Monthly Archives: October 2012

Monday: We’re Literally Behind a Paywall ($$)

Freyr, Wikipedia

This post is so good, and yet is going to get so little traffic, it’s literally as though it’s behind an exclusive paywall.

There are four exceptional articles that need reading:

The state declared Pittsburgh financially distressed in 2003 after then-Mayor Tom Murphy sought a bailout and began downsizing government to pay the bills. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

We didn’t get the taxing power we sought, but does anybody think city leaders would have made those cuts and avoided bonded debt for so long without the overseers? Very hard to imagine. Anyway, the story quotes a former mayor’s budget director, which is like, wow. Richard Hofstadter over here.

The apparent failure of Longvue and a residential development in Mt. Lebanon highlight risks inherent in projects backed by tax-increment financing plans, and they could cost state taxpayers at least $7.3 million.

Such plans can expose taxpayer dollars to unnecessary risk in financing housing developments when builders could use federal or nonprofit housing assistance programs, said Sabina Deitrick, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

That one quotes a nonpartisan and acclaimed academic on a matter of fiscal policy. Wowee wow wow.

The city of Pittsburgh has said it must install new and bigger sewer pipes, separate lines for sewage and stormwater and add a 6 million gallon holding tank to address stormwater problems. Good says the city’s cost will be between $100 million and $200 million.

“The city’s plans could change. We are holding meetings, at the request of the mayor, to incorporate more green technology,” he said. (Trib, Rick Wills)

The relationship between the City, PWSA, Alcosan and affairs like the Monroeville Municipal Authority is probably too nuanced to comprehend. Interesting that 3 Rivers Wet Weather was affiliated here with the Allegheny Conference, whereas elsewhere it is described as Alcosan’s childe or even John Schombert’s courageous initiative.


And now for our premium content:

“They are literally creating a gated community in the Strip District,” Mr. Dowd said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

You see what he did there? He just screamed, “GENTRIFICATION!” without unduly upsetting people who fear that means squashing growth, yet not alienating others who might appreciate a good gentrification argument if they had any earthly idea what that $10 word means.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority said Mr. Dowd’s assertions are “overstated.” (ibid)

Yeah well, that’s not the point. This is like watching Mario Lemieux stick handle, or Newt Gingrich talk about health care.

“This is not public property that Buncher is taking from the city to turn into something private,” the authority noted. “Just the opposite is true; this is private property owned by Buncher that they have gone to extensive lengths to provide public access to, so that the national/international draw of the Strip District also includes a robust riverfront experience as a significant amenity.” (ibid)

This really can not be emphasized enough. Schenley High School, the Civic Arena, the North Shore, even Market Square — this was all public land where the question could more sensibly and righteously be asked, “What shall we as a people create here? What do we want to get out of our common investment?”

Croft, Gulliver’s Travels

But when we’re talking about Donzi’s Landing that question becomes, “What sort of business or charity do we think we can try to force this guy into?” Dude’s family owned the land before the Riverlife Task Force was even a thing. He can hold onto it for another twenty or thirty years if he wants, and is probably prepared to do so. It’s only going to get more valuable, sitting there barren.

Or we can see $30 million extra annually in tax revenue for schools and roads and transit, thousands of new jobs, hundreds of new families, countless new consumers, clients, diners, patients and patrons — yes, for the old Strip as well. It’s merely a matter of personal opinion. Many people bear subjective, irrational preferences for growth: to do more business, to see their children remain close.

Anyway, dismounting the soap box. If you are getting the feeling of history repeating itself, you are probably right. The Pittsburgh Comet should not be the only one effectively communicating the case for this development. It didn’t work with the parking lease and it’s not going to work now. Is the Allegheny Riverfront Vision dead? It’s starting to smell that way.

Once again — on a central and transformational agenda item — Patrick Dowd somehow made it halfway around the world before Luke had a chance to get his pants on.


Editorialists Not Ready for Good News Just Yet

People Magazine


Timing is everything, and when it comes to releasing the city of Pittsburgh from oversight by its Act 47 state coordinators, it’s not time. (P-G Edit Board)



Mr. [Jack] Wagner said he’s still seriously considering a run for mayor. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

I actually had a chance to follow up on this, and can report that “seriously considering” is merely a courtly understatement. This is going to be an unprecedented hootenanny. Non-affiliated and cross-affiliated operatives as well as revolutionaries would be wise to find excuses to stay on sidelines for as long as possible; aspiring operatives will have to choose with excruciating care and confidence.

