Mayor Strangelove | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mayor Strangelove 

Or: How I stopped worrying and learned to love the layoffs.

Father Knows Worst
Pinkslipsburgh is a tough place to raise kids.

It was clear from the beginning that parenting in the city would be a rocky road -- literally. No sooner had I strapped my first-born into a stroller and set out across the South Side Slopes than I realized that the sidewalks were buckled by tree roots, while the streets were either too busy for safe strolling or so narrow and winding that one careless driver could spell doom. We strolled anyway, though I often wondered whether our bumpy and treacherous treks qualified as child enrichment or child endangerment.

Eventually we left the Slopes for Brookline, which gave us more breathing room -- and better sidewalks -- while allowing us to keep faith with city living. My wife, the kids and I love the parks, playgrounds, trails and those cool watersteps Mayor Tom Murphy had built near PNC Park. But with Zachary now 3 years old and his brother, Sean, approaching his first birthday, we’re starting to realize that the road to a quality education may be trickier than the goat paths of the Slopes -- thanks, in part, to the city’s budget crisis.

In May, the City Parks Department finalized plans to open a preschool at the Moore Park Recreation Center, just 10 minutes’ walk from our house. The Citiparks Preschool program for 3-year-olds was six hours a week, which we figured would be perfect for gently getting shy Zachary accustomed to dealing with teachers and other kids.

Playing nice is what preschool is about, says Stephanie Spence, assistant director at the Tender Care Learning Center in Shadyside. “If [children] don’t have exposure to socialization, kindergarten can be frightening,” says Spence, who is also a mother of two. These days the pace of kindergarten is such that a child who comes without basic social skills may fall behind permanently, local educators say. The ramifications are frightening. Gov. Ed Rendell is fond of mentioning a study of Chicago youth, released in 2001, showing that kids without preschool were markedly more likely to be placed in special education classes, drop out of high school, and even end up in prison.

Zach’s too cute for prison, but I’m too poor for Tender Care, which costs $121 a week for part-time preschool, and $161 for full-time education and care. The preschools I’ve surveyed run from about $225 a month for some religious-affiliated schools to $500 a month for some private chains and college-run programs. At $50 a month, the Citiparks program was just right for an alternative journalist trying to support a family of four. So I got an application and called with questions in early August.

“There is no more Citiparks Preschool,” said the person who answered. “We’ve all been laid off.”

The city’s recent layoffs include the one full-timer and 12 part-timers needed to run the Citiparks Preschools, says Parks Department Director Duane Ashley. The 138 families who had enrolled children with Citiparks will soon receive letters advising them of the two federally funded Head Start preschool programs run by the Pittsburgh Public Schools board and the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center. They’re respected programs, have the capacity to handle 2,000 kids -- and are absolutely free.

But I and, presumably, some other families affected by the Citiparks closures might be too rich for Head Start. Under its federal mandate, Head Start needs to fill 90 percent of its slots with children from families that are below certain income guidelines. For a family of four, the threshold is $18,400. We’ve applied anyway, hoping to fill one of the slots open to so-called “over-income” applicants.

One way or another, we’re going to get Zachary into preschool. Even aside from the preschool closures, though, the budget crisis has raised questions about parenting in Pittsburgh. Murphy has managed to foist the bill for 202 crossing guards on the school board for the balance of this year, but what about next year? And since our mayor is on the ropes, Murphy’s much-ballyhooed commission on school governance -- already five months late with its report -- may not have the clout it will need to fix the feuding school board. On the state level, Democrat Rendell wants to provide $267 million in preschool grants to school districts where more than 35 percent of students are from low-income families. But the governor’s proposal is so vague that it’s unclear whom it would help, and General Assembly Republicans are blocking it, anyway.

Pittsburgh may be headed for a long period during which the grass isn’t cut, the parks and playgrounds aren’t maintained, the sidewalks crumble and the recreation centers, preschools and pools are closed. If that’s the case, another parent asked me recently, “Why would I stay in the city?”

