Monthly Archives: August 2012

Meachem Gone as Head of HACP


As reported:

A. Fulton Meachem Jr. is resigning as executive director of the Pittsburgh Housing Authority.

The authority announced his resignation this morning, saying Mr. Meachem has accepted a similar position in Charlotte, N.C. (P-G, Joe Smydo; see also Trib)

[BIGGER: Sat. P-G and, most interestingly: Sat. Trib. I stand by the below.]
There have been indications that this actually was a forced resignation; perhaps of the sort that is strongly forewarned while an employee with songs to sing finds work elsewhere.
Two weeks ago, a controversial contract with a private security firm utilizing constables for policing at public housing sites was terminated with Meachem stating he was “exploring” the feasibility of getting City police to do the job.
In 2008 there were accusations of misspending at the Housing Authority under Meachem, although the source of that whistle blowing has since been rendered questionable. Those accusations eventually resulted in a milquetoast audit which was held back for some time. Meachem was accused of “smearing” then-Authority chair Pat Ford to divert blame for these and other managerial concerns, though the source of these accusations also left the city in disgrace.
Director Meachem oversaw the roll-out of a Clean Slate scholarship program for Housing Authority residents, and the replacement of Addison Terrace in the Hill District. He is survived by the authority’s Chairperson, Council member Ricky Burgess.

Fitzgerald faces Tough Choices on Sewer Strategy


The ALCOSAN Draft “Wet Weather Plan” for satisfying the federal decree mandating that we stop letting our sewers overflow when it rains thereby allowing so much poop into our rivers can be found here.

Good luck with it.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto describes that plan as “huge holding tanks under our rivers and a series of smaller tanks throughout the city to trap excess stormwater and wastewater until it can be safely released for treatment” — which looks about right, near as I can tell.

He goes on to recommend that we utilize parks, ponds, community gardens, permeable pavements, green rooftops, tree plantings and rain barrels to limit the amount of rain water that needs to enter the sewage system in the first place. And furthermore, that this will save us all money on steel, concrete and boring machines. (RPghN and BP.com)

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald was reported also to be “urging” ALCOSAN at community meetings to incorporate such green tactics.

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This seemed strange, since ALCOSAN stands for Allegheny County Sanitary Authority — 3 of whose seven board members are appointed by the County Executive himself, 3 by the Mayor of Pittsburgh (Luke Ravenstahl) and one jointly by them both. Why can’t Fitzgerald simply instruct his board members to do what he wants?

“Rain water is not free. We’re all paying for how we handle it,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “Alcosan, if it can divert some of it to green spaces, parks and gardens, won’t have to pay to treat it.” (P-G, Don Hopey)

Make it so, numba one! Am I right?

Well, the main reason this is going to be difficult is…

Alcosan has said it’s been on their minds — but that implementing or ordering use of those technologies in municipalities is not within the authority’s purview. Executive director Arletta Scott Williams further explained that if municipalities include “green infrastructure” in future plans they submit to Alcosan, the authority will consider them.

“We fully support that,” Ms. Williams said. “We would like to see the municipalities implement more green.” (P-G, Molly Born)

Neither ALCOSAN nor Allegheny County can simply tell its 130 municipalities and umpteen millions of private property owners to replace asphalt and use rain barrels. The municipalities themselves can use zoning and other law to influence development — but that’s a slow process even if they each are in the mood to undertake it.

