Monthly Archives: April 2009

A TIME TO GLOAT: PA Supreme Court Confirms* Unconstitutionality of “Base Year” Property Taxes

On August 25th of last year, I wrote:

“Freezing” tax assessments at a given year in the past (instead of periodically going through the drag of reassessing property) has a beneficial effect for those who own land in booming communities, and for those who have improved or developed their land since the last assessment. Meanwhile, those living in depressed or stagnant communities, and/or those who have not added any garages or two-story water features lately, are disadvantaged under the current system. (Burgh Report, SUX2BU)

Today, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille writes:

“[T]he Allegheny County scheme, which permits a single base year assessment to be used indefinitely, has resulted in significant disparities in the ratio of assessed value to current actual value in Allegheny County. The disparity is most often to the disadvantage of owners of properties in lower-value neighborhoods where property values often appreciate at a lower rate than in higher-value neighborhoods, if they appreciate at all.” (P-G, Daniel Malloy)

If a schmoe with a blog called this a year ago, one should wonder why our political leaders and their cohorts of economists and lawyers did not see this coming — unless they are not particularly exercised by economic injustice and unconstitutionality.

I happened to learn of today’s news from Fred Honsberger, who was bemoaning the “recurring nightmare” of again having to suffer through periodic property reassessments. I trust that elsewhere on the dial and in the news there will be exultant celebration that our oppressive and inequitable taxation regime is falling in favor of one that is more fair and honest.

Oh, happy day! Kalu kalay!

In all seriousness: it has been seven years since our last reassessment, and will probably be at least one more by the time the next one is completed. People will be startled at just how much the landscape will be seen to have transformed by then — and when the millage is reduced to compensate for generalized appreciation, many City of Pittsburgh property owners will be very pleasantly surprised by the results.

As to what this means in terms of every other county in the Commonwealth — that’s not yet clear, but should be soon.

In the final analysis: despite the time, energy, expense and political capital poured into defending the “Base Year” system, it was indeed a valiant effort to keep a campaign promise and shield affluent voters from routine and necessary requirements of the social contract. Too bad reality had to intrude eventually.

*- UPDATE: Mr. Onorato said he was pleased the court upheld the constitutionality of a base-year system. But he conceded there is a problem… (ibid)

Right. What? No! Lol. Just because the court has not mandated that reassessments be conducted every year does not mean our county’s explicit policy of never doing them at all is somehow “constitutional, except with one tiny caveat“. Facts are stubborn things.

City Council Passes Campaign Finance Reform Again

“This working together of the administration and Mr. Peduto I think really gives us a guideline to how we can accomplish very significant things in this city,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Sure, if we could manage to hold an election every month, then we’d be set.

The Public Safety Debate: Words

Here is some text about last night’s forum. Video to go up tonight or tomorrow in some fashion.

“The question is, do our police officers understand the youth of this city?” [Ravenstahl] asked, [repeating the question]. “One way they’re going to understand the youth of this city is having the opportunity to enforce the curfew” which has been in abeyance for five years since the closure of a prior center. (P-G, Rich Lord)

This is pretty typical snapshot of the discussion. Mayor Ravenstahl either doesn’t buy into the touchy-feely, community-oriented, root-causes side of the public safety coin as much as the other candidates, or he just doesn’t speak of it nearly as convincingly. Ravenstahl wants more cops with more tools and newer technology including cameras and curfew centers, whereas the community “needs to understand” this and “needs to understand” that.

From an electoral aspect that may not hurt him at all, but from a public safety standpoint it’s a little chilling. I would prefer actions that work to those that look or sound tough.

I was surprised that yesterday’s announcement about high powered rifles getting loaded into police cars as a way to deter crime didn’t come in for discussion, for example.

Ms. Robinson criticized the lack of progress on the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, or PIRC, an effort modeled on Boston’s successful anti-gang push. (ibid)

She specifically pointed out that the Mayor had said it would start making a difference in March, though now obviously it’s the beginning of May. Ravenstahl responded by explaining that there are lots of people and pieces to talk to and organize.

The timeline may not be as important though, since Robinson also criticized the PIRC, or the “Botson Plan”, for being run by a Caucasian out-of-towner with less than stellar credentials. In my own interview with Robinson, she also pointed out that the Boston plan was designed for large organized gangs, whereas in Pittsburgh she alleged what we have is dozens upon dozens of of tiny, barely-organized-at-all gangs.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said that one of the proudest accomplishments was establishing more stringent policies for handling domestic abuse by city police officers. True enough. But as challenger Patrick Dowd pointed out shortly afterward, Ravenstahl only ushered in that policy after promoting three officers with domestic-abuse allegations in their past. (CP Slag Heap)

Dowd could have twisted the knife even further by recalling that the Mayor first promoted one of those officers — which itself blew up into a nice-sized domestic abuse scandal — and then a week later the Mayor promoted two more officers with past abuse allegations without apparently bothering to check into their histories. Then Dowd could have added that during the hearing to explore these contentious issues, the Mayor went golfing with celebrities .

