Saturday, July 17, 2010
By Timothy McNulty, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb is trying to do the impossible: Simplify the city’s budget so residents can understand it.
This week, he released the city’s first Popular Annual Financial Report, in which he stripped down the city’s usual annual report — which was 208 pages last year — to a 14-page glossy brochure. The plain facts remain the same: On the good side, regular budget surpluses and a steady reduction in debts and deficits; on the bad, an ailing pension fund, aging infrastructure and a declining population that carries most of the city’s funding load through real estate and income taxes.

The report, available at www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us/co/html/pafr.html, is a snapshot of the city’s finances, not a report card. At a news conference, Mr. Lamb did not judge Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s plans for addressing the pension fund — by leasing parking garages and street meters — or his handling of the budget in general.

His biggest warnings were about the city’s aging roads, stairways, sidewalks, sewers and bridges. The city last issued bonds in 2006 to pay for the long-term investments while it chips away at its debt, but that means less spending for infrastructure.

The city spends $25 million to $30 million on capital projects each year when it needs to spend $40 million to $45 million to keep up with maintenance, he said. The city should be paving 80 miles of streets a year instead of the 40 it is doing this year.

“We haven’t been keeping pace with our infrastructure needs,” Mr. Lamb said, and the city “has basic infrastructure that is crumbling around us.”

The report — financed with a grant from one of the city’s two financial overseers, the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority — is a nice introduction to Pittsburgh government and finance, and a yearbook of sorts for 2009, with mentions of the G-20 summit and a most-livable-city award from The Economist. The controller’s office plans to issue copies of the report to neighborhood groups, libraries, foundations and other groups, and issue similar reports every year.

The report is also simple to read, especially in comparison to the city’s official tome. While this is the city’s first such report, similar reports have been issued by municipal agencies around the United States and Canada. They are recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association and by an audit Mr. Lamb authorized of his own office in March 2009.

“As I’ve stated many times, our goal in our office is to try to make the financial situation of the city more transparent and accessible to people, and that’s the goal of this report,” he said.