Monthly Archives: November 2010

On the Local Praetorian Guard

Photoshop: 2PJ’s, Maria Luppinacci

*-UPDATE II, NEXT DAY: Police Chief Nate Harper informs us all at a news conference that Ravenstahl’s security detail is now being reduced to just one full-time officer, “modeled after the detail used with Mayor Murphy.” (Won’t this suck now if the Mayor gets gacked at like 6:45 PM on the way into a Weed and Seed meeting.) OR: To hear it from other sources, it was a message with more push-back.

Original post follows:

KDKA-TV has been chewing over the cost of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s bodyguard detail like a juicy turkey leg: first an initial investigative report not online, again when Controller Michael Lamb called for “scrutiny”, and again when Councilman Bill Peduto was inveighed thereon at a taping of Sunday Business Page.

*-UPDATE: And again, chatting with Dan Onorato about his two guards which don’t leave the county and mostly work only official events.

If you’re the Mayor, there’s no right answer to these questions, but there are several ways to say “no comment”:

  • A comment that’s not a comment: “As Chief of Police / Director of Public Safety, it’s my responsibility to provide for the security of this city’s mayor in our modern environment, and will continue to do so.”
  • A no comment: “We don’t discuss issues relating to the Mayor’s personal security.”
  • A no comment with a catnip chaser: “No comment, and screw you for asking.”

In the labeling of this line of reporting as “not a story” and “political”, the administration remains consistent in its adherence to option 3. In adding, “I in no way use my security detail for my personal gain,” we have been put on notice that … personal gain is on the table? I had not seen mention of nor thought about “personal gain” until this point, but now that you mention it — yeah, I suppose I can see a personal gain angle. (Of course Griffin and Delano might have been raising personal gain allegations in their questioning, but it didn’t make it into their reports.)

What to say about this. First of all, what with all the talk about massive public safety cuts and austerity measures and the saturation patrols on Carson Street being withdrawn, this is plainly a story. It’s actually a good story, in terms of “provides for a variety of uses.”

Secondly, the suddenly oft-compared Tom Murphy (much less Sophie Masloff) was not Luke Ravenstahl, the 80’s and the 90’s weren’t the 00’s, and the Police Chief can’t and shouldn’t forbid the Mayor from going anywhere but can and should provide for his safety when he does.

Thirdly — three full time bodyguards, a part-timer, and then $200,000 worth of overtime, huh? One can only speculate as to what that means. It’s difficult to imagine any 30 year-old individual being a real alert, responsible go-getter at work every day and then indulging more or less every night, except for the people I can imagine doing so and you sure wouldn’t want to be imagined as one those either.

Fourthly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see a significant curtailment in the quantity and the cost of mayoral protection next year. I’d be shocked stupid if we saw press release heralding it (*-UPD II: Well, let’s just call me shocked), but a hatchet is being taken to the budget and the police will continue to be spread thinner and thinner. Extremely attentive reporters might discover some shifting sooner rather than later.

Fifth — well there are other considerations but let’s skip to the end. This isn’t the first time that the mayor’s security detail popped up as an issue, and the voters have shrugged resoundingly every time so far and will have another opportunity to shrug in 2068*. Yet it bears noting that this is the kind of thing — tiny, petty and niggling in the scheme of Pittsburgh’s challenges — that will cause watchers and potential partners to think, “That guy’s a schnook, right? He wants us to do what, now? That seems like a schnook idea.” That train of thought makes me uncomfortable because a dignified leader embiggens us all, so there are really no such things as small issues.

*-UPDATE: I assume this changes if he’s running for county executive — and rumors abound.

Authority Governance: Who Can Say?

When discussing a 2007 “option agreement” between the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and Penguins part-owner Mario Lemieux, the head of the city’s Stadium and Exhibition Authority offered:

[State Sen. Wayne] Fontana, the SEA’s chairman, said those trying to save the Hill District arena should have attempted to persuade the Penguins, not the authority’s board.

