Monthly Archives: March 2011

Making Pittsburgh Sustainable: Your Move.

There a meeting of the ICA at 2:30 today.

Here is a timely background piece:

Pittsburgh’s shortfall, like those of other cities, has been developing for decades. Until 1984, Pennsylvania didn’t require municipalities to prefund benefits, so Pittsburgh paid them from general revenue. Rebuilding the local economy around nonprofit medical and educational institutions removed property from tax rolls. The 200,000 commuters filling many of the new jobs don’t pay city income levies. Then the 2008 financial crisis shrank pension assets as retirements were mounting. (Bloomberg, Jeff Green)

Broadly speaking:

“It’s going to be the story over the next 5 to 10 years,” [Mayor Luke] Ravenstahl says. “You’re going to see local governments going bankrupt. You’re going to see pension plans going bankrupt. You’re going to see bond obligations defaulted on. It’s that serious. It’s that dire.” (ibid)

Local firefighters union head Joe King and City Controller Michael Lamb are faced off over the 401(k) issue. Former mayor Tom Murphy argues that changes to state law “from the 50s” would be sensible. The article contains nothing explicit about this year’s capital budget, though 30 miles of annual paving, crumbling city steps, “drying up” investment resources and the likelihood of “stalled” projects around the new Target are noted.

Now the better news:

Never mind that it’s half empty — of all the half-empty Rust Belt cities, none wear diminished status as comfortably as Pittsburgh. It is the master of keeping up appearances. The downtown, known as the Golden Triangle, remains one of the country’s best-planned and most walkable, with one pleasant streetscape after another. In some ways, it is like a mini-New York, streets filled with people on sunny weekdays, pouring off buses and a little subway in the mornings and back on at night. Pittsburgh feels busy, alive. Industry has given way to research, health care, education, the arts. Smart people are moving in or moving home. The city feels young again, promising, like a place that has a future, one brighter than just about any of its contemporaries.

In short, Pittsburgh is just a little bit of a miracle. It is springtime, now — a good time to go take a look. Here are just a few reasons why. (New York Post, David Landsel)

Let’s do this thing.

Hines Ward on Dancing

“I want the hardest choreography, so I can come out strong and scare all the other competitors.”

Sunday Politics: Jump Ball

Joe Mistick is in this for as long as you, buddy.

Harris is being punished by Ravenstahl because she showed true political leadership and opposed “The Great Bamboozle of 2011” — Ravenstahl’s harebrained scheme to sell the city’s parking facilities to some Chicago investors. (Trib, Joseph Sabino Mistick)

In my educated opinion, Pittsburgh eventually (kind of soon) is going to have to at least partially privatize at least most of those parking assets, to meet the pension obligations. That’s not ideology and politics — that’s math and law. Harris does need to be judged for example for refusing to explore the second proposition from Mr. Lazowsky when it was floated.

(As a side bar, as fast as practicable this year we’re going to have to jack up the parking rates anyway, just to get by but WHOA okay everybody, okay, everybody just put their guns down, there’s no reason for anybody on a ballot to push for that to occur until after the election…)

Anyway. As an East Allegheny dweller myself, I happen to be set up to enjoy the fruits of the CBA with the Majestic Shooting Star casino that Councilor Harris helped to pick / prune along with the NSLC and others. That, and a love for all creatures great and small and a willingness to work with anybody, will be something a Pallus message needs to overcome.


Raja, the Mt. Lebanon commissioner, said he’s building a network from Republican Party chair people and at least two elected state legislators. The 45-year-old brings his experience as a successful entrepreneur and a commitment to spend some of his personal fortune on the race. (Trib, Wereschagin and Boren)

Okay, I’ll be the first to publish it. I watch Outsourced. We had the G-20, and talked enough about how important that was. Maybe there is an advantage, BIZNASS-WISE, to having someone a little more worldly in the top job — not to mention someone whose background lies in a crackerjack global networking nation-state like India? Allegheny County could be parlaying with a chip-maker from Singapore, and that chip-maker would be like, “Ooh, they’re being led by a Raja, these people must be players after all!”

“The reality of the political assessment of this race is: God forbid if you get elected because it’s going to be hard to get re-elected,” said Keith Schmidt, a Downtown-based public affairs consultant. “There’s a lot of hard choices before the next county executive.” (ibid)

I mean, if it’s going to be so awful.

In the meanwhile, let’s all start asking all of these the county-wide candidates, what kinds of services they’ll look to slash, and what if any revenues streams they would create or adjust. That’s all there is to it, cutting services and/or fiddling upward with taxes. We know all five candidates have all sorts of ideas for supercharged growth and brilliant efficiency, but really (I mean really). You’ve got to see that kind of thing first to believe in it.

The Band: Friend & Lover

The Occasion: Super Moon!

Judge: Utility Line Security LLC is PWSA *

Once he threw out some ratepayers’ complaints that the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority’s new water line insurance program is illegal because of negative option or “opt-out” billing, the Honorable R. Stanton Wettick, Jr. then affirmed some companies’ complaints that the program constitutes unfair competition and is therefore impermissible under state law.

