Saturday, December 6, 2008

Obama Weekly Message

In which he tells us exactly what he plans to do in the first few weeks in office. So you all better get up to speed.


1. Where did I read about our own Green Buildings initiative recently? UPDATE: It was the Trib, Jeremy Boren. h/t: Burgher.

2. This is why I'm convinced the MFXpressway is going to happen.

3. Looks like if we'd have held on to Schenley for another year, we'd have been okay after all. It could still be a signature project.

4. Our Universities should be happy.

h/t 2PJs

Friday, December 5, 2008

That Pensions Thing: The End is Near.

The problem can be ignored for only a few more years. The next mayor will likely be unable to escape a full-blown pension fund crisis. Eventually it will become a current cash flow crisis as the pension funds' assets are drawn down completely. At that point it will become apparent that the city will not be able to solve the pension crisis on its own. (P-G, Chris Briem, Mar 27 2005)

A few more years from spring 2005 ... uh ohs.

The fiscal year 2006 city budget, as projected by the outgoing administration, has a mere $1.2 million surplus, roughly 0.29 percent of a total $415 million budget. That virtually non-existent cushion is actually an optimistic scenario for where the city will find itself at year's end. A fixed property assessment base, declining population that erodes income tax revenues, delayed or nonexistent casino revenues, rising fuel prices and escalating pension fund payments will each dwarf any surplus the city budget will have for years to come. (P-G, Briem, Oct. 30 2005)

Yes, but at least we retain some yearly surpluses. Disaster can be held at bay so long as we don't go through a second national recession this decade or anything.

The recession hasn't been kind to Pittsburgh's weakening pension fund.

The fund lost $124 million this year through November, leaving it with $261 million to cover $899 million in liabilities, according to a report Thursday from investment manager Mercer Investment Consulting Inc. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)


That means the city must put more of its operating budget into the pension. The city is due to put $44.5 million into the pension fund in 2009, $6 million more than this year.

Ravenstahl would not say whether the additional payments will result in cuts elsewhere in the budget. (ibid.)

Nothing like a good crisis to focus the humours, is there?

Not that we have much of a choice, but a million here and a million there and pretty soon we're talking serious cheddar. There will come a point when Our Pension Crisis will cease seeming so abstract and nerdly to average Pittsburghers. We call that Tough Choices time.


How did we get into this mess, you ask? We present the Pittsburgh Comet Total Ninny's Guide to Our Municipal Pensions Mess:

1. Decades ago, Pittsburghers accorded themselves the services and infrastructure of a large and splendid city, by means of borrowing from future generations.

2. Most of these Pittsburghers up and left, having lost their jobs or tired of paying for those services -- and took their future generations with them. ("Leaving" can mean moving as far away as Ross Township.)

3. Those left behind have stubbornly declined to crowd in closer together and sell off extraneous neighborhoods, or scale back on the level of city services very much.

4. And the state robbed us of our ability to tax land held by non-profits, who promptly started gobbling up more and more land.

5. And somewhere along the way we had our existing property tax assessments frozen, which has a disproportionately ill effect on declining urban areas.

6. And the occasional Awesome Accounting Gimmick.

7. And we've been spending our "spare" public cash and assets on privately held sports stadiums, "destination" retail and other totally necessary white elephants.

8. At length, due to all the expensive silliness described above, ever more Pittsburghers bid the City a fond adieu. Steelers Nation grows and becomes a global phenomenon, local traffic lightens up, housing costs become renowned for their shocking affordability and we all wonder dotingly upon our small-town friendliness.

9. So the bills from previous generations continue coming due -- and maybe we shouldn't have invested so heavily in the stock market -- and I'm not sure what happens next. But we're going to find out.


In case you didn't catch the news that the city's pension funds are down to $261 million, it's probably the biggest news you will read the least about... and the biggest finance issue that the city is facing that the 5 year plan put together by the Act 47 team pretty much ignores for reasons I really can't fathom. (Null Space)

Those last six years or whatever we've been in Financial Receivership AKA Distressed Status under the OVERLORDS? Killing time, basically.

In a letter to lawmakers, Ravenstahl said state help is "imperative."

He endorsed a five-point plan for statewide pension reform based on a plan by the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities. (ibid.)

We'll be very lucky to get two points passed. All five points boil down to some iteration of Why Don't You Just Give Us The Money.

Which is a reasonable request; it's just very much out of our control.

Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess said yesterday that he will propose canceling the 2.5 percent raises that the city's nine legislators, like all nonunion city employees, would get in 2009 under Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposed budget. (P-G, Team Effort)

By my math, this will save us a whopping $12,690, or .002% of our pensions shortfall.

Mr. Burgess said he also will introduce legislation compelling the city to put in place a new fiscal recovery plan by March 25. The current recovery plan under state Act 47 for distressed municipalities was crafted in 2004.

Wonder why that's appearing in the same article? Because it appeared in the same press release, silly.

Wonder why it appeared in the same press release?

Ms. McIlvaine Smith, who will start her second term [as state rep] in January, unveiled her anti-COLA bill last week. It's inappropriate for officeholders and others to take raises, she said, because the state faces a 2008-09 revenue shortfall that could reach $2 billion.

"Our constituents are losing their jobs and everyone is struggling to pay their bills," she said. "Thousands will not see their salaries or wages increased in the coming year, so why should we?"

The 2.8 percent salary increase for legislators will hike rank-and-file pay to $78,315, with top leaders as high as $122,000. (P-G, Tom Barnes)

If we'd like Harrisburg to take pity on us and provide us succor, it'd behoove us to follow along with Harrsiburg when it actually exhibits a moment of selflessness. We should expect this to be the first of many Harrisburg-cozying maneuvers out of Pittsburgh this winter.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Thursday Notes [BREAKING NEWS at Bottom]

Wonder of the World is absolutely delightful. I can't remember laughing so hard so often at a theatrical production in a long time.

The play is a massively dark comedy set mostly in Niagara Falls -- so if you bear a torch for things like the Maid of the Mist, insanely kitschy theme restaurants, and idle threats of suicide, then this production really has your number.

I won't delve into each generously hammed-up performance -- the whole ensemble did brilliantly, especially after the minibar came into play. But I will say that David Flick portrays a sweater-vest who suffers from an embarrassing compulsion that I personally happen to share -- and he does so with a combination of sensitivity and grace that does our whole society a long-overdue service.

In my opinion, the Open Stage Theater itself rather stole the show. The street address reads Smallman St., but the entrance is actually on Railroad St., so one can really consider it Off-Off-Penn Ave, so to speak. The joint seats only about 60 patrons in just three rows forming an L around the performance space, so one enters feeling prepared to sacrifice production values for intimacy. However, the innovative use of a flat-screen monitor and lovingly produced digital footage, as well as set design that is creative when it must be but doesn't try to do too much with the challenging material makes patrons feel outright spoiled considering.

Again: laughing gas. You go now.


Somehow we wound up on the Media Matters distribution list. They'd like you to know about Our Tribune Review publishing "false Heritage Foundation claims about autoworker compensation", and about Our Jim Quinn urging a response to terror in Mumbai regardless of whether "a lot of peaceful Muslims" are hit. Forwarded without comment.

Better still, somehow we wound up on the Don Walko distribution list. Gov. Rendell signed his anti-blight legislation into law. This gives owners, neighbors, leinholders, non-profits and others more tools to use at the court of common pleas. Read about it.

BREAKING, DRUDGE SIREN, EXCLUSIVE: Best of all, somehow we wound up on the Chelsa Wagner distribution list. A lengthy missive opens thusly:

After careful thought and consideration, I have decided not to run for Mayor at this time. Though I fervently believe that we need strong leadership and vision at all levels of government, my constituents have elected me to represent those values in Harrisburg.

Yada, my 22nd Legislative District, yada, Obama, transporation, regional priorities, yada ...

The Mayor's race, however it evolves, must address how our City can reestablish itself as a strong regional core. We must discourage sprawl and the temptation to develop further and further away from our urban core. We must promote smart growth strategies to attract major projects and jobs to the center city that utilize and compliment existing developments, infrastructure and amenities. We must ensure that all 88 neighborhoods in this City are livable, not merely a select few. We also must address the burgeoning gorilla in the room: our City's unfunded pension, while also implementing new and innovative ways to deliver City service more efficiently and effectively. While this City has made strides under Act 47 state oversight, it is not out of the woods, as both revenues and expenditures are not yet steady. This is a crucial time for our City, and while I work on these objectives as a state official, I am hopeful that our City officials, particularly our Mayor, will seize the moment and establish a vision that solidifies Pittsburgh's destiny for years to come. As always, I am extremely proud to be a Pittsburgher and hold at the highest level of esteem for my position as an elected official representing a large portion of this City. I remain committed to serving this City and its wonderful residents in the way that I may be of greatest assistance.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Visit with Councilman Motznik

It had been far too long since our first interview with Jim Motznik -- and far too much had transpired since. We stopped by his office last week to learn what's new, and what to expect in terms of his future.

