Monthly Archives: May 2009

McNickle: “Come Clean for G-20”

Tribune Review editorial page editor Colin McNickle (right, off-camera left) thinks Pittsburgh is riding dirty.

Pittsburgh has been in state receivership since 2003. That’s much like a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. (Trib, Colin McNickle)

Hmm. Really? That is certainly repeated often enough.

And then there’s this myth of “green” technology as an engine of economic recovery. A Spanish study that liberal apologians for the faux stasis of statism just love to hate suggests just the opposite and quite dramatically. More jobs are lost than created. So compelling is the empirical evidence that even former President Bill Clinton has acknowledged green technology’s dirty little secret. (ibid)

Whoa! Them is fighin’ words!

How about using the G-20 gathering not so much as a public relations tool to sell Pittsburgh for what it is not but as a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expose our post-steel warts and open a dialogue to seek real solutions from some of the top financial brains the globe has to offer? (ibid)

And what do we all think about that?

The Band: Boyz II Men

Ruined All Proms in the Year: 1993

Friday Night: Another Week Bites the Dust

Everything that hadn’t been said about the election already but should have been said long ago is at Pittsblog 2.0.

Diana Nelson Jones’ City Walkabout is getting interesting. For one thing she is getting up on her soapbox — for another, she has leapt ahead of the curve on issues related to the Mayor’s aggressive demolitions policy.

Happy urban-dwelling Democrats: are we going to make a big deal about the Marriage Equality Bill? I say, we might as well! Who’s first? Pgh Lesbian Correspondents; OneFiveTwoOneOne; Peaks and Gutters.

Political campaign operative -slash- Democratic committeeman -slash- government whistle blower -slash- community organizer -slash- investigative blogger Matt Hogue writes:

Here is what I have to say about Wagner. What exactly has he done for his neighborhood of Beechview? NOTHING. Why does this man seem to exert so much power and influence? It’s all about that Ward Chairmanship that he is barely hanging onto. Why is this guy still in power? Intimidation? Luck? I think it’s a little bit of both. All throughout the campaign I met numerous Democratic Committee members who were deathly afraid of not putting a Patrick Reilly sign up in their yard for fear of Wagner coming knocking at their doors. What a disgraceful way to rule your Committee. (Pgh Hoagie)

Here’s what I have to say about that.

1) It pleases me that chaos and ill-will are still festering in the Committee.

2) It’s distinctly possible that I have no idea what I’m talking about, but … nothing Matt H writes here seems particularly troubling. Unless he would like to define “shenanigans,” which is a word I once tried to get Rich Lord to print to no avail seeing as how it is vague and subtly evasive. Everything I know about the Wagner operation stems from reading the HUDDLER, which I think we have established already is some form of surreal glimpse into the Wagnerian mind. And those people seem just fine.

3) However, Hogue does go on to call for Pete Wagner’s resignation from the Committee for “strong-arming”, “threats”, and “goon”-ish behavior, so for some in our audience that might be newsworthy and important.

We close with Hall & Oates. Have a nice weekend.

Friday: Careful What You Wish For…

You know how Mayor Ravenstahl and others have been lobbying Harrisburg for a statewide pensions fix? As they say, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”.

Under the state’s new proposal, all municipal pension funds with less than 50% funding (that’s totally us) would be taken over by the state. The state would determine how and when we pay into it, how and when it pays out, and who gets to handle the investing.

Scott Abel, an Atlanta-based analyst with Mercer Investment Consulting, which handles the city’s pension fund portfolio, called the emerging legislation “the most ridiculous chicanery that I’ve ever heard.” (P-G, Rich Lord)

Yes the fireworks between Council President Doug Shields and Chuck Half of PittMAPS were eyebrow-raising, see the P-G’s Dennis Roddey.

The real news I saw was that Councilwoman Harris and Councilwoman Smith were asking all sorts of tough questions, sounding extremely interested in ensuring that they would be briefed in advance on anything they might be asked to sign off on. They also wanted to see their own projects get a real nice transparent fair hearing.

If this is an issue about — well, about the Council’s fundamental control over public spending — you will probably be able to add Councilwoman Payne to this column, who does have a record of being a watchdog for the Council’s powers. So there’s your math and then some. Of course, Payne was absent from the special meeting, as was Burgess and Motznik, so there may still emerge a novel counterargument to the legislation, possibly legal in nature.

The other news is that Councilman Peduto was again all composed and effective, which is weird getting used to.


Tying up loose ends: the Hill District community benefits agreement appears to be making itself useful.

