Monthly Archives: November 2009

Universities to City: We Know Better

I was a lot more sympathetic to the universities before they started opening their mouths:

Today, the university and surrounding community enjoy a harmonious relationship, even when considering the occasional complaint about noisy students. This is in large measure because we have changed the conversation and opted to collaborate. Instead of the town viewing the university as a cash cow to offset budget deficits and the university invoking its nonprofit status, RWU and Bristol’s Town Council leaders adopted a collaborative approach designed to provide resources in a strategic manner while reaffirming the university’s tax-exempt status. (P-G, Dr. Roy Nirschel)

I’m sorry, I’m having trouble seeing — the condescension in the room is so thick and painful to the eyes.

This is where I lost my lunch:

Fresh from that election we revisited the issue of a payment to the town in lieu of taxes. Instead of a head tax or monies allocated for the town’s general fund, the university and town developed a memorandum of understanding that went far beyond balancing the books for that year.

The town and university identified key needs in the community, such as support for an emergency vehicle, which benefited all citizens. (ibid)

Why do non-profits think it’s appropriate to pick and choose which government expenditures seem useful enough to them? Is democracy not a good enough system anymore?

I don’t know about Bristol, Rhode Island, but Pittsburgh contractually owes a gazillion dollars to its pensioners, a stampillion dollars in bonded debt, and another bazookillion dollars under a consent decree for its water infrastructure. Meeting these overwhelming obligations is very much “a key need in the community” which “benefits all citizens”, because it’s swamping the needs of everything else and we will drown — drown! — unless our major economic engines chip in significantly.

Oh and by the way — Dunkin Donuts also employs a lot of people, and provides needed pastries and coffee to a community that has trouble rousing itself the morning and attaining alertness. Yet I’ve never heard them ask to be treated special. That’s the thing about a community — good guys need to chip in financially, too.

The universities really would be better off letting their students do the talking for them and keeping their own mouths shut.


So here’s what I’m saying today. I’m no fan of using the Student Tax to get at the university scene through a back door — but I’m even less of a fan of Rep. Paul Costa’s bill to rip that option off the table. (x-CORRECTED)

We are a City, and a Home Rule Charter city at that, and we have certain legal rights, including the right to tax privileges. That law has meaning and I would not make it obsolete. If our City representatives enact a Student Tax, the remedy for that is political, i.e., we’ll take care of it ourselves. We don’t need the state sticking its beak in, hopped up on campaign donations by universities and other non-profits, to weaken City autonomy. Who knows, after we truly exhaust other options, we may all agree we need that Student Tax somewhere down the road.

Secondly, we should be pursuing Councilman Burgess’s raft of zoning and appraisal legislation which has the aim of compelling serious PILOTs to the general fund — the general fund — like its our job. Let’s see a press conference with the Mayor, all nine Council members, the Controller, every one of our Judges and Magistrates, and Steely McBeam this time.

Oy Vey: Bloggers Do What Now?

The headline reads: Bloggers open the floodgate on mayor.

Read it carefully and with a skeptical eye, unlike most of Pittsburgh is currently.

First of all, everyone who uses Twitter is a blogger? In that case, Luke Ravenstahl is a blogger, Bill Peduto is a blogger, Patrick Dowd is a blogger and Arlen Specter is a blogger.

The article makes it look as though the actual local political blogs are “opening floodgates” of criticism, reveling in the Mayor’s familial troubles — which is demonstrably and honestly not the case. Indeed, it is just a few of us that are bothering to criticize aspects of how the Mayor is handling things — which Maria does a fantastic job expressing — but we have all been tasteful and reserved as to the separation.

I should have written this sooner: for the three years I’ve been at this, the blogs I’ve read (and I read a lot of them) have shown a tremendous amount of restraint in not ever referencing “the rumors that are out there”. So have our commenters, honestly — more than once I’ve marveled at how our entire online community has kept it scrupulously dignified, despite many invitations to the contrary and despite our undeserved reputation as a cesspool. On those very rare occasions when an anonymous commenter has floated something sketchy about the Mayor or about Erin, the bloggers have almost always dutifully deleted the comments, scrubbing our spaces clean.

I’m proud to say that Pittsburgh blogs concern themselves with pensions and debt, with development and infrastructure, with personnel matters rather than personal matters, and at our very worst with dot-connecting insinuations about political corruption rather than personal misfortune. The way today’s article was framed (never mind that Sciullo piece), the Post-Gazette might as well cradle the Mayor in its loving arms during this trying ordeal for him.


