Pittsburgh’s District 6 Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle discusses the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the City of Pittsburgh’s 2021 Operating and Capital Budgets.
Photo: Office of Councilman Lavelle
2020 found America and our city affected by duel crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, as well as a racial and social equity crisis sparked by the documented deaths of Black people at the hands of police. Both crises have affected this year’s budget and will have long lasting impacts.
Due to the national pandemic, the City of Pittsburgh has $52 million less in revenue than what was anticipated last year. While vacant positions are eliminated in the 2021 budget, there are no layoffs of employees contemplated until July 1, 2021.
Despite the loss of revenue due to the pandemic, City Council, along with the support of the Mayor, has attempted to address the racial and social equity crisis that faces our city.
To start, $5.3 Million has been transferred from the police budget to fund the newly created Office of Community Health and Safety, and to similarly fund the Office of Equity, which was established in 2019. This will begin to change how we look at public safety with a focus on prevention by addressing mental health, homelessness, and other circumstances that should lie outside of policing in the City of Pittsburgh. We look forward to working with the administration and the community in developing these vital efforts.
City Council passed a $564 million dollar operating budget and a $125 million dollar capital budget. To be clear, the budget passed is a stop gap measure to assure we can pay our bills beginning in 2021, and continue a minimal level of services to the citizens of Pittsburgh. Having a balanced budget in place is our legal requirement.
The budget is currently balanced by the elimination of hundreds of employees City-wide beginning July 1, 2021. If there is no federal or other revenue assistance by June of this year, those reductions will have to be implemented. This would include a reduction of $8.8 million in police salaries and other vital public safety services. We find that cuts of this magnitude will be untenable for Pittsburgh City government and its citizens.
If not for the fiscal responsibility of this and previous councils and administrations, the potential July 1 layoffs would have begun Jan. 1, 2021. The strong fiscal policies and best practices City Council put in place has allowed Pittsburgh to accumulate a healthy fund balance. This fund balance enabled the City to continue to pay our bills and provide services even with a large negative impact on our revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We remain hopeful that the federal government and President Joe Biden will help to provide some level of assistance to state and local government including the City of Pittsburgh. Regardless, we will have to work with the Mayor again by re-opening this budget and substantially changing and adjusting line items prior to July 1, 2021.
During this year’s budget process, residents rightfully demanded action to address the many issues we face. However, there are limitations to what can be done within our system. For example, residents have repeatedly requested that we tax our large nonprofits. Unfortunately, state law prohibits us from doing so. Moreover, the City did ask the state to include nonprofits in the Payroll Preparation Tax in 2004, but this request was denied.
Many residents also asked us to eliminate police positions. While there is merit to the ask, the City’s ability to cut positions is limited not only by state statutes like Section 239 and Act 111, but also by court precedent, arbitration decisions, and collective bargaining agreements. Among the restrictions imposed by the state statutes is a prohibition on municipalities to fire police officers unless for budgetary reasons. Given that the final budget is legally considered to be a balanced budget, the state statue effectively prohibits Pittsburgh from eliminating Police Bureau positions.
To be clear, this Council is supportive of the many demands placed upon us by residents to reduce the size of the Police Bureau. However, in order to make the necessary changes to allow for such reductions, we need your active support. We encourage those passionate residents to assist us in lobbying for the needed statutory changes in Pennsylvania state law. We have been and will continue to lobby Harrisburg for these necessary changes. We ask you to work with us in doing so.
Residents also requested the City to do the job of other agencies, such as providing affordable housing, adequately funding public education, and other social services. This Council has and continues to allocate what we can to these important functions and will continue to work with entities such as the County, School Board, Housing Authority, Urban Redevelopment Authority, and others to enhance services and meet our municipal obligations as well.
As an example, Council moved more than $2 million dollars to supplement the $10 million Housing Opportunity Fund (HOF) created by Council that has been essential to sustain many residents, small businesses, and homeowners during the pandemic. To date, the HOF has kept close to 200 homeowners in their home and/or assisted individuals in acquiring an affordable home.
R. Daniel Lavelle
Councilman, District 6