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Mayor May Not

Why would anyone Want to be a Pittsburgh Mayor?

Jan. 2, 2006: You are the new mayor of Pittsburgh. Here in the lobby of the City-County Building, the city's political fixers, business honchos and labor leaders are gathered to celebrate your inauguration. They're slapping your back. They're wringing your hand. Ladies are offering their cheeks for your trademark peck.

Just one thing darkens your mood: An aide to former Mayor Tom Murphy is standing by an out-of-order elevator, drinking from a flask and moaning loudly. You walk over, take his hand and say, "Hey pal, calm down. Go home, get some rest, and tomorrow I'll find you a job in the mail room." His lamentations melt away, replaced by a look of puppyish gratitude only decades of experience in patronage jobs can teach.

Then somebody taps you on the shoulder. It's one of your top campaign backers, who runs an office-services firm. "Umm, Mr. Mayor," he says, "you're privatizing the mail room next week."

Sobbing, Murphy's man collapses to the floor, spilling his flask on your pant leg. You wonder: Can Pittsburgh's mayor still expense his dry cleaning?

Sitting in the Starbucks on Murray Avenue, in a leather jacket and mock turtleneck, Bob O'Connor looks to be in fighting trim. On this January day, he's all but officially a candidate in the Democratic primary, set for May 17, which will likely determine the next mayor in this blue town. "What this office needs is somebody with experience, dedication and the ability to work with people," he says. "It's right up my alley."

His 1997 challenge to Mayor Tom Murphy fell 8,182 votes short, and his 2001 effort just 699 votes shy. In 2005, his name recognition and legendary likeability make him the 800-pound gorilla in the race.

Whoever's elected, though, will be less a gorilla than a monkey in a net. Nearly half of the city's budget is eaten up by debt, pension and employee-benefits payments. By 2006, the city will have gone two years with the bare minimum of repair work, meaning many of its roads and bridges will be worse for the wear. It is locked into a five-year budget that can only be changed with the approval of two state-appointed oversight groups, the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority and the Act 47 Recovery Team. State legislators, who grudgingly allowed the city to levy new taxes in November, say they're tapped out. In fact, they're gunning for the quasi-independent authorities that have long been bastions of mayoral power.

O'Connor's answer to these challenges is the people skills he honed while managing 35 restaurants with 500 employees, in 11 years on Pittsburgh City Council, and during two years working as Gov. Ed Rendell's representative in southwestern Pennsylvania. The city's understaffed? "You motivate your employees." The ICA and Act 47 teams have a death grip on the purse strings? "When you do the right thing, people are going to come on board." The legislature is balky? "If [the next mayor] proves that he can manage the city better, they may have more opportunities."

It's not that he's a superstar. "I'm going to be like Big Ben taking over the Steelers. He's no Dan Marino," O'Connor says. When rookie quarterback Roethlisberger took over for injured starter Tommy Maddox, though, "All of the sudden, the line started blocking better. Bettis started running great." The city workers, business leaders and union bosses would do the same, he predicts. "We will put this city back on track."

That kind of bravado is great on a football field. But in a minefield?

Jan. 3, 2006:
You're hardly in the mayor's comfy chair five minutes when a staffer runs in with a mountain of phone messages. "They're from the mayor's complaint line," she explains. "Thousands of them, some weeks old. And more are pouring in."

"What's everybody whining about?" you ask, selecting one from the top of the pile. It's from some lady in Lawrenceville. You recall a campaign promise to be accessible. "Won't she be wowed when she gets a call back from the new mayor?" you say, while dialing.

She answers.

"This is your mayor, returning your call," you say.

"Well, get off the phone and get on a salt truck!" she shouts. "My street hasn't been plowed and the snow is a week old. It hasn't been repaved since the 1980s. I might as well trade in my car for a donkey. Get it plowed, or I'll come down there and ride you like the ass you are!" She hangs up.

You turn to your message-bearing staffer. "Return those calls, would you?"

Michael Lamb says that if he gets the imaginary call above, he's going to try to get that street salted and repaved. "We are collecting significant tax dollars, and we can find a way to do that," he says.

