Monthly Archives: September 2011

Friday: Rolling in the Deep

Never don’t not neglect to read Friday Happy Hour:

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is ready to unveil his fifth city budget with no tax increases, making him 5-for-5 during his tenure. If he were in Philadelphia, they would nominate him as Mayor for Life. In Pittsburgh, his detractors will undoubtedly shrug this off and complain that Ravenstahl was late appearing at a parade or something, or that his tie had a coffee stain on it at his last press conference. (The Triadvocate)

If history serves as any reference, this public affairs / lobbying / strategic communications / web-blegging firm out of Harrisburg and Philadelphia will get around to determining Ravenstahl should be shot out of a cannon and into a bigger cannon in about three years time — just as he’s being outfitted for a crown. And by then the Washington Post will be left wondering, “What’s their ish?

Triad also points us in a direction we should have been looking anyway:

And while [the state Senate] thinks transportation funding is a must, all sides are standing outside the Vatican right now, waiting for the white smoke to rise from the Governor’s Office. Nobody seems to want to move until Governor Corbett weighs in. (ibid)

There seems to be a swell of griping out there about how come things like this and others aren’t moving much in Harrisburg.

In response possibly already to this gurgling public relations problem, today Corbett was all, BAM, privatization task force, and PIFF, Marcellus Shale bill. However, those still anxious over public transportation funding might have to wait to see how the Marcellus tithe shakes out. Or maybe that’s what he wants us to think — better not hold up Corbett’s drilling bill for any diddly-twink reasons, if we want transportation funding in time! So this is what chess actually looks like.

Speaking of the Marcellus, Congressman Glenn Thompson (R-PA) has some interesting news:

“Marcellus shale is something I’ve been very involved in. It’s an opportunity that comes with responsibility,” he said. “Two of my counties have a zero percent unemployment. This has been very positive.” (Ithaca Journal, Jeff Murray)

Only slightly less laughably detached from any semblance of reality, we learn from Null Space, is word that Marcellus Shale interests are taking credit (let alone exclusive credit) for the Downtown construction boom. Someone out there has got to be hosting a Marcellus Truth-O-Meter, right?

And finally, Tuesday Oct. 4th is Double Your Charitable Contributions Day at the Pittsburgh Foundation? As in, any donation to anything from A+ Schools to Zachary’s Mission will be matched by the Pittsburgh Foundation for 24 hours? That’s Church provides some suggestions out of several hundred, including Comet fave CHS. So early next week, get your Jewish New Year off to a sweet start, and may you be inscribed for a year of health, happiness and peace. L’shanah tovah!

Morning Call Erects Paywall; We Have Analysis

Just weeks after we finally linked to and started reading the incomparable Capitol Ideas blog daily, this happens:

If you’re even a casual student of the media, then you know that we’ve been going through something of an upheaval these last few years. It’s also no secret that newspapers have been looking for ways to make money off the Web.

So, starting Oct. 10, The Morning Call will start offering digital subscriptions to its readers. Purchasing a digital subscription will allow you to view an unlimited amount of our website’s articles, blogs, photos and videos.

If you choose not to subscribe, you’ll have free access to 10 pages each month. And if you blow through that limit, you’ll be asked to become a digital subscriber. (Capitol Ideas, John L. Micek)

Micek goes on to write that the subscription will cost 35 cents a day, and links to the parent newspaper’s announcement, which repeats the line about 35 cents a day.

On such notes these new relationships always begin. Or fail to.


Assuming the “35 cent” rate is available monthly — and you know what they say about assumptions — a subscription would cost $10.50 per month. Which is how one would pay.

So don’t condenscend us, man, just say it costs ten bucks a month. You’re a newspaper. Have you ever reported that a proposed tax cut or increase will save or cost people just pennies a day? Or do we all pay our taxes on April 15th at 10:30 PM, and that’s how we are accustomed to weighing impacts on us? Even PWSA didn’t try to tell us that their opt-out water line insurance program would cost 17 cents a day, and they’re horrendous in every way.

If our phone bill went up $10 next month, we’d have to consider switching carriers or downgrading service. That’s just life — no way around that. And we’d more seriously consider such change if our carrier came at us all Tricky McMarkety about the rate hike.


But this is all transference, of course.

The real difficulty is this: although a subscription to the Morning Call might actually be worth it — and mostly because of Capitol Ideas, literally the only place to reliably learn about campaigns in Harrisburg to save HEMAP or to keep abortion services practically available — we don’t actually look forward to reading the Morning Call, we look forward to reading “the news”.

