City Revenues Up, But Pension And Debt Costs Linger

May 2, 2016

Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb explains the city's financial status at a presentation of his office's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.
Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh remains on a fairly solid financial footing, according to a new report from the city controller's office, adding about $16 million to its coffers in 2015.

But Controller Michael Lamb said obligatory spending -- such as pensions, employee benefits and long-term debt -- still accounts for almost half of the city's yearly budget.

“It’s hard to make ends meet and do the things you need to do as a city when 46 percent of your budget is taken right out on those three items,” Lamb said.

Increased revenues from taxes on property, income and parking -- which together accounted for almost two-thirds of city income -- canceled out higher spending due to new hires in the Department of Public Safety.

Because many of Pittsburgh's top employers are tax-exempt nonprofits, the controller said the city's tax burden is largely focused on residents.

Lamb said he'd like the property tax burden to be more equitably distributed between richer and poorer neighborhoods. He said houses that sell for $50,000 to $100,000 are usually assessed as such, “but if you live in a neighborhood where the properties are a million (dollars), then none of them are assessed at a million (dollars). They tend to be assessed at 500, 600 (thousand dollars) – something like that. So, they are being assessed at half of their value, where lower income neighbors are being assessed at a hundred percent of their value. That’s unfair.”

Lamb said he'd like Allegheny County leaders to reinstate a decades-old policy of reassessing all properties in the county every three years.