BONUS-BONUS CONTENT: A Day in the life of Rich Fitzgerald (Pop, Elaine LaBalme)

Wednesday: Schenley High School, Storm Water Strategery and UPMC

Fresh, Hip and Healthy, A. Enyati

Indian summer! Get it while it’s hot!

1. The folks dahn PURE Reform way are circulating a petition:

The appropriate remedy at this time is for the Board to investigate whether information was withheld [from them] and to obtain a clear statement as to the extent of asbestos in [Schenley High School’s] plaster and a corrected estimate for renovation. The amount spent to move students on an “emergency” basis should also be specified.

Read some background on Schenley from July’s City Paper. I for one could not sign this thing fast enough. Sure, an investigation might come back negative — but you never know until you look.

Pittsburgh is probably too small and too neighborly a town for its School Board to actually go ahead and “investigate” its administration. But if information was withheld from members who later only voted 5-4 to close the school, and tearfully at that, that is a practice we must strongly discourage on general principle.

On an unrelated note, you might not want to do anything too dramatic with that school building through the end of the year. Get your head around that fact and look alive.

2. A few “little” green storm water projects are starting to spring up…

As impatient as a hungry raccoon, I always think “little by little” means “too little by too little” when I hear about another small, sustainable solution to our wildly expensive and massive problems. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

In addition to that particular synagogue in Squirrel Hill minding their own property, State Rep. Dan Frankel announced yesterday a small, state loan-financed project to plant a rain garden near to a very well-trafficked intersection in Squirrel Hill, and to install some green drainage features to Schenley Park.

And then along came this:

 ”These projects” referenced in Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner’s tweet link to this article which again highlights the Schenley Park work, but groups it with a collection of mostly “distributive gray”-sounding projects.

Remember that anything “funded by Alcosan” will in fact be funded by its rate payers in the final analysis. To “set aside” or “reserve” half of one percent of total borrowing for “deep gray” to pay for green is certainly a modest adjustment — but it might be more colloquial to think of these as “over and above” costs.

Unless — however and unless — unless greenlings can buy enough time for storm water efficiencies along county roads, county parks, county airports and county hospitals (as well as local projects from any parties who might wish to “step up”) to be predicted, tabulated and (ahem) “worked into” the present Alcosan deep gray drafts? In terms of gaining that necessary time, remember even the “recommended” and somewhat affordable draft option which Alcosan hopes will satisfy federal regulators… does not itself satisfy federal regulations. Yet an entirely green plan out of Philadelphia somehow did.

But let’s back way up. The need for time to develop transformational measures might be illusory. Is the true goal for green political activists to systematically improve,  to make more cost-efficient or sustainable the region’s storm water strategy? Or is it to grab enough projects on a scale of the one in Schenley Park to keep their backers placated? Because those are entirely different poker games.

3. I just can’t believe Brian O’Neill made it all the way through this column on the struggle with “nonprofits” without mentioning “U.P.M.C.” once. He’s a better man than I.

And then there’s this:

Pittsburgh could serve as a model for the rest of the state in determining how much money tax-exempt nonprofits should pay for city services each year, one of the city’s financial overseers said Monday.

In a meeting with Tribune-Review editors and reporters, Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority Chairman Dana Yealy said the mayor holds the key to the success of a task force that will consider the question. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl must appoint a chairman who can “look the nonprofits in the eye and say, ‘It’s time for us to think about this differently,’ ” Yealy said. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

I’ve never had much luck using psychodynamics with Our Mayor, Dana, but go right ahead.

Carbolic Smoke Ball

Notice again though we are talking about “the nonprofits” like the Feds have the joint bugged and we’re gambling over “boxes of ziti”. It may be true, we all usually manage to remember that when we talk about “the nonprofits”, we’re really talking about “eds and meds.”

But when we talk about “eds and meds”, do we remember that there are a whole lot more “meds” than “eds”? And that “meds” are even more profitable by comparison? And do we remember that for all intents and purposes, we really only have one “med”, just one single “med” of any significant size, one hospital system?

