Tuesday: Courageous, Public-Spirited Blogging

City Hall continues to rummage through couch cushions, hoping to find a $60 million bill buried somewhere.

And unless Doug Shields figures out a way to move dead peasant insurance, they’re probably not going to find it.

Councilman Dan Gilman described the Act 47 team’s recommendations as a “menu of options” rather than imperatives.

“They are far from certainties,” he said. “The last place I would ever look for revenue is from the hardworking taxpayers of Pittsburgh.” (P-G, Robert Zullo, 6/03)

A stately appropriate sentiment, from the Councilor representing the district with the highest property values. But it overlooks that we’re not talking about a tax hike, we’re talking about fixing an erroneously gigantic tax cut delivered in the midst of a budget crisis.

[Act 47 Coordinators] said [Ravenstahl] officials lowered [taxes] too much [in  Jan. 2013].

“They cut taxes by 30 percent,” said Roberts, an attorney in the Downtown firm of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott. “What we’re suggesting is getting back 5 percent or 6 percent.”

Kaplan, a managing director of Philadelphia-based financial advisers PFM Group, estimated the increase, if approved, would cost owners $40 more for every $100,000 of property value. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

The Comet think tank batted this around for a while, and the path forward seems obvious. All nine members of Council as well as Mayor Peduto, Controller Lamb and Bishop Zubik should just meet under the portico to announce how courageous they are for correcting a simple paper mistake, and once again celebrate last year’s 24% tax cut.

Now, as to more recent noise:

Before tax increases or attempts to institute some form of a payment in lieu of taxes from the city’s nonprofits, Mr. Varischetti [of the ICA] also called on the mayor and city council to honor commitments in the 2009 plan to reducing the city’s operating expenses, which he claims could cut costs by up to 20 percent. (P-G, Zullo, 6/08)

Let’s define our terms. The Act 47 Coordinators approve the City’s comprehensive and glorious 5-year plans, every fifth summer plus as events warrant. The ICA approves the City’s annual operating budget in adherence with the 5-year plan, every autumn.

The 5-member ICA board is appointed by the leaders of the four State legislative caucuses (making for 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans) plus the Governor (presently a Republican). ICA Board Chair Nicholas Varischetti has arrived to us care of State Senate President Joe Scarnati.

The fact that the ICA is keeping pressure on Pittsburgh to implement transparent and regionally compatible financial software is a great thing — although County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has blamed recent snafus on County Controller Chelsa Wagner (who is worried about another pension problem). Likewise, the fact that the ICA is nudging governmental efficiency nearer to the forefront, is also a fine thing.

But the suggestion that we cut 20% from the budget… or about $90 million… I’m not sure how to explain that. The chair cites “nationally recognized experts” providing a “roadmap,” but I haven’t found said map in the ICA’s document library. We shall request it. At any rate that number is just so massive and seemingly so arbitrary, there grows a sense we may look back on this as the day the ICA jumped the shark.

In other news, the Judge in the August Wilson Center imbroglio (upgraded from predicament!) is getting irritated and impatient for the warring parties to come together. On Nighttalk, Mayor Peduto calmly explained that “everyone understands there are covenants on the property” that cannot be set aside without “throwing out 90 years of redevelopment law.” Many parties had attempted some political pressure on the administration to set aside those covenants with executive privilege, and move forward expediently with Downtown growth.

But it turns out Pittsburgh has a URA director who once promised to liquidate half of the URA and identifies proudly as a bit of an anarchist, so pressure is recoiling on the developer to make meaningful and specific accommodations to the taxpayer interest in, and the cultural mission of, that building.

Finally today we were introduced to our terrifying new Director of Public Safety. If I’m ever in the same room with that man I feel like I’m instinctively going to comb my hair, check my fly and shoelaces, pop a breath mint, pay my library fines, furnish a list of my former Occupy buddies’ whereabouts, activities and aliases, and stroke a bald eagle to completion.

28 thoughts on “Tuesday: Courageous, Public-Spirited Blogging

  1. rain man

    “The last place I would ever look for revenue is from the hardworking taxpayers of Pittsburgh.”

    I wonder if Dan will support Bill’s stormwater authority and its usage fees on hardworking taxpayers.

  2. Brian Tucker-Hill

    Much better just to look for revenue just growing on the Revenue Tree, right? (In other words–all revenue comes from someone)

    Anyway, I was also unable to figure out what that 20% assertion was in reference to. It is probably also worth pointing out that 2009 is a long time ago now. In addition to any analysis from that time necessarily being a little stale by now, it also raises questions like–20% cut over what period? From what baseline? Is it possible at least some of those cuts have already been made? And so on.

