Tommy the Turtle Says... | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Tommy the Turtle Says...

Being distressed can be really neato!

Hey, kids! Today, we're going to learn about being distressed. It sounds bad, but it can be fun!


You know how you feel when Mom holds your Halloween candy just out of reach, and says you can't have it until you eat your Brussels sprouts? Mayors sometimes feel that way, too. In fact, the General Assembly and the firefighters union have been holding budgetary treats -- namely, new taxes and contract concessions -- just above Mayor Tom Murphy's head for a whole year! On Nov. 10, he finally threw a budgetary temper tantrum, by filing for distressed status under state Act 47.


That sounds like a mouthful, but it's actually simple. To start becoming distressed, the mayor gives the state papers saying the city can't pay its bills. He has apparently decided those papers, called budgets, don't need to make sense -- and even that they shouldn't make sense! After all, if they made sense, then the city might not actually be distressed -- right?


Ever get one of those "some assembly required" toys and ask Dad to build it, only to hear him yell, "These f---ing instructions may as well be in Chinese"? Either Dad's a moron, or those instructions are just like the mayor's 2004 budget. The law says budgets have to be "balanced" -- that is, the city has to say how it's going to get all the money it plans to spend. But the mayor's 2004 budget says the city will get $357 million next year, but will somehow spend $396 million. Even DragonBall Z characters can't do that!


The mayor also says the budget has $40 million in spending cuts -- but that's what this turtle calls a fib. The mayor's fantasy 2003 budget had $386 million in spending, and he says he's spending less than that. The 2004 budget has $396 million in spending, so he really plans to spend at least $10 million more.


Making a bad budget so you can say you're distressed isn't a good thing, kids. It's kind of like getting mad at your parents, punching yourself in the face and then calling the Child Abuse Hotline. That's bad! But the mayor says he's "given up hope" of getting the General Assembly to help. And firefighters union President Joe King is like a kid brother who's not as big, but much, much tougher and smarter than the mayor. So maybe he had no choice.


Now, the state has 70 days to decide whether the mayor's "some assembly required" budget means the city is really distressed. If so, a guy who works for Gov. Ed Rendell picks a coordinator -- kind of like a social worker for cities -- who makes a new, hopefully better budget. It can include goodies the mayor wants, like new taxes on people who live in the suburbs but work in the city, and, eventually, changes in the firefighters' contract. Since the governor is the mayor's one big friend, the coordinator will probably write a budget the mayor likes.


That new budget has to be approved by City Council. Council is usually like your Dad -- allowed to talk a lot and tinker with things, but not to make real decisions -- but these days it seems to be having a tantrum all its own. Some councilors even want to file their own, competing request to be declared distressed. Scary, huh? Let's just say this city turtle is glad he carries his house on his back!

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