Mr. Ravenstahl said that UPMC is not “out of the equation,” but he has considered excusing them in light of their $10 million annual pledge to the Pittsburgh Promise of college aid to public school graduates. (Dec. 22, 2009)

Maybe it’s a matter of appointing the right chair person to the right task force. I’m open to that.
The Comet is not even going to dignify this dull account of a secret government study portending huge cost increases and on a politically nuclear issue with an analysis.

“Green” storm water strategies attract interest. But what can be done, now?

WDUQ, Mark Nootbar: Fitzgerald ‘Suprised’ by County Vote

The next and potentially decisive phase in a billions-dollar, court-ordered Pittsburgh regional sewers overhaul is scheduled to take place on January 30.

“The EPA has not given any indication that it’s open to delay,” warned Arletta Scott Williams, executive director of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan). It has spent fourteen years preparing for massive upgrades of its systems, and six years drafting conventional “gray” construction plans to capture surface waters prior to treatment.

“We really need to see creativity and leadership,” urges Merritt Busierre, a researcher for the Clean Rivers Campaign, a group that has been active for the last year in urging widespread adoption of the sorts of “green” measures (permeable pavements, bioswales, rain gardens etc.) that are elsewhere in various stages of development as part of EPA compliance strategies.

“We want to go with Alcosan to the EPA to get enough time to get as much green as we can in,” stated Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United, a coalition of labor, faith and environmental groups involved with that campaign.

Oursler also warned, “The EPA is not funding any more demonstration [green] projects.”

That means it’s time to cut out the show-and-tell — to present only systemic-scale solutions.

Alcosan will be presenting before the EPA and a federal judge two versions of the “wet weather plan” it has completed with input from regional leaders. One is a $2 billion plan that would still be insufficiently compliant with health and safety regulations — and is described as significantly painful to rate payers. The other is a $3.6 billion plan that would be fully compliant with the regulations, but is described as tremendously painful to rate payers.

“We need to show how we can capture the millions of gallons of water,” in a storm event, insist Alcosan officials. “We catch what is sent to us.”

The Alcosan plans are both “gray” in that they rely heavily on new underground construction — mainly in the form of seven large regional catch basins or “tunnels”.

There is as yet no “green” plan anywhere to provide an alternative — only aspirations and frameworks based on what other cities have done or are presently pursuing through likewise court-mandated processes. Some of these models are more relevant to Pittsburgh’s situation than others due to differences in climate, topography and political geography.

Janus Films, Rotten Tomatoes

The question remains: along what axises will parties and officials seek to negotiate and litigate with the Environmental Protection Agency?

Any so-called “green” plan would be only marginally “less gray”, its proponents readily clarify. A large proportion of new sewer construction would still be needed to fully capture and reroute even moderately intense seasonal downpour or snowfall — preventing flow into our sewage system and causing the present combined system to overflow into our rivers.

Green advocates draw a distinction between “deep gray” and “distributive gray,” suggesting more of an emphasis on the latter in any ideal “green/grey” plan.

“There is more construction to be done with green infrastructure and distributive gray, rather than deep gray, and more permanent jobs” in the maintaining of it, asserts Oursler. “And more of that money is spent locally.”

Yet the distinction suggests that to cost-engineer or retrofit Alcosan’s “deep gray” plans to any modified “green/grey” framework might comprise less an adaptation and more of a return to square one.

The financing of one centralized plan as well may provide cost efficiencies and be easier to plan for than scores and scores of locally grown projects, say its proponents. Yet to green activists, that is all also money that is goes “elsewhere”– to larger banks and financial services firms rather than to communities.

“How are they going to get the funding for it?” Williams asked about any brand new, greener study or plan which might emerge.

Alcosan organized 3 Rivers Wet Weather six years ago precisely to assemble engineering data, local government input, and to lobby for the funding to produce its draft overhauls.

“The first time we got a call about ‘green’ was in about October of last year,” Nancy Barylak, a spokesperson for Alcosan said. That is about the time Oursler and Tom Hoffman of Clean Water Action joined its Regional Stakeholders Committee, which had been meeting quarterly.

