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Task force to examine Pittsburgh's finances and start making cuts

Some Pittsburgh City Council listening to city controller about potential budget troubles
Some in Pittsburgh City Council listening to city controller about potential budget troubles 03:18

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Pittsburgh City Controller Rachael Heisler has sounded the alarm, warning the city will face a major budget crisis if it does not start to rein in spending and find new revenues. 

Now, it appears some Pittsburgh City Council members are taking that message to heart. Councilwoman Erika Strassburger doesn't want to return to the dark days of the early 2000s, when a budget shortfall resulted in massive layoffs and closures. 

"We don't want to get to a point in two or three years or even five years where we are laying off 600 people or closing pools or closing rec centers because we didn't make the hard decisions now," Strassburger said. 

As Pittsburgh City Council Budget Committee chair, Strassburger is a member of a new task force that includes Heisler and members of the administration to examine the city's financials and start making the necessary cuts. 

"Now is the time that we need to be taking a look at every penny that goes out the door," Strassburger said. 

"We need to tighten our belts and look at how we are spending money over the next couple of years," Heisler said. 

Cuts are needed, according to Heisler, who has cited serious drops in revenue, including those assessment appeals from the owners of half-empty Downtown office buildings which have already resulted in a loss of $3.3 million in tax revenue and required the city to cut $7.2 million in refund checks. 

As controller, she is beginning an audit of the Stop the Violence trust fund. The city is set to award another $1 million in grants to community groups with the intent of preventing violence, but Heisler says programs like that should be examined. 

KDKA-TV's Andy Sheehan: "Do you think the city should be a grant-giving operation?"

"I don't believe it's a core function of city government, no," Heisler said. 

Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak, who concedes some adjustments will be needed, defended the grants and millions of dollars in seed money for affordable housing as prudent spending that should not be cut. 

"To eliminate vital programs that help city resident connect to economic opportunity, keep a roof over their head saves us money down the line. So, it would be foolish to look to those as the areas to reduce expenditures," he said. 

But in the past two years, the size of the mayor's office staff has more than doubled. And Pittsburgh City Council has increased its salaries and the size of staff. Strassburger says the council should lead by example and begin by tightening its belt. 

"If council can have a slightly smaller budget next year than it does this year, I would hope other departments could do the same," Strassburger said. 

And so within the month, that task force is set to target everything deemed not essential to avoid a coming crisis. 

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