Saturday, August 25, 2012

Transit bailout with RAD funds does not pose threat to arts, Allegheny County ... - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The use of Regional Asset District money for a transit bailout wouldn't cut into contributions for cultural groups, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said Friday, downplaying concerns raised by Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Mr. Fitzgerald said those assurances have been communicated to arts groups and Mr. Ravenstahl, who met with some of those groups Friday. He said he hopes the mayor, who helps to appoint the RAD board, won't try to block the bailout.

"I can't imagine the mayor would be the person standing in the way of saving transit," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

On Tuesday, county and state officials announced a bailout intended to avert deep service cuts Sept. 2 at the Port Authority.

The state agreed to provide $35 million in new funding and the county agreed to kick in $4.5 million after transit workers accepted a new contract saving about $60 million over four years. The Port Authority also said it scrounged $10 million more in other budget cuts.

To come up with the county's $4.5 million share, Mr. Fitzgerald proposed using $1.5 million from the drink tax and $3 million from RAD, the organization that receives half of the county's 1 percent sales tax and distributes funds to groups, parks and other amenities. He proposed that RAD contribute to the Port Authority annually.

Mr. Ravenstahl quickly questioned the potential impact on cultural groups and called for a long-term transit funding fix, then held a meeting in his office Friday with RAD board members and arts groups, including the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven refused to give details of the meeting except to say it yielded no consensus on next steps.

"Nobody wants a real, sustainable solution to the county's latest transit crisis more than I do," Mr. Ravenstahl said later in a statement. "And nobody is saying 'no' to this proposal. But now's the time to ask questions about how this $3 million in taxpayer-funded RAD money will impact the future funding of our city's parks, libraries, museums and arts and cultural institutions."

In an interview, Mr. Fitzgerald said RAD revenue is increasing because of the region's economy and will get another boost next month when consumers begin paying sales tax for online purchases. He said that increase should help to support the Port Authority without affecting regular RAD recipients.

He said he has communicated that message to the recipients and others. "It has been communicated to the mayor that no assets would be cut," he said.

Ms. Doven said the mayor and the arts groups are concerned about what will happen in difficult years when RAD experiences a revenue dip. She said they don't want to solve one crisis only to create others down the road.

For 2012, RAD allocated $84.1 million to 89 groups and amenities. About 32 percent went to libraries, another 31 percent to parks, 17 percent to sports venues, 10 percent to arts and cultural groups and 9 percent to big regional attractions such as Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

J. Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the cultural trust, said the percent allocated to arts groups is modest and called for a "wide-ranging discussion" on use of RAD money for a transit bailout.

"No one wants to see that very careful collaboration fall apart," he said of the bailout.

At the same time, he said, RAD traditionally has not been used as a "go-to place to solve crises. ... Once you alter something, where does it stop?"

Mr. Fitzgerald said many communities fund transit with a sales tax and cited an interdependent relationship between transit and RAD recipients. "Every one of these regional assets relies on transit not only to get their patrons to their venues but also to get their employees to their venues," he said.

He said city council has a role in appointing RAD board members and should weigh in on the bailout. If the use of RAD money is voted down, Mr. Fitzgerald said, he can either allow transit to be cut or ask county council to approve a tax increase.

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