“We were still at the point of building organizational capacity,” describes Oursler of efforts early in through 2012. “Rich Fitzgerald was just getting into this, he was council president” before winning election as Allegheny County executive and earning responsibility for Alcosan board appointments and County policy.

In response to the question of what County Executive Fitzgerald means when he says he wants to “fight” for green infrastructure, one Alcosan official said, “That’s a good question.”

Alcosan and Allegheny County government’s basic capacity to enforce sufficient “green” storm water measures across the region is a concern. With 130 separate municipalities in control of their own zoning and development, refusal by some to participate will result in the need to capture all that storm water anyway, which inevitably winds up in Alcosan systems.

Incentive measures such as the creation of a stormwater district or adjustable water rates could eventually generate revenue as well as encourage “green” behavior, but Alcosan director Williams insisted that “the conversation and willingness to even accept the problem rests at the municipal level.”

Examples from other cities facing stormwater consent decrees is a mixed bag. Portland, OR benefited from a notoriously progressive political culture, but also features different soil challenges related to its freeze / thaw cycle. Philadelphia, PA benefits from having a fully consolidated countywide government, making the two challenges almost incomparable. Cleveland OH, which has been touted by Pittsburgh environmental advocates lately, seems to include more similarities — but Cuyahoga County may be more solidly Democratic and receptive to environmental appeals across the board than is Allegheny.

On the flip side, these examples from other regions all seem to indicate that these federal storm water mandates can be a lengthy process, with ongoing points of negotiation — making it noteworthy that neither present Alcosan plan is destined to be a smash hit with both ratepayers and regulators.

P-G, Joe Smydo

What the advocates for greener local solutions cannot afford to do in January — if indeed they mean to move forward against these headwinds at all — is show up empty-handed. A reasonable facsimile of a framework for developing a comprehensive draft plan for “green infrastructure” will have to be palpable, demonstrably underway, credibly researched, as well as delivered on official stationary.

One official who is exceptionally well-positioned to provide guidance on whether or not to pursue these matters happens to be Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb. As a board member of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, Lamb would be able to lend credence to, point out any blind-spots in, or suggest and rule out methods of jockeying around with the current “gray” plans. Furthermore as Controller, his joint audit of Alcosan in 1999 (pdf) spotlighted several significant compliance issues with contractor and consultant disclosures and justifications, to which he could now provide assurances of improvement or speak of how such matters might ever have been related. With a hinted-at mayoral run around the corner, Lamb would have all the reason in the world to demonstrate leadership and vision on a consequential issue.

“Our documentation and procedures are now in full compliance with rules and policies,” Barylak said of Alcosan since the joint city-county audit.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alcosan must submit draft plans to regulators by Jan. 23, 2013. The correct date is Jan. 30. The Comet regrets the error. 


Promises, Promises: Political tribulation has hampered City’s quest for nonprofit support

Nathan Scheck, Albino Kraken
Pittsburgh has been “ordered” by the ICA to reopen talks with its nonprofits to receive higher payments in lieu of taxes — with a June 30th deadline to “report back”.

The city has been communicating with its nonprofits on that subject for the past six years.
At present, we are receiving less money from these frequently profitable large institutions than we did six years ago.
It is hard to fathom what is expected to change this time.

In surveying the past six years of fruitless talks, two fateful moments seem to stand out:
1. The sum gathered from the closed-book Pittsburgh Public Service Fund roughly halved following UPMC’s announcement to become the major donor to the Pittsburgh Promise — indeed the medical giant briefly revealed an intention to quit PILOTs altogether in exchange. This was reversed in response to some awful publicity involving provisional tax credits asked for in exchange for Promise donations, but seems to have been un-reversed the following year.

2. After three years taking a self-described “cooperative” approach to negotiations, the Ravenstahl administration attempted to get tougher — and chose the method of threatening to levy a tuition tax on university students. The tuition tax was also noteworthy for taking universities to task while holding other major nonprofits harmless, unlike some other options: a tax on hospital bills or beds, hikes in discounted medical water rates, or a fee on all-day parking. The tuition tax failed both to pass, or to motivate a better deal — indeed it seemed to poison the water for further productive talks.

