Yearly Archives: 2009

R.I.P.: Fred Honsberger, Local Talker

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See link: KDKA.

In addition to many notable achievements, Fred Honsberger defeated a notable blogger way back in 2005.

Fred ran a great show, and I always enjoyed listening to or watching him. Period. He could do a straight-into-camera take that deserves mentioning in the same breath as Johnny Carson. And you could tell he cared. My sympathies to his family and loved ones.

BELATED ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Penn Hills police officer Michael Crawshaw. Gunned down in the line of duty, like so many others on our streets and overseas. The Hons Man would not wish to jump out in front of any of them.

Hoeffel: Pittsburgh Needs More Revenue. [*]

“I do know that Pittsburgh needs more options for local taxes,” Pennsylvania candidate for governor Joe Hoeffel said yesterday afternoon, on a conference call with “progressive bloggers” from across the state.

“It’s bad for a government to rely on one tax so heavily — and the property tax is such an unfair tax!” He made reference to lost homes and a weak correlation between property value and ability to pay.

The Governor of Pennsylvania gets to appoint the chair of the 5-member Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), as well as directly appoint or influence the appointment of many officials at the ICA and at the Act 47 Team — the two bodies which govern Pittsburgh money matters. Pittsburgh was declared a financially distressed city six years ago, and receives some state protections along with increased state oversight.

When asked about the possibility of a Commuter Tax, the Montgomery County commissioner pointed out that Philadelphia employs a “significant” Wage Tax on all persons who work in the City — which is similar in function to Pittsburgh’s Occupational Privilege Tax, which sometimes itself gets called a Commuter Tax. Some in Pittsburgh have considered raising that tax from $52 to about $150 annually, but the oversight boards and the state have not gone along. He says he would favor something along those lines for Pittsburgh.

“The Mayor — acting in good faith — proposed what I think is a bad idea,” that being the Tuition Tax now being considered. “But I can’t really criticize him for proposing it, because the City needs more revenue.”

On levying a “payroll preparation” tax on the non-profits, he said, “That’s tricky” due to the legal issues, but that he does not yet know enough about Pittsburgh’s notions in that regard. *

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has often stated that “it’s irresponsible to say ‘you can’t do this’ without coming up with a solution to the problem.” State Auditor General Jack Wagner — another candidate for governor — said today of the Tuition Tax that “it is not a time to increase taxes.”

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Earlier during the call, Hoeffel repeated his call to exploit Pennsyvlania’s natural resources for jobs and energy, and his call to levy an Extraction Tax that coal, oil and other energy companies would pay to cover environmental remediation.

“That’s the only way to deal with it in an intelligent way.”

Since some damage can not be remediated — the wrong ground water well gets contaminated, for example, and that’s it — Hoeffel was asked whether it would also be necessary to strengthen regulatory oversight and roll back relatively recent “streamlining” among permitting bodies.

“I think we have to, if not reverse it, we have to catch up to these environmental issues,” Hoeffel said. “D.E.P. has to step up to the plate, and has to have the funding to do so.” This returned him to the Extraction Tax.

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Hoeffel also reemphasized his call on Tom Corbett and the other gubernatorial candidates to support state bills that would expand both hate crime and anti-discrimination legislation to include protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

One voice on the call pointed out that Hoeffel has one of the only websites that makes clear his position on abortion.

“I’m not sure why they don’t stress these issues,” Hoeffel said of his Democratic opponents, upon being asked. “I’m trying to set an example. I’m gonna lead by example.”

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Hoeffel had recently returned from the Pennsylvania Society weekend retreat in New York.

“First of all, it was oversubscribed,” Hoeffel informed us. “1,500 people packed into the Waldorf Astoria.”

In addition to his attendance at that event, he also hosted a “midnight reception” at the W Hotel across the street.

“You know, a little edgier. We called it ‘Hoeffel After Dark’.”

He said that although this was his first time at the society’s Dinner, he’d been to “the event” before. During this year’s political pilgrimage he had the honor of speaking before the PA Manufacturers’ Association — as one out of only three Democrats accorded a speaking role at that event. He says he just laid out his usual ideas regarding jobs and environmental concerns.

“It was … well received.”

*-UPDATE: At a campaign event in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty, Hoeffel clarified his remakrs about allowing Pittsburgh to explore a Payroll Preparation Tax that can be applied to some of its largest nonprofits (e.g. the “Eds” and “Meds”).