Which leads us to the next Peduto idea…

A stormwater utility is a governmental entity – usually an independent authority or a branch of the municipal water system – that levies a fee on property owners, from owners of single family homes to owners of large retail or industrial facilities, for how much excess stormwater enters the system from their property. In effect, a stormwater utility puts a price on runoff. One of the benefits of a stormwater utility is that a cost that was previously invisible – stormwater runoff – is brought out into the open and property owners are held accountable for their impact on the overall system. We’re all already paying for stormwater in our water and sewer bills, but in a stormwater utility system the property owners that are contributing most to the problem pay the most and those that are taking steps to reduce their impact pay less or even get credits for the improvements they make. Thus, a tangible financial incentive for improving stormwater management is created. (RPghN)

… which in fairness is hardly just “a Peduto idea” at all, but he is the one pushing it lately and in the context of routine sewage treatment instead of flooding and safety. If a stormwater utility turns out to be “infeasible,” he has a backup idea involving zoning overlay districts, or possibly a sliding scale for regular ALCOSAN sewage rates.
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So the state would all of a sudden start charging property owners and businesses — small businesses, mind you, job creators — more money if they don’t plant enough trees and use the right kind of pavement, so that government bureaucrats can afford to build swamps and fern gullies or whatever.
You can see how, while an elegant and progressive solution to a real quandary, this could be a bit of a lift.
With his county-wide constituency, Fitzgerald has yet to endorse charges based on stormwater runoff to pay for sewer improvements or incentivize on-location green solutions. He did as a candidate criticize his Republican opponent Raja for increasing sewer fees in Mt. Lebanon — though perhaps only for “not owning up to it” in regards to certain counter-accusations.
At any rate, let’s call up that Fitzgerald quote again… “Rain water is not free. We’re all paying for how we handle it. Alcosan, if it can divert some of it to green spaces, parks and gardens, won’t have to pay to treat it.”

Fitzgerald probably was not even talking about producing new green stuff — simply diverting some water to green stuff that already exists, instead of building bigger and more tanks. A notion which appears not to be in the ALCOSAN draft plan.
Which brings us back to ALCOSAN’s makeup — for this plan was years in the making.
Three and a half board members are appointed by the County Executive, it is true. Until recently that county executive was Dan Onorato.
Dan Onorato was something of a Grey Infrastructure guy, having a solid relationship with several engineering contractors. Onorato appointee and board chair State Rep. Harry Readshaw approaches these questions from a similar background. Heck, even Onorato’s solution for animal control was grey (lasers, fencing, poison gas) rather than green (moving eggs). And finally of course there is the Mayor’s share of ALCOSAN to consider.
The path to any significant and effective “green” water management in the region, whether through a stormwater utility or something similar, will lead ultimately through ALCOSAN. If Rich Fitzgerald is going to work towards these allegedly more affordable and sustainable solutions, he may indeed need to embrace a campaign which will entail clashes and involve wagering some real political capital.

NOW Head: Mayor “Screamed” At, “Threatened” Me for Criticism over Trosky Promotion


After a week of taking heat related to issues of diversity, a second promotion by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl of the intermittently controversial George Trosky now to Assistant Chief of Police generated predictable criticism:

“The message is that the mayor doesn’t care about women,” she [National Organization for Women President Jeanne Clark] said. “He doesn’t care about domestic violence. When we disagreed with this appointment for Commander Trosky to become a commander, he [the mayor] said he got it, he was zero tolerance policy and nothing like this would happen again.” (Lynne Hayes-Freeland, KDKA)

That was Tuesday. Allegedly on Wednesday, this happened:

Your public attack on me in the reception line at the Cookie Cruise – berating me for criticizing your promotion of George Trosky to assistant police chief, screaming that I was a “hypocrite,” and threatening to “go public” with what you perceive to be my failure to support all domestic violence survivors – was bizarre, to say the least. (Everyone’s Entitled to Jeanne’s Opinion)

More coverage of the epic fracases back in 2007 which attended Trosky and two other officers’ promotions are available here, here, here, here, and here. These stories involved not only a lack of sensitivity at that time to domestic violence accusations, but also an oversensitivity to political relationships — 102 officers were then passed over.
Charges against Trosky for domestic violence were dropped long ago, and he was never convicted of anything. Recognizing that victims are frequently pressured to drop charges in cases against authorities, innocent-until-proven-guilty still has to mean something, and it’s difficult to justify a single accusation limiting somebody’s career for all time. However, after all the controversies in 2007 an agreement was reached regarding formal deliberative processes for handling these delicate cases, including advocacy group outreach. That agreement appears to have been retired.
*-UPDATE: This month saw the launch of a “Run, Jeanne, Run” (for City Council District 8) movement on Facebook and Twitter.