It doesn’t take much more than a preschool education to know that some parents won’t.

Kids’ Corner
Hey Kids! Learn how the city budget works! It’s neat!

When the dots don’t connect: Tommy the Turtle explains the city budget crisis

Hey, kids! Tommy the Turtle here to tell you about the city budget. Sound complicated? It’s not. Balancing the city budget is as easy as putting 357 pennies in a previously empty piggy bank -- and then taking 386 pennies out!

The city operating budget is about as thick as the latest Harry Potter™ novel, with just as much magic. The budget may look like a big list of numbers that do not actually add up, but it really has the power to pay for the equipment and salaries of the police, firefighters, emergency medical workers, engineers, parks employees, trash collectors, street and bridge repairmen, the mayor and city council. This year’s budget calls for spending $386 million. That’s enough money to buy 19 million Barbie as Elle Woods™ dolls -- 57 for each resident of Pittsburgh. Wait a minute … make that 58!

This year’s budget has some extra-special magic in it. Mayor Tom Murphy promised to spend $29 million that he didn’t have! He said he’d get it from new taxes that hadn’t yet been approved by the state legislature. That’s like promising your friends you’ll buy them 13 million Yu-Gi-Oh!™ cards, because you’re sure your parents are about to raise your allowance huge-time. He also said he’d get the firefighters and emergency medical people to work together. That’s like when your mom says you and your little brother should play nice while she’s out -- when she knows you’re planning to pound him into the playroom carpet with your new Hulk Hands with Electronic Sounds ™!

Unfortunately for Mayor Tom -- no relation to this turtle -- he hasn’t gotten his allowance increase from the state, and the firefighters and emergency guys still have their Hulk Hands on. So the mayor told about 730 workers he couldn’t pay them any more, and sent them home. Two hundred of them were crossing guards who the schools will pay for a little while, and the rest still get two-thirds of their allowance from the city, because of something called “unemployment compensation.” That might seem worse for you than for them, since playgrounds will still be falling apart and bad people will still be shooting at you while the workers are resting or moonlighting. But after six months, they won’t get any money anymore, and that’s bad for you and them -- but nice for Mayor Tom’s piggy bank!

Mayor Tom has another piggy bank called the “capital budget.” It’s filled with money he borrowed, and he’s paying back the loans using money from the operating budget. The capital-budget money is supposed to go for building or fixing things like roads, bridges, city buildings, swimming pools, parks and trails. Some city councilors said the mayor should take money from that piggy bank, and use it to keep the workers on the job. But Mayor Tom said no, and the councilors pulled their heads back into their shells -- which is something this turtle could learn a lot about from them!

Band-Aid Solution
EMTs are low-cost alternatives to full-fledged paramedics... so why are they getting the boot?

Though they all expect to be out of a job in a few days, the mood is festive among the dozen emergency medical technicians coming and going through Stacey Yaras’ North Side living room. Called EMTs for short, Yaras and 20 of her colleagues are among the 731 city employees slated to lose their jobs in the budget crisis, but they try to keep the mood light as they come off duty. One of their coworkers is pregnant, and over pop and potato chips, they sardonically suggest names for the child.

“How about Tom Murphy?” they ask. “Bob Kennedy?”

The name of the city’s mayor and director of operations aren’t especially popular with EMTs. But such jesting comes naturally to people who confront hardship every day. “You know that woman on the TV ads -- ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’?” asks Yaras. “I live that.”

“But sometimes she can’t get up because she’s had a stroke,” says Andy Marsh, who has been an EMT since the program began in 1999. And he has less to laugh about than some: As his 6-year-old daughter capers about Yaras’ living room, he muses, “She loses even more than we do. She lost a rec center and the swimming pool. I’m her dad, and I’m losing my job.”

Up until a few weeks ago, few Pittsburghers probably knew there was a difference between EMTs and their better-known colleagues, paramedics. As EMT Bill Heller says, “People just see a truck with a flashing light on it.”