Specifically: does he plan on running for judge this spring -- potentially conceding to Bill Peduto the role of elder statesman on Pittsburgh City Council?

"First, I have enormous respect for Charlie McLaughlin -- and frankly it's a huge assumption that he's retiring," Motznik began. He impressed upon us how this was all very premature, and it would be presumptuous to say anything that could be interpreted as nudging the well-respected incumbent along.

"However -- if in fact he's up -- I am interested. I would strongly consider it."

Since it struck us as a considerable shift for Mr. Motznik, we asked if he felt up to it.

"There are two types of judges: 'judges' and district magistrates," he explained, clarifying that both are "real judges", but the two have different responsibilities. He volunteered that he's probably not qualified to be the former.

"District magistrates deal with exactly the stuff I deal with now. They have to be aware with and in touch with the communities they represent."

Since we were chewing the fat, we inquired about the coming race for Council District 2. Dan Deasy's last day in that seat before he leaves for Harrisburg is Wednesday the 3rd. A special election must be held in 60 days to complete his term in office -- followed by the regularly scheduled primary election in May.

He wouldn't get into the politics among the candidates, but did offer that "Theresa Smith is the one that has to be the favorite right now," citing her experience in neighborhood associations and the community block watch.


Refuse ordinances ... open-container ordinances ... gun ordinances. We asked Mr. Motznik for his take on the clean-and-safe-streets type of legislation coming out of City Hall these days.

"I think everything we do here is what we hear from our constituents," he argued. A lot of what he is hearing, for example, is that people want to make landlords accountable for their properties.

"Make it harder to be a slum landlord," he said. "Hopefully, it sends a message."

The same principle holds true with the lost and stolen gun ordinance -- his constituents want to make it harder to put illegal guns on the streets and into the hands of criminals.

"We want to make people more responsible. It doesn't violate anyone's rights." He mentions that he owns a shotgun and some rifles himself, and has no quarrel with the 2nd Amendment.

"My question to our law department was, is it enforceable?"

He doesn't think the proposed ordinance is going to eliminate straw purchasing, but describes it as a measure that is "basically suggestive."


Our sit-down occurred on the heels of legislation crafted by Patrick Dowd that will create restrictions on how the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is to administer Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) money.

Council passed the measure 8-1, but there was a feisty little debate beforehand about how stringent the requirements should be. An amendment by Darlene Harris failed by a narrow 5-4 margin.

Her amendment was "basically repetitive in what the bill already said," Motznik contended -- and that everybody pretty much knew that.

"Doug [Shields]'s not gonna vote against anything that Darlene puts up, and personality gets into it" is how Motznik breaks it down. "He figures, he's gonna need her vote for Council President or for something else," and that's why some others jump on board.

We asked what he thought about the significance of the measure itself, and whether it portends more scrutiny of what UDAG money and CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] money can be utilized for.

"I been here almost nine years," he began. "And Council never got involved in how the URA handles CBDG funds. We never got involved in day-to-day operations. They have a board."

This is when Motznik told us that the URA, under a previous director, had begun using UDAG loan repayment proceeds to pay for URA staff salaries.

Motznik credits Dowd for catching that, and instigating a solution. "What he did, to his credit -- and I have no reason to toot his horn! -- he worked with the Mayor's office, the Solicitor, the URA board, Council."


That put us on the subject of the previous director -- we asked, given Motznik's outspoken and oft-repeated praise of him, whether he had any thoughts in retrospect upon what happened concerning his friend Pat Ford.

"Now, why do you have to put it like that?" he complained. "I'd say we had a good, close working relationship together."

Jim Motznik continues to describe Ford as "a very professional, knowledgeable guy," and harbors no regrets for having helped to recruit Ford back to city government under Mayor O'Connor.

However, he says Ford "probably would have been better staying director of the Planning Department," offering that if he had remained there, "I think the city would be better off now."

We asked exactly how things went awry.

"Hindsight's 20/20 -- and you don't want to Monday morning quarterback", Coucilman Motznik began tentatively. "I want to say, too much responsibility -- maybe pulled in too many different directions at once."