Ravenstahl, Yabolonsky, and Harris on Natural Gas Drilling

Full article here. This is probably a huge election issue in terms of fundraising and connections-building. The funny thing about having attorneys, engineers and advertising sales reps grow invested in industry expansion is, these then become attorneys, engineers and advertising platforms and their extended families predisposed to believe “safe” natural gas drilling is a very achievable thing, probably safe enough already, and can we get over it.

Monday: How Have You Been Getting By Without These?


Did you ever put on a bathing suit as underwear because you forgot to do laundry? That’s a little like what’s going on with the RAD tax and the Port Authority

The annual funding of $3 million to the Port Authority over the next 10 years will wreak havoc with the surplus, limit inflation adjustments and ultimately affect the stability of these important assets. In the past we stabilized the annual budget with the surplus so that assets could remain fully funded. But one needs a surplus to do this. With $3 million a year to the transit system, I estimate the entire cushion will be wiped out in five to seven years. (P-G, Rick Pierchalski)

If objections to the Fitzgerald notion actually, ultimately result in bus routes disappearing and workers let go, then yes that would redound to the detriment of whoever stood in its path. But if it results in any sort of compromise or more orthodox $3 million solution, that person will wind up looking like the rock-ribbed fiscal and civic watchdog on the scene. Take it as another object lesson in not misunderestimating anybody with proven survival instincts.

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Darlene Harris, following five years of increasingly volatile trench warfare consuming city hall, this year earned a second term as Council’s President by running on a new platform of, “Let’s all relax, for a while.” The credulous Joe Smydo immortalized the success of that initiative but in so doing seems to have shaken potential mayoral contenders back into overt activity.

Our Controller has spent the last two weeks firing a chain gun in the direction of the administration, while Mr. Peduto — well, at the moment he appears to be showcasing his “vision thing” with such features as bicycling safety, “green” sewage strategies and community planning, though we know the hate flows strong in that one.

Meanwhile, and allegedly, there is Jack Wagner. Who in these locally portentous times is distantly and dutifully trying to support the 911th Airlift Wing, recommend changes at Penn State, and keep tabs on volunteer fire departments. I’m sure he would like to have a hand in the Great Rebellion, but does anybody really believe this guy is running personally? Truly, in a way that is not a psy-ops fake-out against one of the aforementioned challengers? If Wagner fails to chime in substantively and sharply on at least one natural topic very soon, it’s going to be tough to justify his continued inclusion in the penciled brackets.

But this is all crass politics. And as you know, this is a high-class, no fraternizing public policy blog. With so much of consequence going on, now we can only give you glimpses of the substance behind the stories! So without further housekeeping…

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Back to the Smydo piece, I cannot imagine The End of Fiscal Oversight is really going to be “an issue”. Oversight and the termination thereof is conducted and decided by the State, the State is decidedly now run by Republicans, the City is run by Democrats, why should they desire to let us out from under their thumbs? And given our severe pension woes and thin capital margins, how difficult is that position even to justify anyway? “Ending oversight” will be a handy pedestal for some, maybe for us even a useful facsimile of a debate over “So yinz guys, how’s Pittsburgh doin’? I think pretty good!” But at the end of the day the statutory fiscal discipline clearly still benefits us — and to the extent we find it galling or constricting, well, there’s nothing to be done.

However — why the heck is the ICA spending $3 thousand a month on public relations all of a sudden?!?? That’s INTERESTING.

I don’t even care about the “ties” to the chairman — it’s a professional services contract, hire whoever floats your boat — but who is going to be lobbied or persuaded into doing what? To date the ICA has done what it has done in a negative sense, limiting our spending, since it has the power and does not need to sweat how the yokels feel. Now however — what’s up? Pro-active recommendations? The old ones? New ones? Things city leaders have attempted, but as it turned out, maybe they required some public relations expertise to get it past Council and the community groups they heed?

