‘Greedy folks have long arms’

‘Greedy folks have long arms’

It would be tempting to laugh at the continuing public policy contortions of Pittsburgh City Council. Tempting, but misplaced. For its capers are a continuing embarrassment to this governing body, the public weal and the public’s trust.

And this is a council that knows how to dig a hole – a big hole – then just keeps digging.

Stung by the blowback from voting itself a more than 22 percent raise last month – a raise from $72,211 to $88,000 that City Controller Michael Lamb flagged as illegal under the city’s charter – the council reversed course on Saturday in a special meeting and rescinded $11,667 of that $16,000 raise.

But even that action raises questions.

First, a little context.

Indeed, the council put the raise on hold pending a review by the city’s legal eagles. But in the interim, it also trotted out its budget manager, Michael Strelic, to contend that the councilors now could be making up to $150,000 a year today if, as the Tribune-Review phrased it, it “had taken the maximum allowed salary increases over the years.”

That was like the council saying, “Hey, we could have been paying ourselves an even more outrageous amount, so get over that $16,000 annual raise we just gave ourselves.”

Talk about chutzpah.

And Pittsburgh City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith even had the temerity to say, “We’re trying to be responsible”?

The council’s self-dealing raise, had it been sustained, would have been comparable to the base $90,000 a year paid to members of the New York City Council.

But it would have been far less than what city councilors are paid in Philadelphia (a base of just under $118,000) and Los Angeles (at $207,000).

Of course, New York City, Los Angeles and Philly are cities of far larger populations.

So, what about comparably populated cities?

Pittsburgh’s previous $72,000 City Council salary was above that of St. Louis ($37,000 a year); Jersey City, N.J., and Cincinnati ($60,000) and Orlando, Fla. ($58,000).

And Pittsburgh City Council’s budget guru chirped that the councilors could be raking in $150,000 if they wanted to? And the council president claimed the council was trying to be “responsible” with its 22 percent-plus, $16,000 a year raise?

Please.

Now, back to Saturday’s developments.

After a 90-minute executive session, the council voted unanimously to pare its raise from just over 22 percent to 6.3 percent, reducing their self-dealing $88,000 salary to an equally self-dealing $76,544.

While Lamb contended the raise could be no more than 3 percent – the average of all city-employee raises and the threshold set by the city charter for any council raises – Kail-Smith said the 6 percent hike was deemed charter-complying by the city’s legal department.

We’d like to see the opinion and the rationale.

But hold the phone! City Council’s shenanigans still run deep.

As the Tribune-Review reported, Kail-Smith went into Saturday’s meeting with proposed legislation that would roll back the 22-percent-plus pay raise for a 3.2 percent pay raise (to $74,377).

Yet it ended up at 6.3 percent?

It is eerily reminiscent of the path to the original 22 percent pay raise, as unearthed by Allegheny Institute Research Director Eric Montarti and noted in a previous column:

“The legislative record on the budget bill history shows that something happened between the introduction of the bill on Nov. 8 and Dec. 15. When it came out of standing committee, the rate/grade was $83,000. By the 20th, it was $88,000.”

Slick trick, eh? And, apparently, a slick trick times two.

“Greedy folks have long arms,” reminded James Kelly in his 1721 compendium of Scottish proverbs.

In 1721 as in 2022.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).