Monday, March 23, 2009

Monday: The Best Part of Waking Up**

On Wednesday of last week, Patrick Dowd scored what might have been a tidy little legislative coup for his election prospects:

Longtime city of Pittsburgh homeowners with low incomes would no longer have to apply annually for a property tax break under a bill tentatively approved by City Council yesterday.

Instead, under Councilman Patrick Dowd's legislation, residents 50 and older would only have to fill out the city's Act 77 tax relief form once. Then they would have their assessments frozen until they moved or reported an increase in income.

"We hear from folks that it is unfair that they have to fill this out every year," said Mr. Dowd of the Act 77 form. (P-G, Team Effort)

The vote was not unanimous.

Councilman Ricky Burgess abstained, because he had questions about how the city would know if, say, a senior homeowner won the lottery and no longer qualified for the benefit. (P-G, ibid)

That seemed like a reasonable counterargument. Dowd's immediate response was that "we should assume honesty in the taxpayer", which is not something I think it's ever necessarily that wise to assume when it comes to money.

By Friday, however, the thrust of Burgess's objection had shifted.

Councilman Ricky Burgess yesterday floated legislation, to be introduced Tuesday, that would bar budget-busting spending or tax cuts unless they were offset by cuts elsewhere, or driven by emergencies or court orders. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Sort of like pay-as-you-go budgeting.

"I do believe the recent legislation sponsored by Councilman Dowd unintentionally ... creates a deficit without showing how that deficit will be addressed," said Mr. Burgess. "When we pass it, we must also discuss how we're going to eliminate $1.2 million from expenses."

That figure is based on Finance Department estimates that 4,000 more seniors would get about $300 off their tax bills under Mr. Dowd's proposal. (P-G, ibid)

The rationale for this extreme budgetary sensitivity is the razor-wire thin, low five-digit surpluses projected in the outlying years of our five-year budget projections. Any modest shrinkage in revenue would seem to totally upset the applecart in 2012 and 2013.

That strikes me as a less compelling argument for two reasons. Firstly, there is Dowd's position that the $1.2 million is "not properly city money" anyway, seeing as how the city code already affords the tax break, and the annual paperwork is an unfortunate hurdle to receiving it.

More interesting, however, is the very nature of these present five-year projections. Dowd contended at his rally on Thursday that in response to other kinds of queries, City Finance Director Scott Kunka informed him, "The five year plan is just a piece of paper!" -- a real boo, grumble and hiss line, meant to further illustrate Dowd's longstanding point that the Ravenstahl / ICA plan is based on cosmetics and folly any darn way.

We'll see how it all shakes out.

Burgess publicly floated other legislation last week calling for voter referendums to approve any pay raises for elected officials in the future.

**-CORRECTIONS: However, that had to be may well be reeled back, as the Law Department had may have concerns that it would violate the Home Rule Charter.

Months ago, Burgess also pushed legislation that would have compelled a speedy completion of a new Act 47 Revised and Amended Recovery Plan. This was passed by Council yet vetoed by the mayor -- a veto that was accepted because it did have legal issues.

Aside from these, the Reverend has most frequently been in the news advancing legislation reconnoitering historic designation statutes vis a vis property rights.


Bad boys bad boys, watchagonna do?

* - UPDATE: Updated Dowd press release here: [Google documents] A snippet:

This sort of governance hurts us all. Think of the businesses. They look at the city and say, "No way. I don't want to do business with them. No way. I don't want to locate in a city that operates like that." When city government is for sale, businesses leave.


Mr. Ravenstahl, whose campaign is significantly funded by firms that do business with the city, said he allows "no quid pro quos. ... I would argue that the time frames of when these contributions are being made, if they would happen to be around the same time [as contracts], are coincidence rather than something that is planned. Oftentimes [contributions] are made around fundraisers." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Mr. Ravenstahl, Mr. Walko of the Water Authority and others seem to favor leaping directly into the "no quid pro quo" argument when it comes to defending these patterns.

