Whose Bluff is Council Calling?
At last night’s County Council meeting a resolution to amend the 2011 County budget was proposed and sent to committee for further discussion. There is nothing too unique about the fact that Council wants to make an budget amendment, as the Home Rule Charter sets out the requirements for doing so (a 2/3rd vote and the approval of the Executive, and the amendment cannot unbalance the budget) but the subject and the timing of the proposal are quite peculiar.
The County’s 2011 budget (its fiscal year is the calendar year) approved $27.6 million for the Port Authority: that amount shows up under "miscellaneous agencies" in the operating budget. It constituted the County’s local match under Act 44, a 15% requirement that was based on what PAT was to receive from the state for its 2010-11 budget (PAT’s fiscal year is July-June).
Because the state money was predicated upon the ill-fated I-80 tolling plan, PAT’s state allocation for this coming fiscal year was reduced. According to the resolution, Council was told "in November 2010 the Authority’s state funding derived from Act 44 was reduced by an additional $6.8 million for FY2011-12", bringing PAT’s state allocation to $150.3 million. On December 6th Council approved their 2011 budget with the $27.6 million for PAT intact. Based on the state funding the County match would be 18%.
Now, three months after passing its budget, Council proposes reopening the issue and revising its match to $22.5 million, making it 15% of the amount they knew about before they adopted the budget. What’s changed? For one thing, there is a pitched battle over the bailout money funneled through SPC: the transit union is advocating for all the money to be spent now to avoid any of the planned service cuts and layoffs at the end of March, while the PAT management wants to spread the money over 18 months as per the sentiment expressed by the SPC. In addition, the PAT board is set to decide in about a week on allowing a private company to operate service PAT wants to abandon in the North Hills. This measure is too opposed by the transit union and its allies.
So who is Council trying to bluff in this latest standoff? Do they want PAT to capitulate on the bailout money and the competitive service offer in order to keep the $5 million? Do they want the state to intervene and come through with more money for PAT? In either case, Council is playing a losing game as they are trying to bluff with a weak hand, not realizing that the other players likely know it is a bluff. And what does Council plan on doing with the rescinded $5 million if the amendment is successful? Hold it in escrow until PAT and/or the state meets their demands? Maybe the state will react by lowering the top rates at which the drink and car rental taxes are levied. That will create a standoff no one wants to see.