Which means ALL THE THINGS.

If we pay $10 to the Morning Call, that means we know we will ultimately have to pay $10 to the Post-Gazette, $10 to the Tribune-Review, $10 to the Philadelphia Inquirer, $10 to the New York Times and $10 to the Atlantic Monthly so we can continue reading Andrew Sullivan. Taken together, that comes to many hundreds of cents per day!

Which is unsustainable. Which is why this model isn’t the future.

At best, the Morning Call will time their situation in the market well — that is, acquire a set cache of subscribers, enjoy a boost, and get to keep some talent in the newsroom contented for a season or two. But shortly new Internet readers will fail to catch on and develop their own addictions, as we did a couple weeks ago. Meanwhile, subscribers garnered during the roll-out will slowly drop out as they encounter months and moods where money seems a little tight and maybe their debit and credit cards turn sour for a spell, or read MC editorials which enrage them and cause snits, or simply no longer enjoy being able to discuss MC content with as many friends and colleagues.


We still believe the answer lies in more innovative advertising and marketing. We know everything has not been tried, or um — resorted to.

Perhaps if individual features of the paper or individual authors were sponsored exclusively, each according to their own style and swagger. One could even ask reporters for help in securing their own sponsors.

Perhaps if reporters and editors were made to cleverly include product placement within news articles. Don’t make that face. It can be done with a wink and a smirk; today’s readers will recognize it and understand. It’s been happening on the radio for decades. These are not “modest proposals”, these are real.

Finally and most crucially, perhaps if more opinion, analysis, cross-source synthesis and sensationalism (you know: all that awful, valueless derivative blog stuff) were made to be included seamlessly and in one piece with existent excellent reporting as a part of regular daily news content, that might make newspapers more engaging, useful and entertaining to many, many more consumers — thereby improving advertising and marketing prospects all around.

That last idea might have a side-benefit of encouraging a wider, better-informed populace on average, including much better-informed young people. What’s more desirable: a better-informed populace and increased sales, or fewer 60-year old high priests of Journalistism throwing up in their mouths a little? We know what we’d choose.

“What the Property is Worth”

UPDATED below.

Strangely developing resuscitation of a story:

Merrill Stabile, general partner in 501 Martindale Associates and president of Alco Parking, is offering the city Stadium Authority $13 million for two parcels on North Shore Drive now used for parking, in part to develop a “signature office tower.”

The land is reserved for Continental Real Estate Cos. to develop under an option agreement reached with the Pirates and the Steelers nearly a decade ago. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Yesterday’s quick version has Mr. Stabile promising not to seek public subsidy for his project.

Mr. Kass of Continental sounds indignant. Ms. Conturo of the Stadium Authority sounds queasy.

BACKGROUND: [Hmm… let’s stick with] P-G Mark Belko, 9/05/08

UPDATE: On the flip side:

It appears from the offer letter that Stabile might not be committed to building an office tower, Zober said.

“If, after 10 years, these projects have not materialized, the authority will have the right to repurchase the parcels under a pre-determined formula taking into account the purchase price and the elapsed time from the purchase date,” Stabile’s offer states.

“That paragraph creates that uncertainty,” Zober said. (Trib, introducing Alex Nixon)

Notwithstanding the fog, Trib editorialists are dancing in the street.

The offer was “delivered” to the Authority on Monday, but somehow we all found out about it on Tuesday. Stabile seems to be end-running his proposal around city leaders through the press, as though he’s Rob Pfaffman or something. The parking baron should by now be much better equipped at doing business in these parts than having to rely on hail marys.

Monday: Bank Errs in Our Favor

Collect $10 million.

“This is once and done,” Mr. McAneny cautioned.

“The law requires that the money be put into the pension,” he added. He acknowledged, though, that some municipalities may decide that the increased state aid allows them to put less of their local tax money into the pension fund next year. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Then it couldn’t have come at a better time, if say, one wants to avoid doing anything rash such as raising meter rates and expanding enforcement. We’d be worried about what Rich Lord was doing poking around Jim McAneny’s office in the first place, but still.

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s proposed 2012 budget finally calls for borrowing some cheddar. Some disinterested analysis:

Spending on roads and other infrastructure (parks, garbage cans, playgrounds) are the coin of the realm in municipal government. One might note that the budget announcement on the two years of capital spending comes the same week as Luke Ravenstahl’s moves toward reelection . . . in two years. (P-G Early Returns, Tim McNulty)

What interests us most about this, if it passes and is transacted, is there will be no more talk about reaching the Debt Cliff in 2017, or indeed about ending our Credit Card Mentality. There may be no way around it, though. That guy in the McNulty piece wasn’t pointing at a broken swing set or the lack of a cotton candy machine.

