Pittsburgh City Council showed Wednesday why it needs state overseers.
In a preliminary vote, council members loaded the five-year fiscal recovery plan with dozens of proposed changes, so many that they don't know what will actually be on the table when they take a final vote on Tuesday.
Some of the changes were well-intentioned, sound goals for the city's future, particularly Councilman Bill Peduto's proposed mandate for consolidation of more city services with Allegheny County. The trouble is, the state's Act 47 recovery team has no authority over county officials, so all the plan really can do is suggest those efforts. Besides, there's nothing that prevents both City Council and County Council from ordering more combined government work if they can muster the political will.
Likewise, no Act 47 plan can force the state Legislature to provide help, either by extending the city's payroll preparation tax to cover nonprofit organizations or allowing council to increase the local services tax on people who work in Pittsburgh from $52 a year to a still-reasonable $145. State overseers favor city efforts to get such legislation, but that's as far as their power extends.
Council members have argued that, because the plan would force the city to put at least $10 million a year toward its long-term pension and benefit costs, they'll be forced to increase local property taxes. That's not really their only option.
If attempts to win changes in state law fail -- and they are expected to do just that -- Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says he won't raise taxes that are imposed on city residents alone, which would preclude a property tax hike. He favors adding a $5-a-day surcharge for all-day parking in its garages; increasing water rates for nonprofits and charging the zoo, aviary and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for water they now get for free; imposing a $25 fee on each hospital admission; and charging colleges $50 per semester for each undergraduate.
Those changes, among a core package of amendments offered by Mr. Peduto and members Theresa Smith and Bruce Kraus, are not ideal but are largely doable.
Many of the other proposed changes, however, would undercut gains the city made under its first recovery plan, adopted in 2004, which gave it improved ability to manage its work force and also froze salaries and eliminated some positions.
The most damaging proposal was one from outgoing Councilman Jim Motznik, who called for eliminating the enhanced management powers, reasoning that they took away union rights in collective bargaining.
The city's contracts with its police and fire unions expire this year, and that's one of the most important reasons for passing a financial recovery plan by June 30.
The plan as prepared by Act 47 would provide a $1,000 signing bonus in 2010 and annual raises equivalent to 2 percent to 3 percent over the subsequent four years. Talk of any raises at all sounds generous in this economic climate, particularly when cities across the country are cutting staff, freezing wages and demanding concessions. Mr. Ravenstahl pointed that out when he met with council last week, but most members must not have been listening.
Without a plan in writing that limits how much the city can provide for each of its bargaining units, the city's position in any potential arbitration dispute will be weakened. As it stands now, no arbitrator can impose contract terms that are more generous than the plan would allow.
Without a tough Act 47 plan -- and the one proposed by the overseers gives the mayor and council considerably more leeway than the first plan did -- there will be, as Mr. Ravenstahl and some council members have warned, significant staff reductions, no overtime, tax increases and diminished city services.
The next step before another council vote is that Act 47 coordinators James Roberts and Dean Kaplan must weed through all of council's amendments to see if any of them are acceptable to the state team.
Council members gave away their authority by failing to exercise discipline and make the tough decisions. An even worse outcome would be if they fail to enact whatever responsible alternative the Act 47 team sends back.