Lamb is Allegheny County's prothonotary, charged with keeping civil court records. He never misses an opportunity to say that he's trimmed that office's staff from 135 to 62, largely by automating functions and transferring some staff to the courts' payroll.

You can't automate snow clearance or street repaving, though, and the city's public works crews are down 132 bodies from 2001 -- a 29 percent reduction. In all, there are 620 fewer city employees in the 2005 budget than in the 2001 spending plan, including 240 fewer police and 70 fewer firefighters. (See "Those Were the Days ..." pg. 25.) That doesn't necessarily translate into 620 fewer bodies, since there are traditionally hundreds of vacant positions budgeted in the payroll, especially in the police department. But it's still a big cut.

Though the city will spend more this year than it did in 2001, that's only because debt, pension and employee-benefits payments -- primarily for health insurance -- have skyrocketed. Those costs now devour 44 percent of total city spending, versus 34 percent in 2001. That leaves the mayor with less and less budgetary room to pay for services, fund development, or pass cash to favorite organizations.

The cash crunch is worst in the capital budget, which covers improvements and maintenance of roads, bridges, parks and city buildings. The city will continue to get some capital money from the state and federal governments, but there are strings attached to those dollars. Some funds can only go to specific projects, and others may only be spent in low-income neighborhoods. The city has traditionally borrowed another $25 million or so per year to pay for everything else. Last year and this year, though, the city's decimated credit rating has kept it from borrowing a dime.

Street repaving has been among the hardest-hit services. During its first seven years, the Murphy administration resurfaced an average of 70 miles of streets annually. That put it on pace to resurface every road every 12 years -- a standard shared by many cities. In recent years, resurfacing dropped to around 38 miles of roads, and the 2005 budget includes only enough cash for 19 miles of asphalt a year

At that rate, the average road would have to wait 45 years for a fresh coat. And the tentative 2006 capital budget is even tighter than this year's.

"There's no influx of cash that's going to come in," says City Councilor Bill Peduto, who is considering a run for mayor. "There has to be a dedication to a fix-it-first mentality." He'd put a moratorium on new sidewalks, sewers, decorative lights and subsidized retailers. His advice to the distressed citizen living on Pothole Place: Be patient. "It will take a year or two for these new policies to have an effect."

Jan. 4, 2006:
Having come to the conclusion that you don't have the manpower or budget to fix anything, you decide there's only one thing to do: Boost some obscure fees to give you some budgetary breathing room. You call in your finance director, and peruse a list of fees.

"Let's see," you say. "There's the deed transfer tax, the institution and service privilege tax, the liquor and malt beverage license fee, street excavation charge and animal control fine. Let's raise those. Tell council if they do it quietly, I'll give them their cell phones back."

"Umm, sir," he says, "we'd need the approval of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority and the Act 47 Recovery Team."

"Well, get them on the phone. I'm sure they'll see reason."

"Actually, sir, they called this morning," he says, "asking for a list of proposed budget
cuts. They also asked whether you really needed a city cell phone."

In mid-January, City Controller Tom Flaherty was conflicted. He'd led a losing fight against plans to raise taxes mostly on workers, and cut city employees' pay, while the other potential mayoral candidates either acquiesced, or stayed silent. Now he had to decide whether to run for mayor. "I'm biting at the bit to take [O'Connor and Lamb] on," he told City Paper, "and then it's like the dog chasing the car: What happens when the dog catches the car?"

On Jan. 27, Flaherty announced he wouldn't run for mayor.

But whoever does catch that car may find himself on a short leash. The next mayor will inherit a budget that runs through 2009, and that can only be amended with the approval of the ICA and the Act 47 Recovery Team. The budget even caps union contracts, preventing the kind of generous package city firefighters were reportedly promised just weeks before they helped swing the 2001 Democratic primary to Murphy.

Should the city violate or change its five-year budget without the Recovery Team's approval, the punishment is relatively modest -- the freezing of a few million dollars in state aid. And since the Recovery Team reports to the Democratic governor's administration, a Democratic mayor might be able to win its acquiescence.

