A True Debt Picture

Hidden debt, understated pension and health care liabilities, and debt accumulated for special purposes but never approved by voters is the subject of an op-ed and estimated to be $7.3 trillion. Special authorities, corporations, etc. serve as a vehicle to accomplish such tasks.

Does this happen locally? In plain view taxpayers and inquisitive folks can peruse financial statements to see the clear picture. Let’s start with the city of Pittsburgh: its 2010 CAFR features several tables on debt and debt service: its net general bonded debt that year totaled $629.7 million. On a per resident basis (using a population of 306k), the result is $2,058. Our newest Benchmark City report uses the 2011 CAFR and the per capita amount fell to $1,900. When the related tentacles of City government are examined, the debt level changes: the City is responsible for 63% of URA debt, or $48.4 million; 50% of Auditorium Authority debt, or $1.6 million; and 100% of Parking Authority debt, or $97.4 million. Overlapping debt that would affect a City of Pittsburgh resident would include 100% of School District debt (though Mt. Oliver Borough would account for a small share) or $487.4 million, and 25% of the County debt (the CAFR estimated by population share) or $163 million. Together the total rises to $1.4 billion, $4,500 per capita.

How about Allegheny County? It has direct debt of $771 million, or $630 per capita. The County’s CAFR attributes 100% of the Community College debt to the County, adding $46 million. If the debt of local governments within the County’s ‘orders (but not part of the County) are added in, that adds on $2.8 billion from public schools, $677 from cities (Pittsburgh, McKeesport, Clairton, and Duquesne), and $601 million from boroughs and townships. No authority debt is applicable to the County from the CAFR table, and someone living in Aspinwall would be liable for debt incurred by Pitcarin or Sewickley, but when the Controller’s office puts the whole tab together the total almost touches $5 billion, bringing per capita amounts to $4,000.