And now, I will get this over with: rumors can be proven true, and rumors can be proven false; but rumors cannot be “proven to be just that — rumors”. That sounds like a nice last-ditch effort to sound as though one is denying a thing, when those who are paying close attention (perhaps too close) can hear clearly that one is denying nothing. Now, I’m not the Amazing Kreskin and I’m not Sherlock Holmes, but from the few facts we have been given, it sounds to me as though the split-up is very likely more his fault than — as his public story goes — her fault. The simplest explanation is usually best, after all.

And does that matter? Should I be writing about it? No and yes.

I’m one of those persons who believe marital drama does not matter in my politicians — unless persons with whom he or she deals in an official capacity become part of the drama. It would be inappropriate, for example, if Mayor Ravenstahl and Guy Costa were discovered to have been having a tryst. Aside from that, I happen to subscribe to Mr. Sprague’s advertised ideals on the issue. Yet I recognize that not everybody does, and that nobody has to — and I would not presume to lecture to those people that they’re obviously wrong. For the sake of the many who believe it is important, it is sadly an issue that merits some coverage and reflection by the media.

That is, it would — in a city that did not reside somewhere between Mayberry, Pleasantville and Pyongyang.

Most importantly, however, if my view is correct and there is some truth to the rumors, it is fully symptomatic of another issue the local blogs have long been covering — and with good cause. The jet-setting with billionaires instead of 8:30 AM meetings with residents. Commandeering a Homeland Security vehicle to go to a concert. The culture of cigars, scotch and expensive neckties given as offerings of respect. Brashly accepting tickets and admissions to high-dollar events. Setting up good friends with lucrative business deals and allowing them to elude public scrutiny. And the frequent counter-criticism, most often found through anonymous comments on the blogs, that those who are interested in advancing campaign finance reform and cleaning up government are only “jealous”, “want to be the ones doing it themselves”, are the “have-nots” and “wish they were the Mayor”.

This has never been so much a literal “pay-to-play” culture as a “play-to-be-a-player” culture. This has never been a Mayor that has been excellent at resisting temptation. That’s an undesirable quality in a leader, as we’ve seen many times before. This is probably just an indication that rumors of the Mayor’s growth on the job have been somewhat exaggerated, if not foisted forcibly upon us from on high.

There. I opened the sluice-gates for a moment, and now they are closed. I recommend it.

A Dramatic Reenactment of the Creation of #ravenstahlrumors on Twitter

Still going strong.

Wednesday: Stop! [*]

The city is embroiled in another heated zoning debacle involving absent public processes and threatened lawsuits, this time involving UPMC. Bill Peduto, in whose district the activity is taking place, is up in arms. (P-G, Lord and Jones)

On the plus side, the Regional Enterprise Tower has gone solar in a big way. (Trib, Matthew Santoni)

Morgan Stanley, Morgan Stanley, give me the brandy! (P-G, Rich Lord)

I don’t know how Jeremy Boren pulls quotes like these, but it’s sensational. (Trib, Jeremy Boren; see also P-G, Dennis Roddey) *-UPDATE: See also P-G, Maria Sciullo.

A note on the return of comment moderation today: it’s not a Sprague thing, it’s a Monk thing. We’re having issues. Please bear with us and we’ll post comments as we get the opportunity.

Joe Hoeffel: “Pragmatic Progressive”

“Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, we have a wonderful opportunity with natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale,” Joe Hoeffel emphasized to a room full environmental activists at Panera Bread in Oakland.

“We should use it. It means jobs.”

But that having been said, “Growing Greener is running out of money. A natural gas extraction and recovery tax could generate $100 million — we could use that to plus-up Growing Greener, create dedicated funding for it.”

Hoeffel said he was astonished to find, for example, that the state does not own mineral rights to most of its state parkland. An extraction tax could generate the resources necessary to take care of that oversight among others. These kinds of initiatives would go toward offsetting some of the unavoidable environmental ills of economic growth with enviro-benefits.

“It’s a very appropriate tax.”

Hoeffel boasted of having earned a 95% voting record while in Congress from the League of Conservation Voters — and is also proud that he had a 5% remainder, to demonstrate that he’s no pushover. Later, as a Montgomery County commissioner, he also fought to launch that county’s Open Space program. He said it became so popular that after it expired initially, voters overwhelming reauthorized it via a referendum — explicitly consenting to incur debt for the sake of preserving the county’s open spaces.

He calls himself a “pragmatic progressive”, being socially liberal and fiscally responsible — no foe of business and industry. He is on the liberal side of issues such as reproductive choice, gay marriage, environmental support and “minority views”, but fiscally moderate.

“I think most Democrats agree with that — in fact, I think most moderate Republicans agree with that.”