Please add your own comments beneath the Roxette video if you know of anything else which belongs in the narrative after reviewing and exploring these news excerpts.

Act I: Talks and confidence

It [the budget] counts on $17.7 million from a yet-to-be-built slots casino next year, $10 million from the state each year, and $5.7 million annually from nonprofit groups starting in 2008 — none of which is guaranteed, he said. (Oct. 18, 2006)

Ms. McNees said the revenue predications were based on state estimates and that the authority is in talks with nonprofit groups. (Oct. 21, 2006)

It’s my belief that we will be able to successfully get those revenues…  from the nonprofit community,” he said. “They’ve been great partners in the past.” (Nov. 14, 2006)

Mr. Peduto said he thinks the red ink will flow by 2008. He said the long-term plan includes “phantom revenues” including overestimates of payments by nonprofit groups, deed transfer and parking taxes, and state aid. (Dec. 19, 2006)

Included in the revenue estimate is $4.3 million from nonprofit organizations. The mayor said he has received verbal pledges in that amount and is seeking binding commitments. (Sept. 21, 2007)

“At this point [pledges from nonprofit groups] are verbal and we’re in the process of establishing agreements and commitments,” Mr. Ravenstahl said. There’s no promise by the groups “that I’m aware of, because we’ve not met to speak about it,” said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, a group of some 100 hospitals, educational institutions, foundations and arts organizations. (Sept. 22, 2007)

That begins to erase a big question mark from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s fiscal plan, which counts on $4.3 million in contributions from the organizations next year and $4.1 million annually after that. Still uncertain, though, is how much they’ll end up paying. (Oct. 2, 2007)

“I’ve always been someone who’s been cooperative” with non profits, Mr. Ravenstahl said, gesturing at Mr. DeSantis, “rather than confrontational.” (Oct. 10, 2007)

Mr. Ravenstahl said he is confident that city nonprofits will voluntarily pay up to $4.2 million in each of the next three years to help the city’s bottom line… (Oct. 26, 2007)

Mr. Ferlo said that if the ICA is still warranted, it should go to the state with recommended changes in laws governing pension aid and contributions from tax-exempt groups to cities. Mr. Pippy said he will hold hearings on municipal contributions by nonprofit groups, and he believes there will be serious discussion in Harrisburg on pension aid. (Nov. 8, 2007)

Act II: UPMC shifts around

The Price is Right, Game Show Utopia

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s pledge of $100 million to fund college tuitions would supplant the healthcare giant’s $1.5 million-a-year contributions to city of Pittsburgh coffers, its top lawyer said today. That could mean other nonprofit entities, on whom the city relies for $4.2 million a year, or 1 percent of its budget, could choose to contribute to the Pittsburgh Promise and not the city, too. (Dec. 18, 2007; see also Dec. 19)

City Chief of Staff Yarone Zober said Tuesday that the city is talking with tax-exempt groups about ongoing contributions. (Dec. 24, 2007)

In another bit of good news, UPMC also said it would still contribute $1.5 million next year to the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, a 3-year-old voluntary fund through which nonprofits have helped the city balance its budget. (Dec. 29, 2007)

The Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, which assembled contributions from some 100 organizations during the city’s fiscal crisis, made its last agreed-upon payment Feb. 21, bringing its total contribution to $13.98 million [over 3 yrs = $4.7 million per yr for 2005-2007]. The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and for the fund, said the pledge was for $13.57 million, so the fund exceeded expectations by $411,000…

Father Lengwin could not predict how much the fund would give to the city over a subsequent three years, saying that depends on member groups’ finances. The city’s long-term plan counts on $4.2 million a year in contributions from tax-exempt entities. One complicating factor is the role of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which has said it will contribute to the city for one more year but is shifting its focus to the Pittsburgh Promise of college aid to graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools. (Mar. 1, 2008)

He said the administration is entering into negotiations with the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund, a consortium of nonprofit groups, to reach a voluntary donation agreement to replace one that ended last year. (May 2, 2008)

And then comes a long pause with little news or apparent progress.

Act III: The Tuition Tax boner *

Growing Pains c/o makintosh

A consortium of tax-exempt groups, including the universities, hospital groups and nonprofit insurers, paid the city $14 million from 2005 through 2007, and offered $5.5 million for 2008 through 2010. Council hasn’t acted to accept the current offer.