“I don’t want to come off sounding too negative about that idea,” he said. “I think it’s a very appropriate tax base.”

Yesterday’s Meeting on the Student Tax

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So here’s what happened yesterday:

Council member Theresa Kail-Smith led a televised special session of Council on the proposed Tuition Tax and on the City of Pittsburgh’s desperate financial straits. It included four or five university heads and leaders — including Pitt’s Mark Nordenberg — and of course the rest of the fairly evenly divided-over-the-tax Council members, and also the Mayor.

Mayor Ravenstahl sat sort of squeezed in to the left of Chair Smith, nudged into a corner, but was given generous leave to have a turn at speaking whenever necessary or appropriate. The whole format was uncommonly free-wheeling but fundamentally organized.

The one rule most frequently enforced by the Chair was that everybody should “focus on solutions”. Of course that did not always happen — there were recriminations on both sides sprinkled around fairly liberally — but the discussion proceeded adroitly.

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Especially once Tonya Payne got to it.

“Let’s say, hypothetically,” she said, and this is not an exact quote but it is very, very close, “and I hate to even say ‘hypothetically’, but let’s say hypothetically we table this on Wednesday. What’s your move?”

There was a low chuckle or two and then a silence. Motznik was looking suitably shocked and impressed.

“No really, what’s your move?”

The University presidents said some stuff about being productive, figuring out a better way to solve these problems, working together, early in the year, not waiting until November and another year’s budget deadline to get on it. Acknowledgments all around that trust is a huge issue and we need to start actively, seriously and urgently soon.

Motznik said he hates the tax but he hated having to raise property taxes or slash city services worse. “That’s who I represent.” He also asserted that the meeting didn’t seem to be very productive and that nothing had changed.

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Reverend Burgess talked about certain legislation he has authored, something that has earned the unanimous support of all City of Pittsburgh elected officials (what was it going to be? Zoning, maybe?) –legislation having to do with the formal acceptance of PILOTs. First of all, it would make non-profit contributions no longer anonymous under the umbrella of the Public Service Fund. Second, it sets up the formal legislative authorization to accept them and I suppose to stipulate certain assurances in return. He challenged the university presidents to take advantage of that and hand over the money.

In the event that offer is not seized upon, Burgess also said he’s going to try to amend the bill so that the Tuition Tax won’t kick in until July 1. In any event he’ll vote for it.

Burgess also talked about the two sides as two warring armies or rival gangs. He wants to be a negotiator, but both sides want to have a “shooting war”. We shouldn’t have one, and this tuition tax will start one, so don’t make us go through with it and start shooting.

This “shooting war” is a lengthy legal battle, which will necessarily precipitate an even fiercer and wider media battle. Politicians complaining about Pittsburgh’s own rip-off universities. Universities talking about how awful the politics have gotten in Pittsburgh. Everybody in the world made increasingly aware that the City is in state oversight and a financial basket case. Real scorched-earth material.

So Burgess is willing to enact the tax, but wants to hold off on “collection” until July. It seems like what the Rev wants to do is fire a warning shot — in a room where everyone has guns, and everyone has someone from the other side locked between his or her cross hairs, and many have itchy trigger fingers. But he wants to avoid a fight.

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Dowd started talking, and everyone got up and left. No not everyone — but Ravenstahl and Payne and Motznik and maybe some other people at least, not to mention most of the reporters.

Dowd said, “Well, it’s clear something’s changed”, and talked about how “in 2011, I’ll have to vote for something,” meaning most likely some kind of tax, somewhere, on something. “I can’t be against everything.”

Darlene Harris said some things, mostly supportive of the tuition tax idea in comparison to other alternatives. Kraus meanwhile was opposed. Ditto Peduto, who called it “taxing debt”, and potentially “the most regressive tax in the state”. Ditto Shields, who called the old Act 47 plan a “pack of lies and garbage”. Kail-Smith seemed genuinely solutions-oriented throughout, and just a little sharp toward Burgess regarding his extremely frank and passionate negotiations, and the many allusions to warfare.

ANALYSIS: If I know one thing about Tonya Payne, it’s that she’s all about the community first. And at this point I think she’s legislator enough to admit that her constituents educated her, brought many valid concerns to her attention — and that’s a good thing — and besides which the tax will not be taken “off the table” like the universities demanded. There will be a vote to table the tax, not to shelve it or defeat it. Future Councils can always decide to enact it when future Councils feel that it is appropriate.

