Pittsburgh City Council kicks of 2017 budget hearings

Author: Alanna Koll/Tuesday, November 22, 2016/Categories: Pittsburgh

Before the start of the holiday season, Pittsburgh City Council has began its four-week long budget hearing process to take a closer look at the funds being proposed for the city’s departments and services.

“For some of the departments [the hearings] are really an opportunity to dig deep, line-by-line and understand where we’re putting our priorities for next year,” said Councilman Dan Gilman (District 8), chairman of the the first day of hearings. 

The council kicked things off Tuesday by hearing testimony from the Pittsburgh Housing Authority, Pittsburgh Parking Authority, the Sports and Exhibition/Stadium Authority, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) , and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN). 

“At a hearing like this with the authorities, given that we don’t have actual oversight and we’re not approving their budgets, I think it’s more of a good annual check-in on what’s going on at these authorities, what are their priorities and what does the year ahead look like,” said the Councilman. 

Members of council took advantage of the meeting with the interim executive director of PWSA Bernard Lindstrom, to air their grievances with the embattled authority. 

Over the past  two years, PWSA customers have complained of a slew of problems with the authority, such as their billing statements not coming on time or at all, fears of lead in their water, a deteriorating water system and pipelines, a lack of action on floodwater and stormwater management, and a customer service department that does little to address the issues. 

Councilwoman Deborah Gross (District 7), Council’s representative on the PWSA board, said these are big problems and they’re going to have to look outside of Pittsburgh to help with funding for the fixes. 

“It’s going to be really tough to look at the price tags,” she said. “We’re going to need external partners like county help, state help, and federal help. This is not just a Pittsburgh problem and it really shouldn’t be solved by just a Pittsburgh rate-payer and taxpayer. This is a problem with all legacy cities across the nation.”

Lindstrom remarked during his testimony that a 23 percent increase in rate payer revenue in 2017 has been projected to address the issues, but that figure has not yet been approved by the board. 

“This is not what we anticipate next years rate increase to be,” he noted. “This is, however, an objective number to measure the magnitude of resources that our management has identified to assure water and wastewater improvements, enable customer service, reduce harmful sewage overflows, manage harmful levels of trace metals like lead, and position the authority to provide adequate capital investment in the future.” 

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak (District 4) said her constituents are still not receiving their monthly bills, and the ones that do are confused by what they are being charged for.  

“Consumers have never received letters from PWSA explaining what was going on,” she said. “There needs to be more  communication and an official apology from PWSA about the delay in their billing and the confusion.” 

Lindstrom, interim executive director of the authority for just over eleven weeks, heeded the councilwoman’s words and apologized.

“We messed up in 2015, we’re getting better in 2016, and we have the opportunity to make this right in 2017,” he said. “We sincerely apologize for the mistakes we made and not staying in touch with [customers].”

After the Thanksgiving holiday, council will hear from the departments included in the proposed 2017 operating budget, such as public safety and public works. 

“A budget really is a statement of the priorities of the city, so when you get into police and public works, that’s really what you’re looking for,” said Gilman. 

The total proposed budget for the Department of Public Safety is $4.9 million, while the total proposed budget for the Bureau of Police is $98 million- a $5 million increase from last year's budget. 

Mayor Peduto stated during his presentation of the budget to Council a few weeks ago that he would like the funds to continue to invest in Bureau training, equipment, and technology and to enhance the Bureau’s ability to conduct data-driven community policing. 

The Public Safety Services Committee of City Council took that goal one step further yesterday when they passed a measure that would pay for an additional 550 body worn cameras and cloud storage for the Bureau through a five year agreement with Taser International, Inc. 

“It’s good to move this forward,” said Pittsburgh Police Commander Ed Trapp after the passage of the bill from committee. “We’ve been kind of stuck for awhile and to have it going forward again is good.”

He noted that once the money is finally approved, it won’t take long for Taser to get the Bureau the cameras and officers can begin training. Training will take about six months. 

On Monday, November 28, council will hear testimony from the Departments of Finance, Law, Performance and Innovation, and the Commission on Human Relations. 

Council will then offer their amendments to the proposed budget with what they would like to see included or eliminated. 

“I would say more often then not its adding then cutting which is unfortunately a trend in government- it’s a lot easier to say what we need then to say what we can cut,” said Councilman Gilman. “But [the hearings] are a good opportunity for members to develop some of the amendments that they want to offer to the budget.”

Council has until December 31 to offer their amendments and give their approval.