“If the Penguins wanted it up, then we’d keep it up,” Fontana said. “But we gave our word through the (option agreement) to give them the development rights, and part of that was to bring it down.” (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

That stands out as a singularly discouraging notion. The Civic Arena is a publicly owned asset, and the land it sits on is (or has been?) publicly owned land — however, we wind up being told that it is improper, or at least inherently futile, for citizens to appeal to their public officials on the matter. That is instead what the Penguins are for, even though there are obviously less lines of suasion and accountability by which one can appeal to a private entity.

Another interesting thing in light of other issues is that this authority’s chairman is utterly waiving any pretext of the independence, or independent responsibilities, of his authority. In turn, when the URA signed the “option agreement” conferring development rights to the Penguins, that authority did so with reference to the need to honor an agreement between the Penguins and Governor Ed Rendell et al.

One conclusion is to say that the very idea of the cloistered independence of municipal authorities from their direct political commanders, is something which only seems to be forwarded when somebody disagrees with a decision made by an authority which corresponds to the wishes of those masters. Because of course municipal authorities are there to do what their municipal bosses want, just hopefully with a degree of specialized expertise and day-to-day autonomy.

If we feel like digressing, it’s interesting to note that the main reason municipal authorities exist is to borrow money without having actual municipalities be directly impacted or on the hook. If Pennsylvania truly wanted to allow its cities, which are in so many ways regularly responsive to the whims of voters, to have that kind of enhanced ability to borrow money (which is frequently an attractive-sounding solution to both problems and desires) it would arrange for the governance of these authorities in such a way as to make that easy.

As it is, it’s harder than some would prefer. As stated recently in its preamble, “the Council-Controller plan considers the board of the PPA to be an independent body and respects its decision making authority”, and also, “we recognize that the Mayor is an independent decision maker within City government”. Something easier to say than to remember or to stomach at times, but both true nonetheless.

To begin a segway back to the main subject: one member of City Council recently said that he can’t recall a situation in which the President of the United States refused to do something which Congress directed. “No! Can’t make me!” the councilor aped, in reference to our mayor exercising his own and a municipal Authority’s own decision making power. I immediately tried to think of examples, without going to the obvious ones — war and diplomacy — because cities really don’t engage in anything comparable.

I do think it’d be interesting if Congress ever attempted to raise or lower Federal interest rates, or forced the Justice Department to drop a criminal matter.

But then, having read Sen. Wayne Fontana’s quote, it occurred to me: we do confer upon our local executives wartime powers! How else to describe giving away the most valuable development rights within a 300 mile radius — rights which apparently include actual property rights over public and possibly historic assets — without going through any meaningful procedural rigmarole, let alone competitive bidding? I remember when the deal to save the Penguins was originally reported, the emphasis was on all the millions of state dollars and casino dollars — and then, occasionally, somebody would think to add, “plus 28 acres of ‘potentially lucrative’ development rights on the Melody Tent site.” When a pro sports team stages a hostage crisis, apparently we confer upon our leaders dictatorial powers.

Which is how the great mass voters around here no doubt like it. It always gets back to the voters and what they are willing to tolerate or not tolerate.

And like any executives in chief, surely our Governors, County Executives and Mayors are protective of their perceived prerogative to render unto foreign powers that which they have determined through various wartime or warlike powers is necessary, for reasons of national security or whatever the applicable civic counterpart.


Let’s Keep in Touch.

That was a lot of words yesterday.

I have three related posts forming in my head, all of which probably will come out by mid-day Monday. Oddly enough I’m going to start with the Civic Arena and then work sideways. Which reminds me, shouldn’t we be receiving word from the Planning Commission any minute now? (*-UPDATE: There it is).

A late-breaking press statement from Carl Redwood of the Hill District Consensus Group can be found HERE. I asked him for some clarification in a follow-up query, and I included his response to this in the same Google doc. I hope he doesn’t mind. Redwood offers some lateral thinking of his own.

Have a lovely holiday, everybody! “Stay tuned!”

PS … Monk won the contest. I can’t recall the question he offered for a public figure as it was in one of the many consecutive comments of his which I deleted, but the one I allowed to stand in for the set turned out to be “lucky number seven” indeed!

