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County budget audit: good news and badEdit

Onorato pleased at debt reduction, yet spending still a concernEdit

April 13, 2007 By Ann Belser, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Flat revenues and rising costs may portend some trouble for Allegheny County, but the results of an audit released yesterday had the chief executive crowing about his success over the last year.

Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty said he released his audit of the 2006 budget before the end of the first quarter of 2007 to give the county time to adjust its spending before its too late to make a significant difference.

Mr. Flaherty said $31 million worth of one-time payments were used to balance the budget, and he is concerned that those additional funds won't be available this year. County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, though, said he expects the same sources of money to be available this year as well.

"The good news is this is the third year in a row that we didn't raise taxes, lowered the outstanding debt and increased the fund balance," Mr. Onorato said.

The fund balance, which is money left over after all the bills are paid, was $18.2 million, which Mr. Flaherty said is about half as much as the county should have. Mr. Onorato noted that it is an increase of about $100,000 over last year.

The audit also showed that while expenses increased in the county's general fund by about $26 million, the money coming in from sustainable sources, such as property taxes, stayed relatively flat. State aid has increased over the past three years as money coming in from the federal government has dropped.

The audit by Mr. Flaherty's office shows that when all of the accounts were reconciled at the end of the year, the county's expenses were $688.5 million. The budget adopted for this year is $704.3 million.

"We definitely have a plan to get there and we'll live within our means," Mr. Onorato said.

Mr. Flaherty said one of the bright spots in the audit was how the county did not go deeper into debt despite the financial constraints. The amount of money the county owes dropped last year by $2.2 million, bringing the debt load down to $601.1 million.

Mr. Flaherty said without the influx of $31 million that was available on a one-time-only basis, the county's budget would have been in a deficit.

"The administration has to address that because these one-time sources of revenue aren't going to be available," which would lead to a deficit this year, he said.

Mr. Onorato said some of that money is deceiving. For instance, a $10 million payment the county received from decertifying some of the beds in the Kane centers will cut the costs of the hospitals and the county is expecting another $5 million payout for closing down those beds. Another $10 million received through economic development and redevelopment funds will also be available this year because of a restructuring of the debt.

Mr. Flaherty said his office is also working on the audit of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which will be released in stages to help the county and the authority determine what cuts are necessary. He said his office will also revisit its audit of the Kane Regional Centers to see if the changes his office proposed are being implemented and are saving money.

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