    In fact, it seems possible to me that with certain answers to those questions, a 20% cut of SOME sort would not actually be so outlandish. However, I agree the notion the City can find 20% between, say, the 2014 and 2015 budgets seems rather far-fetched.

    Sounds to me like the judge is indeed pushing the parties to wrap up a global agreement. It can be quite helpful when a judge does that (it certainly can help the lawyers/negotiators sell a compromise to their clients), and it would be nice if it was done by the end of this month.

  3. Anonymous

    At least Gilman has weighed in to the discussion. Where is everyone else on the fifth floor? Gilman is my district councilor and I at least am glad to know that he is willing to be on record at this early stage to say let’s consider everything. Bram targets anyone who doesn’t want to meet under the portico.
    How dare anyone not want to pay more taxes! Especially from district 8. We have a broad mix of housing and people and I’m fed up with the drum beat of taxing everything because I’m not paying my fair share.
    Pass the hat under the portico and get the money from everyone who is so keen to keep taxing.
    What a clever way to frame this, by saying we are really playing less taxes. I felt the increases
    with the school hike 2 years in a row, assessment, library…Who are you to keep telling me to pay more?
    Damn Bram, I’m going broke. Not as dead broke as Hillary but where’s my book deal?

  4. Morgan

    Maybe C.O.S. Acklin could convince the mayor to follow through with that plan, fund the pension even further, and still focus on neighborhoods instead of business. That would be an easier pill to swallow than spending 60k to fight the sale of an asset of a bankrupt non profit.

    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      In accordance with longstanding policy, we’re not going to host malicious personal attacks of a personal nature. At least not unless Federal prosecutors get in on the action.

  5. Anonymous

    It’s a shame that prior to any substantive department operational analysis, Peduto brought in a brand new layer of 6 figure leadership to sit atop the director layer. That has to sting in the budget, especially when the tactile contributions of the new layer really are unclear – or totally absent in a few cases, it seems. That’s a lot of money to spend for that “diverse cabinet” photo op. Don’t get me wrong, diversity in leadership is essential and very welcome…but that leadership better quickly deliver genuine value in this budget climate, because savings in staffing and overall service capability have and will continue to take place. In a very real sense, city departments will be providing less service as a result of the new cabinet payroll hit. The chiefs better prove to be super rockstars and do so quickly…but unfortunately the landscape isn’t really built to support that sort of rapid change, even in the best of circumstances. The C.O.S. Acklin deserves our sympathy and support, not invective of the sort seen above…because he’s going to have to do some real clever sausagemaking now and in the future. Meanwhile, Bill’s still hiring his campaign friends into city positions (see Danko-Day) – something that is seemingly inevitable for any new administration, regardless of any promises made to the contrary.

    1. Anonymous

      Hiring friends and rewarding them too. Who is getting the $60k legal fees the URA authorized today? Just happens to be the solicitor’s old law firm and the one her husband still works at. Again, if this was Ravenstahl, the PG and Bram would be going insane about it.

      1. Helen Gerhardt

        Anon’s accusation highlights why an independent and effectively functional Ethics Board is so crucial, both to consider solid evidence that often clears the air of whisper-campaign accusations and unfounded charges against elected officials – and to hold them accountable when warranted. After years of pay-to-play and very-warranted fear of Network retribution, I think it’s important for Pittsburghers of whatever political affiliation to ask when the City Solicitor, Mayor and City Council will address this Transition Team recommendation.

      2. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        Anon 8:24 if this was Ravenstahl, the PG and I would have a seven years pattern of brazen ethical ineptitude feeding our suspicions, once we recovered from the shock of his URA supporting a community interest against that of new construction and growth. You have a five-figure professional services contract of the type that is never bid.

      3. Anonymous

        Bram, your snide remarks cause you to lose credibility, at least among those that have it. Clark Hill, Buchanan and Reed Smith are all fine law firms. There is no knocking them. But, when the very first big ticket case goes to the solicitor’s former firm where her husband still works, shouldn’t we at least raise an eyebrow? What is most important in good government is not that people are rearranged on the deck chairs, but that we rearrange how the ship operates in the first place. Helen makes a great point. Where are we with the new and improved ethics board? Where are we with all the other great ideas that got so much press? Are we just back in the same cycle where those on the outside call into question that decisions of those in power and the allies and apologists of those in power defend them at all costs? Seriously, i am not saying that this firm or that firm should get a particular job, I am just saying that all contracts should be scrutinized. If it can’t withstand scrutiny, is there something to hide?