Part 3: Council’s Big Adventure

– And we’re back, with a second round of public comment. Only there’s no public comment. Finance Chair Peduto is calling for a quorum, but there are only two Councillors in the room. Guess everybody’s still getting their stories straight!

– Dowd motions to hold for two weeks a bill that would authorize the purchase / refinancing / escrow defeasance of some bonds. “At this moment we have no understanding of how we are going to solve our pension problem, and settle on a budget within our means.” These are the Build America Bonds the administration wished to seize upon with the $45 Somewhat Irrevocable Reserve Fund for reducing the city’s debt burden. Peduto agrees with Dowd, talking about the possibility of using that money to ameliorate the pension problem instead. Burgess invites administration Finance Director Kunka to the table.

– Burgess / Kunka settle between them that the ICA approved of this use of these funds, and further “that the budget is balanced as of today.” Kunka says “this is the last opportunity we have” for the Build America program which will expire at the end of the year, and will not be reauthorized by Congress. “These funds are set aside for debt reduction and only debt reduction by the ICA.” Burgess asks his colleagues, so what else do you have in mind then, and Peduto reiterates it might be better spent on pensions and besides, the director of the ICA has not approved it yet.

– Shields: trying to drill down exactly into what this use of these bonds will do, especially for the debt drop off in 2017, and incidentally calls the $45 million “jump ball money.” Kunka says this will enable the capital budget to continue. Shields says he still has some confusion but gets the idea.

– Burgess calls Council’s own budget director Urbanic to the table and asks him what he thinks of this use of those funds. Urbanic likes it a lot actually, but acknowledges “an extreme need” to address pensions now and the desire of some Councillors to use this money in that respect instead. His recommendation is to go ahead and start approving it, but maybe pass it finally only at the last possible moment just in case. Burgess is basically like c’mon guys, don’t hold this up.

– Harris: “Now we have a dilemma” with the budget “that is not balanced for the second time now.” “I know we got a good deal from President Obama” on these bonds, but feels too uncertain about circumstances now. Also wishes we took advantage of even better rates in September.

– Kraus is like, if we put a two week hold on taking preliminary action on this, it’s going to drag it out until the middle of December, so it’d be practically dead right? Kunka agrees. Kraus acknowledges pension and budget “limbo” but he’s going to roll with Urbanic and move forward with preliminary approval. (Kraus also said, “We’re in limbo with this lease — I mean no, we’re not in limbo with the lease but…”)

– Shields said the only problem is this is contingent on a lack of clear consensus on the pensions issue. Council passed a plan (Council-Controller) but Mayor didn’t accept it. “This isn’t about these bonds, this is about the parking deal.” Shields is basically like if the Mayor doesn’t come around to Council’s plan and drives the city into the state takeover we will need this money. “The people of the city of Pittsburgh can not be ignored in their desire not to lease the assets.” “Maybe they don’t have all the numbers to break down but instinctively… they’re more than willing to see us issue some debt.”

– Shields says the Mayor should declare victory, embrace Council’s plan and move on. As it is everyone’s stuck. The Comet is confused because it sounded a whole awful lot like Council this morning voted down something related to the Council-Controller plan, yet they’re still talking about it as though it’s all been previously authorized. Now Shields and Kunka are arguing about how independent / relevant is the Parking Authority board in its own rejection of Council-Controller.

– Peduto: “I can’t think of a time in American history when the Congress passed a plan and the President wouldn’t do it. No. Can’t do it. Can’t make me!” (He’s never vetoed anything?) We’d be able to do this if the Mayor would go along with Council’s plan. “The only way government funds long term operations, for a hundred years, has been the issuance of debt. We’re gonna have to do it, if not this year then next year.”

– Dowd: “Together we can find a way on how to make that (Council-Controller) plan work”. Dowd is painting the Buy America Bonds as not making sense within the wider structure of everything. “Let’s say for the sake of argument that [the C-C plan] won’t get us to the right number. But what if it were just $37 million short? Wouldn’t we then need this money?

– And this is rich: Councilman Dowd now asserts it would be dreadfully irresponsible to hold even a preliminary vote on something of this magnitude until all the attendant and clarifying information comes in from the state. (Flashback to “This dead lease is dead! Let’s yank it off the table prematurely today and vote it out of existence tomorrow, before PMRS informs us of our total pensions shortfall and projected MMO’s next week!”)

