Allegheny County budget summit urged; situation called ‘critical’ |
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Allegheny County’s pockets are almost empty, and it needs the state to pay what it owes to get it back in the black, officials say.

Pennsylvania owes the county about $70 million, forcing the county to live off credit for most of the 15 months since last year’s state budget impasse, county officials said yesterday.

“The situation is critical,” said Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty. Other county leaders hope lobbying efforts in Harrisburg will persuade the state to pay what it owes in time to avoid local service cuts.

County Council Republicans want a public budget summit with the controller, treasurer, chief executive and his budget officer to shortcut the typical process and come up with solutions.

“The state isn’t going to pay us on time,” said Councilman Chuck McCullough, R-Upper St. Clair, who noted that a new Republican governor will have his own budget crisis to solve. “The state is going to start looking to downsize its government, and we need to react.”

County Executive Dan Onorato and council’s Democratic leaders are balking at the GOP members’ idea. The budget negotiation process — which speeds up with two public hearings this week — will be enough, they said.

“It may take some time, but we’re going to get our money. (The state) is obligated to give us our money, and they’re going to pay it,” said Councilman William Robinson, D-Hill District, chairman of council’s Budget and Finance Committee. “I am confident that the condition of our finances, as we know them today, will allow us to get through 2011. What I’m not confident in is that they can get us beyond that.”

Onorato proposed a budget with no property tax increase, including nearly flat spending in 2011. It marks the seventh year without an increase under Onorato, a record that may be starting to crack county finances as the recession ravaged some of its accounts.

In two years, the county’s fund balance dwindled by nearly half to about $19 million, which put the county on weak footing, according to Flaherty. In the past five years, the county has had no growth in real estate tax revenue to help offset inflation, rising salaries and health care costs.

All this has come just as the county has seen “the most precipitous” drop in state and federal help in its history, according to a report Flaherty sent to council last week. The county is spending more than it is taking in, primarily because the state has stopped promptly paying money it owes the county, on top of other actual funding cuts. Much of what the state owes is reimbursement for the county’s human service programs and nursing homes.

“We are in a different budget climate the last two fiscal years,” said Gary Tuma, spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell. “It certainly has put government at all levels in a bit of a crunch. Things that are routine problems that may have hit counties here and there, it’s all hitting now at once, causing cash-flow problems.”

Flaherty’s report last week was critical of Onorato’s budget proposal on several fronts. It said that Onorato’s proposal overestimated revenues by at least $8.9 million and that he has yet to explain another $4 million he promised in voluntary contributions from nonprofits. The proposal failed to account for chronic and rising overspending in several departments, Flaherty’s report said.

The slew of problems has the minority Republicans pushing to use the county charter to force the budget summit. McCullough and fellow Republicans Matt Drozd, Vince Gastgeb and Jan Rea co-sponsored legislation for tonight’s council meeting. They’re lobbying for more votes, but don’t yet have the eight they need, they said.

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