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Candidates Talk City Finances, Transportation and Corruption in Mayoral Forum

Haldan Kirsch
90.5 WESA

One week before Pittsburgh’s primary election, three of the city's mayoral candidates gathered at 90.5 WESA for an issues forum.

City Councilman Bill Peduto, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner and state Rep. Jake Wheatley participated in the Tuesday evening forum. The first question was what the candidates, if elected mayor, would do to keep Pittsburgh on strong economic footing if the city were to exit Act 47 fiscal oversight status. The city has petitioned to be removed.

Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner said he has the expertise to not only bring the city out of Act 47, but also to keep it out in the future.

“The City of Pittsburgh, first and foremost, has to have its own fiscal house in order, and there are still additional things that can be done by the city itself to economize how we operate,” Wagner said.

Those things include consolidation of services.

Wheatley said the city has come a long way from where it was when it entered Act 47, but  strong leadership will be needed to keep it from future financial distress, especially when it comes to legacy costs.

“The next mayor will certainly have to deal with our largest public unions and particularly our public safety unions, and I think the future of our city requires us to be able to hold down our obligations and to be financial stewards of the city,” Wheatley said.

Peduto said he doesn’t think the city is ready to be released from Act 47.

“We have benchmarks in our five-year plan that we haven’t even started on," Peduto said. "In fact, we’ve only hit 27 percent of them, and 27 percent is not an ‘A’ in my book, so there are big projects that need to be done.”

On City Transit 

Another question was where the candidates stand on public transportation, specifically the mode of connecting high-traffic areas such as Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland. Peduto said he strongly supports an expanded bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

“It’s the most cost-effective way of connecting Downtown to Oakland and the most feasible since we don’t have any source of revenue for capital improvement for transit yet,” he said.

Wheatley also supports BRT, but he said connections beyond just Downtown and Oakland should be made.

“I’ve been out front talking about creating a real regional system, because we can’t just worry about getting people to and from our largest economic centers,” Wheatley said. “We have to get people who are sometimes displaced and marginalized where they need to go as well.”

Wagner also voiced support for BRT, but went a bit further.

“I support the bus rapid transit, but I am not going to push aside the light rail possibility also, or some other technology that could work,” he said.

Perceptions of City Hall

There has been an ongoing perception of cronyism in city government and related agencies, and now there is concern about corruption with the indictment of former police chief Nate Harper. The candidates were asked what they would do to address that as mayor.

Wheatley said he would work to make city government more transparent.

“We talked about making sure you will know where your senior staff and your mayor is at all times with GPS tracking systems, so you can go online and see what meetings we are taking on your behalf, and if you have a problem, you call the 311 system if it hasn’t been responded to in a timely fashion,” he said.

Peduto said there are problems in city hall, and that they are deeper than the public knows, and the current system has to change.

“It’s a power system,” Peduto said. “It’s not about what is the idea, or what is the project, but who is behind it and whether that person bought enough tickets to the fundraiser. It’s not about the need of the street to get paved, but who lives on the street.”

Wagner agreed the system is broken and is in need of change.

“It’s hard to fix the problem if you’re part of the problem,” Wagner said, “and that’s what exists in city government today. City government is a government that is dysfunctional. It has not worked in the past, and Council has not provided the leadership to correct it, and we all know that.”

UPMC and Non-Profit Tax Status

The City of Pittsburgh is currently in a legal fight over UPMC’s tax exempt status. All candidates agreed that the health system should be paying more into city coffers. Peduto and Wagner said they would continue the legal fight. Wheatley said he’d invite UPMC and other large non-profits to the table to discuss solutions.

“We don’t think attacking those institutions and people who have been beneficial to helping us get to the point we are today is the best measure,” Wheatley said.

Peduto said at the heart of the matter is the question over whether UPMC qualifies for tax-exempt status. He referred to the HUP test, a judicial litmus test designed to define a purely public charity.

“If you’re going to use that as the measuring stick, then that measuring stick has to be applied equally, across the board,” Peduto said. “Ninety five percent, 98 percent of non-profits in the city are purely public charities, so they wouldn’t even have to worry about it because their entire mission is charity work. Others, the large ones, would have to be able to prove it.”

Wagner said the debate over this issue has been raging for more than 25 years, and he said it’s currently in gridlock.

“We have to get the profitable nonprofits to pay their fair share for policing, for firefighting services, for paramedic services,” he said. “We are delivering patients to those hospitals, so they need to kick in a little bit more than they are today."

Election Day Approaching

In their closing statements, each candidate laid out why they want to be the next mayor.

Wheatley said the election is about the citizens, not the candidates. He said he wants to change what the city has become and move away from a system in which you have to know someone, have high-profile endorsements and money to advance. Wheatley said he wants to change the “politics as usual” climate and said it will not be “the day of your grandfather’s, it’ll be the day of you and your children.”

Peduto said Pittsburgh is a city on the verge of great potential, of being the “next great city” but is not quite there. He said city government won’t be what gets the city there, but rather the citizens with help from the government. He said the city does not need a top-down leadership model, but “needs a mayor and leadership of government that enables people to do great things."

Wagner said he wants to move the city in the right direction because he said city government is currently broken and needs to be fixed. He said city government has not provided solutions to move the city forward. He outlined his connections outside of the city and said he will work with state and federal lawmakers.

“Pittsburgh needs to maximize its opportunities," he said. "It can only do that with good, solid leadership from a mayor.”

The Pittsburgh primary will be held May 21. Community activist and mayoral candidate A.J. Richardson did not attend the forum, though he was invited and had said he’d be there.

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