For this Council to now authorize a tuition tax “ambush” sometime out into the future would set a foul precedent — I think everybody can see that.

A Glance Over at the Five-Oh

Now this is a story about the police department and the Mayor that I care about.

On December 11, 2009, the ACLU and CCR filed an amended complaint in the case alleging that the police engaged in a deliberate campaign of harassment and intimidation that prevented the two climate and environmental-justice organizations from organizing and supporting demonstrations. (ACLU)

Local police leadership over the G20 period made some rash decisions based on political passions. The results were frequently pretty ugly. I want to live in a free, politically vibrant and welcoming city with safe and active college campuses. I would be uncomfortable moving forward to the next world event (or even local event!) without a thorough legal accounting.

This is a story that I don’t care about, no matter how hard I’ve tried:

Mr. Ravenstahl declined to answer questions about Cmdr. Trosky’s role in his protection. (P-G, Jonathan D. Silver)

Well, strike what I just said: the Chief probably should not have changed civil service rules in 2007 to allow Mr. Trosky to make the leap to Commander so quickly. Those rules were probably in place for a reason — something to do with decreasing tensions within the police department just exactly like this. Similarly, rules against berating and cursing at subordinate officers, to say nothing of drinking on duty, are probably in place to ensure an efficient level of morale and smooth operations all around. Perhaps a vigorous refresher and some serious reflection is in order.

The Mayor however deserves broad latitude in determining who gets to serve on his or her own personal security detail, how and when he or she wants to, without explanation — so long as employment and civil law is not being violated. Period.

Anything else is a matter for the new Director of Personnel. Welcome aboard! It’s a fun job.

The Return of City-County Consolidation; or Solvency via Rapture


I never supported the unilateral consolidation of the City of Pittsburgh into Allegheny County — and I still do not.

But the argument proffered today by Duquesne University chancellor and former ICA big shot John E. Murray Jr. in the Post-Gazette is delivered with such impeccable timing, and with such refreshing frankness and focus, that it deserves to be seized upon by all of us as a challenge to produce something better.

The tuition tax, even if determined to be legal, would be another Band-aid. (ibid)

Yes. That is correct. Neither the $15 million per year this imaginative tax would generate nor certainly the annual $5 million we are requesting in its stead would be near enough to sustain Pittsburgh through the end of its debt plateau in 2017, especially given yet-to-be-determined mushrooming of our pension payments.

But the essential solution is not to tax more; it is to spend less. (ibid)

In point of fact, we need to do both. If today we were to wave a magic wand, undergo a lightening-fast political enlightenment and commence cutting with enormous political courage, we would still retain enormous obligations from the past to pay in full. And those few agitating for bankruptcy should understand that bankruptcy judges realize that governments possess more options for revenue generation than individuals and businesses. Governments are too powerful to be given permission to fail easily. Since governments can access pools of taxpayer funds from hundreds of avenues, they might be compelled to do so — brutally — if we ever went down that road. So we need to pay for all the irresponsible decisions of the past — of decades ago and of months ago — whether we like it or not. Period.

So we need to raise the right taxes — and a commuter tax and our non-profit payroll preparation tax are both truly fair, utterly commonplace and fully responsible options that would be available to us, if the state legislature and its oversight boards ever roused themselves from their own narrow political machinations or tired of resisting.

And at the same time, we need to reform our government practices — from switching our employee benefits packages to defined contribution plans and 401(k)s, to bargaining aggressively with our unions at the conclusion of every single contract from now on with the aim of dramatically shrinking our payroll expenditures, to closing every police station and fire house that neutral outside public safety experts advise us we can, to consolidating every service appropriate with the County and other governments starting with Public Works.

What we do not need to do is this:

The city should have appropriate representation on the non-salaried County Council and a professional manager, similar to a borough manager, working under the authority of the county chief executive. (ibid)

Thanks but no. We will not allow ourselves to be managed by an unelected and necessarily less visible bureaucratic appointee. We will not put all our faith in County Council, upon which the city already enjoys proportional representation, but which can never be constituted to adequately address, understand or even notice all the challenges of city life. And we will not imagine for a second that our County government, given its comparatively slender portfolio of present responsibilities yet its own extremely significant financial problems, is any better capable of tackling these issues than our existent suite of City representatives.

