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Coronavirus pandemic has taken serious toll on Pittsburgh’s finances

PITTSBURGH — The global pandemic has taken a serious financial toll on many cities, and the City of Pittsburgh is no exception.

With little tax revenue coming in for the past ten months, the city has frozen salaries, eliminated jobs, and dipped deep into reserve funds.

And, as Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle discovered, the clock is ticking.

City leaders told Earle that they have enough money to get by until July. If they don’t get any help from the federal government, they are facing the possibility of massive layoffs.

Earle discovered the city would have to cut $25 million, which they say they could mean 600 layoffs, including police officers, fire fighters and emergency medical services workers.

“If we have to get to that point of layoffs, you’re talking about deep cuts. The taxpayers really will feel it,” said Dan Gilman, the mayor’s chief of staff.

Gilman said every department will likely have to cut 10 to 15% of their staff. He said as many as 600 of the 3,400 workers could be let go. On the table is potentially laying off, 200 police officers, 150 firefighters and 60 EMS workers.

“That’s a lot of firefighters and police officers. That’s a lot of building inspectors. That’s a lot of the men and women who are out there, you know filling potholes, and picking up refuse and recycle.  We will notice the impact deeply in the city if we get there,” said Gilman.

The city has managed to survive so far by freezing non-union salaries and cutting 40 million dollars from the budget by eliminating 170 jobs through retirements, resignations or positions that haven’t been filled.  Among those positions that haven’t been filled are critical jobs like building inspectors, city planners and traffic engineers.

“Some of these are pretty critical. I want to be clear that that is not a sustainable level of government that I think the taxpayers would want to see,” Gilman said.

The key to the city’s survival so far, according to Gilman, is a $120 million reserve fund the city built up during the past five years.

“We had built up our savings over the last five years under the Peduto administration and that has gotten us through. The rainy-day fund was there, and it poured,” Gilman said.

But without an infusion of cash from the federal government, Gilman said the city will only make it to July 1.

“Eventually the money is going to run out. We’re not D.C. We don’t get to go into debt.  We don’t get to print money,” Gilman said.

And if 200 of the nearly 1,000 police officers are laid off, the public safety director said response times would be delayed and crime would increase.

The president of the Pittsburgh Police Officers’ Union told Target 11 that the mayor could face some very difficult decisions in the very near future.

“He’s got to figure out what services he’s going to cut, maybe the citizens don’t get the police officer to every  type of call they want, or they don’t get that personalized service that they desire because in the City of Pittsburgh we give a very, very robust service where other agencies don’t provide those same services. So, when he makes those cuts in personnel, he’s going to have to make those types of cuts in services as well,” said Bob Swartzwelder, union president.

President Joe Biden has proposed a stimulus package that would give money to struggling cities across the country, like Pittsburgh, money to avoid deep cuts.

“This package is designed simply to fill that hole, keep people at work, keep kids in school, keep police officers on the beat, just do the basics that we’re supposed to do in government,” said Congressman Conor Lamb, a democrat from Mt. Lebanon.

Lamb told Target 11 he is confident that a stimulus package will eventually be approved by both the House and Senate.

“This is not a partisan bill, there’s some stuff in here the democrats have wanted for a long time but I think he’s (President Joe Biden) going into this with eyes wide open knowing that he needs to negotiate with republicans in both the house and senate,” Lamb said.

Gilman said the city hasn’t had to let go of a single employee and, as Congress and the president continue to negotiate a financial aid package, he is cautiously optimistic help will soon be on the way.

“Until that money is in the bank account and the check can be written without bouncing, we can’t make promises,” Gilman said.

Gilman also said the layoffs for each department are not set in stone, and they may make altercations. However, he said without federal assistance, the city will have to cut $25 million from the budget.