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Fitzgerald Presents 2015 Budget Proposal, Increases Funding for Parks, Transit

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald presented an $832.9 million 2015 operating budget to County Council at their meeting Tuesday evening, along with a $79.9 million capital budget.

Among the highlights, according to Fitzgerald, is the lack of a real estate millage increase for the 13th time in 14 years.

Fitzgerald linked that millage stasis to county bonds that were refinanced over the last two years.

“That has saved us $52 million in debt service payments over five years,” Fitzgerald said. “Those kinds of efficiencies and savings we’re able to find have been able to keep the property tax rates lower than what they would have been under normal inflationary circumstances.”

Fitzgerald’s proposed plan would increase the county’s fund balance to around $35 million, which is he said is a step in the right direction but is still below the 5 percent minimum fund balance recommended by the major credit rating agencies.

Fitzgerald said the county would use $2 million in “environmental enhancement money” from the hydraulic fracturing activities under Deer Lakes Park to bolster the fund balance.

Another $2 million from that revenue stream would go directly to improvements at Deer Lakes, in addition to $133,000 that will be spent on each park in the county.

County Councilwoman Barbara Daly-Danko expressed confusion about how the $2 million figure for Deer Lakes Park was arrived at.

Fitzgerald responded by saying that since residents near Deer Lakes Park are dealing with effects of drilling — increased traffic, noise and lights, for example — they are entitled to the lion’s share of the money.

“$2 million was something that I said when I proposed it way back when. This is nothing new,” Fitzgerald said. “The great byproduct of protecting the environment for people up in that community was this money.”

Another suggestion that drew concerns from the council was Fitzgerald’s plan to spend $400,000 to hire park rangers to patrol the county’s parks, instead of using county police.

Councilwoman Sue Means said she hoped the county planned to hold public hearings on the matter.

“The county police are (in South Park) so therefore people aren’t doing drug activity there, people feel safe there, because the police are there, they have a presence there,” Means said.

Fitzgerald responded by saying that other parts of the county have a greater need for a police presence, and that law enforcement resources should be put there rather than into the parks. He added that police would still be in the parks as necessitated by circumstances like concerts, festivals or increased criminal activity in a particular park.

Fitzgerald also said the county would commit $1 million from the operating budget for the $200 million project to run a rapid bus from Oakland to downtown.

He said there are currently 30 to 40 buses that go along Forbes and Fifth Avenues, and a rapid bus could potentially free some of those buses up to serve other areas.

Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh took issue with Fitzgerald’s assertion that the rapid bus project was his number one transit priority, saying that she had recently met with residents of Baldwin who lamented their lack of public transit options.

“There are a number of elderly, of course our community and every community has a number of disabled people, people who don’t drive. As you are well aware, because you’ve been told, there’s not one single bus that operates in Baldwin,” Heidelbaugh said.

Fitzgerald responded by defending his record on public transportation and transit funding.

“I don’t think there’s probably anybody that has fought more for transit in this region than myself,” Fitzgerald said. “I spent a lot of time up in Harrisburg last year, lobbying the state, the General Assembly, lobbying the governor and trying to get this done.”

Fitzgerald took time during his address to point out an expenditure absent from the capital budget: funding for the August Wilson Center for African American culture.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.