The EMT program was created in 1999 for much the same reason the EMTs are being laid off: as a cost-saving measure. With less training and lower salaries than paramedics, they are dispatched to calls where the injury or illness appears not to be life-threatening, freeing up paramedics to handle more serious calls. “We’re called for everything from cut toes to heads trapped in stairwells,” says Heller. “You always hear our jobs aren’t as dangerous as firefighters’ or cops’, but we’re constantly in contact with people with AIDS and other nasty little diseases, who clean up after the stabbings and everything else.” EMTs also end up doing jobs that few others would want -- like picking up used syringes from the streets.

EMTs handle about one-fifth of the 60,000-plus calls taken each year by the city’s Emergency Medical Services department. Operating a fleet of four vans, the city’s 26 EMTs supplement nearly 160 paramedics, who drive more than a dozen fully equipped ambulances of their own. For this work, EMTs earn a maximum wage of $10.35 an hour -- less than the entry-level salary for a paramedic, and half of what a paramedic earns after five years on the job.

Or at least they did earn $10.35 an hour. The city’s layoffs mean that 21 will lose their jobs, with a lucky five others being promoted to paramedic status. City firefighters maintain a “first responder” program of their own -- carrying defibrillators and oxygen on fire trucks -- but Marsh says, “We run out of ambulances just about every day already.” With the EMTs off the streets, he and his colleagues warn, the public’s health could be in peril.

Neither Emergency Medical Services Chief Doug Garretson nor city Operations Director Bob Kennedy returned calls for comment. At an Aug. 20 City Council hearing, Garretson acknowledged that the cuts come “with some degree of pain and some degree of challenge to providing service,” and that the city would have to change the fact that “Our motto tends to be, ‘You call, we haul.’”

In the future, Garretson surmised, when an ambulance can’t be spared the city may offer “taxicab voucher programs” to non-emergency patients. Garretson also predicted that 911 dispatchers may be refusing to dispatch paramedics to some calls. “It’s difficult for paramedics to reject a person when they are on the scene,” he told council.

This prompted concern from City Council President Gene Ricciardi, who noted that it’s difficult to assess a medical condition over the phone. “Someone might start with a pain in the arm and end up with a heart attack,” Ricciardi warned.

Indeed, while the vast majority of EMT calls are non-emergencies, just about every EMT has a story about a routine call that took a turn for the worse -- the woman with a toothache who suddenly has a seizure, the senior citizen who flatlines during a seemingly routine call.

And, they say, they provide other kinds of service as well, notifying public agencies of elderly or impoverished patients living in hazardous conditions. “You get people who are welfare recipients who are living without gas, living in filth,” says Stacey Yaras. “Not that I’m ripping on anyone on welfare. I’ll be on it myself soon.”

Lower salaries aren’t the only thing that distinguish EMTs: The parade of EMTs passing through Stacey Yaras’ living room are male and female, black and white -- a more diverse crowd than other public safety employees, and one with a lot more earrings among men and women.

In fact, Ricciardi calls EMTs “the best affirmative-action program the city has. I’m not a quota kind of guy -- I don’t believe in points or number games. But it’s really good to see a program where minorities and women can go to school in the evenings and become full-fledged paramedics on their own.”

But the paramedics’ union, which represents the EMTs, has neither the numbers nor the political leverage of the firefighters or police.

It also doesn’t have the resources to protect its members. The Fraternal Order of Police has offered to defer scheduled pay increases in hopes of freeing up the money to hire back 93 laid-off cops. (The administration’s response is still pending as this issue goes to press.) The firefighters, meanwhile, have agreed to give up 2 percent of their pay. But rather than earmark the savings for laid-off EMTs -- whose functions the city hopes to merge with the fire bureau -- the firefighters want to dedicate the money to city activity centers for youth and seniors.