The solutions to our problems do not lie in handing them over laterally, or up to somebody better suited. Walk the earth and try to find naturally superior politicians — you will be gone a long time. The solutions lie in hunkering down and bringing the tactics of all our political schools and ideologies to bear without prejudice, like people with something immediate and personal at stake.

It is in fact human nature, not Yinzer nature, to resist change and delay hard work until crisis is upon us. Well, here we are. Bring it on.

Pittsburgh Promise Again Rears Homely Head [*]

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For background on the universities’ joint “No” letter, read the P-G’s Schackner and Blazina and the Trib’s Brandolph.

After delineating various reasons why they think the Student Tax is not ideal and how the Mayor has been less than perfectly constructive:

On the basis of those subsequent discussions and serious reflection, PCHE will not accept your demands. Among the issues your demand presents are the following:

a. When you solicited significant contributions to the Pittsburgh Promise from the non-profit community, you significantly diminished that community’s capacity to support the City, a fact that you have acknowledged on other occasions.

That was point “A”.

I am reminded of when the Promise’s funding was rolled out, and um, it hit a snag, because UPMC had been quietly assured of receiving conditional tax credits from the City for its donations. One council member pointed out that giving to the Promise was not the same as contributing to the City of Pittsburgh, its infrastructure and its obligations; it was rather like giving to Toys for Tots. We are now seeing one way in which officials’ energies poured into the Promise seem to be detracting from the core missions of city government.

*-UPDATE: Vannevar has some fun with this: LINK.

Judge James Makes Self Unpopular, and also, Prevailing Wage Legislation


FIRST. That law limiting the number of liquor licenses on Carson Street? Gone!

Judge James found that the ordinance was illegal because the city can’t create special rules for bars. The city law was “an infringement on the power of the [state] Liquor Control Board and is invalid” becasue state law reserves most power to regulate alcohol for that agency. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Bruce Kraus must be fit to be tied. All his best laid plans gang aft agley.
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NOW. That strip club that was supposed to open in the West End? Happening!

A year ago, the City Planning Commission gave the club a negative recommendation. The commission was supposed to send the information to city council so it could hold a public hearing on the matter, but council said it never received any notice.

Club owners appealed to Judge Joe James, who ordered city council to hold a hearing, but according to a letter obtained by Target 11 from the assistant city solicitor, the recommendation was never forwarded to city council.

Finally, after all the delays, James held his own hearing. (WPXI, Rick Earle)

I think we can sum much of this up with, “No politician in any branch, wing, or clique wanted a vote to be held in which the final unanimous decision would be either very illegal or very unpopular.”

It’s a shame we needed to violate somebody’s right to due process to get here. But moving forward, there are a lot of curious questions about the time line and about how and when the news broke that will probably be asked.
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AND FINALLY, Council debated prevailing wage legislation for a while today, with special guest stars from both labor and industry. Do read the Rich Lord update for yourself, it’s a gooder.

I’ll add a couple of tweets:


That’s the real “insufferable” thing. Especially if it’s strategic, as in: opposing some legislation but not wishing to be put on the spot to say so and why. I’ll take a “squabbling” member present over a dignified member absent any day of the week.

#Sigh#, gonna have to watch this one before the final vote. I wonder will that come this year or next? Kind of makes a difference.

I got no beefs with Dowd, but is he implying that he lacks such a personality? City Council is all pots and no kettles sometimes.

Well that sounds like something which probably happened.

At any rate, the reason I include prevailing wage legislation in this post is that even if we pass it, Judge James will probably overturn it because it makes life too pleasant for the yinzers.

Mid-Day Update of Joy

Good thing my fishin’ hole has WiFi…


Oh yeah, I remember when that happened. That sucked. I could go on.


That’s an interesting assertion. Offhand I’d say it’s more likely that they are calling the Mayor’s bluff before the deal even goes around to the nonprofits, but I don’t want to make an exojesus from my own interpretation.

Oh, and about that student tax:

“I don’t support that approach,” Mr. Onorato said. “I don’t think it’s going to go through.” (P-G, Dan Onorato)

Bear in mind that Onorato will be facing the voters in a matter of months instead of having just faced them months ago — but man, what I tell you. Even Dan Onorato.

