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Peduto touts his legacy as Pittsburgh's financial steward in final city budget address

Rachel Gobep
90.5 WESA

In his final budget address to Pittsburgh City Council this week, Mayor Bill Peduto sketched out what he sees as the legacy of his administration — and of his own political career. And without mentioning him by name, he urged the man who will replace him next year, Mayor-elect Ed Gainey, to continue that work and for officials “not to make the same mistakes that the city made over the course of the past 20 years.”

Peduto, who’dlost his last surviving sibling less than two weeks before the speech, described the occasion as “kind of a melancholy day,” and his presentation was somber — a marked contrast to the speech’s upbeat account of his administration’s accomplishments.

“It's been a long road. I got to watch a lot of changes occur, not only within the city, but changes as a person as well,” he said before launching into his prepared remarks.

The nearly 40-minute address featured little discussion of the budget itself, a draft of which has been circulating for more than a month and which has changed little since then. The $613,226,785 spending plan for next year envisions no tax increases, but combined with federal aid, it does propose an expansion of spending on infrastructure needs as well as initiatives such as electrifying the city’s vehicle fleet, investments in housing and business development.

But the speech was less a look forward than a look back — an elegy for Peduto’s two-term administration, and for a quarter-century-long governmental career in which he’d risen from council staffer to become the city’s most powerful elected official.

“The City-County Building I walked into 30 years ago was a different place,” he said at the outset. He described a city on its heels as “the steel mills, Pittsburgh’s economic heartbeat, were shutting down,” taking jobs and residents with them, while a “City Hall was dominated by old-school politics.…We had no tax base to save us.” He described a government where even applying for a park shelter permit could be a Kafkaesque nightmare in which residents lined around the block for a reservation.

Peduto said the city’s turnaround began with its decision to go into Act 47 financial oversight, an approach that involved austerity budgets for which he was an early adopter as a city councilor.

“Was it popular? No.… It took two years of advocacy to convince colleagues to support it in 2004," he said. "Was it the right thing to do for the future of our city? Absolutely.”

Peduto hailed that move for restoring the city’s balance sheet and a pension fund that had been long been the victim of chronic shortfalls. That fiscal prudence continued during his administration, and it helped cushion the fiscal blow from the coronavirus pandemic, he said. And in pointed asides, he urged that those gains not be reversed through politically expedient accounting.

“Prior to Act 47, the city counted on phantom revenue to pay our bills, leading us to the brink of bankruptcy,” he said. “We cannot make that same mistake twice.”

He urged officials to continue paying more into the pension fund than the minimum required by law: “It would be very easy in the future to go back to just paying the mandatory minimum, but City Council owes it to our valuable employees to avoid that.”

Beyond the fiscal issues, Peduto touted a government philosophy with a “North Star” centered on “a people-first approach” that focused on common goods such as environmental sustainability and racial equity. “If it's not for all, it's not for us," he said.

He cited a number of examples: equitable investment in parks and other infrastructure; structural changes to the mayor’s office to build equity concerns; the use of metrics to track and reinforce a commitment to equity; an effort to make police more accountable and responsive to the community. And in the process, he revisited a crucial debate from the Democratic primary debate about housing affordability.

Peduto’s tenure overlapped the city’s ongoing transformation as a hub for medical and technology research and a continued decline in its Black population. Much of the mayoral primary was shaped by debate about how closely those factors were related and the extent to which gentrification and economic pressures were displacing Black households.

Peduto’s administration has invested in a number of affordable housing efforts, such as zoning requirements that mandate an affordable-housing component to new developments and a Housing Opportunity Fund to finance both for-sale homes and rentals. But when critics suggested those initiatives were too piecemeal, he’s argued that while gentrification is a concern in some parts of the city, others don’t have enough investment at all. And only growing the tax base can provide the resources they need.

Peduto returned to that debate in his speech, suggesting that “Many in our lowest-income neighborhoods … don’t leave because of a lack of housing access. They choose to leave because of a lack of community necessities. If a neighborhood is not safe or walkable for children, families will choose to move to the suburbs to find these opportunities.”

Peduto likened the trend to white families leaving for the suburbs a half-century ago, saying, “If we are to lessen the disparity that exists in Pittsburgh, we must first help those left behind, and second, build back the Black middle and upper-middle class that helped to build Pittsburgh. We must invest in Black families staying in the city by prioritizing equitable parks, business districts and mixed-income housing.”

It remains to be seen how Gainey will balance competing demands for market-rate and affordable housing, and how he will reshape the city he inherits.

Gainey was, for example, elected with support from those who want to see the city rein in police spending. Peduto’s final budget increases spending by nearly 5 percent, mostly due to salary increases laid out in its contract with the union. Some observers expect spending may have to increase further to maintain a force capable of providing the kind of community engagement Gainey wants.

But in any case, Peduto’s speech marked the last time he will have to wrestle with such problems. In the past, he has said he anticipated being a transformational mayor, one who would set the city on a sound footing so a future administration could reap the benefits. That transition will happen four years before Peduto expected, and with some of the most sweeping parts of his vision — such as a social welfare fund to address chronic community needs —very much still in process. But his speech made it clear those are still the terms in which he sees his legacy.

“We have recognized that our past is not our future,” he told council, “and turned it 180 degrees to hand it to the next generation.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.