      4. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        Anon 9:09 – I should make clear, Peduto really needs to have that Ethics Board up and running before his first ethics scandal. Because inevitably he’ll confront one, and with every passing day it gets closer. But this ain’t it.

        And the people themselves need to scrutinize things like contracts. We are scrutinizing them here. After scrutiny and research, I’m voicing the proposition that there’s nothing wrong with this one. How about all the legal services contracts, many of which must be worth far more, that haven’t gone to that law firm? Despite their one attorney’s marriage connection to the City Solicitor, they’re allowed to get ONE contract. If a pattern develops, well, then we’ll have a pattern to criticize.

  6. Morgan

    I only saw language below 30k. I couldn’t locate anywhere that said below 100k was o.k. If I’m wrong shame on me. But the city’s website seemed to indicate that anything over 30k needed a bid. If that info is accurate, where is the bid? If it exists, why is the media so reluctant to report the bidding process? Does the U.R.A have different levels? If so why?

    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      Morgan: Does that include professional services? I know there’s a dollar threshold for contracting (and can’t remember what that is) but it’s been my impression that attorneys and financial advisors were exempt. Something to do with being leery of being represented by the lowest bidding attorney, I take it.

      1. Morgan

        Literally wasn’t pointing fingers, just curious. The number seemed high. Was going off your five figure statement( 99,999= ok, 100,000= no bueno). A lot of the website is under construction. Anon 8:24 just raised a valid, if accurate, point. I read a lot of “news” articles and was just putting some unanswered questions out there.

      2. Helen Gerhardt

        Generally, the dollar threshold for contracting is $10,000:
        § 514. Small procurements.


        “Services of accountants, clergy, physicians, lawyers, dentists and other professional services which are not performed by other Commonwealth employees shall be procured in accordance with this section
        § 518

      3. Anonymous

        This has nothing to do with whether it MUST be bid. Funny how quickly you retreat into a position of defending actions based merely on technical rules. Unless I’m wrong, despite Rich Lord’s best, no one in the network ever got charged with violating bidding rules. I know you would like that to have happened, but it didn’t.

        Again, isn’t it interesting that right out of the gate the solicitor’s old law firm and firm where her husband works is getting these contracts? All I am asking is for fair treatment. Just watch the legal services like any other contract and watch how the money flows. The network is still very much alive and well. That is the point of the network. It is just that only certain members of the network are called out in the press. If that wasn’t true, don’t you think the URA would have at least asked for proposals to do this work? Where was the transparency we were all promised? Where is the bottom up decision making? Maybe the people don’t even want to fight and use taxpayer money for the AWC? Has anyone taken a pool of City residents? If not, isn’t this just more top down decision making?

      4. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

        Anon 8:34 – I’m actually not certain if any legal services contract has ever been bid, but I’ll let the rest of your comment pass without complaint. I guess from my perspective, it just looks like Reed Smith & Buchanan Ingersoll finally failed to score one.

  7. Morgan

    I was completely wrong with my numbers. The home rule charter specifically excludes professional services from bid.@ Helen, I only half read something on the city’s website.

      1. MH

        It gets really boring in the middle when they spend months camping in the woods and hiding.

  8. Anonymous

    From the “Dead Peasant” article, this really sticks out:

    “Mr. Ravenstahl has said a (state) takeover (of the city pension fund) would lead to skyrocketing pension payments requiring draconian tax hikes and service cuts. Some council members say there’s no reason to panic because the higher payments wouldn’t begin until about 2015, leaving plenty of time to come up with an infusion of cash that would moderate future obligations.”

    Plenty of time? “Come up with” an infusion of cash? Yeah, wow.

  9. Anonymous

    What do think about yesterdays meeting when Michael Lamb denied that the millage adjustment was a miscalculation? He said that this is a false premise and that the taxpayers are burdened by the amount of taxes we pay already. He seemed to be directly speaking to you.
    I find it refreshing to hear a democrat cautious about tax hikes.

    1. Bram Reichbaumbramr101 Post author

      Thanks for the heads up, Anon 9:42, I’ll have to catch it on replay this weekend. The only bit which got reported involved the financial software.

      UPDATE: The Controller is indulging us in a little give-and-take on your issue.

      It was reported as an error in Nov. ’13 when revenues for the year came in low. Last month the Act 47 Coordinators insisted it was an error. Our Then-Deputy Finance Director suggested on both occasions she was directed to “err on the side of taxpayers,” and confirmed that looks to be what happened, to the tune of $7 million.

      I am just a blogger, who knows little and less about the ways of municipal finance. What was the Controller’s alternative explanation for why revenue came up $7 million short in the same year we adjusted the millage downward by 30% in response to County reassessments? [UPDATE: again, this.]


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