Back to ALCOSAN sewer mega-upgrades again… sure, there is “grey” and “green” infrastructure and everything that entails, and there are certainly notable overlaps with politics and political proclivities which come into play. However the dichotomy between “grey” and “green” may serve as an unfortunate distraction from a more fateful choice: “thoroughly fixing it” versus “sorta half-assing it.” Sure, there is an EPA consent decree with detailed requirements and timetables. But say what you will about squabbling local leaders — when they find themselves on the same side and rowing in the same direction, never doubt their capacity and ingenuity to move mountains to earn exceptions, exemptions, extensions and to generally avoid annoying their near-sighted constituents with expense or change. Personally I would like to see us seize this opportunity to make a real worthy gift to future generations in the form of a water and sewer system they can be proud of: a Wonder of the World. But there are already signs of downward-bearing pressure.

What else… this is getting long already… “At such disquieting moments, it is time to move on.” What does that even mean? A most troubling final word. You’ve got to grade these things on a curve since they are written by committee, and sometimes they wind up with a hung editorial board. But this one went so far as to state signs point to “a moral outrage, maybe even a human tragedy,” but then oh bother keep walking? Although the Trib was doubtful that any “clear evidence” of wrongdoing existed they were very clear that Jordan’s right to retry the unsettled charges is absolute and important. Meanwhile and of broader importance: did we ever figure out if “jump out” aka “scare” tactics were and are employed by the Police Department against “suspicious-looking” though nonspecific targets found in the dangerous neighborhoods that it protects? Because startling someone, if it happens, seems tailored to provoke a “fight or flight” response — and one thing we did learn conclusively is that either fighting or fleeing is the start of an ugly situation.

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AnOrwellianPensionBoardSaysWhat?


Not “Orwellian” in the pejorative sense so much as the … uh … literal sense.

Pittsburgh pension board members refused Thursday to consider lowering the fund’s annual investment-earnings projection, saying the move would require increased cash contributions each year that the city could fund only on the backs of employees or with a tax increase. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Yes, but if we cannot achieve an 8% annual return (which is considerably difficult and would require luck even for aggressive private investors) then keeping future projections at 8% so we can feel better paying less now is like robbing Future Peter to pay Today Peter. One might expect Corey O’Connor to object, since it is to his administration that the brunt of this must inevitably fall.

A lower investment projection would increase the city’s required annual cash payments to the fund, Mr. Ravenstahl said — and leave him scrambling to find funds in a lean budget or asking taxpayers for more money. “To me, this is where this is going, and I’m not going to do it,” Mr. Ravenstahl said, noting he has never advanced a property tax increase and doesn’t plan to now.

Mr. Ravenstahl’s office said a change from 8 percent to 7.5 percent could require the city to pay an additional $9.3 million annually to the fund, without making a significant difference in the funded liability. (ibid)

The implications being: right now all pension funding projections you see are $9.3 million per each year into the future (compounded with interest!) lower than we are making them look on paper.* And Ravenstahl would prefer one day to be remembered as the former Mayor who helped cause some present calamity, rather than make bold choices while in office to head off that reckoning. Simply another in a very long line which we know he abhors.

Ideally, instead of cutting an already lean budget to the marrow or raising residents’ wage and property taxes, the emergency which lowering projections would cause reveal might instill the political dynamic necessary to do something else entirely. To follow-through on our bluffs to share in the economic successes of our so-called non-profits, to settle upon a least-odious new revenue stream from amongst a commuter tax, tuition tax, soda tax and others, or even to monetize cherished but underperforming assets.

The revelation would actually result in several “I told you so!” moments for our Mayor — were he only willing to let the cat out of a bag which is visibly squirming and audibly meowing.