But that probably would have been too much.

I like how Ravenstahl begins many of his answers with a 20 second warm-up about how he’d love to have even more time to talk about this, and then ends with another 20 second cool-down about how his time is running out and he wishes there was more time to list the many examples that are bursting out of his noggin. It’s kind of like a student using a 16-point font and triple-spacing to fill out a four-page term paper.

Oh, and Doc Harris was a part of things. He proved that he can hang in this atmosphere and with these folks in this type of discussion. It’ll be interesting to see how much more closely and frequently the local media covers politics once he enters the race formally.

I Am Voting For This Ticket

Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that be totally fabulous?

That’s a government I could seriously get into — compassionate and process-oriented, radical and professional, earnest and innovative. United behind a consensus (brought about by circumstance, perhaps) that it’s time to give politics a rest when it comes to operating the city.

It is remarkable how well Ms. Robinson and Mr. Dowd play into one another’s strengths and weaknesses. I’m not sure a Hollywood director or a political boss could have scripted a better twosome.

Dowd could still stand to reassure Pittsburghers of modest means, African-Americans, and voters who appreciate straight and clear talk that he’s intent on addressing their concerns and enacting profound reform. Robinson could still shore up perceptions that she is knowledgeable about all aspects of city government, and that she’s prepared to run a vast and complex administration through very uncertain times.

Having them both present fills me with hope for Pittsburgh’s future. If we can populate our government with folks like this, generally, we’d be okay — or we could at least move on to newer and more interesting challenges.

Of course there is the issue of practicality.

Looking at this as coldly and as analytically as possible, headed in to the Community Safety Forum this evening I am already having trouble thinking of excuses not to vote for the Sergent. I can think of many multiple reasons to vote for Patrick Dowd, but on the other hand I can think of maybe a couple reasons not to as well.

Chief among these is pure gamesmanship. The African-American vote is owned by Luke Ravenstahl and is least likely of all to go to Dowd. The only way that changes is if Carmen Robinson experiences a surge in popularity and support, brought about by an event or two, by which the Iowa / Obama “It can really happen!” factor might kick in. My sense is the white progressive vote is more likely to get on board with Robinson, with a little assistance, than the disenchanted black vote migrate to Dowd.

It is true that I have already endorsed Patrick Dowd on his campaign website — and I still do, I stand by every word. I think he’d make a thoroughly awesome mayor, despite what some stubbornly partisan, all-or-nothing progressives continue to murmur about him.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t also endorse Carmen Robinson as an excellent prospect for mayor — in some ways she aligns with my agenda even more closely. And most importantly, it doesn’t mean I’ve remotely made up my mind on who is the best bet. I expect that to be made at least a bit more clear in the near future.

I’m looking forward to it. Just thinking about Pittsburgh under the leadership of these folks is an enjoyable activity.

Tuesday, 4/28: Briefs

Tony Norman for Carmen Robinson: LINK

Brian O’Neill against leasing the Parking Authority garages: LINK

The URA says it wants public input: LINK

Mayor Ravenstahl for deterrence by way of high-powered rifles: LINK

After standing accused of a history of corrupt activity by both of his opponents, Mayor Ravenstahl spends three minutes not defending his record, suggesting it should not be a topic of discussion — and demanding that his opponents “talk about the issues!” (pay-to-play is an issue, jackass) while challenging them to “be specific!” about what they would do regarding City finances like he does in his 11-point plan: LINK

The Mayor’s 11-point plan leads off with, “Solve our Legacy Costs Crisis,” period, full-stop, end of discussion. Same story for “enhancing government services through efficiency”: LINK

Dan Onorato is in favor of 4201-08: LINK. And, he is intent on conducting a gender & race pay disparity study of the sort that our city’s administration has strenuously and creatively delayed for well over a year: LINK. And, has spent his appointment power giving the “other” (original) Hill District leadership group representation on the master plan steering committee: LINK. So, this week Dan Onorato put some numbers up on the Comet scoreboard in a big way.

