Mayor Murphy comes to Arlington to stump for budget reform measures
Improved, spring-like weather and an appearance by Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy brought out a huge turnout for the monthly Arlington Civic Council meeting March 1 at the Henry Kaufmann Center.
Murphy is meeting with various civic organizations throughout the city over the next few months, pleading his case. He says the city needs help from the state legislature concerning its ability to collect taxes in a fair and equitable manner.
During a slide presentation, Murphy showed how the city's loss of population from 600,000 to 330,000 over the past 50 years has made it unfair for residents to carry the load for 300,000 suburban commuters who work in the city, but pay very little taxes.
The mayor and others in city government believe these commuters, along with 100,000 non-resident college students, benefit from city services without paying a porportional share of taxes.
The mayor said various public-safety services are provided for working commuters as well as those who regularly come into the city for entertainment purposes. Public safety is a major expenditure each year in the city's general budget.
Murphy is pleading with the state legislature to get the $10 per year wage tax increased to $52 per year. It has been stuck on $10 since the tax was established in 1965.
“What else has remained the same cost since 1965?” Murphy asked the packed room of Arlington residents.
“In 1965, a gallon of gas was only 35 cents a gallon,” said Murphy, aware gasoline currently costs $1.66 pg for regular unleaded.
“It wasn't 35 cents a gallon back then, it was only 25 cents,” responded one of the residents in the audience.
Murphy said he has gotten support to raise the wage tax from state legislators such as Jake Wheatley and Harry Readshaw as well as State Senator Jay Costa whose district also includes several communities in the east suburbs.
“These men have been stand-up guys in trying to do what is right for the city,” Murphy said. “Senator Costa has really been a big supporter. He should be commended because he is really sticking his neck out since he also has suburban constituents.
“Something has to be done to remedy this problem. We have a tax structure from a long time ago that no longer works in the 21st Century.”
The much-publicized rate-hike in the parking tax, which has suburban commuters fuming, was the city's only alternative for balancing the 2004 municipal budget, according to Murphy.
“The only other taxes we could raise to make up for the deficit, the property tax and wage tax [for city residents who pay one percent of their earned income], already burdens a narrow segment of the population and it wouldn't be fair to burden them more,” Murphy said. “The parking tax is the only tax we have the power to raise that reaches people who live outside the city. It is a more broad-based tax.”
Murphy pleaded with the people attending the meeting to write and call key members of the State House and Senate to complain about the tax inequities the city is straddled with. Murphy said the legislators that city residents should really send their complaints to are senators Jack Wagner of the South Hills and Jane Orie of the North Hills. Both have publicly criticized city government for not “having its house in order”. Both claim wasteful city government spending is the primary cause of the budget deficits.
Through his slide presentation Murphy showed the city is not wasting tax dollars, but has effectively spent money on new growth and development. Murphy gives evidence of this through new residential success stories at Washington's Landing on the Allegheny River, Nine-Mile Run near Squirrel Hill and the new commercial, retail and residential development in the South Side. The South Side Works along the Monongahela River is primarily built at the site of the former J&L Mill.
Murphy believes if non-city residents are forced to pay $52 per year in wage taxes to the city, this is still a bargain compared to other major cities. Murphy said suburbanites commuting to work in Philadelphia pay a 4 percent wage tax. He also said the wage tax in Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Columbus is at least 1 to 2 percent for commuters.
“If we could substantially broaden our tax base, we'd be able to reduce our property tax for everyone,” said Murphy also expressing his displeasure with the state legislature for granting exemptions for the real-estate tax and business-privilege tax at many of the city's major businesses, notably hospitals and universities.
“They say these are non-profit entities, but they walk, talk and act like they are for-profit enterprises,” said Murphy, noting the city could reap as much as $72 million per year if the major universities and hospital systems paid property and business-privilege taxes.
Murphy cited the example at Duquesne University that recently took over ownership of an apartment complex adjacent to its campus. This apartment tower generated $720,000 in tax revenue last year when it was owned by a private company. Since Duquesne University has taken ownership, the college has filed an application with the state seeking tax-exempt status for the apartment complex.
Gabriel Cohen, one of Wheatley's executive aides, was at the Arlington Civic Council meeting. He said his office supports Murphy's position and echoed the mayor's sentiments. Cohen said his office is willing to hear from any of Wheatley's constituents regarding this hot topic.
Also attending the meeting were the executive assistants for Councilmen Gene Ricciardi (Bill Fry) and Senator Costa (Michele Balcer).
Briefly addressing the audience was District Justice Eileen M. Conroy who took over the Allegheny County magisterial duties in the 16th and 17th wards in January. Conroy, who has served as a district justice for 11 years in Oakland, wanted to make sure the audience was aware that her jurisdiction now also encompasses the South Side. Her newly relocated chambers are on the third floor of the Maul Building at the corner of Carson and 17th streets.
Also at the meeting was Kevin Handley of the South Side Local Development Company. Handley gave status-report on six houses scheduled to be built on Dengler and Fitler streets next to Arlington Ave. Ground-breaking should take place later this year, according to Handley.