Asked whether the term progressive is really just a synonym for liberal, Hoeffel answered point-blank, “Pretty much. I go back and forth on that. I do object to ‘liberal spender’, ‘tax and spend liberal’,” which is why he tacks on pragmatic.

“The way I figure it, if George Bush can be a ‘compassionate conservative’, I can call myself a ‘pragmatic progressive’.”

He says he was driven to seek the Governorship when Don Cunningham dropped out of the race, and when Tom Wolf dropped out before that. Looking at the remaining candidates as a whole, he wasn’t satisfied with the direction the party would have been headed.

Asked whether there was anything to the notion that a candidate in Pennsylvania needs to be socially conservative to get elected, with particular reference to abortion and Bob Casey Jr., Hoeffel answered, “I disagree with that. We probably could have run a hundred candidates to beat Santorum — we just didn’t know it. Of course, Casey probably gave us the largest percentage.”

Evaluating his prospects to win the Democratic nomination, Hoeffel pointed to his strength in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs — his base — and the same logic went for the November general election. Provided that he activates enough like-minded Democrats across the state to make up the difference.

“I think neither Jack (Wagner) nor Dan (Onorato) match up as well as I against Tom Corbett — who’s very conservative,” Hoeffel warned somewhat ominously.

Asked whether Pittsburghers ought to be leery at the prospect of another Philly-area politician taking control of their fortunes, Hoeffel stressed that that is the same challenge he faced as a suburban pol trying to win over urban voters from the other side of Montgomery County. He says he did win them over, which is what happens — one becomes a representative for one’s whole constituency.

In terms of being an effective governor, Hoeffel points to his success in forming a governing alliance with one of his fellow commissioners, a Republican — to the exclusion of the third commissioner, also a Republican, which annoys some Republicans back home. He also highlit his own experience as a legislator, and his enthusiasm for working with them. “I love legislators — I really do. I think that’s one thing that was missing to an extent with our current Governor.”

Dan Onorato has already made government reform a central issue, so we asked Hoeffel what he brings to the table in that regard. He said that the first bill he passed in the State House was in reaction to the last ethics scandal in Harrisburg in 1978, and it mandated 10-day prior disclosure of contributions before the elections. At the time he says, even that was “unbelievably controversial”. He co-sponsored all of the ethics legislation generated during that period.

In Congress, he supported the Shays-Meehan bill providing for campaign finance reform and public financing of elections. Then back in Montgomery County, he helped to write the first Employee Handbook which provided for protection from macing, prohibitions on some employees running for office and certain forms of solicitation. Again he claimed there was intense opposition to that, particularly from County row officers who even took him to court.

The environmentalists valiantly rallied to steer the conversation back to their own turf. Asked whether there is such a thing as Clean Coal, Hoeffel answered “No — but we ought to see, we ought to research, we ought to put some money into cleaning it up.”

It was clarified to him that even if the coal emissions can be cleaned up, what happens to the groundwater is a major difficulty. Hoeffel agreed that “We’re very careless in PA” about water forced down through the fracking procedure.

“Technology exists,” Hoeffel claimed, to ameliorate that difficulty, “but the right plants aren’t built.”

When it comes to encouraging cleaner energy, he says that “It’s an appropriate role for government to say, ‘Utilities, you gotta buy a certain amount of wind, a certain amount of solar.”

After the meeting, the assembled environmentalists gathered to evaluate his performance. It sounded to me as though they gave him about a B.

“He can be good on our issues,” I was told. In their estimation he misunderstood a few points or glossed over some key difficulties with groundwater (as I’m positive I did in this blog post), and that “he could use someone on the campaign advising him” on the environment. All the same however they seemed to be in agreement that he was the most enviro-friendly candidate of the bunch by a good margin.

the news

The interview with Marty Griffin: LINK. / The Busman has statements: LINK
Ed Heath gives it a shot: LINK. / The That’s Church take: LINK

Hoeffel: Corbett Should Hand It Off

During a meeting with environmental activists in Pittsburgh, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Hoeffel said that Attorney General Tom Corbett has a “bad conflict” going in his dual role as the lead prosecutor overseeing continuing “Bonusgate” investigations and as candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor.

“It’s great what he’s doing — putting crooks in jail,” Hoeffel answered upon being asked whether the prosecutions are politically motivated, as some have alleged. “They ought to continue and let the chips fall where they may.”

“But he really ought to step aside from the investigations and prosecutions,” Hoeffel continued. “Hand it over to a deputy — with great fanfare.”

“He’s in a tough spot,” Hoeffel allowed. “But when on one hand you’re running for the Republican nomination, and then you’re looking at Republicans in the legislature — that’s a bad conflict. His two jobs are conflicting.”