That always struck me as a cynical and legalistic argument. As long as the characters around the table are careful not to enunciate or write down, "I'll give you this, DUH, if you give me that", then supposedly everybody is in the clear -- even if it is obvious there is mutual backscratching going on to a degree that it would not be occurring if the backscratching were not so conspicuously mutual.

By lunging for the quid pro quo line, it's like people are already preparing themselves for court, without pausing to consider that it could be just plain wrong.

Though the article seems to amount to a lot of new prose about an old issue, the meat of the drama is contained in this "Pay to Play?" chart. I'm not sure which contracts and contributions should stand out most strikingly therein, but the information is all nicely assembled for figuring that out.

Chad Hermann has some interesting thoughts about the article's placement in the print edition. I'd find it hard to justify an above-the-fold banner headline -- there's little new news here except Post-Gazette Newsroom Completes Data Entry -- but at the same time the tiny bottom left hand corner treatment seemed to do the work a real disservice.

Don't overlook...

The Trib examines Carmen Robinson's tumultuous history in the Pittburgh police department. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

And finally...

What in blazes was the Trib's Joseph Sabino Mistick talking about?? I mean, really? Could it possibly have been similar matters to which I had alluded from the Bloomberg piece contained within this post?

I can be intentionally unclear at times, but if Joe set out to be any more cryptic he'd have to use a cipher and employ an albino monk.


  1. That seemed like a reasonable counterargument. Dowd's immediate response was that "we should assume honesty in the taxpayer", which is not something I think it's ever necessarily that wise to assume when it comes to money.

    Well, if people are lying on their tax returns, we have a bigger problem than the act 77 money...

  2. Making a tax freeze is a guarantee way to advance corruption, unfairness, and plant all sorts of other bad karma nasty ramifications.

    This is politics 101 for dummies and Dowd seems to be the one who wants to go there now.

    Pandering. Unsustainable. Unethical in the end.

    The entire Allegheny County re-assessment boondoggle came about because of a 'freeze mentality.' Their bogus fix is a turn-back the clock solution. Live in the past. Stay there.

    Meanwhile, the city and region shrink some more.

    Dowd, or someone else, should take the high road on these important matters of self governance.

  3. CarolN - Yup. I wonder how efficient Pittsburgh is at catching tax errors. As I remember, the Controller's office was decimated in negotiations w/ oversight boards.

    Mark - As I understand it, we already have a tax freeze. This is just a way to ensure that it is executed uniformly.

    As to pandering -- unethical only if it's not a good idea. Is this a good idea? It seems at least equitable.

  4. The HUDDLER thinks that Rev Burgess has been a MAJOR disappointment.

    What has the good Reverend accomplished during his tenure on council?

    Word on the street is that his council district continues to suffer as he preaches from his council pulpit.

  5. A tax freeze is never equitable as life never stops.

  6. Well, your life could stop. My life will stop too, some day. So, some life stops.

    Time never stands still, is perhaps, the better way to say why a tax freeze is never equitable.

  7. Presumably the PG's placement of the story is based on how much they want to antagonize the likely winner of the next mayoral election, versus how much they want to report something they think is news-worthy. Unfortunately, things that are of interest to the blogging community are possibly, maybe probably not as interesting to the rest of the PG's readership.

    As for the motives of both Pat Dowd and Ricky Burgess, neither seems to have really bad motivations. For the overwhelming majority of the people who qualify for an Act 77 exemption, their income will not changeover the rest of their lifetime. Perhaps the Reverend could inquire with the State about the City being notified if anyone wins a significant lottery prize (say, more than ten thousand dollars). One supposes this frozen assessment thing could be a means for the children of the elderly to update and improve their parents house while they wait for them to die, so it could be sold for a profit. Except in Pittsburgh housing prices aren't all that exciting anyway, unless the house happens to be a tonier neighborhood anyway. Except for Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and the nice view part of Mount Washington, most of the better neighborhoods are outside the City anyway. And I suspect houses might be reassessed once the ownership changes.

  8. C'mon! No love for the land/building tax split?