Earth Day Part II: Earth Day’s Revenge

In light of County Council President Rich Fitzgerald’s recent introduction of a plan to allow for drilling of natural gas in Allegheny County, the by-now composting City Paper cover story There Will Be Crud is now must-read material:

In fact, on April 1, the state made it much easier to drill for natural gas.

Prior to that date, some authority over gas wells belonged to the state’s 67 county-based “conservation districts.” Staff in each district handle everything from maintaining nature trails to permitting construction projects. The latter function includes overseeing how construction firms control erosion and stormwater runoff, a major water pollutant.

But this month, state environmental officials stripped the districts of their role in permitting or prohibiting new wells. Industry officials expressed approval. Hanger, says Pitzarella, “has done an incredible job of getting that agency moving very quickly to match the needs of the industry.”

The DEP called the policy changes “streamlining”… (City Paper, Bill O’Driscoll)

DANGER!! WARNING!! STREAMLINING!! BATTLE STATIONS!! This should be intimately familiar authoritarian poppycock!

What’s more, DEP did not publicize these policy changes: Had conservation districts and environmental groups not objected, the public might not have heard about them at all. Even the conservation districts didn’t hear they were being cut out of the process until March 18 — two weeks before the changes took effect.

Another permitting change, one that provides for fast-tracking of stormwater-discharge permitting, was also implemented without public notice. Tracy Carluccio, of Philadelphia-based Delaware Riverkeepers, sounded the alarm after she learned of the change during a talk by a DEP official … at a gas-industry conference in March.

Some activists contend the latter change violates state law, because it did not undergo a process of public notice and comment. (ibid)

And I think to myself… what a wonderful world…

There is one more piece to the story I’m curious about. I wonder who in these parts would be interested in attaining permits for something like drilling for natural gas. And who lobbied Mr. President Fitzgerald into the idea.

I’m in favor of regional and even local energy production, but it seems an awful lot like we’d be regressing by cashing in on fossil fuels now rather than investing in biofuels, wind, solar (yes, solar) and at least nuclear power. The jobs would be better, they’d be around much longer, and oh yeah — we wouldn’t be ruining the County.

Richly Deserved Accolades

It’s amazing what is possible when a hugely significant proportion of local government resources are turned over to the direction of actual grassroots organizations within the community — and poured into cityscape beautification, restoration of its built environment, intensive public safety efforts and small-scale business district improvements. (Financial Times)

Wouldn’t it be great if Pittsburgh’s other 87 neighborhoods were accorded a fraction of that kind of attention and respect? What is it about Lawrenceville that has earned it this uncommon degree of tender loving care?

North Shore Amphitheater Hits Planning Commission on Tuesday

The long-dormant City Watcher has an opinion:

The deal for the land on the North Side has another dimension that no one has noticed. The company that builds this taxpayer-subsidized performance venue has a facility in Columbus near the Nationwide Arena. Called the “Lifestyle Communities Pavilion” or “LC” [shown right] it is a truly ugly facility that has no place on the Northside. We can do better. (LINK)

A recent P-G puff piece about our own proposed amphitheater which focuses on the acoustics, the “destination” factor, and the inarguable titanic greatness of Dan Rooney confirms that it is modeled after the Columbus venue. (LINK)

Opposition to the project until now has focused on the public subsidies, the low price for which the Stadium Authority sold the land, the multiple extensions of the original development contract and the fact that many residents in the surrounding community (“we must recognize that Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods”) do not seem to feel that the development will service their needs in any way.

The Planning Commission may not be able to address those grievances, but it is charged with addressing design and its related civic impacts.

Considering the developers’ religious non-engagement as to resolving any of the other concerns, I hope the Planning Commission addresses the stuffing out of the design problems. Yes the structure looks passable from up above — perhaps in a helicopter — and it probably will light up real pretty at night. Yet from a ground-level perspective there looks to be room for drastic improvement.

On The Lighter Side: The Pittsburgh Comet has obtained exclusive video from tomorrow of the developers making their pitch to Commission members:

The Song: Hallelujah

The video: Cairo

Thursday’s Mayoral Debate Online!

Uploaded without comment or analysis.

Unfortunately I don’t have the Life Skills to provide notes at this point.

I don’t mean to Hide the Ball.

YouTube Part 1YouTube Part 2
YouTube Part 3YouTube Part 4
YouTube Part 5YouTube Part 6

Apologies to Carmen Robinson for poor camera work during her opening statement. I accidentally kicked my Jagerbomb over onto the carpet and was tending to the spill — score one point for the Pittsburgh City Paper and its tripod technology (which also edited together a great short exchange). Thanks to the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western PA for organizing the program.