More from Hoeffel’s conversation with Pittsburgh environmentalists later on the Pittsburgh Comet.

All Eyes on the Hill District

Firstly: run don’t walk to this week’s City Paper. I’ll excerpt a few bits but it’s better to read the whole articles. First there is a fretful general update on the impact of the loss of Evan Frazier at this “critical juncture”, but then there is an offset item on a new disquieting front:

The Pittsburgh Penguins apparently skipped an important step last month in constructing a hotel near their new hockey arena. And by doing so, they may have violated the terms of their pledge to the Hill District, the community-benefits agreement (CBA). (CP, Chris Young)

Amongst the grocery store, the community-driven master plan, and the First Source job center, one would have thought the execution of the job center was the easy layup.

Carl Redwood, who played a significant role in getting the CBA signed as chairman of the community coalition One Hill, admits that the Penguins “technically” violated the CBA. But he counsels restraint about the hotel project. “We’re not going to get all upset,” he says. “We anticipate that all future [job] openings will be shared with the First Source Center.” (ibid)

I guess someone has to be smoothly conciliatory what with Mr. Frazier taking a backseat, but the above reminds me very much of all professional and trusting reassurance that we heard during the period before the unplanned burning of that first CBA proposal and the unrelated combustion the URA — you know, the period where nothing at all got accomplished for months and months on end. When I think about those contractors’ and developers’ self-righteous demands that the community deserves nothing and shovels need to start digging into the earth, I feel that forgetting the Job Center was not just an oversight.

And then there’s the community-driven Master Planning process — which was glossed upon just barely in recent news articles about the fate of the Mellon Arena.

SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo said after Mr. Pfaffmann spoke at the board meeting that there would be a public process on the proposed demolition.

The SEA board yesterday hired Oxford/Chester LLC at a cost not to exceed $277,180 to help in the master planning for the 28 acres, to conduct a hazardous materials investigation at the site, and to help coordinate the possible sale of arena assets. (P-G, Mark Belko; see also Trib, Jeremy Boren)

All things being equal, one would think it would be better to preserve and adapt a notable asset rather than destroy it — provided the structure and the area can be genuinely productive. Hopefully ingenious minds are on this and very well along.

Reusing Mellon Arena, Mr. Morehouse said, “probably” would prevent the team from restoring the street grid between Downtown and the Hill, one removed when the Igloo was built and now viewed as a mistake. (ibid)

Is this an actual indication that the Penguins intend to use their influence on the planning process to restore the street grid? In my view that would be really positive.

But the point of all this is that the Penguins, according to that pesky, celebrated CBA, ought to be merely a co-chair of the planning process. There was a Neighborhood Steering Committee convened made up of appointments by genuine public officials and everything. Yet we know that track is in jeopardy, despite nonspecific and patronizing talk of the community being allowed to “have input”.

Also today, the URA board unanimously approved a $350,000 contract with CHPlanning Ltd. of Philadelphia to help in the development of a master plan for the Hill District. The hiring was delayed last month by Ms. Payne, a URA board member who wanted more time to review the qualifications of the firm and two other finalists for the work. Based on that review, she said she was comfortable with CHPLanning’s hiring.

“I think [the firm] will do a wonderful job,” she said.
The master plan is expected to look at the entire Hill neighborhood as well as 28 acres of land to be developed by the Penguins along Centre Avenue where Mellon Arena now sits. (P-G, Mark Belko)

This is the thing which according to some should have happened a month ago, and according to many more could and should have happened maybe six months to a year ago. This last month’s delay was to get Tonya Payne up to speed. The previous months? Unknown.

As it is, there’s a “drop dead” date in February on which the Penguins inherit sole sovereignty over the planning process — a date which Councilman-elect Daniel Lavelle already said publicly will probably need to be pushed back. How it can be pushed back is another story.

So with the Job Center and Master Plan aspects of the tripod in considerable distress, finally there is the Grocery Store:

City Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill, said today she, the Ravenstahl administration, and officials with the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Hill House Association are expected to meet with Save-A-Lot representatives shortly after Thanksgiving. (ibid)

This would seem to not be perfectly in line with this recent sentiment:

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called [Kuhns’] decision “discouraging,” and stressed that the city was looking for a full-service grocery store at the site. (P-G, Vivian Nereim)

I interpret this as a sudden gust of coolness and accountability by an elected leader who understands the depth and importance of promises made to a used and abused neighborhood — followed quickly by a veto by nervous bureaucrats.