Is anyone else bored with this? WE ARE SO BORED. That’s it: there will be far less stuffy financial and budgetary analysis in this space; few care, and for excellent reasons because apparently almost none of it is real. Take for example the indispensable Null Space’s perpetual incredulity. Is anyone else reaching the conclusion that politicians intuitively understand something fundamental about the real world that economists and even attorneys do not? That somehow it’s turtles all the way down? There’s always a bigger fish? No damn cat and no damn cradle?

The city is nearly a quarter poverty-stricken … public education and public transit are bad and getting worse while our prospective leaders compete over who can best trusted to starve government … and our public charities are engaging in profit-seeking terrorism. How much did we leave out? There have got to be stories there which are likely a bit more satisfying.



Assessments Solution: Hit the Road

Okay. We give up.

It is clearly more urgent that Allegheny County compete economically on a level if screwball playing field with neighboring counties, than its own residents finally be treated equitably and constitutionally or that its schools and localities be allowed to benefit from all its general prosperity. Clearly.

But this:

It just so happens that the governor, Tom Corbett, is subject to the same county assessment system. The longtime Shaler resident would be prime for lobbying on the issue because he knows the reality firsthand. (P-G, Edit Board)

Mmm. Yes. State politicians are frequently motivated by “knowing” and “realizing” things, not by the self-interested passions of innumerable legions of rural and affluent property owners and stakeholders, who fervently desire to be left alone to benefit from prevailing absurdities.

Instead, try this:



Send them to Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Instruct them to seek out school district officials, property owners invested in declining communities, and one-time political players relegated to the wilderness. Illustrate the real injustices from which they all either suffer or can take advantage. Motivate them to copy, paste and refile that lawsuit which a similar ragtag bunch of misfits launched in Alleghenyland. If they need help doing their own localized research, send Ira Weiss down for an afternoon to get them started.

Wait a year. Maybe more. Maybe less.

At a minimum, all our neighbors will get similarly stuck having to institute fair and constitutional taxation regimes. In every likelihood however, one of those judges is bound to see this issue is crying out for a statewide solution (as we all expected the first time around) and will force the state’s hand.

Then finally, release Rich Fitzgerald from prison, a vindicated civil rights hero.

Thursday: WHEYEN is it GOING to EYEND?

1. Thanks to CBS Local Digital Media for selecting the Comet as the “Editor’s Choice” for Most Valuable Pittsburgh Blogger for local affairs! Especial great thanks go to Chad Hermann at the P-G’s Radical Middle for the nomination in the first place — he who has long added a fair amount of value to the blurghosphere himself.

More thanks certainly go also to everyone who voted for me — although we did lose the popular vote for the “People’s Choice”award (in retrospect, it might have been a poor month to spend bombing you all with, “This pension plan is goofy and notional! Maybe the State should just take over, you guys!”) but those of you who did vote probably helped the Editors feel justified in going with their gut.


She could have been talking about parking meters, you know.


Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is poised to announce his re-election run — more than two years before the next mayoral election — while the two candidates for Allegheny County executive prepare to start running ads on television. (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

Opposing Ravenstahl in the 2013 Democratic primary will be the Post-Gazette.

It took hard negotiations and persistence, but the immediate threat of a state takeover of Pittsburgh’s wobbly pension fund was averted Monday, no thanks to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. (P-G, Edit Board)

How you gonna play a mayor like that. He worked with actuaries, accountants, antediluvians, and so forth! (Worked on keeping all their big mouths shut most likely but still.)

4. Doesn’t even sound like we’re going to see a decent implosion:

Ms. Conturo said the full demolition — or more precisely, the dismantling — should be completed by May.

The SEA is clearing the 28-acre arena site as part of the 2007 agreement to build the Consol Energy Center for the Penguins. As part of the deal, the Penguins were given development rights to the land. The agreement also called for the Civic Arena to be demolished. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Time to get into the right frame of mind for reflecting on past errors and encouraging future triumphs.


Group hug:

Wrapping up a season-and-a-half long story arc:

State officials today approved Pittsburgh`s plan to bolster its chronically underfunded employee pension funds, staving off a state takeover that city officials predicted would cost up to $100 million annually. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

Next, of critical importance:

The city now must determine how it will offset the general fund deficit. Council`s plan for plugging the gap with revenue from increased parking garage and meter fees has been stymied by disagreements between members and the mayor`s office.