On paper, cutting the EMTs should save the city an estimated $600,000 in salary and benefits, but figures circulated by council’s budget office suggest the actual savings will be much smaller. When the cost of unemployment benefits are factored in, the savings drop down to below a quarter of a million dollars -- less than one-half of one percent of the city’s $60 million deficit.

And the city recoups much of that money. The city’s emergency services department reaps between $5.5 and $6.5 million a year billing insurers for its services, money which pays for the bulk of the department’s $10.5 million yearly cost. Low-cost EMTs improve that profit margin: As a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story noted, Medicare “now pays ambulance companies a lower rate for providing basic life support” -- the service EMTs provide -- “making it financially difficult for municipalities not to split duties between paramedics and EMTs.” City figures also suggest that there is more than $1 million in unpaid bills -- collecting only 60 cents on the dollar would pay for the cost of the EMTs.

Last week, council passed resolutions urging speedier bill collection, and asking the mayor to solicit contributions from area hospitals to help pay for the EMT service.

But as this issue went to press, says mayoral spokesman Craig Kwiecinski, “There has been no definitive decision or discussion with the hospitals.”

EMTs say that city officials have pledged to hire them back as soon as possible. But many have already found other work in adjoining communities, and most aren’t counting on the administration’s promises anymore.

“I don’t know if we’re going to get the eleventh-hour reprieve,” says Stacey Yaras. “But I do know they are going to miss us sorely.”

WWDD? (What Would Davey Do?)
Speculating on how David Lawrence, the archetypal Pittsburgh mayor, would manage this mess

For the first decade of Mayor Tom Murphy’s reign, supporters boasted that he was practically the Second Coming of David Lawrence. His redevelopment plan was called a “Renaissance” -- a deliberate attempt to invoke Lawrence’s spirit -- and like Lawrence’s urban renewal plan of the 1940s and 1950s, it hoped to turn Pittsburgh into a shining city on the hill.

But now Pittsburgh is teetering on the brink of fiscal ruin, and while doomsayers wax apocalyptic, many Pittsburghers have sighed to themselves, “What Would Davey Do?”

The short answer might be that Lawrence would do many of the things Murphy is doing, but he’d be able to do them better … or else he probably wouldn’t have needed to do them at all.

If Lawrence were brought back from the dead and given the run of the city, “I think he might propose a package like the one Murphy is trying to get now,” says Aldo Colautti, who served as a secretary to Lawrence for a year and worked for his chosen successor, Joseph Barr. But perhaps the better option would have been to resuscitate Lawrence a few years ago. “I don’t think he ever would have allowed the situation to get that bad. Although he was a liberal in many ways, Lawrence was a conservative in fiscal matters.” By contrast, Colautti says, “The city finds itself in the condition that it’s in now because it’s been resorting to some questionable tactics for years. It’s unlikely Lawrence and the council would have allowed that to happen.”

“I think Tom [Murphy] thought he could grow his way out of this and didn’t have to make hard decisions early. Lawrence would have taken at least some incremental steps early on,” agrees Moe Coleman, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor who also served under Barr and has been involved in politics for decades.

Not that it was ever easy, as Michael Weber’s biography of Lawrence, Don’t Call Me Boss, documents. Like Murphy, Lawrence waffled for his first two terms over a permanent solution to sizable deficits he’d inherited from his predecessor in 1945. And, like Murphy, Lawrence chose to take drastic action only after being re-elected to his third term. Lawrence had long opposed the creation of a wage tax -- he thought of it as a “soak the poor” tax -- but as Weber writes “the city was shocked when... Lawrence hinted that he might reverse his position” shortly after his 1953 election.

On the other hand, during his previous terms Lawrence succeeded where Murphy has so far failed: He won state approval to create new taxes, in Lawrence’s case on amusements and personal property. And, Weber notes, Lawrence “felt so strongly” about his opposition to a wage tax “that he was willing to postpone aspects of the redevelopment program” that he couldn’t finance.

