Photo: Protest in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s city operating budget for 2021 was unveiled by Mayor Bill Peduto in November 2020. The corporate media lauded it as a comprehensive restructuring after recently being granted full control back from Pennsylvania state auditors. The new budget increased spending by $30 million from the previous year to a whopping $608 million — including a 5.45 percent increase in the police personnel budget to around $68 million — somehow without raising taxes or introducing new ones in spite of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Despite the liberal buzzwords and soothing platitudes, the Pittsburgh city budget is a further entrenchment of the same capitalist status quo afflicting most American municipalities. It is a status quo defined by austerity policies and increasingly higher investments in the local police state. It is a status quo that relies on public-sector employees taking the hit and government positions “remaining vacant” to cover costs.
The budget calls for an overall decrease in wages for EMS workers, firefighters, laborers, truck drivers and many other city employees who have risked their lives to keep the city working amid the crises our community has faced. The cuts to city employees have affected nearly every city worker, except for the wages and salaries of the uniformed police officers who terrorize the city’s Black community.
In the budget address, Councilman R. Danielle Lavelle stated, “Residents have spoken loud and clear to the Council that the budget is a reflection of our moral values. That our city’s moral values needed to address the crises affecting our city. I believe this year’s budget begins to do just that.”
However, with this budget Pittsburgh’s politicians — entirely from the Democratic Party — lay their priorities out clearly: The residents will do with less so the city’s elite can have more. After nearly a year defined by a health crisis in which essential workers in the public and private sectors kept society afloat, and a political crisis in which the police brutalized Pittsburghers demanding accountability and justice, it is only the police who are being rewarded.
The majority of revenue comes from residential and commercial taxes, while the mayor of Pittsburgh leaves the “non-profit” status of healthcare giants UPMC and Highmark unchallenged, writing off a huge potential source of revenue for the city. UPMC, despite claiming $150 million in lost revenue due to COVID-19 in 2020, was awarded over $360 million in grants and $800 million in loans in pandemic aid for the same year.
It has been 15 years since the city last began an attempt to challenge the tax-free status of these so-called “nonprofits” that are some of the largest employers in the state. Without new taxes or tax increases, the allocation of funds being diverted to the police state are coming from an increasing reliance on offender-funded justice systems, clever loopholes and accounting tricks — pulling money from the pockets of other public-sector employees.
The city budget has increased spending on uniformed police officers by $3 million. The total number of police personnel has gone from 899 to 898, meaning that the change in wages largely reflects increasing pay and promotions for police officers. All of this comes at the expense of wages and funds for other departments and city workers.
Despite bravely serving the Pittsburgh community through a global pandemic, EMS workers are seeing a 7.27 percent decrease in allocation of wages. Firefighters are seeing a 9.23 percent decrease. Animal control employees are going down by 18.96 percent. In a city renowned for crumbling infrastructure, potholes and lead-tainted pipes, the city budget is somehow still cutting wages for the Office of Public Works personnel by a staggering 23.64 percent — as well as reducing the number of truck drivers from 44 to 38 and laborers from 118 to 106.
And the list goes on: Environmental Services is being cut by 23.64 percent and also losing staff via layoffs. The Bureau of Facilities is being cut by 27.17 percent, laying off electricians, plumbers, bricklayers and iron workers. The Department of Parks and Recreation is down by 18.58 percent and the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure is down 20.42 percent. Perhaps most insulting are the cuts to the Citizen Police Review Board, which 78 percent of voters recently voted to strengthen via referenda, which is also seeing a reduction in personnel wages and salaries by 2.25 percent.
But this is hardly the first example of thoughtless leadership in Pittsburgh from this administration. When Antwon Rose Jr. was murdered by police in East Pittsburgh two years ago, Peduto’s first impulse was to make sure people understood the murder didn’t technically happen under his auspices. When he was elected, in what some have suggested was the result of a backdoor political deal, he immediately dropped a lawsuit challenging the tax-exempt status of the city’s largest employer, UPMC. The issue has yet to be revisited.
While the mayor has been a stalwart-defender of a billion-dollar institution paying zero taxes, Peduto has repeatedly shown derision and contempt for anti-racist activists and organizers in his community in a litany of callous gestures. His response to the movement for Black lives, including plain-clothed police abducting a protester in an unmarked van, led several organizers to hold rallies outside the mayor’s personal residence. This action concluded first with a photo-op conversation with protest leaders and then a violent confrontation with the police. The city has since re-filed charges against protesters who demonstrated over the summer.
Pittsburgh’s Democratic Party politicians have ignored and bulldozed its working class neighborhoods, especially those where most residents are Black, while welcoming rich developers and tech industry juggernauts in their place. This has fueled a profound housing crisis. The city recently piloted a program that would force a few luxury apartment buildings to make 10 percent of housing units “affordable,” but what about the other 90 percent? In January, the city announced that rather than addressing homelessness directly by providing shelter and increasing social services, the Pittsburgh Police will now add special training to help facilitate their interactions with homeless people, dubbing it “homeless academy training.”
If the demand to defund the police is honored, it would free up millions of dollars to address the many systemic problems facing Pittsburgh. Infrastructure could be finally and adequately addressed, schools could remain safely open, and public-sector workers could keep their jobs and improve the quality of residents’ lives. Plenty of tax revenue could be generated from Pittsburgh’s multi-billion-dollar healthcare and health insurance industry.
To see a city operating budget that works for the people of Pittsburgh, the people of Pittsburgh must organize, unite and demand it. Defeating the powerful forces that rule the city will require widespread and determined organization and mobilization.