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Numbers Blame 

The tricks of trading one income source for another may hurt the poor, a councilor contends

Like many Pittsburgh residents and commuters, City Councilor Sala Udin hates the city's 2004 operating budget. Unlike them, he might make a federal case out of it.


The budget council passed Jan. 14 included an increase in the parking tax to 50 percent that has outraged commuters and Downtown businesses alike. But Udin was also angry that the budget shifted $17 million in spending from the city's operating budget to its capital budget, which is supposed to fund long-range projects in community development and infrastructure.


Such fiscal sleights-of-hand have long been a hallmark of city finances. But Udin called the 2004 spending plan the "most dishonest budget that I have seen since I've been on council": At one point, he ripped out a page from his copy of the operating budget and crammed it inside the capital budget, displaying the somewhat crumpled addendum to illustrate council's bait-and-switch.


Udin also contended that the funding shift was an attack on the poor. "There is a battle that is going on," he said. "It is a battle being waged by some of those angry [that] money goes to low-to-moderate income community development."


In fact, he charged, paying for city operations out of the capital budget might be illegal; the capital budget is funded partly by federal grants earmarked for developing low-income communities. Udin pledged to notify the federal department of Housing and Urban Development to have them "look at the way we use [federal] dollars and see if they find it kosher."


Such criticism didn't win many allies. "We know what the budget is," said Councilor Jim Motznik plaintively. "It's full of holes. ... [W]e did the best we could with the hand that we were dealt." And when it came to advancing his agenda, Udin himself engaged in fiscal shenanigans.


Originally, the city's budget included a change in the way the city calculates which homeowners are eligible for property tax relief. Udin contended the change would make it harder for low-income residents to qualify for the break, and alleged it was "a backdoor tax increase" on "the most vulnerable families in the city." Repealing the change cost the city nearly $1 million, which Udin said could be paid for by increasing the estimated amount the city would save by merging services with the county. Later, though, he charged that those estimates were already too high: When asked by reporters whether he was doing exactly what he faulted council for, Udin replied, "Yeah, OK, yes. Why not?"


Udin may not just be concerned with the fortunes of the poor. He is a possible contender for the mayor's office in 2005: Pushing for tax breaks helps him solidify his base among African-American and low-income voters. And while he's long been Murphy's champion on fiscal matters, his criticism of Murphy-sanctioned budget tricks gave him some distance from the floundering mayor. It also allowed Udin to beat up on another councilor likely to run for Murphy's seat: Council President Gene Ricciardi, who shepherded the budget -- and its parking-tax increase -- through council.


Ricciardi has torn a few pages out of political playbooks too, of course. He didn't just vote for Udin's change (which carried the day by a 7-2 vote); he directed the city clerk to list him as a co-sponsor.



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