The Hill House Association yesterday announced that nine community organizations will receive funding this year. The funding will come from the $3 million Bank of New York Mellon agreed to contribute to the Hill District Neighborhood Partnership Program over a six-year period. (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba)

Pittsburgh to Host Next G-20 Summit!!!!

See Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review; also G20’s homepage. Also, BBC News who calls us a “shining example”.

(It’s happening. It’s really happening.)

Pretty flipping awesome. Remember, not only will Pittsburgh be playing host to the world’s most powerful leaders, but presumably also the world’s finest and looniest protesters. Something for everyone!

Thursday: Let the Eagle Soar. It Looks Complicated. *

The question of the moment: did Bill Peduto go SOARING over his short-lived shark with this one?

Money from the $787 billion federal stimulus package should be used to fix Pittsburgh’s crumbling infrastructure before it pays for new construction projects, city Councilman Bill Peduto said Wednesday.

Peduto said he would introduce legislation next week to create a nine-member citizen-led panel to monitor how the city spends its anticipated $80 million in stimulus money. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

The esteemed Angry Drunk Bureaucrat thinks, yes probably.

You have a new, complicated Federal program, already loaded with oversight, that a City Councilperson wants to laden with more bureaucracy and oversight.

That sounds like a good use of time. (ADB)

Then again…

The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority requested $2 million to help the private developer of a Larimer retail, residential and hotel complex known as Bakery Square build a parking garage.

In another project, the URA is requesting $4.2 to build an amphitheater and other amenities in South Side Riverfront Park near South Side Works, Peduto said. (Tribid)

Okay I’m convinced. That’s not public infrastructure — that’s stimulating private development of exactly the type that we are are already conspicuously overstimulating.

I put the oversight panel into the category of a genuinely useful idea, but will it make it through the present Council?

My magic 8-Ball says, “The math isn’t there — at least not to sustain a veto.” And there would be a veto. 2009 is not to be the Age of the Overrides and Oversight.

*-UPDATE: Eh, maybe I spoke to soon. Theresa Smith and Darlene Harris both are making oversightie noises during this rebroadcast of today’s post-agenda. 8-Ball now reads, “Looking somewhat likely.”


Act 47 coordinator Dean Kaplan himself threw some cold water on the necessity of the city’s Tax Crusade.

That lends a little credence to my own interpretation of the smoke signals that the Busman has been sending: that the nominal support appearing for these new taxes in the new Act 47 Recovery Plan may amount only to political cover enabling our own City’s leaders to say, “We tried everything we could” to prevent raising our own more conventional taxes.

That’s fortunate, because the city hasn’t done budget cutting to deserve tax increases, said Sen. Jane Orie, R-Bradford Woods, who objects to Ravenstahl’s plans to lobby for tax increases in June. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Also chiming in…

[Sen. Sean] Logan [D-Plum] said the city must demonstrate it has shed as much fat from its budget as possible before it can make a compelling case for additional tax money. (ibid)

Surely, the City can throw together some showy semblance of a Responsibility Crusade to pair with our Tax Crusade and help the medicine go down, right? We eagerly await for that other shoe to drop.


Meanwhile, the Water Authority sticks its finger in the dike.

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority officials inked deals yesterday that their financial adviser said amount to “buying time” while they repair a $414 million boatload of debt that was swamped by the global credit crisis.

Following a meeting of the authority board, Chairman Don Walko and Executive Director Michael Kenney signed papers that will extend guarantees on different parts of the debt package for 30 days, 120 days or one year, upping costs by around $1 million to $2 million over a year. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Some questions left unaddressed are: even if the global economy permanently improves and we can thereby technically afford to remain in the bond deal, does that make it an “okay” deal, is it in fact the same deal that was originally represented to us, and would we be significantly better off if we extricated ourselves from the complex deal and into a simpler, more conventional one?

Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd, a board member who has been a critic of the debt deal, said yesterday that the authority is “seeing today the manifestation of some of those risks” it incurred when it entered into the package a year ago. (ibid)

Although Dowd sent some advance tweets snarking over his imminent attendance at the surprise PWSA meeting, he did not call a press conference or release a formal statement afterword. Whether that signals his approval of yesterday’s specific maneuvers, a political calculation or combat fatigue is not known.


Pittsburgh’s water taxi is finally open for business!

“We’ve got the bar on board,” Capt. Schiller said yesterday as we rode the three rivers. “Most people should be just fine. I don’t know. We’ll find out.” (P-G, Brian O’Neill)

Clarification on what you mean by “bar on board”, please. Because $8 for an all-night pass would be an acceptable cover charge to get hammered and pretend I’m on Jabba’s Sail Barge all night long.

The Planning Commission: Still Problematic

Quite the show yesterday!

