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Belly Flop 

The city takes a plunge

Christine Horwat and her two daughters had only a day and a half left to enjoy their neighborhood pool in Bloomfield. But they spent the lunch hour of Aug. 7 on the steps of the City-County Building instead.

 

"It's Murphy's fault" the pool is closing along with 25 others citywide, Horwat says. The closures stem from a 731-person layoff, cuts that will mean 100 fewer police officers and 30 fewer paramedics on the street, as well as the closing of city rec centers and other services. And Horwat blames one person: Mayor Tom Murphy. "What do I hope to see happen? Murphy out of office."

 

In fact, Horwat was holding a sign that urged a more dire fate: "Drown Murphy in our pools," it read. Presumably Horwat was speaking metaphorically, but these days the city can barely afford even a metaphor: All but six of the city's pools are being drained, making it hard to drown Murphy inside city limits even as a figure of speech.

 

Indeed, Murphy's critics might feel drained by recent events too, even if we saw them coming. During his first two terms, the mayor's plan was to "grow the city" by subsidizing new development, but some of his highest-profile projects have barely helped the people they were built for, let alone anyone else. The Pirates recently claimed losses of $10 million a year in taxpayer-subsidized PNC Park, despite promises the facility would make them competitive. Lord & Taylor just announced it will leave its taxpayer-subsidized digs Downtown -- despite hopes that the store would help anchor the rebuilding of Downtown. In better times, critics of such "trickle-down" development might have taken some satisfaction in saying "I told you so," at least. But the city is so strapped we can't afford to gloat; the layoffs make it impossible.

 

Indeed, the preferred tone was set by Post-Gazette columnist John Craig Aug. 10. "Finger-pointing," his column contends, is only good for "putting some more dents in the carcasses of dead horses." ("Dents in carcasses" isn't a great metaphor either, but times are tough all over.) Instead, Craig says, we should concentrate on moving forward. For example, the city must get Harrisburg to approve the new taxes Murphy wants, taxes that should "end once and for all the special privileges that are a way of life in this region. No more would we hear that if you work for a high-tech company, you get a break. & Everybody pays his proportionate share of the expense of providing municipal services."

 

Of course, while Craig doesn't mention it, Murphy himself sought many of those "special privileges" -- including tax breaks and publicly financed loans for firms ranging from Alcoa to Federated Investors to the Lazarus Downtown. He also neglects to mention the P-G's editorial page backed Murphy in every one of those decisions. The carcasses we're trying to preserve, apparently, are the editorial board's credibility and Murphy's political future.

 

Certainly Murphy doesn't seem much interested in dwelling on the past either. When asked about his handling of the city's financial troubles at an Aug. 6 press conference, Murphy acknowledged, "Hindsight is wonderful." And while he choked up for a moment over the layoffs, within minutes the old Tom Murphy returned. The city, he contended, was merely "a pawn in a much larger game that is being played in Harrisburg," where the legislature is battling over education spending and gambling. And while Murphy's abrasive style is famous for irritating legislators, he insisted, "I don't think we have any personality clashes that are causing this." The city's tax problems have existed for decades, he contended, and "We are as close to success as we've been in 30 or 40 years" to solving them.

 

The best and worst thing about Murphy is that he can't help being upbeat, even when his city workers are getting beat up.

 

But 731 city employees don't feel "close to success" right now, and probably Murphy shouldn't either. For one thing, some of his cuts seem to hurt residents as much as possible while doing very little to close Pittsburgh's $60 million deficit. The pool closings are one example. As City Council President Gene Ricciardi recently put it (with his own daughter tugging on his sleeve so she could get in a final summer swim), "How much does it cost to keep the pools open until school starts?" The answer: not much when compared to some of the expenses the city isn't cutting.

 

After all, blue-ribbon commissions -- appointed by Murphy himself -- have repeatedly decried overstaffing in the fire bureau as one of the city's most excessive and costly expenses. And yet the fire fighters are the only public-safety employees that aren't facing layoffs. That's because during the 2001 mayoral campaign, Murphy negotiated a contract, which guaranteed the fire fighters job security through 2005.

 

In return, Murphy earned the union's endorsement and barely eked out a victory against challenger Bob O'Connor. Maybe the price was worth it: "Bob scared me," Murphy told the Post-Gazette in January 2001. Bob scared a lot of us, in fact. We feared he'd lead the city into insolvency by doing anything to get elected. Thank God we dodged that bullet.

 

The thing is, Murphy is right on many counts: Pittsburgh's tax structure is full of exemptions and must be changed to capture more revenue from tax-exempt enterprises and suburban commuters. But Murphy's own role in creating the problem, and in coddling fire fighters, erode his ability to campaign effectively on the city's behalf. Even if he gets everything he wants from the state -- the power to levy some $60 million in new taxes -- that may not be the end of the city's problems. Spiraling debt payments mean the city will have a deficit of $80 million next year. And though he's laid off one-seventh of the city's workforce, there hasn't exactly been an outpouring of concern from suburban legislators or the communities outside Pittsburgh they represent.

 

Of course, even in the midst of the layoffs, the city is still talking about plans to redevelop the Fifth and Forbes avenues Downtown. As long as the city throws good money after bad in the business district that suburbanites use, how much help can we expect from them to repair the places they don't see? Why won't they just assume that every job the city has cut was one that we shouldn't have had on the payroll in the first place? (And are we city residents any different? How many of us would volunteer to pay additional taxes to improve life in Homestead, no matter how much we shop at the Waterfront?)


A part of me thinks the best thing Murphy could do is the one thing the Horwat family can't: take a dive. Pittsburgh might be better served if it had someone advocating for solutions who wasn't tied so closely to the problems. But it ain't going to happen. Murphy has already taken the plunge. Let's hope it's not a belly flop into an empty pool.

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