Mr. Peduto and Mr. Lamb said they’ve had conversations with leaders of large tax-exempt institutions, including universities, who may be willing to make further voluntary contributions. The Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education announced in a news release that the colleges and universities would “discuss our continuing activities in support of the entire Pittsburgh community.”

But Mr. Ravenstahl said that without the “threat” of a tuition tax, they’ll feel that $5.5 million over three years is enough. “There’s nothing that compels them to do anything more, so they’re able to get away with that.” (Nov. 18, 2009)

Mr. Ravenstahl again aimed for $6 million a year. He said he had “one-on-one discussions, and individual commitments were made. … It was difficult to get all of the people in the room and say, ‘We need $6 million.’ ” (Dec. 9, 2009a superior article, due to widespread frustrations over issue at that moment)

Pittsburgh’s universities told Mayor Luke Ravenstahl yesterday they won’t agree to his call for them to contribute $5 million to city coffers to avoid a tax on tuition paid by students. (Dec. 12, 2009)

“One does not negotiate with an ax hanging over your head,” said Chatham University President Esther Barazzone, while joining her peers in calling for “a big-tent coalition to help to lead the city to a different future.” (Dec. 15, 2009)

On Tuesday night, Councilwomen Theresa Smith and Tonya Payne got the sense that their efforts at diplomacy between the city and university leaders might bear fruit. (Dec. 17, 2009)

University officials are complaining behind the scenes about Mayor Ravenstahl’s “bullying” on the tax, which includes his promise Dec. 10 that he would not pull the proposal without a commitment of at least $5 million annually from the schools. (Dec. 20, 2009)

An as-yet-undefined group called the New Pittsburgh Collaborative “will sit down in the early part of 2010 and come up with a strategy, and a goal, if you will, on what it is we will ask Harrisburg for,” Mr. Ravenstahl said at a news conference in his office…

“We’re not pledging a contribution in order to get rid of the tax,” said CMU President Jared Cohon. “We are prepared to pledge a contribution as the tax is gotten rid of…”

Mr. Ravenstahl said that UPMC is not “out of the equation,” but he has considered excusing them in light of their $10 million annual pledge to the Pittsburgh Promise of college aid to public school graduates. (Dec. 22, 2009)

Act IV: Making do with less…than 6 years ago
Infinity Loop
“There has been no ‘agreement’ established between the city and the other member institutions,” she said. “Even the statement made today by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University identified ‘handshake agreements,’ not finalized until the tax was actually removed from consideration.” (Dec. 22, 2009)

The five-year plan included $20 million in revenue from big nonprofits, such as the city’s universities. Mr. Ravenstahl’s office said it believed the contributions had been solicited by Councilman Bill Peduto.

However, Mr. Peduto accused Mr. Ravenstahl of being misleading about the matter.

He said he has talked to nonprofits about contributing $20 million to a pension bailout plan. However, he has announced no commitments and said he never intended for the contributions to be used for general operating expenses anyway.

Last week, Mr. Peduto sent the ICA a letter calling the $20 million “phantom revenues” and urging ICA to reject the budget and five-year plan. (Nov. 15, 2010)

At a brief meeting Wednesday, ICA unanimously approved a $451 million budget and five-year plan that did away with the $20 million… (Dec. 9, 2010)

The budget lists about $3.2 million in revenue from nonprofits this year, but the city’s agreement with the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund — a coalition of nonprofit groups that has made payments in lieu of taxes to the city in some years — expired Dec. 31.

“At this time, there have been no formal discussions regarding a new agreement,” G. Reynolds Clark, a fund representative and University of Pittsburgh vice chancellor, said in an email relayed through the university’s media relations office. (Jan. 16, 2012)

Overseers and Mr. Ravenstahl’s aides met Friday to work through their differences. The same day, Mr. Ravenstahl sent authority Chairwoman Barbara McNees a letter noting that legislation to establish the trust fund had been introduced in council Jan. 17 and that efforts to secure nonprofit contributions were under way. (Jan. 25, 2012)

This year, the city anticipates about $2.6 million from the fund, a consortium of nonprofits that identifies its members but doesn’t say how much each contributes. (Today)

State Oversight, We Hardly Knew (Know?) Ye…

Apoplectic, Spreadshirt

Do you think the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ticka ticka… ZOOMP!) is just an opaque and unelected cabal of political appointees beholden to Harrisburg legislative caucus leaders, run by a battered and bruised bonds trading journeyman earning $120,000 a year for part-time consulting?

