One Time Fixes an Every Year Thing

"It is the County’s goal to ensure current year revenues are sufficient to fund current year expenditures without the use of non-recurring revenues. However, non-recurring and unbudgeted areas of funding used to finance expenditures were as follows". This boilerplate language appears every year in the County Controller’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) under the section "Relevant Financial Policies" as a way of saying that the County has a goal to live within its budgeted means but cannot.

Since the 2007 CAFR-covering the 2007 fiscal year, which for the County runs on a calendar basis-through the newly released report covering 2011, the County has used the following amounts of non-recurring revenues: $41.8 million, $24.7 million, $35.2 million, $48.9 million, and $45.6 million. The sources of the revenues varied-gaming money, sales of property, state funds, etc. That adds up to the nearly $200 million referenced by the County Controller in the conference releasing the new CAFR.

Recent uses of non-recurring revenue came about even though the previous County Executive pledged in September of 2009 that "the county’s long-standing practice of balancing its finances with one-time revenue sources is a thing of the past." The $50 million deficit that the former County Controller predicted in April of 2009 that would surface in 2012 was tempered, supposedly, with the 1 mill tax increase passed by County Council at the end of 2011. Whether the County avoids using non-recurring revenue this year will become clear upon the release of the 2012 CAFR.

Water, Water Everywhere but No Accountability

A 2009 performance review of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) does not paint a pretty picture. The recent tragic events of August 19th and complaints of recurring flooding in the East End of the City have focused a brighter light on the Authority, so a printed report looked at that review. It should be noted that a subsequent audit on the contracting practices of the PWSA was released by the City Controller’s office in August of 2010.

The 2009 review found "excess turnover among top managers and over-reliance on outside contractors at much greater cost, to inadequate attention to cleaning and maintaining the system and a lack of accountability at all levels." This is important in light of the relationship to the City, the makeup of its board, and the near term future of the Authority.

According to the City’s annual financial report, on paper the PWSA is legally separate from the City but one member of City Council and four mayoral appointees serve on the seven member board (the City Treasurer and the City Finance Director are the other two members). The water system used to be run by the City Water Department and Public Works, but in 1995 the system was transferred to the PWSA under a long-term cooperation agreement and lease agreement. Water employees became PWSA employees, and the PWSA has paid the agreed upon lease price of $101 million to the City. In 2025, the PWSA can purchase the system for $1. The PWSA provides the City with 600 million gallons of water annually free of charge.

The initial 2004 Act 47 plan characterized the lease of the water system between the City and the PWSA as "one time revenue" pointing out that other rating agencies looked at such an arrangement as "only serv[ing] to delay the inevitable action on the budget including expenditure reduction or revenue increases". Did the City leaders at the time really think out how the PWSA would operate, or were they just interested in the money? Surely they must have felt there would be more professionalism and expertise in running the water asset, but has that continued?

Recall the objections to the proposed long-term lease over the parking system to a private operator last year, some fifteen years after the water system lease: people were worried about rates, service, and parting with a lease for a one time payment. Now there seem to be other significant concerns about another City asset, but one that is in the hands of a quasi-government agency.