The five-member ICA, however, is another story. Its board includes two Republicans, Chairman Bill Lieberman and de facto spokesman Jim Roddey, the former county executive. It has been united on virtually every vote it has taken. Thanks to an agreement that Murphy negotiated and council reluctantly approved, the ICA can punish any transgression from the approved plan by intercepting the city's new tax revenue, potentially taking $56 million out of the operating budget. That would paralyze the city.

The ICA's powers don't stop there. Under the city-ICA agreement, if the city wants to borrow more than $1 million, or issue a contract worth more than $1 million a year, it has to first run the documents by the ICA. The ICA can make recommendations, which the city is bound to "consider" before signing on.

O'Connor might be expected to have an advantage in dealing with the ICA, since three of its board members -- Lieberman, David O'Loughlin and Jim Smith -- signaled their support for him in 2001 by contributing to his campaign. He'll apparently have to do without their checks this year, though. "We've got a fiduciary responsibility and we can't be supporting a candidate," says O'Loughlin. Lieberman echoes that sentiment, saying he won't give to any local campaigns while he's on the ICA board, though there's no law barring such contributions.

Even if O'Connor is the next mayor, the ICA isn't likely to go back to the state for another round of tax hikes. "I don't think we're going to be focused on new taxes," says O'Loughlin. "Our emphasis is going to be on cost-containment and developing a management climate that's more efficient."

In other words, there's more belt-tightening to come.

What if a new mayor decided to go to the mat with the ICA? "If you have a [mayor] who's going to try to take an adversarial position," warns ICA board member John Murray, "that's going to be very difficult for the city."

Jan. 5, 2006:
Your top campaign supporters -- a developer, a union boss and a construction contractor -- just walked out of your office. Their message: Get some construction going, and fast.

That sounds doable. Hell, Murphy built stadiums, a convention center, bank buildings, department stores, housing and lots more, using hardly any city money. Basically, the city's various authorities financed Murphy's building boom. Now you partially or entirely control those authorities.

You call your favorite authority director. "We've got to get some buildings started," you say. "Can you use an accounting trick to free up some money?"

"Accounting trick?" she says. "Are you nuts? This place is crawling with auditors from the ICA. Hey boss, gotta go. One of these ICA bean-counters is demanding to audit my cell phone, immediately."

Murphy used the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Stadium Authority, the Sports and Exhibition Authority, the Parking Authority and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to finance much of the development that occurred on his watch. That's not unusual: Authorities offer ways to raise money without boosting taxes, and with their appointed boards, they let mayors get the heavy lifting done without dirtying their own hands. For instance, when senior citizens were booted from a high-rise to make way for PNC Park, the authorities, rather than the city, ushered them out.

Now the Stadium Authority is down from 73 employees in 2001, when it ran Three Rivers, to just one part-time staffer. At least one of the five board members who supervise that staffer thinks the authority's time has passed. "I'm on the Stadium Authority," says Peduto. "I have no problem with merging the Stadium Authority into the URA."

That solution might make sense, since the Stadium Authority's sole remaining job is to oversee the development of the land upon which Three Rivers once stood, and the URA is the city's development arm. Plus both authorities are controlled by Pittsburgh's mayor, so the merger could presumably proceed without political wrangling.

Unfortunately for Peduto's plan, both the Stadium Authority and the URA are under attack, as are the Water and Sewer Authority and the Parking Authority. The result could be the piecemeal amputation of the octopus arms through which Pittsburgh mayors have long done business and exercised power.

Motivated by the demands of Republican state legislators, the ICA has hired auditors to review the Stadium Authority and the Sports and Exhibition Authority, which owns the new stadiums and convention center. "Our belief is that there shouldn't be both authorities," says Lieberman. Melding the Stadium Authority into the SEA, though, would have political repercussions, because the SEA is jointly controlled by the mayor and the county executive. In effect, the merger would transfer some city power to the county.