Dozens of people packed a city planning commission meeting… (P-G, Mark Belko)

Um, maybe it would be best to rely on the Tribune-Review today.

More than 150 people crammed into the hearing in the John P. Robin Civic Building on Ross Street, Downtown, many carrying signs and wearing Northside United shirts. Others stood outside and chanted, demanding that North Shore developers agree to a Community Benefits Agreement that would ensure jobs and other benefits for residents. (Trib, Chris Togneri)

That’s far more accurate in terms of scope — and I’m not sure why the other paper found the noisy protest march around the building to be uninteresting.

“They’re upset with the fact that we will not participate in a CBA,” said Continental’s vice president of development, Michael Hudec. (ibid)

It is true that many of the assembled knocked the developers for refusing even to meet with the community — let alone make concessions on things like green design, labor relations and sociable city planning. Many spoke of a distinct “wall” being erected between the community and the development zone.

It must be noted that several of the assembled, though hardly a majority, seemed to oppose any corporate development whatsoever, having been discouraged by past experience.

Watson said the planning commission does not have the authority to reject the plans based on matters like Community Benefits Agreements, even if board members agree with the protesters. She said the commission can only rule on whether Continental has adhered to zoning regulations and other laws. (ibid)

Watson is flat-out wrong about this
, has been for some time, and it’s pretty important already.

Under 922.10.D.2:

The Planning Commission shall approve a Master Development Plan application only if it finds that the proposal meets all of the following criteria:

(a) That the proposed development shall create an efficient, functional and attractive urban area which incorporates a high level of amenities;

(b) That the proposed development shall create a favorable environmental, social and economic impact on the City;

(c) That the proposed development shall not be injurious to other property in the immediate vicinity, nor substantially diminish or impair property values within adjacent zoning districts;

(d) That adequate utilities, road, drainage and other necessary facilities have been or shall be provided;

(e) That adequate measures have been or shall be taken to provide ingress and egress designated so as to minimize traffic congestion in the public streets; and

(f) That the proposed development complies with plans and policy documents adopted from time to time by the City.

Those are all judgment calls. Those are all the very sorts of issues a large and diverse panel would need to be convened around a table to jointly discuss and vote upon — not an individual judge or a much smaller panel like our quasi-judicial Zoning Board of Adjustment.

If the Planning Commission declines to make the ratification of any Community Benefits Agreement a condition for Master Plan approval, that is a matter of policy and of preference, not a matter of law.

Even if we set aside the issue of formal CBAs as perhaps we should, the Commission bears the responsibility of rationally weighing the very same impacts — environmental, social, and collateral — that the many constituencies clamoring for CBAs have been trying to address through them.

The height of a casino garage, and the materials and shrubbery used to adorn a riverside path, were never part of the law or code — yet they factored in mightily upon the same Commission’s deliberations regarding a storied past application. Even yesterday, immediately prior to Continental’s business during a hearing on a Garfield project, Commission members leisurely mulled over such minutia as the likely eventual lean of tree branches and tree roots. We know for certain they can empower themselves when so disposed.

When the Commission’s chair purports to side privately with the community as she has done in the past, yet shrugs her shoulders and claims to be shackled to narrowly tailored laws, she is either being insincere or mistaken. I do not rule out mistaken, as her view is redolent of the methods by which the overseers of City Planning have sought to circumvent its processes since prior to her arrival in that chaotic dimension.

The Planning Commission can approve this thing if it likes, but it needs to man up and admit that it is electing freely to do so. This business of blaming it on laws that do not exist is nothing more than improvising political cover for unpopular decisions. It is another way, as Carmen Robinson once put it, of “hiding the ball”. It is cowardly and anti-transparent.

Cyril Wecht: “Taking Nothing for Granted”

WPXI has some engaging 1-on-1 footage online with Dr. Cyril Wecht.

Wecht sounds to be in a coyly celebratory mood now that evidence against him involving charges of fraud and theft have been suppressed by a judge due to problems with FBI warrants.

Let’s do a little live blogging…

1. The prospects of any future legal challenges are framed as explainable only by an “attitude of a personal nature” operating under a “cloak of a legal analysis”.

2. Minions? Am — am I a minion? Mmokay. ZOMG, IS MS. BUCHANAN = PITTGIRL??? It’s all coming together! Worlds are colliding! George is getting upset! Seriously, though, for a guy who chooses his words with great care, “minions” seems a bit harsh.

