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Roddey’s budget pinches row offices

Correction: Only the proposed 2004 budget for the Allegheny County sheriff’s office was determined by adding 3 percent per year to the row office’s 1998 budget. A story on Chief Executive Jim Roddey’s budget address on Page B1 Sept. 24 contained incorrect information. (10/01/03)

Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey on Tuesday night presented County Council a $1.3 billion budget proposal that would lighten the county’s operating expenses by $7.5 million and keep the real estate tax rate where it is.

Most of the savings would come from slashing $6.5 million in funding from eight of the county’s 10 row offices. The offices of the county controller and coroner — run, respectively, by Roddey’s current electoral opponent and his opponent in the last chief executive race — emerged unscathed. In fact, Roddey added $250,000 to the budget for the coroner’s office, run by Dr. Cyril H. Wecht.

The spending plan also includes $150,000 for a new Department of Homeland Security, which would comprise the county police, emergency services, the jail and the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.

The county’s real estate tax would remain at 4.96 mills — or $4.96 for every $1,000 of a home’s assessed value. The $27.2 million in county reserves would not be touched.

Roddey proposed two tax cuts. One would increase the homestead property tax exemption from $10,000 to $15,000, paid for by the reductions to row office budgets. Senior citizens would receive a $3.3 million tax cut if Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy agrees to merge some city and county services — as Roddey has proposed and state legislators have demanded.

Under a state law known as Act 77, qualified elderly homeowners get a 25 percent reduction in their property taxes. Roddey wants to use that $3.3 million to increase their deduction to about 40 percent.

The proposal is similar to one introduced weeks ago by council Vice President Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill. Then, Roddey said the county didn’t have the money, and now, Fitzgerald said last night, the chief executive wants to do the same thing.

Council Democrats and Controller Dan Onorato denounced Roddey’s speech — a half-hour-long combination of the annual budget and state-of-the-county addresses — as overly political. They also criticized the chief executive for not showing them the budget sooner.

“We are the only people in this world who haven’t seen this budget yet,” said council President Rick Schwartz, D-Plum.

Republicans on the council countered that Roddey sends the budget to them at the same time every year: during his budget presentation.

Schwartz also criticized Roddey for budgeting for the Act 77 tax cut with money that hasn’t been saved yet.

During the coming weeks, County Council members will negotiate with Roddey, eventually arriving at a final budget, which they must pass in early December. The lukewarm reception from the council’s majority party would seem to make it unlikely the body will quickly rubber-stamp Roddey’s proposals.

That offers at least some hope to department heads like Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio. Officials in DeFazio’s office said they will seek $13.4 million in funding. Roddey wants to give them a little more than $10 million.

Right now, the sheriff’s office is on pace to run out of money by mid-November, and it might need the council to approve as much as $1.8 million in stopgap funding. Late last year, when DeFazio exceeded his budget by more than $1 million, the council kept his department solvent with a budget transfer to the sheriff’s coffers.

County Manager Bob Webb said row office allocations were determined by taking those offices’ 1998 budgets and adding 3 percent a year.

During his speech, Roddey said row office budgets have increased by $5.7 million during the past four years, while departments under his command shed 800 employees and slimmed down by $18.6 million.

The controller’s office escaped with an equal appropriation because it has dropped from 135 employees to 90 during those four years. And the coroner’s office will need the extra $250,000 for its new $52 million forensics lab, scheduled to be built this year, Roddey said.

Roddey’s budget calls for spending about $633 million in county-collected money and $677 million in federal and state grants, for a total $1.3 billion.


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