Murphy, of course, has pursued nearly the opposite strategy: postponing new taxes in the hopes that the benefits of redevelopment would make them unnecessary. And his attempts to lobby Harrisburg, while successful in high-profile efforts like the “Plan B” stadium-financing plan, have been fraught with peril. Colautti surmises, “Apparently, the mayor has alienated quite a few members of the Pittsburgh delegation, and if you don’t have the total support of local legislators, it gives the rest of the legislature an excuse” not to support unpalatable reforms.

And while Murphy has always been something of a black sheep in his own party, Lawrence served as a party chieftain for years before ever seeking elected office. That gave him considerable advantage, as did his close relationship to Barr, a senior statesman who served in Harrisburg for two decades before succeeding Lawrence as mayor. Barr “worked well with legislative counterparts,” Colautti says. “He was a master of conciliation and crossing party lines.” Murphy’s chief ally in the legislature, Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill), is a political neophyte by comparison.

But it’s not just that Lawrence is a different type of politician: It’s that politics themselves were different. For one thing, during the Lawrence regime, city council was elected at-large rather than by district, a difference Colautti calls “fundamental. You’ve got nine councilors whose prime loyalties are to their district. So the safe thing to do is grandstand for their districts, protecting the narrow interests of that community as opposed to the interests of the city as a whole.”

Murphy also lacks the political levers, and thus the political leverage, that Lawrence had. “The system of patronage is different,” says Coleman. “When Lawrence was here, a large number of people owed their jobs to him.” The pugnacious Murphy has played a game of budgetary chicken, driving the city to the brink of bankruptcy in hope of forcing the state’s hand. Lawrence, says Coleman, “would have limited the public confrontation as much as he could,” making sure he had the political support for his initiatives before he mentioned it. Indeed, when the wage tax was first proposed, it was council who proposed it; Weber writes that while Lawrence had been lobbying for the hike for months, he learned of council’s decision only when a councilor informed him of it in the bathroom.

But although Murphy’s political and personal missteps have hurt the city, Colautti says it’s wrong “to reduce the city’s problems to personalities. If any person -- Dave Lawrence, Joe Barr -- inherited the situation Tom Murphy is facing, there’d be no easy solution. I don’t think changing the person in the mayor’s chair this year would change that.”

Final Stages
Citiparks Concerts Get the Gong

In the wind-corridor created by the USX tower and its accompanying outdoor food vendors, clothes are flapping on the 100-odd folks lunching to Pittsburgh’s venerable party-reggae group The Flow Band. As the band jumps into “Hot Hot Hot,” there’s a palpable irony in the air: Not only is it unseasonably cool for August, but The Flow Band’s appearance signals the final week of Citiparks’ outdoor concert series. The Citiparks A/V crew, which runs free lunchtime concerts at USX and Mellon Square Downtown, the Cinema in the Parks series and other events, shuts down around this time every year -- but this one’s different. Like many other citywide programs run by Citiparks, this one might not be coming back.

“The A/V crew goes down to a skeleton crew this time of year, “says Citiparks Director Duane Ashley, “but they still have a department. Well, at least I can say that, as of right now on Sept. 3, they have a department. My thoughts are if we don’t [find] additional funding, it’s not going to happen next year.”

When Mayor Tom Murphy announced the layoffs of 730 city employees, attention was obviously focused first on police and other public-safety employees. Fewer people noticed the wholesale closure of the Citiparks Special Events office -- the bureau that coordinates everything from the Great Race to the city’s African-American History Month displays and the Reservoir of Jazz Series. That concert series, and others put on by the Special Events office (as opposed to those run by Citiparks A/V), has already been -- to quote one employee -- “axed.”

“They said that our office was ‘non-essential,’” says Kevin Amos. As program coordinator in for Special Events, Amos was one of those responsible for bringing jazz to the Highland Park Reservoir’s lawn, among other programs. That is, until he was laid off. “A lot of these people don’t get a chance to go out to the jazz clubs to see these artists -- our audiences covered a great cross-section of the population, from young kids to older adults. The same thing at [Bach, Beethoven and Brunch in Mellon Square] -- they were great educational tools, not only for the adults but for the kids to get exposed [to these kinds of music].”