“I don’t believe 8 percent is realistic for this kind of fund. But you’re right, the other side is, can we afford to lower it?” Mr. Lamb said. Because of the opposition, he withdrew his proposal for a study. (ibid)

See, there’s the difference. A Patrick Dowd would have gone full Cato: climbing walls, rending his garments, pointing at graphs. UPDATE: An anonymous commentator clarifies that his motion failed for lack of a second (so it must be true).

In addition, Mr. Huss said further discussion of pension funding only leads some retirees to fear that they won’t get their checks. Pension payments, he stressed, are not in jeopardy. (ibid)

I hope this was taken out-of-context. They’re the pension trust fund board. What are they supposed to get together to talk about? The spread on the Cookie Cruise?

Mr. Huss accused Mr. McAneny of telling overseers, who are often in conflict with the mayor, what they wanted to hear. (ibid)

That’s a little more interesting. While it remains true that all this absurdity is 80% caused by political self-preservation, there remains a 20% influence from a four-way chess game to which you and I are not privy. Some of the players evidently feel an end-game is in sight, which I suppose theoretically could moot the absolute need in the meanwhile to come up with more money for pensions. By seemingly ignoring a mathematically untenable equation, it is the shape of that end-game some seem to be preparing for — although the casual observer wonders whether we all benefit more by sticking with checkers.
MORE: Nullspace has some. If any anonymous commentators cut and paste the body of those subscription articles into my comments section, that would be a shame.

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*Aside from which, at least $287 million is contingent and non-interest-bearing. But we’re doin’ fine.

Transit Funding Becomes Locally Contentious

Let me offer this opinion:
Our Mayor is probably right to be upset that even though the union was broken made selfless concessions, the stopgap public transit solution now on the table suddenly taps RAD dollars. That tax revenue was originally crafted to support cultural amenities, yet continually gets dragged further afield. Once a revenue stream is diverted it’s difficult if not impossible to reverse-engineer that flow. So if Ravenstahl still “has to take a look at [the plan],” it’s understandable to be approaching this in a grumpy manner.
However it would be a lot tougher for his legions of detractors to assail him had he assumed a visible leadership role in crafting solutions — negotiating amongst workers, management, the state and voters heretofore.
Yes, transit is a state and regional issue over which City officials have no direct authority — but what good is having a vigorous young telegenic mayor if he’s not going to make a fuss over issues so critical to the city and its business climate? Education is another good example. Today’s cold skepticism would be more palatable had Ravenstahl been chairing meetings, holding press conferences in Harrisburg, crashing talk shows and darting in front of webcams lo these many, many months.
At this late date Rich Fitzgerald has earned the big swivel chair on the bridge of the Enterprise. If he says “Make it so,” the crew had probably better reply “Aye, Cap’n”.

The Action: Your 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates

The Music: Frank and Ray Folotico and Ernie Pontiere, circa 1990

Voter ID Game is Transparent, More Ingenious than you have Yet Absorbed


This deal looks more jive every time we see it

HARRISBURG – On the same day a judge cleared the way for the state’s new voter identification law to take effect, the Corbett administration abandoned plans to allow voters to apply online for absentee ballots for the November election and to register online to vote. (PhillyInq, Amy Worden)
There goes the chief utility of the iPad brigades. But not to worry — the Dept. of State’s happening Facebook and Twitter accounts could still spur somebody applicable on to a Drivers License Center for questioning.
The oncoming VoterID regime will potentially be worth about how much to the Romney/Ryan Express? Three points? We are going to say between three and four points on Election Day. Assuming no earthquakes erupt at the state Supreme Court out of which a remorseful Justice Melvin crawls to do penance.
Changes to Medicare and Medicaid will be perceived more alarmingly for the older, the more infirm, more isolated and/or the more poverty stricken. Nate Silver did not fully factor in these sorts of things, such as all the affected groups and Mitt Romney’s new operating system.
A real perfect storm of a sandwich that Corbett and Turzai have pulled the trigger on delivering.