Well, your understanding couldn’t be more partial! The ICA are hometown nuns and union laborers who volunteer because they share a love for this City and are working hard to put it back on its feet!

The second thing we share is our support of the recent findings of the Act 47 team and its recommendation to terminate the city’s status as a financially distressed municipality — while keeping the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority in existence. (P-G, Geibel & Stanizzo)

The first question to ask is, who is the audience for this op-ed? Who exactly is it important to convince of this? Public officials? Financial markets? The newspaper itself?

So far, there has been no move to dismantle the five-member Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.

“One step at a time,” Mr. Ravenstahl said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

One wonders whether there is anything buried deep down in the enabling legislation underpinning the ICA which the end of Act 47 can “trigger” in terms of its own sunset.

“I’ve always said I think this administration can use all the oversight that it can get, and I still feel that way,” said Lamb, a likely candidate for mayor next year. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

Editorial comment: I hear that — I really do — and bonus points for quotable zing. But it’s just no valid argument in terms of whether or not to disband oversight. If democratic self-government is good enough for Egyptians, it’s good enough for Pittsburghers — and although it might be better in terms of bean-counting to remain impervious to some collective bargaining pressures until we manage to elect a True Savior, it’s not terribly fair with respect to those collective bargaining units and their constitutional rights.

Of course, as 2/5 of the ICA point out above, we are still behind the eight-ball in terms of the very pension and debt burdens which caused the City put out a “distress” call in 2003 in the first place. So I’m not in any great rush to quit that until we have substantially resolved those conundrums.

Wait and see time.


Pocket Childrens’ Books

But last week’s display left us with at least two interesting bits of intelligence:

1. The Act 47 Coordinators are really the junior partners when it comes to oversight. The last time they were in the news at all was the summer of 2009, when significant portions of their 5-year recovery plan were re-written by an historically rebellious Pittsburgh City Council. It almost seems as though the Coordinators lost their mojo after they threatened hardball and sanctions, yet ultimately accepted a deal.

Meanwhile, it is still an annual spectacle getting the City’s budget approved by the ICA. They are even known to step in to override day-to-day matters.

Considering the timing, it’s almost as though somebody or somebodies in Harrisburg wished to provide Mayor Ravenstahl with the presumed massive political triumph of vanquishing “Act 47 Distressed Status” — while still keeping the City fundamentally down under strict oversight. Who ever said the Mayor doesn’t enjoy good relationships with leaders in Harrisburg?

2. Let’s return to what the two board members of the ICA wrote. Aside from pension obligations, which has conventionally been considered the paramount impossibility:

The second obstacle is overall debt. While the debt level has been moving in the right direction, the city issued $80 million of new debt this year and has plans to issue more in 2015, 2018 and 2021. This will make it hard to reduce overall debt to an acceptable level. (P-G, Geibel & Stanizzo)

Really? Plans for more new debt in 2015, 2018 and 2021? The one loan was one thing, but it would be uncharacteristic for this administration to backslide into such a credit-card mentality.

I can recall over the years looking at so many graphs, looking forward to the immense relief of a debt-cliff in 2017. Now, no more debt cliff in 2017? How will we pay down the pensions?

Act 47: Our Work Here is Done [*-UPDATES]

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

We had some good times over the years — firing employees, closing public facilities, gutting departments.

But now, in an October surprise, one-half of Pittsburgh’s financial overlords say it’s time to leave well enough alone.

“Today, Pittsburgh has a structurally balanced operating budget with recurring revenues consistently outpacing expenditures,” Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Roberts said in the letter. (P-G, Joe Smydo; see also Trib, Bob Bauder)

They key word there is “operating” budget.