Besides the reservoir jazz and Bach series, eliminating the special events department raises questions about more high-profile events. The Great Race? Already a well-publicized casualty. The African-American History Month displays and activities? “No one to coordinate that,” says Ashley. And that Holy Day of Obligation for fireworks-loving Pittsburghers? “Fourth of July is gone, unless someone else steps forward and decides they want to incur the cost of the police, fire [and] EMS.”

Next year’s dreaded budget looms large over Citiparks, because the current cuts might be only the beginning. Amos points out that his office had already had its staff cut in half since last year -- and it was still deemed burdensome and closed. If the state -- or someone -- doesn’t come to the rescue, Ashley says, “There’s not a lot of fat left to cut.

“I haven’t heard that there’ll be additional cuts, but in this case it’s going to be a numbers game, and I don’t see more police cuts happening. There hasn’t been fat in this department for a number of years; it’s amazing what we’ve been able to do, and I put that down to the spirit of the people in the department. A lot of [other] cities are looking at ways to increase participation in the parks -- at some point, people have to realize that quality of life extends beyond the police, beyond the firemen, beyond basic public works.”

Far From the Madding Council
Former City-County Building dwellers do some armchair quarterbacking

Not surprisingly, former city officials -- and those who only wish they were city officials -- see nothing new in the city’s current budget problems. But their solutions run the gamut: from variations on recent proposals in city council to lowering taxes, or giving up city governance altogether.

“Yeah, turn out the lights,” jokes Joseph Sabino Mistick, a professor of law at Duquesne University who was Mayor Sophie Masloff’s executive secretary. Under Mayor Richard Caliguiri before her, Mistick was chair of the zoning board and vice chair of the planning commission. Today his opinions appear regularly in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“When I was with the mayor, we’d have companies approaching us, saying they wanted to relocate in Pittsburgh,” he says. “They meant ‘the region.’ We had to lure them into moving into our municipal boundaries.” The county, of course, was simultaneously pushing the company to choose some industrial park site somewhere. “We ended up competing with each other. If anybody thinks that makes sense … Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. And some of these companies said, ‘This is nuts. This is obviously a fragmented development strategy.’

“I don’t think we get out of this on any permanent basis unless we embrace structural change in local government,” he concludes. That’s something of an understatement, given his solution. “It has been impossible for the city to expand its own boundaries or its taxing authority. The only alternative is for the county to absorb the city.”

He points to the fact that both Pittsburghers and suburbanites pay the same county taxes, but city residents pay much higher municipal taxes than they do in, say, Wilkins Township. His goal -- the elimination of duplicate services in the city and county -- has fueled much less radical solutions, like simple city-county cooperation. But Mistick believes the city can be cured only if it is consumed.

“The county is the principal provider of social services but the city provides its own municipal services, at considerable duplication,” he says -- from police investigations to computer operations. “In every snow storm, if you’re out on the road you’re likely to see city trucks and county trucks crisscrossing each other. Just about on every front you will find some potential savings. There’s no reason why the county can’t have a department of municipal services” to take care of the unique needs of the City of Pittsburgh.

Mistick dismisses the little matter of political differences between the leadership county and city residents tend to vote for. City residents vote in county elections too, he says; if city government disappeared, why, they’d just have to vote less frequently.

“Right now, we don’t know if it’s going to be a Republican or a Democrat who will be running Allegheny County for the next four years” after the election this fall, he adds. “But that’s the less important decision.”

Mistick sees two scenarios under which the city would get a county takeover: If the city seeks state oversight, the county executive and/or council might be appointed to do the job. The county also might be called into action if the state legislature OKs oversight as part of any proposed bill -- say, as a balance to any new taxes the legislature might some day approve.

County control of the city would also spread the pain of all those tax-exempt nonprofits, Mistick notes. Suburbanites would no longer be able to weep about taxation without representation.

“I don’t see a whole lot of other [solutions] on the horizon,” he says. “Just about everything else would be providing more funding to a dysfunctional municipal government.”

“There have been those of us who’ve been saying, ‘We’re on a collision course,’ and no one believes us,” says David Miller, the city’s director of management and budget from 1996 to 1998. “They’ve been pulling rabbits out of hats. They’ve run out of rabbits. The consequences of not being able to control costs over 20, 25 years are finally coming home. I don’t know why anybody is surprised. Something has to happen. And it isn’t pretty.”

Nor is it new. Miller, now an associate dean and professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, would implement the city-county cooperation strategies developed for a 1996 report that Mayor Murphy himself commissioned from the Competitive Pittsburgh Task Force. Miller was a task force member.

The report recommended actions announced with little political fallout since the Aug. 6 announcement of closings and layoffs, such as selling the city’s asphalt plant and eliminating salt boxes on city streets. But it also recommended such politically untenable things as a garbage collection fee, and other actions currently in progress, including a merger of the fire bureau and Emergency Medical Services, which the report concluded would save the city the greatest amount of cash: $17 million a year in the long run, was the estimate in 1996. City-county cooperation alone would save $2 million a year, the report concluded.

Miller also says the city ought to do more privatizing of city amenities to nonprofits, such as it did with Phipps Conservatory, the zoo, the aviary and the Schenley Park golf course in the ’90s. That could include reviving a former proposal to get hospitals to manage EMS and ambulance services locally.

Ironically, some of Competitive Pittsburgh’s money-saving solutions were implemented instantly by Murphy on Aug. 6, although he went even further, closing all 19 recreation centers (the report had recommended closing “at least six”) and 26 pools (rather than the 16 suggested).

Miller won’t let the state off the hook: “Residents of the city should be asking … for the legislature to make meaningful reforms” -- to get more funds out of tax-exempt properties, for instance, and to give the city more control over collective bargaining with its unions.

Without new revenue sources or other legislative changes, Miller concludes, “The mayor is doing everything he has to do. I think the cards just being played out now are the ones it was spelled out to everybody at the beginning of the year.”

“Some of us on city council have been raising our voices about this for years,” says Dan Cohen, who served from 1989 until last year. “There’s nothing new here. But finally it has become so bad that we’re in a crisis.”

Cohen, now in private practice heading the Cohen Telecommunications Law Group Downtown, says he supports Mayor Tom Murphy’s current efforts -- with important tweaks. He would ask Harrisburg to raise the occupational privilege tax from its current flat $10 not to a flat $52 (as proposed by Murphy via state Rep. Dan Frankel’s legislation) but rather to one quarter of one percent “For somebody who earns $20,000 a year, it would come to $50 a year. And I would eliminate all exemptions -- all of them, gone. I have a very small law firm. I pay the business tax. Federated Investors does not. I have three employees. Federated Investors has, I don’t know, thousands.”

And Cohen would rein in the fire bureau, but he won’t say by how much. “Experts inside and outside government realize we have more firefighters than we need. We have the same number of firefighters we had when the city was twice the size. And that doesn’t take into account technological improvements. In order to keep the firefighters on the payroll, other city services have been decimated. I would prefer to do it through attrition and retirements. I don’t know if the city has that kind of time.”

And, like Miller and Mistick, he would make nonprofits pay something, although not religious or educational institutions. That leaves the hospitals. “They’re businesses. We know they’re businesses. We’re fortunate to have such a great hospital network in Pittsburgh. But they need to pay their fair share. It does not make sense for our largest industry in the city to be paying no taxes.”

Those who might have the most to say about Murphy’s moves are least able to speak. Two-time mayoral hopeful Bob O’Connor, who last lost to Murphy in the 2000 Democratic primary (and now heads Gov. Ed Rendell’s Western Pennsylvania office), says he has turned down “a hundred” interviews. He doesn’t want to appear to be second-guessing Murphy, he says.

He may be the only one in the city.

Sweep Stakes
The city’s budget problems have a bright side: fewer street-cleaning tickets.

To street-sweeping loathers: You will be happy to hear that the city’s street-sweeping program -- and thus the street-sweeping parking tickets you’ll receive -- is being cut back in the midst city budget’s crisis.

To street-sweeping lovers: Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

I’m not the first to complain about street cleaning here: That honor goes to Matt Knoblock, author of a City Paper “Rant” on the subject in January 2000. He wrote: “Maybe a street, like the counter at the donut shop, or the floor of the William Penn, can sparkle and shine. Maybe these asinine, concrete-swabbing Zambonis actually clean like nobody’s business. … Sure, and Mayor Murphy can lay golden eggs like a Christmas goose stuffed at Fort Knox.”

Street “cleaning” -- more like “parking fine extraction system,” if you ask me. Or maybe “dirt redistribution system,” as I’ve watched sweepers merely swirl into pretty patterns the same dirt and gravel, along with the same candy wrappers, coating it all with a nice mist.

Every year I look forward to November, when street-cleaning season ends and I can quit paying my $15 -- at least -- monthly parking tax for a little while. “Mayor Murphy’s Picking Up”? Picking up a lot of my money, I say, which is what I get for leaving my car on the street and commuting by bus, thus leaving city streets that much clearer for suburbanites, our beloved regional partners. According to Judy DeVito at the Parking Authority, 59,006 street-cleaning tickets were written last fiscal year, just under 20 percent of all parking tickets issued by the authority (city police also write a few). At $15 a pop (plus or minus for uncollected fines and occasional court costs), that’s $885,000. After taking a detour through Magistrate’s Court, the money goes into the city’s general fund.

But now, praise be, city Public Works Director Guy Costa says that we twice-a-month street-cleaning “recipients” will see the service cut back to once a month. Those with weekly street cleaning (residents of busy neighborhoods like Oakland and the South Side) go down to twice a month. Once-a-month service will be unchanged. Even the daily cleaning Downtown and in neighborhood business districts -- areas for which I soften my hard-line anti-sweeper stance -- will be cut back. The department lost one sweeper operator in the layoffs, but plans to make additional payroll cuts through attrition. (Wages and benefits for each of these workers cost in the low $40,000 range.) Most of the eight sweeper drivers will be partially reassigned within the department. Costa says the sweeper fleet will also be reduced from 18 to 14, saving about $48,000 in annual maintenance.

This was good news to me, but I figured I was in the minority. But Costa says there are definite pro- and anti-sweeping camps: “It’s probably 50-50. There are individuals who prefer street cleaning, because they like clean streets, and also people won’t abandon cars or leave them sit, because they’ll rack up tickets. Then there are people who don’t like it because they have to move their vehicles.” Despite popular belief, he says, tickets cannot be issued unless the street-sweeping machine actually comes by, a rule that was instituted by city council in the 1990s.

Not surprisingly, the generations are split. “The older people like it because it forces young people to move their cars, so they can get the space in front of their house. They watch the sweeper go by and then they run out and move their car.”

Most people may not know it, but you can petition your block to either end or begin street sweeping. It just takes 51 percent of your neighbors. Last year, Costa says, the city got a couple requests to add street cleaning, and 10 requests to drop it.

Clearly, some would gladly sacrifice street-sweeping altogether. But no: “People say, ‘Eliminate street sweeping,’ but we have a federal mandate to clean the street” which came into effect last year, Costa says. “We’re required to reduce or eliminate debris that goes into the storm sewers, and it recommends sweeping.”

Oh, yeah, water pollution -- hadn’t thought of that.

“I like it, I really do,” Costa says cheerfully. “It was a good inexpensive service we provided for city residents.” And that’s not so common anymore.

For information on Head Start, South Hills parents can call 412-488-2750; parents in the east, north and west can call 412-488-4541.

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