There has got to be a better way to apply leverage on the non-profits — one that does not involve a transparent bluff that we might cut off our [redacted] to spite our face. Give it up. Surrender the battle, and live to fight the war another day.

Wednesday Open Thread


Conversation starters under “News” in sidebar.

The Student Tax: Rope-A-Dope Coming? [**]

I think I may know what’s going on here.

It’s a pretty cynical explanation, even for me — and if I’m wrong it will soon be obvious, but here goes:

Confronted with a $15 million budget hole, the Mayor proposed a 1% tax on tuition, quickly gathered five Council members literally to stand behind him, and together they marched forward and far out on a limb in a public relations battle against universities. “This is happening,” was the message, “unless you pony up and contribute some other way.”

However, the ICA rejected a city budget which included the tuition tax — not exactly forbidding us to attempt it, but demanding that we find another way to fill the budget gap. The ICA later endorsed a number of technocratic proposals (forwarded largely by Controller Michael Lamb and Councilman Bill Peduto) to fill that gap on at least a short-term basis. Meanwhile, someone at the state level was roused to preempt our ability to enact the tax — as opposition to it became organized on a near-national level.

The universities, though still concerned, seemed to have little cause to quake in their boots.

On Wednesday, proponents of the tax on Council delayed voting on it for one more week — to have “conversations” with the universities. Yesterday, a day on which the Post-Gazette ran an editorial emphasizing the need for Council to come up with “another feasible plan to raise those dollars” before it “tosses the tuition tax aside”, Mayor Ravenstahl appeared personally before Council to advertise his affable willingness to consider all other alternatives — but to repeatedly term what was now happening a “Band-Aid approach” and warn of likely cuts in 2011. Finally, four and a half Council members held a secret, productive meeting with the universities, and spoke secretively about its productivity.

It is December 5. Monday will be December 7. In about three weeks — bearing in mind the Christmas holiday — two Council proponents of the tax will be replaced by two near college-aged members who do not have particularly strong ties to the Mayor. It is likely then that any further delay would effectively kill the tax.

Why not rush it through? Is it possible some present Council members are getting cold feet? Would Tonya Payne wish, as her grand finale on Council, to be seen leading the charge in levying a controversial tax on young people, on educational attainment — just prior to a likely run against State Rep. Jake Wheatley? Does Ricky Burgess, a professor at CCAC, really have an appetite for taxing students and displeasing academia — at least part of his natural constituency — if said legislation is destined to be preempted or legally overturned?

Yet they can’t surrender — neither the Mayor nor the Councillors –because they’ve all marched so far from home. So instead they embark on these “productive” discussions, wherein the productivity is classified but oh-so real!

And here’s the beauty part: these talks can be made to sound more and more promising for at least a couple weeks, so long as the secrecy is maintained. Then the new Council members take over, and in short order one or both of them will say something frank about their posture toward the non-profiteers and the need to compel them (not their students) somehow contribute their fair share. So the “talks” collapse, and then:

“We were so close! The Mayor’s classic Council, the collaborative, politically adult Council, everything was going so well, if only we had more time! But then these new brats came along, with their combative personalities and their Bill Peduto and their denim jackets, and they ruined the whole cooperative spirit! Now it’s because of them we don’t have a tuition tax and we don’t have an agreement with the universities, and we only have a ratty Band-Aid and there will be horrendous cuts in 2011! Oh, if only the voters were smarter, and had sent us Council members more willing to cooperate with the Mayor and his allies!”

Now I don’t know what will actually happen in 2011. I suspect we will find yet another Peter to rob in order to pay Paul. And I’m not sure when the Peters’ bill will come due, and when those debts will be turned over to leg-breakers. Perhaps we will find a way to skin those non-profit cats before Service Cut Armageddon, or perhaps not.

Whatever it is though, in the increasingly uncertain meanwhile, the political shift which began in 2007 and gained serious momentum in 2009 — away from the old guard and towards self-styled reformers — will come in for serious scapegoating. That is instead of that old guard which actually gave rise to the entirety of our sticky financial situation.

*-UPDATE: Jon Delano calls the tuition tax “stupid”. (PBT, Jon Delano; portions appear to be $$)

**-UPDATE 2: Jeez, it’s like he’s not even reading this. THE JIG IS UP, MAN! (P-G, Rich Lord)