By Andy Medici
On June 12, Councilwoman Darlene Harris brought the rest of the City Council to the Perry High School auditorium in Observatory Hill to help answer an important question.
Does Pittsburgh have any money?
The short answer is yes, but with conditions, while the longer answer is actually one letter shorter: no.
This is because savings resulting from various budget cuts will not be enough to stave off ever-increasing costs the city has to bear. So City Council wants to know what to do with the money now, in the hopes that carefully investing in various projects will improve the city’s long-term outlook.
In preparations for the meetings Councilwoman Harris said that she was sure the City Council would get productive feedback about what people consider to be high priorities in their neighborhoods.
“Although I attend neighborhood meetings on a regular basis, this is a unique opportunity for my colleagues to learn about our neighborhoods and the needs of our district,” said Councilwoman Darlene Harris. “The folks in the district I represent are certainly not shy, and I know they will bring helpful suggestions to the meeting.”
These suggestions ended up covering anything and everything in the Northside, from people upset about abandoned houses and vacant lots, to others worried about landslides, to still more concern about septic tanks, the city steps and neighborhood safety. Harris covered most of these areas herself, mentioning that she is working to get the Davis Avenue bridge and the Charles Street bridge fixed as well as working to get East Ohio Street reconnected near the Allegheny Center Mall.
Presentations by Councilwoman Harris’ office and Bill Urbanic, the Council’s budget director, highlighted the unique issues facing district one on the Northside and the city as a whole.
In 2003, Pittsburgh filed for ACT 47, for distressed cities. With state supervision, the City cut 1,000 jobs, reduced benefits and froze wages. The City also closed fire houses, recreation centers and pools.
In all, their cutbacks saved the city $212 million, which leaves the city now with $130 million in the form of a surplus.
But in response to the question about whether or not the City will be broke in the future, Urbanic pointed to a variety of issues, including the restructuring of the $52 occupation tax, a flat real estate tax, a lack of predicted casino revenue and the looming clouds of pension aid and debt relief.
Urbanic predicted the return of a structural deficit by 2012, and the depletion of surplus funds by 2016. He also broke down city spending by category, with the majority of tax dollars going to providing basic city services.
Mildred Mclaughlin, from Troy hill, listed the closure of their local community center and the need to demolish condemned housing as some of her biggest concerns, but said that the list of things she thinks need to be fixed was too long to repeat to the City Council.
“There are so many things I can stand here and tell you but I would be here forever,” Mclaughlin said.
Ed Brandt, of the Brightwood Civic Group, said it was important to maintain properties once they become vacant, in order to avoid the added cost and time of later tearing that property down.
Marciana Rossi thought one of the biggest problems was that the city did not have enough building inspectors to keep places up to code and to find violations.
She also said that the city should make an effort to let the community know about upcoming hearings on local buildings.
“Let’s bring back people into our city, our beautiful city,” Rossi said.
Other residents listed idle youth, job creation and overgrown weeds as issues that affect their neighborhoods.
This public hearing was just part of a wider effort to bring residents into a discussion about the upcoming budget and focus on the City’s financial issues..
City Council members will tour each of the nine districts and will then attend a hearing with residents to hear their concerns and their “wish lists” for the future.
“I am really looking forward to this city-wide tour because as the elected legislative body, the City Council has the responsibility of approving a reasonable budget that reflects the goals of the entire city, said Council President Doug Shields.“Each Council member also annually budgets both Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money and Neighborhood Needs money and it benefits all of our constituents when we have a reliable understanding of each others’ districts.”