3. “It’s such a well-written, strongly and intellectually worded opinion” — well that sounds like a humdinger of a good time! I’m going to have to read it, one of these days, when Ravenstahl and Peduto and Dowd and Onorato and Roddey are all sitting around singing Cumbaya. (PDF)

4. The idiosyncrasies of our own 3rd Circuit seem to factor in heavily, perhaps determinately. Almost tempts one to want to see this ushered up to the Roberts Court. What, NO! That’d probably turn out awful for civil liberties and constitutional rights all across America. But it’s academically interesting.

5. Plug for UPMC!

6. Plug for K & L Gates!

7. Plug for Bucco de Beppo!

8. Plug for Carlow College and Duquesne University!

9. Tasteful plug for his recent book: A Question of Murder: five recent high-profle cases from the world of forensic pathology.

But fascinating as the cases are, and though Wecht’s breadth of forensic knowledge and experience is undeniable, these stories lack cohesion and too often veer into unnecessary minutiae. (Publisher’s Weekly)

At least we know it wasn’t ghost-written! Seriously, though, he seems like an undiminished ball of energy.

Tuesday’s Hot Information Injection

1. The Steelers and Continental Real Estate will take plans for a North Side Amphitheater before the City Planning Commission at 2:00 PM.

This was originally scheduled to take place a month ago — the Comet’s analysis at the time can be found HERE. As it happened, a day later the developers withdrew their application and requested an extension.

How have they spent the extra time? These are all likely:

A) Drawing the amphitheater at night — with lights!

B) Adding “decorative screening” — whatever that is.

C) Adding artwork depicting the history of the Hill District.

D) Watching election results get certified.

2. I’m having a really hard time envisioning this Crosstown Cap. What the deuce? Which two sidewalks will it connect? How wide will it be? Isn’t there an artist’s rendering somewhere? (P-G, Jon Schmitz)

3. I like this style of leadership. Not so much legislative, but saying what needs to be said and piling on the pressure for stricter enforcement. If one is fed by the masses, one should sweep up after the masses — routinely and promptly. (WPXI, Gordon Loesch)

4. The P-G editorial board is resolved to cover Dan Onorato’s back on this whole statewide reassessments posture/stall. (P-G, Edit Board)

5A. Let the record forever show that Frisbee players are encouraged to tear up the lawn. You all see it in print. (Trib, Mike Cronin)

5B. And this is the first time I’ve noticed they are erecting a War on Terror Statue. An ambitious undertaking, seeing as how by any metric we are still in that war. I can has looksee? (WPXI, Serious Anchorman)

6. Oh, Garden Theater. When will you be redeveloped?

“There’s no way of using that space now. When they shut it down almost 2 1/2 years ago, it was in bad shape, and now it’s worse,” said Aaron Stubna, owner of Lincoln Barber Shop in Bellevue, who has floated one idea for redeveloping the building. “When you don’t use a building like that for a long time, it deteriorates.”

Holes in the roof allowed rain water to soak into the theater’s ceilings and walls, until the URA agreed to pay up to $60,000 to install a temporary roof this month. An architect familiar with the building said it’s likely no longer safe to use for performances. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Oh, URA.

Fatla said rushing to reopen the Garden as a theater pub, cinema, restaurant, brew house or some combination of all four would be a mistake, particularly given the difficult economy. He said there’s consensus the Garden and neighboring buildings must become businesses that draw customers from the region, not just the North Side.

“You can’t just operate on wishes. You have to put it in the context of what the market will support,” he said. (ibid)

Hmmmmmm. If there is a “rush” to open a theater pub, restaurant or brew house, that probably indicates there is a “market”. I realize there has been some political skin laid out to guarantee “not another bar” and I know there is a dictate that the premises be made “cultural”, but we’ve got to be approaching compromise time.

And why once again the prejudice against building something new on the North Side that caters to actual North Side of Pittsburgh residents?

7. In regards to the Act 47 recommendations, the Busman appears to be hung up on some political issues but also to be worrying that we are all missing the actual story. Could be. Could very well be.

Tuesday: King of the Who?

Pittsburgh’s tax crusade is being met with predictable resistance from one of our daily papers.

Those living outside Pittsburgh’s borders but working within them now pay $52 annually. If Democrats who drove the city into state receivership — the government equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization — can’t get their act together, the Act 47 “recovery” team reportedly would consider raising the annual tax to $145.

If that molestation isn’t bad enough… (Trib, Edit Board)

A tax increase of roughly $7.75 a month — levied on neighbors who choose to work in the City and no doubt spend a good deal of their leisure time consuming its services — is enough to prompt our friends at the Trib to reach for their rape whistles.

This is to say nothing of their sudden rancor against delicately tapping our burgeoning non-profit sector for the first time — an option for which I could have sworn they had sounded moderate approval in the past.

