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Mayoral candidates debate nonprofits, privatizing

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and challenger Mark DeSantis, meeting Tuesday night in the second debate of the mayoral race, disagreed on key issues, including whether privatization of city services could help solve Pittsburgh's financial woes.

They sparred over how best to get nonprofits -- which are tax-exempt -- to voluntarily contribute more to covering the city's expenses.

DeSantis, the Republican facing Democrat Ravenstahl in the Nov. 6 election, said the city needs to weigh privatization as part of the solution for Pittsburgh's long-term solvency.

"We need to consider every option. We're broke. We're absolutely broke," DeSantis said during the forum at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. "It's something that's a viable option if we're trying to save money and trying to make government efficient, effective and transparent.

"It has worked in other cities, and there is every reason to believe it can work here," he said.

Ravenstahl, 27, of Summer Hill, said experience with the city's garbage collection service, where privatization had been considered, showed that it wasn't the right answer.

"We found that the city of Pittsburgh and our workers and individuals in the Environmental Services Department were much better than the private sector," the mayor said.

"Not only did we did not privatize our Environmental Services Department, we're picking up garbage now for Wilkinsburg. They used to have a private company that did their work. We found that city government workers did better than the private sector."

The issue of nonprofits' contributions to the city sparked the hottest exchange to date between the rivals.

DeSantis said nonprofits would be willing to give more than the $5 million a group of them contributed "if they knew the money was not going into the general fund" but was earmarked for "specific noble purposes," such as meeting the city's pension obligations.

"I think they have lost confidence in city government," said DeSantis, 48, of Downtown.

Ravenstahl said that nonprofits, "to the contrary of my opponent's remarks, have recently signed an agreement to continue to contribute to the city, so the suggestion that they've lost faith in the city and don't want to continue to contribute is false."

DeSantis turned to Ravenstahl and accused him of "mischaracterizing what I said."

"I said very clearly that you had signed the agreement but there was no amount specified," DeSantis said.

After a moderator told DeSantis to let Ravenstahl finish, the mayor said his leadership style with the nonprofits is "cooperative rather than confrontational," glancing at DeSantis as he said it and drawing a laugh from a crowd of nearly 200 at the forum sponsored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Ravenstahl and DeSantis were joined by two third-party contenders: LibertarianTony Oliva, 27, of Oakland, a former paratrooper and University of Pittsburgh student; and Socialist Workers Party candidate Ryan Scott, 24, of Friendship, a sewing machine operator.

Oliva said he was "not a politician" and didn't have glib answers, but pledged to work toward lowering taxes and reducing government's role. "I think we've lost our way. We need a new direction," he said.

Scott repeatedly criticized the capitalistic system as the root of most problems in Pittsburgh and the world.

Ravenstahl and DeSantis next will square off at a mayoral candidates forum Thursday night at Duquesne University.

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