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Valley sidesteps woes

| Sunday, May 16, 2004

PITTSBURGH: As Pittsburgh teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, Valley suburbanites largely look on with some curiosity, but not a lot of caring.

Should we worry that the city's demise will spell disaster for us too• Well, yes and no.

"As goes Pittsburgh, so goes the region," said State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland, a former Pittsburgh City Councilman who now represents a sprawling state senate district that includes a portion of the city and the Valley.

But proposals headed to the Legislature this summer from the Act 47 Recovery Team or the Fiscal Oversight Board aren't likely to include provisions that will take money directly from Valley residents to bail out Pittsburgh.

"At this point, I haven't heard any specific concerns about it, just a general uncomfortableness," said Tom Benecki, head of the Allegheny County North Council of Governments, which represents local governments in the Valley.

Suburban commuters who work in Pittsburgh will likely see some increase in occupational privilege tax and they already are paying a parking tax increased to 50 percent earlier this year.

But for the average Valley resident who only goes into the city a few times a year to shop or catch a Steelers game, will the plan to save Pittsburgh really even be noticeable?

Not in the short term, most officials said.

Still, once specific proposals come out this summer from the oversight committees created by the state law to fix Pittsburgh's financial problems, Valley residents wonder if whatever bails out the city will unfairly burden them.

"What you hear from people is that they don't want to end up paying for the mistakes of the city," Benecki said. "For years they've been talking about broadening tax bases and that's what people in the suburbs don't necessarily want to hear."

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy used that exact phrase - broadening tax base - when discussing the 5-year fiscal plan he released this week. The plan would cut fire department spending once the firefighters' union contract expires next year, ask local hospitals to assume paramedic service, cut health care costs by requiring a bigger contribution from employees, freeze or cut spending in most city departments and privatize vehicle maintenance.

City officials also have talked about cutting costs by merging some services with Allegheny County, which would affect Valley residents who use those services too.

Merging some services seemed to be an obvious, immediate way to help both governments pare down their budgets. But the county isn't interested in merging any functions unless the merger will be beneficial for both county and city government, County Executive Dan Onorato spokeswoman Bridget Fare said. The county, after all, has financial problems of its own, if not on the scale of Pittsburgh.

Working groups representing the city, the county and state Legislature have been discussing several areas that seem ripe for some consolidation _ public works, parks, purchasing, economic development. But those groups haven't produced any concrete plans. County officials say it is because the city isn't willing to make their half of the operations efficient.

"The point of merging isn't so we can go from having two managers to one," said County Councilman Tom Shumaker, R-Pine, who represents most of the Valley. Truly saving money will mean cutting back the workforce, he said.

The only successful merger plan involves county and city 911 services. And even there, the city refused to pare down its operation to make a joint venture efficient, Shumaker said.

"The county had to make a lot of concessions," he said. "They had to agree to hire all the city employees, to keep their salaries, to honor all their bargaining agreements."

Even if Pittsburgh and Allegheny County reached some merger agreements, local officials agree Valley residents aren't likely to notice if the city and county began jointly purchasing supplies or using one combined crew to plow roads or maintain parks.

The effects on the wallets of Valley residents will be more subtle and long-term than any tax or fee increase, officials said.

"While it isn't going to have an immediate impact, it is going to directly affect the housing market in this entire region and that could increase school property taxes," Shumaker said.

And whatever money the state Legislature has to devote to any plan for keeping Pittsburgh afloat will mean less state money for other places, including the suburbs, Shumaker said.

Suburban regions like the Valley might also benefit from whatever plan keeps Pittsburgh solvent. Increased taxes on businesses could boost development around the Northpointe at Slate Lick in South Buffalo or the area of the Mills mall under construction in Frazer, officials said.

While the South Hills and then the North Hills became hot places to build office space and new housing developments, the Valley might be next, Benecki said.

"You won't see these things overnight, but will you see them• Absolutely," Shumaker said.

Though the effects of a Pittsburgh bailout on the city's suburbs isn't clear, local officials warn there is no time to waste in saving the region's heart.

Like the drug problem, suburbanites cannot afford to sit back and think they've escaped it by moving away from Pittsburgh. Just as the drug trade and all the crime that comes with it spreads throughout the region, the financial woes of Pittsburgh aren't going to stay confined in the city either, Ferlo said.

"The city does deserve to be recognized as the hub, the living room, the economic engine of this region," Ferlo said. "The county has got to stop looking at Pittsburgh as a step child."

Additional Information:

How suburbanites might pay

Here are fees and taxes aimed at increasing revenue from non-Pittsburgh residents:

  • An increase in the occupational privilege tax from $10 a year to about $50 a year.

  • Creation of a commuter wage tax of 0.5%

  • Continuation of the 50% parking tax

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