Republican legislators wouldn't stop there. In an Oct. 19 letter to the ICA, Republican state representatives Mike Turzai, Tom Stevenson and Mark Mustio, and senators Jane Orie and John Pippy, called for a slew of fire sales and privatizations. The URA, Parking Authority, and Water and Sewer Authority should sell off much or all of what they own, the letter says. Trash collection, the tow pound and emergency medical services should be privatized.

Several legislators say they'll stick to their guns, no matter who the next mayor is.

"The top priority is really the selling of assets from the City of Pittsburgh and audits of all of those authorities," says Orie, of McCandless. "Their water and sewer authority, their water-treatment plant ... you could put that up for bid. You could get a substantial amount of money to reduce [the city's] debt."

Selling URA properties, water-treatment facilities and parking lots would also put properties back on the tax rolls, notes Turzai, of Bradford Woods. With legislators uninterested in approving more taxes, that's the obvious way to improve Pittsburgh's tax base, he says. "The state's done what it's going to do" in terms of allowing new taxes, he says. "Pittsburgh has to take responsibility for itself."

Lamb often touts his willingness "to walk away from political turf when it's in the common interest." Battling the state isn't on his to-do list. "The City of Pittsburgh exists as an entity because the state says it can," Lamb notes. "The next mayor has to understand that relationship, and work within that."

Jan. 6, 2006:
It's Friday, but you're not sure when you're going home. Three hungry construction contractors are camped out in the waiting room. Former city employees who want their jobs back are holding a sit-in by the elevators. And the woman who threatened to ride you like an ass is circling the City-County Building on a mule.

There's got to be somebody who can help, you think, staring out the window at the County Courthouse across the street. That's it! County Executive Dan Onorato and you go way back. You dial up a pal in the county manager's office. "Hey, I need advice," you say. "How do you think I should go about asking Danny for a few million bucks, to get the city through the month?"

"Ha! That's rich," he snorts. "Word around here is that Danny's gonna eat your city government for lunch. Rumor has it he wants that comfy chair you've got over there, to replace the ottoman he smashed to bits last time he saw Roddey taking credit for something on TV."

"The big issue for me is to have somebody in the mayor's office who is willing to explore further city-county consolidation," says Onorato. He and Murphy have combined their 911 call centers, and the county has absorbed the city's court and the fingerprinting lab, he notes. Next up, he hopes, is the URA. "We need one economic development entity," he says. "I would support a move to put the two of them together under the county."

Eventually, Onorato would like to create a task force to consider merging "just county government and city government," he says, much as happened in Louisville, Ky. Any merger plan "would ultimately go to the voters," he adds. The merger concept has the support of many business leaders and is the subject of a crusade by the Post-Gazette. Candidates seeking the newspaper's endorsement and the backing of some key contributors will no doubt be asked whether they'd be willing to merge the mayor's post out of existence.

Lamb would start with easy stuff, like merging tax billing and dog licensing functions. "At the end of the day, maybe they save nickels, but they're nickels we need," he says. He's been vague about whether he'd support an overall "structural" merger of the city and county. "I don't think city-county consolidation at the end of the day is politically viable," he told City Paper on Jan. 3. And at a Jan. 5 Democracy For America forum, he added, "I'm not talking about an actual structural merger of the city and county, like the Louisville model. ... That's not the model for us. We need a model for Pittsburgh." But when asked at his Jan. 10 campaign kickoff whether he'd consider a solution that would eliminate Pittsburgh's mayor and council, he replied, "I think that everything needs to be on the table."

Peduto would gladly turn over the city's bomb squad, police academy and homicide investigation team to the county, but wouldn't merge the city into oblivion. Such a move, he predicts, would mean even further cuts in city services. "When the county is in charge of [city] services, and the elected officials who don't live in the city are faced with the choice of cutting services or [raising] revenues, there won't even be a debate," he says.

Flaherty considers the merger drive a Republican takeover plot -- but one that may be too far along to stop. "They're going to cut the city up until it's nothing, and then they're going to merge it into some stupid [city-county] hybrid," he warns. "If I was the nominee, they'd probably put the question on the ballot in November, to merge [the city and county]. I'd probably never see the inside of the office."

And maybe he'll be better off for it.

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