I know, I know: ooga booga market fundamentals, booga wooga prevailing wage legislation. But you try raising a family without a pharmacy or a decent selection of healthy food within easy reach. Save-a-Lots are depressing and I hope the other options are still being actively pursued.

[Ravenstahl] was optimistic about a grocery store, noting that Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle made his billions of dollars largely in the supermarket industry. Mr. Burkle “has connections and the experience” to get a deal done, the mayor said. (P-G, 12/15/07, Mark Belko)

Another spontaneous gust of coolness that went unheralded at the time. How about a return to that idea?

There has been, and occasionally still is, a lot of talk about “this time, we’re building an arena and a neighborhood”. There is still enough time to accomplish that challenging, unique civic task, if there is only the requisite desire and political will in the right quarters. We don’t need a new neighborhood called “Hillside” and a big wall with profoundly disappointed Pittsburghers on the other side.

City Strategy for Nonprofits Becomes a Strategy

This is big news that needs to be lauded:

Legislation quietly introduced Tuesday in Pittsburgh City Council gives the city’s nine lawmakers veto power over almost all new construction by big tax-exempt institutions — effective immediately. (P-G, Rich Lord)

This is a first step towards handling the non-profit conundrum the way cities like Boston handle it: “Contribute payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to local governments in a significant amount, and on a long-term basis — or you don’t get to build, expand and play like you’re accustomed.”

“If approved, council will look at [construction plans] on a case-by-case basis,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess, author of the measures. “I view this as restoring the proper role of council.” (ibid)

If so, then we can assume this is not part of the game of “poker” that is being played regarding the Student Tax and the 2010 budget. If it’s the proper role then it’s the proper role — and it is the proper role.

My only concern is that we may go this route briefly and then quickly settle for the amount we happen to require right now, locked in over the next 50 years — rather than for an amount commensurate with what the nonprofits can afford and what their tax-exempt land is costing us. Of course, there is a data collection element to the raft yacht of legislation introduced by Burgess yesterday, so maybe this danger already has been anticipated.

Timing-wise, this is interesting in about eight different ways. For one thing there is the current wrangling with the universities. For another thing there is the straight-up politics: as a move which significantly empowers Council — not the Planning Commission or the ZBA — this is not a move that would ordinarily overjoy our Mayor. For a third thing there is the small matter of a Council presidency vote coming up — Burgess has not been this active at legislating since his first four months in office, let alone legislating counter to the wishes of development interests. So he might be trying to reestablish some political individuality in the wake of having taken a few warranted hits over that.

Then again, it must be noted that Burgess ran on a platform of wishing to rescind or amend Act 55 outright in order to tax some of these non-profits, so this cannot completely be described as a shift. And it can’t be denied that other councilors have ratcheted up either the legislative or communicative activity in recent weeks, in line with their own brands.


On a related and I want to say less important note: Mayor Ravenstahl held a press conference today to demonstrate that he has the five votes in Council to pass the Student Tax by way of assembling those five individuals next to him. It’s clearly important to the Mayor to get that tax into the court system, but at the same time we can see it’s a big bit of posturing. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if, having established the right to that tax and prevailed upon the non-profits to pony up voluntarily, Ravenstahl rescinds the tax and looks like a hero. Then in response, Councilor Peduto released a brief press statement assailing the Mayor for “playing poker with people’s lives” and doing it badly. That’s an important distinction. I’m all for playing poker, especially if you find yourself in a poker game — but you don’t want to look at your cards, bug out your eyes, and go “Wow! I can’t loose with this hand! I bet $10,000! You better fold, man.”

Dan Onorato: Running Man [*]

This is great!

Allegheny county executive and gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato announced a government reform package today that would cap political contributions, eliminate so-called walking-around money and withhold state lawmakers’ pay if they don’t pass a budget on time.

Onorato, speaking to about 60 Rotary Club members Downtown, promised that on his first day in the governor’s office he would ban gifts to executive branch officials, extend the one-year ban on lobbying by former state officials to two years, and require more detailed disclosure of lobbyists’ contacts with state officials. (Trib, Mike Wereschagin)

And it gets better!

I can’t wait until he submits identical legislation to Allegheny County Council, and pushes for it with all guns blazing. After all, if it’s good enough for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the event that Mr. Onorato gets elected, it’s certainly good enough for us here in Allegheny County while we still have him all to ourselves! The same principles apply, right? Now that I think about it, I’m feeling unprotected from all these corrosive political influences which Mr. Onorato believes are so dangerous. I’m glad we can expect these strong legal assurances on the home front any moment now.

*-UPDATE: Rival Democratic candidate Tom Knox is starting to raise questions pertaining to credibility. (Early Returns)