I don’t think anybody is arguing that our pension and “legacy costs” problems are behind us, nor that they won’t ruin our capital budget and operating budgets both if we don’t do anything anytime soon. (In fact, this year and next we needed to borrow money for the cap budget.) But the ICA deals with “finances”: things like debt, investments, and five-year outlooks — and it has has been the oversight body active in the news and vetoing city maneuvers since, well, since this web log of civic events started. Evidently the Act 47 team decided that now that the City is slimmed down to its present form and is no longer hemorrhaging cash, it had gotten a bit vestigial.

Even still, a very recognizable mile marker.

*-UPDATE: The letter from Act 47 is here and the response from the ICA is here. The latter stresses that they will be sticking around but that everybody conceivable deserves credit for the progress.

The former is noteworthy in that it specifically credits two City maneuvers: the adoption of “a suite of management tools” (see Background) and that it “has taken critical steps to address its legacy costs,” which could not possibly mean City Council’s New Years Rockin’ Eve, could it?

Update 2: And/or did these “critical steps” include the Other Post-Employee Benefits Trust Fund, established after the ICA’s insistence last year was twice ignored?

Thursday: The Nuisances Strike Back

Post-Gazette, unknown graphic artist

1. Holy cow, what a story!

On one hand you have a private security company and individuals therein accused of grossly overexerting their jurisdiction and authority in a way redolent of what has become an issue at public housing developments, and belligerently to boot.

But on the other hand you have a City police chief accused of being friendly with one company’s owner to the point of reassigning a sergeant for interfering with that company’s “contract”.

This will take a little while to shake out.

2. On the merits of accusations of reckless mayoral disregard for everyday business:

Mr. Dowd said solicitor Daniel Regan told council during an executive session that a complaint about the tree had been lodged with the city in 2007 but that no pruning ever was done. Mr. Dowd said he knows of at least one other case in which complaints about a tree have gone unaddressed for two years.

In all, Mr. Dowd said, the city has received 2,500 complaints about tree problems since 2009. That includes nearly 500 so far this year, half of which remain unresolved, he said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

To reference things discussed during closed-door “executive sessions” with the city attorney, is to get serious. One hopes Dowd’s zinger about “just doesn’t come to work” wasn’t one of them.

See also the Trib’s Bob Bauder for notes on tree density and specimen diversity.

UPDATE: The Blogh timely notes that Tree Pittsburgh is a nonprofit which conducts tree plantings and “ongoing care” of our “urban forest.” It has has a board and a staff which organizes volunteer events.

3. Adding to accusations of disinterest are those of pettiness

At 7:13 a.m., 8:54 a.m. and 9:02 a.m. Tuesday, [Peduto staff] Gilman received emails from Mr. Kaczorowski. Mr. Kaczorowski doesn’t deny sending the emails.

In the first email, part of a string that had “paper street article” in the subject line, Mr. Kaczorowski said, without elaborating, “Another BS statement …” He then said, “On another front, sorry to inform you but after second thought Sellers may not be paved this year until the catch basin issue is resolved.” (P-G, Joe Smydo II)

The emotional content of e-mails — sarcasm vs. sincerity — is often very easy to misinterpret.

4. Post-Gazette editorialists stump for character, charm and “the produce business” in regards to Bunchervania. One hopes they are not by-implication stumping for the present derelict emptiness. Buncher holds most of the cards [i.e. deeds] along the Allegheny Riverfront and can play the long game, waiting out this whole historical epoch entirely.

Read that again because that’s very important.

5. According to this Trib account, the dispute over previous Penn State fracking research had to do with its projections of economic benefit from natural gas drilling — not from measuring environmental dangers. It is noteworthy that the Marcellus Shale Coalition is saying that we can rely on government data. We note this so you don’t come across as ignorant in your dealings.

6. Presidential politics!

The breakdown from 2 Political Junkies begins like so…

1. Romney kept his answers detail-free but full of lies.

Over at A Spork in the Drawer, we find a centuries-old primer with implied contemporary relevance on how to swindle Americans.

Chris Potter at the CP Blogh actually questions whether the POTUS’s heart was in it.

I’m really not sure who is locally blogging national politics on the conservative end of the spectrum these days. Carbolic Smoke Ball highlighted the fact that things seemed more than a little rough last night for President Obama.

The best analysis in terms of political stage-management might have come across my Twitter feed: