Dan Onorato has had his eye on the financial ball since he was elected county executive six years ago, and he has again kept his promise not to increase property taxes. Unfortunately, property assessments continue to be in his blind spot, which is reflected in his proposed budget for 2010.
On Wednesday, he announced a $773.5 million spending plan that contains no property tax increase and keeps a lid on expenses, going up by just 1.41 percent over the current year. A companion, capital budget of $92.6 million would provide, among other things, for $41.4 million in bridge work and $10.5 million for improvements to the county park system.
But the county again will rely on a one-time source of revenue to balance the budget. For 2010, Mr. Onorato proposes putting $30 million worth of reimbursements from the state, from previous capital projects, into the operating budget. Normally, such funds would be funneled back into the capital budget for future projects. This might not hurt in the short term because the state has more money for bridge and road work because of federal stimulus dollars. But reliance on nonrecurring revenue is not a good long-term strategy. For evidence, look no further than Pittsburgh's near-bankruptcy, which was built on annual one-time revenue that included selling the water authority and its asphalt plant, for example.
Mr. Onorato recognizes that, and when he delivered his 2010 budget to County Council on Wednesday, he laid a foundation for the 2011 budget as well. In doing so, though, he makes some very optimistic projections -- cutting expenses by $5 million; contributions totaling $4 million from nonprofit organizations; and $3 million from leasing rights to natural gas reserves under county-owned land at the airport and county parks. When the county requested bids for the rights to 9,000 acres last year, it had no takers.
Which brings us back to the 2010 budget, which contains no funding for a countywide reassessment. The last one cost the county $30 million, and the state Supreme Court in April ruled that the county's base-year property assessment system, which sets the figures according to the value of property in 2002, is unconstitutional. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick set a hearing for Oct. 19 to determine when and how the county will reassess the value of all its real estate, but Mr. Onorato is holding out hope for a two-year reprieve,
If he doesn't get it, hindsight will show the 2010 budget to be shortsighted.