The real bombshell lies slightly deeper…

PWSA and ULS contend that [the Municipal Authorities Act] does not apply because ULS is the competitive enterprise. It was not created by PWSA. I disagree. Enterprise — as defined in Black’s Law Dictionary (9th Ed. 2009) — is “an organization or venture”. In this case, the venture is a program established and administered by PWSA … This venture, established by PWSA, interferes with existing warranty programs and competes with existing plumbing companies that make water and sewer line repairs. (Wettick, Dominion et al v. PWSA)

Emphasis mine — but also his, seeing as how he repeated that assertion in several contexts throughout the opinion. The revelation that PWSA created ULS conflicts with both of their own assertions and with all of the reporting to date (e.g.:)

A month later, water industry veteran Christopher H. Kerr created Wilkinsburg-based Utility Line Security LLC, which since January has received the $5 charge added to city water and sewer bills. (P-G, Rich Lord, 3/15/10)

So as the court would have us conceive of things, previous allegations about conflicts of interest between a public official and a private company which resulted in a resignation were imprecise. ULS does not constitute a purely “private” venture at all, despite the protestations of the public authority for whom this organization contracts.

Judge Wettick also insisted that the line insurance program is otherwise good for water customers and a cost-saver. It is unclear whether the legal impasse will result in a settlement award to Dominion, Dominion and Manchester and then business as usual, or the complete termination of the program, or something entirely in between. The fact that the judge went on at length about how good is the insurance program suggests he would prefer to steer things towards a more legal continuation of the service provision.

*-UPDATE: Looks like “complete termination of the program” (Trib, Bill Vidonic).


But this would be a great moment to pause — maybe for the whole nation to pause — and to consider the phenomenon that has manifested.

Government determined to offer a public service, and evidently decided the best way to accomplish that would be to assemble some folks from the community with germane business experience and prevail upon them to start up a new company which would offer custom-tailored services to the government which created it (and to forgo widely soliciting bids for that work).

A judge goes so far as to opine that it is unlikely that any (other) private (?) enterprise could possibly offer such cost savings for the public anyway.

Cynics might argue, “Who is the government to pick and choose who gets to run my things and profit from them? I want competitive processes!”

The establishment might argue back, “This was the only way to provide a needed public benefit at such a low cost, and we all would have gotten away with it profitably if it weren’t for state government over-regulation and a few haters with magnifying glasses.”

The cynics might then retort, “Yes, but you may as well have just assembled the line insurance program in-house, where there is transparency, oversight and accountability — and where any profit from the initiative could be forwarded to the City of Pittsburgh or else used to pay down Authority debt and/or make sorely needed capital improvements.”

The establishment might well then roar, “The kinds of people who design and execute such innovations aren’t public bureaucrats, and aren’t about to become public bureaucrats so as to have the honor of slaving away under your incessant public cynicism — and good luck finding public bureaucrats with the knowledge, talents and capital (yes, we have better access to credit than PWSA) to pull something like this off.

“Son, we live in a city that has bill collectors. And those bill collectors have to be satisfied by men with connections. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for the Sunshine Act and you curse the Network. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that public oversight’s death, while tragic, probably can save billions. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves pensions, police cars, lives… You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me in that network. You need me in that network.

“We use words like List, Vibrant, No Comment…” Okay I’m probably getting a little beside the point. I don’t know what the long-term takeaway from this all should be. I know that at the end of the movie, they threw Jack Nicholson in the brig. I also know Hollywood loves happy endings and Tom Cruise as a protagonist.

I think Pittsburgh should be more diligent about following the letter and the plainly visible spirit of the law, because no one knows which of our clever innovations will get unpacked and how badly that could gum up the works.

You Thought Midnight was Bad….


Orwell is Busy

I was watching The Cape on Monday, a horrible new television show about a superhero with a … magical … cape … and his municipal blogger buddy, Orwell.

Here is the municipal blogger:

Anyway, the name of the fictitious Palm City blog is Orwell is Watching, and in this episode The Cape was giving its authoress a hard time concerning, and I quote: “Your blog’s gone stale, you haven’t updated in four days. I don’t think Orwell is watching anything!”

So … I can get away with some predictions, right? Based solely on conventional wisdom, among the 17 people who care about this stuff. A year from today, then, here is what looks to be the most likely roster of City Council officeholders among those districts which have contested races this year:

Harris – Kraus – O’Connor – Dowd – Burgess

Here now, in descending order, are the relative most likely ways that scenario may change, along with the most likely reasons said alterations might occur:

Pallus defeats Harris [Earns the Party endorsement, campaigns well]
Ceoffe defeats Dowd [Fund raising + Lawrenceville United]
Koch defeats Kraus [Locks down the Hilltop, while the Flats vote splits]
Egypt’s Military seizes Control [Drop-off in relative likelihood]
Copeland-Mitchell or Prater-Holiday defeats Burgess [either the 12th Ward or self-identifying “Progressives” change mind, back other challenger]
Calfo defeats Dowd [Just runs the table]
Wilson defeats Harris [Similarly, runs it]
Robb defeats Kraus [Lays out some killer Carson St. area public safety plan with real-world buy-in]
Phillips defeats Kraus [Relaunches blog]
Wiseman wins Shields’ seat [In November as the Republican, running against “old boys’ network”, taking advantage of the tail end of G.O.P. ascendancy]
Schuillenberg defeats Harris [Ingenious Xanatos Gambit pays off]
Zurawsky wins Shields’ seat [O’Connor this Spring accidentally makes a whole series of seemingly flattering statements relative to the German 3rd Reich]

I feel like Fitzgerald is probably in the pole position by a nose over Flaherty at this juncture, owing to his having a few more vocal allies, and to the fact that no one wants to fiddle with property taxes even though prolonged intransigence will bankrupt the County, its public schools, and its relatively more struggling communities and families. Lamb is among those candidates running for public office unopposed, due to his mythic power, influence, and connections which strike real fear into the marrow of all those who despairingly yearn to cast off his iron yoke of oppression. Finally I’m guessing Wagner probably has some aces in the hole, but who knows.