which expenditures exceed revenue. But Murphy has said that amount could balloon to at least $40 million for 2003. Renne said the solution will require outside help, but declined to say who specifically might be called upon.

"It's going to require cooperation from people," Renne said.

The panel's discussions have included:

  • Merging the fire and emergency medical services bureaus to eliminate 200 jobs and save an estimated $15 million a year.

    Joe King, president of the firefighters union, said he met with administration officials Thursday to discuss combining the services. The union will not agree to layoffs, but could approve a plan for voluntary cutbacks through a buyouts, King said. Murphy has said such a measure would be "on the table."

    The paramedics, meanwhile, are interested in a merger only if it brings their pay and benefits up to the level of firefighters, said Jeff Vesci, their union president. Fourth-year paramedics make about $38,787 a year, compared with $46,337 for fourth-year firefighters.

  • Squeezing $5 million more in savings from the police bureau. The city did not hire a second budgeted class of recruits this fall, and the savings could come from leaving some positions vacant.

  • Privatizing emergency medical services billing. The move could save the city $5.2 million in 2003, and $1.2 million annually thereafter, according to a PGH 21 internal survey obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

  • Merging the city's 911 call center with Allegheny County's. The Murphy administration has entered talks with the county about such a merger, and the City Council has postponed discussing a $1.5 million upgrade to the city's system.

  • Closing the city's asphalt plant and selling off the riverfront property for private development. The plant is along the Allegheny River near Highland Park.

  • Establishing one or more garbage transfer stations where trucks could unload garbage that would then be placed on tractor-trailers for longer trips to the dump. Trucks could return to service more quickly and not sustain as much wear and tear.

    One transfer station could be in the Chateau area near Alcosan, with a possible second one on Neville Island. The city would seek to share the facilities with Allegheny County.

  • Seeking state help to offset the lack of property tax revenue from exempt nonprofits such as universities and hospitals.

  • Pursuing a $1 monthly surcharge on mobile phone users to match a similar fee on land-line phones. Gov.-elect Ed Rendell pledged during the campaign to seek such an increase, which could raise $50 million a year statewide.

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