More troubling, however, is that even talking about such nonsense once again exposes the fundamental lack of economics smarts by Pittsburgh’s financial overseers. Raising taxes in recessionary times is like whooping it up over that light at the end of the tunnel but fully knowing it is an oncoming train. (ibid)

Ah, that old chestnut — I always tire of it. One day somebody must show me, in a textbook or a history book, on a chalkboard or in a laboratory, how it came to be maintained by such a motley handful that raising any form of tax under any conceivable set of circumstances during a recession — even one that is nicely receding — always leads to misery and woe. Because I do not believe such evidence exists anywhere.

Sometimes a city needs liquidity in order to ward off an existential threat. Sometimes constituencies are identified which are not contributing a genuinely equitable or sustainable share compared to what they reap in return. Sometimes a region has to pull together.

The mayor’s plan to keep the parking tax at 37.5 percent instead of making a state-mandated cut to 35 percent would keep some $3 million a year in the city’s hands. A hike in the $52 tax on those who work in the city, to $145, could bring in $23 million — two-thirds from suburbanites, the rest from city residents. And extending the 0.55 percent tax on business payrolls to tax-exempts like hospitals and universities could net $16.5 million.

Even if new revenue ends up being $30 million, that “allows us to obviously be sustainable on the operating side of things for years to come, but also allows us to begin to deal with pension [shortfalls] and debt, something that we’ve talked about for a long time but don’t have the resources locally to make any significant impact,” Mr. Ravenstahl said. (P-G, Rich Lord)


A) Good plan, or should I say good opening volley.

B) I feel like a bit of this was a temporary relapse into electoral-season braggadocio. A month ago there was every practical reason for the Mayor to speak always in terms of the absoluteness of Pittsburgh’s near-certain checkmate over the forces of financial entropy — but this is an entirely different situation.

If the Council’s Finance Chair is to be trusted, it sounds like we really need $80 million annually to be sustainable. If the blogosphere’s financial guru is to be trusted, even that may be optimistic. Either way, these taxes would not get us halfway to that position of genuine security.

What I’m saying is, sounding desperately in peril can only help Pittsburgh in this situation. If we continue broadcasting that “$30 million will totally get us out of the woods,” folks will be inclined to meet us only halfway or less. Whereas if we tell them, “Iceberg, dead ahead! This is the very least you can do and we need every last penny and even that’s just to get going!”, they may be more inclined to give us something more like what we truly require.

C) It sounds from the above and from a KDKA/PG interview that Mayor Ravenstahl has already negotiated away half of the proposed payroll tax on non-profits. I hope that was the right move, I do not know the situation behind closed doors — but this seemed like the one facet of the plan of which we were in relative control. Maybe we can regain it.

D) Most importantly, perhaps — though the steps above are good and necessary — they will be a tough sell to our neighbors, to the state legislature, and apparently to ourselves without demonstrated reciprocal sacrifice on the home front. That is, our crusade is as yet a military campaign with only one pincer. As such it will be easily blunted.

I hesitate to bring up Ravenstahl’s close ally Bill Peduto again, but it just so happened that his manifesto for netting $80 million instead of a mere $30 million included several elements having nothing whatsoever to do with taxes — and I’ll bring up one now.

5. Baseline audits / Professional management / Outcome-based performance (Pgh Comet)

Since belt-tightening will no doubt be self-righteously demanded by our neighbors, and since further belt-tightening is actually quite impossible, it might be advisable instead to er — to put on some pants.

We know that potholes and roadwork are issues that carry a lot of cache especially lately, and consume a fair chunk of our city’s resources to boot. We know that some years ago, Public Works foremen made rounds personally every morning with a clipboard to evaluate complaint reports and then rationally plot out a strategy for the day or week, with the aid of some work orders from higher ups in the Department. We know that in recent years, those duties have shifted to well-meaning but completely untrained community guys and committee guys like our colleague Matt H in a sub-rosa fashion. We should be able to infer that we’re not conducting this high-profile function nearly as efficiently as we might be — and we should anticipate that with the “professionalization” of our service delivery (together with a little PR mojo) we could duly impress some of those same folks who now think of contributing to the City as throwing money into a white-hot furnace. If we’re going on a crusade, we should do our very best to act noble — or else we just look like marauders.

Now, there are those of course who are resolved to believing that Pittsburgh is in fact a clownish lost cause that ought to be “cut loose” or “severed” or “be merged out of existence and disenfranchised” or “left to its own devices” by the rest of the region. I think those folks are confusing cathartic emotionalism with hard-headed realism but I’m sure we’ll continue to engage them.