Thursday, January 17, 2008

Leaving Town Just In Time

Photo: Onorato getting practice handing out cardboard checks

Dan “Read My Lips” Onorato is to be congratulated for standing by his promise not to increase property taxes. Its clear Dan believes keeping this promise is key to becoming Pennsylvania’s next governor. Dan is bright and capable and his assessment of the situation is probably correct. Too bad Dan’s desire to hold the line on property taxes isn’t rooted in a concern for the betterment and success of the county he governs. Too bad Onorato apparently views Allegheny County as a handy vehicle he can ride to Harrisburg and nothing more. One he hopes won’t run out of gas until he gets there.

The gas gauge on the Harrisburg Express recently dipped perilously and unexpectedly close to “Empty”. But Dan, being the enterprising guy that he is, made a quick stop at Get Go, picking up just enough gas to maybe complete the trip.

Had Dan (who is a CPA) focused on running the county instead of running his campaign, he may have discovered the Port Authority’s cancerous bloat before it became terminal. Or the looming shortfall in the county’s operating budget.

Instead, Dan used his creative accounting skills and standard shell game maneuvers to combine and confuse the two “unexpected” problems. In short, he taxed bar and tavern owners to the tune of $30 million or so to cover a $1 million Port Authority shortfall projected for 2008. The remainder of this $30 million would neatly cover the county’s 2008 operating deficit. An operating deficit Dan didn’t want to be made public. An operating deficit which should rightfully be a problem (tax increase) for ALL county residents, not just bar and tavern owners.

But a tax increase to all county residents in essence would mean a property tax increase. Dan “Read My Lips” Onorato was not about to stall the Harrisburg Express by reneging on his “no property tax increase” promise. He would just raise other taxes on a smaller group of people whose votes were not necessary to his gubernatorial aspirations. And of course budget cuts were not even a consideration to Dan because budget cuts are never considered by most any of our elected officials. It’s just so much easier to raise taxes. Especially if you can find little pockets of taxpayers who don’t have much clout and you then just stick it to them.

Being a tidy and competent CPA, Dan made sure he cleaned up all loose ends. Allegheny County was slated to run a slight (under $20 million) deficit in 2007, but at the last possible minute (Dec 31st) quick-thinking Dan intercepted $19.9 million in state gaming revenues. Those monies were slated to reduce debt service at Pittsburgh International Airport, but instead Dan diverted them into the county’s general fund so as to end the year “in the black”.

Yet another Onorato success.

Now that all the immediate fires have been put out, have we been left with any long-term shortfalls anywhere? Have bar and tavern owners been taxed so heavily that their businesses will be harmed? Will the tavern owners be successful in repealing the new drink tax? What about the airport debt? After all the shuffling stops, is our county budget truly balanced? Are there additional operating efficiencies and/or merger of city/county functions which have been overlooked and could provide relief to both the city and county budgets?

As with all successful shell-game maneuvers, the real bottom line always takes time to discern. This maneuver is no different.

How much time? Well, at least a year or so I’d imagine. Plenty enough time for the Harrisburg Express to have arrived safely at the governor’s mansion. Looks like Dan picked up just enough gas at the Get Go after all.


Bram Reichbaum said...

A brilliant essay, but I'm a little confused. To balance the budget the obvious thing would be to address property taxes, but this would mean having to raise *somebody's* property taxes. And I was under the impression you were a property tax hawk (one of our differences). What gives?

Char said...

I'm not a fan of raising ANY tax first and then *possibly* look at other solutions *maybe* someday later. Especially around here where we are in a downward spiral of higher taxes than anyone around us (other municipalities, counties, states), therefore unable to compete for new businesses, therefore losing population as it migrates to where the jobs are, therefore having to raise taxes again, therefore starting another loop on the downward spiral.

But...... IF all budgetary cuts have been made, all creative options have been exausted and there is still a shortfall .... yes, taxes must be raised.

What is particularly egregious in this case is whether or not the shortfall is in public transportation or the county's operating budget as a whole ...... Both of those are general public service areas for the benefit and use of the general public as a whole and should therefore be paid for by taxes levied on the general public as a whole.

NOT one small segment that Dan has calculated he can do without on his quest for higher office.

That just plain sucks.