Pittsburgh Parking Authority officials say they must first address capital improvements to the parking facilities before the authority can turn over any extra cash to the city. (ibid)


Two contentions there: 1) That the Council-Controller / Controller-Council plan did the trick (fairly accurate) and that “the pensions” are “saved” (fairly shorthand).

That’ll be the overwhelming consensus contention.

Sounds like a rip-roaring good time.

Excerpted from a press release from Mayor Ravenstahl:

“This is extremely good news for the people of Pittsburgh,” Ravenstahl said. “We worked very hard to make sure that the City’s plan would be accepted by our accountants, actuaries, and ultimately the Commonwealth. I want to thank members of my finance team for their hard work in ensuring that we can continue to provide quality services and balanced budgets with no new tax increases. This is a critical step for us as we get closer to completing our financial recovery.”

Council President Darlene Harris sent out her own press release touting funding that is “sufficient to avert takeover by the Commonwealth”, and naming, crediting and/or quoting various officials for last year developing “the inspired idea of using present valuation.”

The Allegheny Institute adopts a tone of confusion:

[W]hy was the City so afraid of a takeover? The state law clearly stated collective bargaining would remain at the City level. Also, where is the binding language that holds future City administrations and Councils to honor the promises of 2010? And, if we are to take the comments of the City Controller at face value when he said the bailout plan “is no long-term solution [but] a mechanism to avoid state takeover”, then what is the long-term solution? (Allegheny Institute)

An oft-cited rationale for takeover aversion has been that the mandatory commencement of annual $100+ million pension payments was deemed infeasible. Of course, questions persist as to how long the fund can remain solvent without dramatically more substantial cash payments — notwithstanding the commitment of 30 years worth of future parking tax receipts.

As for the blogger/professor/economist/nabob, we are left with this:

[N]o matter what the state says today, nothing at all has changed impacting the long run financial health of the city of Pittsburgh. This all gives ‘accounting fiction’ an entirely new meaning. (Null Space; see also from this pm)

Well. Be that as it may. But look on the bright side. We’ll still have chances to make news.

Sewer Issue Spill Over

As part of the furious political battle to determine who will be seen as the least-taxingest candidate since biblical times and in any universe, a side-issue has emerged which verges on something of urgency:

Democrat Rich Fitzgerald accused Republican D. Raja of doing a “bait and switch” as a Mt. Lebanon commissioner by promising to lower taxes while running for office and then, once elected, imposing a sewage tax on residents. (Trib, Tony LaRussa)

Or if you prefer:

Mr. Raja, [Fitzgerald] argued, has not owned up to a monthly sewer fee he approved in Mt. Lebanon last year. (The Republican says it was offset by a simultaneous drop in property taxes.) “What you get from me is you get the truth about what we’re going to do,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “What you get from him is a bait and switch and he gives you half the story.” (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

We hope Mr. Fitzgerald effectively communicates that his beef is with hypocrisy, not with the wisdom of upgrading sewers and establishing drainage protocols. The creation of a regional “storm water management district” is something that public officials have been discussing for at least a year, and has recently been lent new urgency for obvious reasons. Water flow is something that cannot possibly be managed effectively on a municipality-by-municipality basis or a Good Samaritan volunteer-basis. Many consider such regional management to be desperately necessary and a timely challenge in a region with three rivers, 8,792 streams, mountainous topography and burgeoning new concrete and asphalt developments all over the place.

The very fact that our probable next head of Allegheny County is loudly trumpeting that sewer fees should really be regarded as just another tax, is something that is politically unlucky. We should all hope Fitzgerald and his campaign staff aren’t accidentally painting the man into a corner from which he will later need to maintain that sewer investments and drainage regulations are outrages in and of themselves.

Water Bombshell: RDM Slams PWSA *

And then. Get a load of this performance review of the municipal water authority, which apparently was just released:

Problems at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority run the gamut from excess turnover among top managers and over-reliance on outside contractors at much greater cost, to inadequate attention to cleaning and maintaining the system and a lack of accountability at all levels, according to the authority’s most recent performance review. (P-G, Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, AKA ShaarDog.)

It’s a very fortunate thing that Amy doesn’t read blogs or anything of that sort. Things could have gotten seriously out of hand.

*-UPDATE: Apparently this review has only recently been re-released after a very exclusive opening run. Search therein for the term “83-page report”. Who is revealing this 2009 report with such guarded discretion and at such portentous junctures?