– Kunka compliments Dowd’s “chutzpah in mischaracterizing all the comments that I’ve said”.

– Kraus reiterates that despite the legitimacy of the hesitation, it makes more sense to vote for this preliminarily, because it’s the only way to keep the option functionally alive.

– Scott Kunka warns he will be unavailable on Sunday and Monday because he’s getting maaaaarried!

– Burgess says Dowd just admitted that the Council-Controller plan is “speculating and hypothesizing.” Burgess invites Kunka to explain about if the legal hurdles to C-C can be overcome, then there are debt covenants that might be exceeded — and to testify that they never received details on the C-C plan in a “documentable, verifiable way.” And they’ve yet to use funds at their disposal to hire any experts of their own.

– Burgess reminds people that Controller Lamb has said at this table that the Council-Controller plan is no longer feasible.

– Harris says she’ll be abstaining today but “just in case something goes right”. Peduto also. Dowd also

So Smith and Burgess vote aye, and there are 6 abstentions — that’s good enough for an affirmative recommendation of the Build America Bond thing.

NEXT UP: The “present valuation” plan. Rudiak makes a motion to hold for one week, Dowd seconds, and so say they all.

NEXT UP: Council is trying to finally hire themselves a dedicated attorney and have it operate out of the City Clerk’s office — but now there’s going to be an Executive Session about something perhaps related to funding it out of the budget of the Law Department. Meanwhile the maneuver receives an affirmative recommendation. Burgess, who was out of the room, jumps back in and begs to ask if the contract was “competitively bid”. Shields tries to say, “Yes, it was advertised and there were interviews,” but it gets complicated and being a personnel matter we’ll talk about it in Executive Session.

Burgess asserts that now that the idea has morphed from hiring an individual to work out of the Law Dept., to hiring a law firm to work through the Clerk’s Office, he has “grave concerns” about the need to start all over again with a new RFP, and not just grant it to “the former head of the city Democratic Party” whose firm didn’t participate in the original RFP process. Shields and Harris say we’ve already voted on this preliminary and we’ll discuss it in executive session. Dowd also arrives late to register an abstention to this, and to play some old music about “defining the services” this attorney / firm will render.

NEXT UP: Now we’re watching city Sustainability Coordinator Lindsay Baxter talk about … lights … or … something. Kraus forwards along suggestions which he received from police officers that the lights directly over the East Carson corridor could stand to be amped up significantly for public safety reasons.

Seems pretty mundane from here, if all heck breaks loose I’ll fire up a Round 4. You have until 5:00 to enter the contest for the gift card.

*-UPDATE: Somehow I missed this approval: LINK.

Part 2: Liveblogging the Big Day on Council

In which factors impacting the coming 2011 annual budget process are explained, bemoaned.

– As we tuned in, Peduto was summarizing how cities like Pittsburgh are in an “impossible situation”; and then Councilman Bruce Kraus began asking their budget officer for the record how come casino gaming revenue did not come to solve these many problems as perhaps advertised years ago. He also emphasizes the central importance of non-profits contributing to “protect” the city.

– Harris is making certain that the ICA is forwarding to the city its share of table games revenue in addition to slots. Now they are discussing how the budget process is now in Council’s court rather than that of the Mayor, at least in terms of getting the ball rolling. (This is a bit unorthodox.)

– Harris mentions that a community group on the North Side called to protest it is “being punished” by having its funding for a particular project pulled — suggested that something happened in Councilman Dowd’s district also. “Because they didn’t vote in a particular way.” Wants to make sure Council isn’t bypassed.

– It seems like most of this budget hearing is going to be reviewing history and identifying problems. I’ll keep tossing up the occasional note, but mainly only if it stirs the pot. Harris makes it known that other “distressed pension” municipalities like the affluent Fox Chapel get 100% of their pensions funded by the state.

– Councilwoman Smith, referencing the problems during Light Up Night, urges that the funding for public safety be increased to provide for 950 or 1,000 offers rather than the presently slated 917. The budget director reminds all that each officer represents $110,000 per position, and asserts that much of this must depend on privatization and civilianization of some positions (e.g. warrant office) and how the Chief manages the force.

– Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak echos Harris’s request for information about Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) projects in neighborhoods by tomorrow’s meeting. She emphasizes the need to explain to the public just how many city business taxes have been reduced / eliminated over past years, and to explain the correlation if any between these tax cuts and eagerly anticipated increased business activity.

– Peduto clarifies that state pensions funding formula doesn’t care how many retirees you have, but how many present employees. So if your active workforce has shrunk, you are penalized — but if you are newer community like Cranberry that has expanded, you get rewarded. Also he states that although some say PA has some of the highest corporate tax rates in the country, they don’t look at all the exemptions. He asserts its the mom & pops who pay while so many big businesses and donors get a free ride.

Liveblogging the Big Day on Council, Pt. 1

Something like the “Council – Controller” Plan Voted Off the Island but it Didn’t Matter

– The first juicy item on the agenda is a measure authorizing the Mayor to begin negotiating with the Parking Authority the assets transfer necessary to the so-called Council-Controller plan. It fails unanimously without discussion.

– That’s it for the initial legislative session. Next up are hearings for the 2011 budget; after that will come the standing committee meeting. Council President Harris wonders that there is so little discussion this morning — “Everyone was up late last night!” Councilwoman Smith is congratulated on the birth of her grandson Michael, and the session is adjourned.

The revolution budget hearing will not be webcast. Foiled! Standing committee meeting scheduled for 1:30 PM.

– Councilman Peduto’s office uses this moment to send out press releases heralding a report by a task force for the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, which identifies principal issues threatening the vitality of cities. Those problems are that they are 1) alone, 2) put upon and 3) poor.

Monday: SitRep

City Council today, owing to the holiday, will hold a legislative meeting followed quickly by a standing committee meeting, and then conceivably back again to full legislative session. That means that new proposals might be decided upon both preliminarily and finally today, without the customary interludes.

Various frameworks for addressing the fast-approaching state pensions deadline on January 1, will arise for particularly thorough deliberation and determination.

Our friends at Infinonymous have been reporting that a fourth Councillor is at least privately now supporting a business accord with the LAZ / JPMorgan outfit — and is hard at work attempting to recruit what would be a fifth and deciding vote. I can’t say how true that is. The whole notion could be a ruse by implacable opponents of all things lease, to exhume its asphyxiated corpse only so that it might again be dragged around the walls of Troy, and then cast upon a roaring funerary fire. Or else everything could turn on a dime in its favor. We just don’t know.

No matter what, the field of possible universes should be greatly winnowed by the six o’clock news, and not just by a factor of one. The arguments delivered today, prior to a long Thanksgiving’s reflection, will be etched into our collective memory and subject to repeated reinterpretation. Watch live at this link or on Comcast City Channel 13 — and stay tuned for liveblogging most likely.

And now. Just so there’ll be no misunderstandings later. The Comet has seen a lot of history, gone through a lot of battles. This will be her last. She will not fail us if we do not fail her. If we succeed in our mission the Comet will help bring us home, to a position of enduring financial viability and even flexibility. If we don’t — it doesn’t matter anyway.

Action stations!

Sunday Viberino

Decision Point

I realize how sick you all are of this — but I want you to LOOK at what we’re turning up our noses at:

  • $355 million now
  • $6 million a year extra in parking tax
  • $97 million to fix up the garages
  • $800 to $1,000 million over 40 years in revenue sharing
  • Neighborhood rates lifted straight out of Council’s vision
  • 100% of the advertising revenue
  • Fully executable in 42 days

Pittsburgh has done a truly phenomenal job as a team doing its due diligence, negotiating, walking straight out of the dealership, making JPMorgan chase after us for weeks and extracting a price for which we should all be very proud. After one final round of total engagement in which we surreptitiously demand the leather upholstery and undercoating, we should take the deal and absolutely pole-vault over the long, hellacious public pensions disaster which will mire most others in impossible misery for decades.

If we choose not to, it is the dictionary definition of cutting off the nose to spite the face.