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Cost-cutting is bottom line in Pittsburgh race

Mayoral hopefuls focus on city's debt

PITTSBURGH -- There are the usual campaign buttons, stickers, and lawn signs, and one candidate handed out pillboxes bearing his name. But another wielded the prop that may be the most appropriate of all in Pittsburgh's race for mayor: a chain saw.

The next mayor of Pennsylvania's second-largest city will almost certainly have to cut spending drastically to help pull the city out of its worst financial crisis since the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s.

The city has $1 billion worth of debt, it has been reduced to no-frills budgets -- this year's did not include money to fix potholes -- and two quasigovernmental boards have a tight hold on the city's purse strings.

Seven Democrats and one Republican are running to succeed Mayor Tom Murphy, who is not seeking a fourth term.

''Right now I'd be happier with anything but what we've had," said Jim Mannella, 48, a lifelong Pittsburgh resident. ''I'm not sure how much better it can be."

Winning the Democratic primary, set for Tuesday, has typically been enough to become mayor in this city of about 330,000 people, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-to-1.

Murphy, 60, the son of a steelworker, likened the city to ''the little engine that could" and ambitiously tried to move it beyond the image of its gritty industrial past. He helped keep two of the city's sports teams in town with new baseball and football stadiums and shepherded through the Andy Warhol Museum and a convention center.

But his plans to revive the city's downtrodden downtown were never realized. Two developers backed out, and two anchor department stores closed despite generous city incentives.

The city's tax base continued to shrink along with its population, which is down by nearly half since the 1950s.

Murphy periodically patched up budgets with layoffs, more borrowing, and sales of city property, including the Water Department in 1996. But by the end of 2003, the city's finances were so bad that the state stepped in to stave off bankruptcy. Pittsburgh's bonds briefly fell to junk status, and it had the worst credit rating of any major US city.

Whoever wins the election is going to have to preside over $270 million in cuts over the next five years in a city with an annual budget of about $400 million.

The three Democrats who have dominated the race so far have talked of cutting their own pay, privatizing some city services, and trimming the number of City Council members.

Bill Peduto, 40, who was among the first to call for the state bailout, hoisted a chain saw in the air last month, joking that he would use it to cut the city's budget.

Michael Lamb, 42, Allegheny County's prothonotary, has offered to put his elected position -- overseeing civil court records -- on the chopping block as part of an effort to consolidate government and save money.

Bob O'Connor, 60, a businessman who served three terms on the City Council, including two as president, is considered by many to be the favorite for mayor. O'Connor has been endorsed by the party, the police union, and most City Council members.

''Bob may be the perfect person to swallow the medicine with a smile rather than treat it like castor oil," said Bill Green, a Republican political consultant.

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