Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tuesday: PERESTROIKA!!! (Hold The Glasnost...)

This is revolutionary news:

The changes to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Act 47 recovery plan -- which include putting some of the mayor's own proposals in writing -- focus on merging services such as payroll preparation, tax collection, computer services, personnel, parks administration, legal services and some police work.

"We're basically looking at changing the function of city government to concentrate on public safety and public works. Administrative functions would then become part of a countywide system," Peduto said. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

A productive Monday on the 5th floor, though that is not so unusual as has been rumored.

Peduto, council's Finance & Law Committee chairman, said he formed a coalition that includes members Darlene Harris, Theresa Smith, Doug Shields, Bruce Kraus and Motznik. (ibid)

Tonya Payne would not be available for this business because she seems irreconcilably bearish on the need for Act 47's existence. Ricky Burgess would not be available because he is acting as ballast for the Mayor's original position. That leaves Patrick Dowd as the mystery insurance vote for now -- a mite odd since these technocratic reforms seem right up his ally. His would make for powerful objections if they were to materialize.

According to information in this article, a very rough $10 million in annual savings could materialize from this transformation, which would be just enough to plug the budget hole. It would not be anything near enough to solve our swiftly approaching legacy costs crisis, but it should be enough to obviate the need to raise city taxes for the extent of this 5-Year Plan.

Among the proposals under discussion is the possibility of extending the city's 0.55 percent tax on payrolls to nonprofit organizations. That would require the approval of the Legislature. Anticipating the significant odds against the Legislature agreeing to that change, Mr. Ravenstahl and council members have also discussed alternatives including the imposition of fees of $25 for each hospital admissions and new levies of $50 to be paid by colleges for each undergraduate. (P-G, James O'Toole)

It's unclear whether the proposed consolidations would eliminate the thirst for some of those revenue-generating tactics.

It needs to be recognized at this point that Mayor Ravenstahl's longstanding appearance of fealty towards UPMC looks greatly diminished now by his insistence on inventing ways to tax them. This blogger hopes that even if the consolidations go through and are fruitful, the payroll prep tax continues to be vigorously pursued as a matter of justice.

While the outcome remained in question, the atmospherics of the new talks represented a distinct change in tone from the acrimony that has divided council and the administration in recent budget deliberations. (ibid)

SAKES ALIVE, I hope above all else that O'Toole is correct in that assessment. The most striking (to me) exchange during last week's budget showdown went largely unreported and spoke to its importance:

Mayor Ravenstahl frequently argued the point that without a little unity up in this City already, it would be frightfully difficult to lobby the State Legislature for any kind of relief.

Councilman Shields then brought up a couple of urgent letters he had written to Ravenstahl in the past -- one on stimulus funding, the other on the financial "meltdown" -- that he said went unanswered. Yarone Zober could be heard to sigh to his neighbor at the table, "This is what we're here to talk about?"

But Shields pressed his case in terms of Ravenstahl's unity -- and finally asked in a voice that quavered with understandable embarrassment:

"How do you have, how do you build 'unity' when you never have a standing meeting with the Council president?"

Ravenstahl -- who had not until that point been stumped or even slowed by anything the Councillors flung at him -- thereupon was at a looong loss for words. Finally he grumbled, "I'm here today."

That's when it fully dawned on me what had instantaneously dawned on Comet Senior Political Analyst Morton Reichbaum a week prior, while watching Councilman Peduto rail upon the Mayor's absence. He asked me, "Do these guys talk to each other at all?"

The answer, obviously, was no.

I hope I don't need to describe what happens when adversarial colleagues don't keep at least cordial lines of direct communication open. Frustrations fester and breed suspicion. Dark fantasies and conspiracy theories erupt. Sinister caricatures of The Other take the place of reality. And in regards to executives more especially, information about the world becomes ever more carefully and artfully filtered through only chosen subordinates. Historians never stop writing about the dangers of that.

In this instance, Shields pointed out to Ravenstahl that if he had been consulted about the proposal to triple the commuter tax before it was released to the media, agreement would have been ruled out; Shields takes the position that that seizing a big chunk from a minimum wage-earner's paycheck is cruel and unjust. And it sounded as though he'd already staked out that position politically and publicly, so he had no alternative but to oppose it moving forward. A progressively scaled tax might have went down easier.

Somewhere in the middle of the long oration which continued, Ravenstahl interjected, "I think this is part of our problem..." I wish we'd have gotten to hear the end of that thought, because it seemed like we were making progress at long last on the underlying dynamics. But Our Council President would not be stopped, so we'll have to wait for another occasion.

Now here's the beauty part: after that exchange, Peduto and Ravenstahl started going back and forth, not so much at each other's throats but rather in a kind of swift cha-cha. Bill pitched an idea, and Luke made a concession but offered a warning. Bill offered another suggestion, Luke counter-offered. It all very quickly went over my head but for a dream-like moment I thought to myself, "There's my city government! Look at them go!"

Yet all too soon arrived Councilman Kraus's fateful turn, wherein he attempted to contextualize and clarify the "beach vacation" accusations of the previous week. This led to Ravenstahl's "[Something] is a joke" moment, and right away we knew we had arrived at a deeper, tougher layer of the onion.

All of which is to say -- I hope last Wednesday's Council session really did let loose enough pressure to make genuine breakthroughs possible yesterday. I hope James O'Toole really is correct about this "distinct change in tone from the acrimony". I hope this avenue is pursued much further by all involved. If it takes more and perhaps routine rounds of quote-unquote "compelling" to achieve these dynamic results, that will be just as enjoyable to cover.


Of course, in a City as complex as ours, it will also be necessary for everyone to carefully and maturely compartmentalize their specific gripes, so as not to pollute the fragile understandings which are flowering in other arenas. I'm confident we can handle that.

Today for example, I am off to witness the Planning Commission's deliberations on the North Shore Uglitheater. With fairly widespread public opposition to the terms of the development deal in general, and near-unanimous antipathy for the facility itself, I haven't felt this kind of suspense surrounding a decision since election night in Iran.

It seems rather academic, but there is a disagreement over whether former Stadium Authority chair Debbie Lestitian was in the midst of a term on its board or whether she was acting on borrowed time. This report suggests that she was recently renominated to a new years-long term, but it also suggests a lot of things that did not in fact go down as planned.


  1. Did you change this post, between 6:00 am and 7:30? Mention of Pat Dowd appears to have disappeared. Agent Ska made some reference to a post maybe on Matt Hogue's website about Sala Udin that disappered. MattHExposed said something about a discussion about it that I also can't find.

    I'm very confused.

    Bill Peduto had released a plan for the amended Act 47 plan, shortly before the actual amended Act 47 plan came out. Peduto's plan had marching orders for the Rendell Administration and the State legislature that seemed pretty unlikely. I hate to say it, but the new plan with mergers n'at also seems kind of ambitious. I think we have to face the fact that the Feds, the state and the city all want to raise their taxes on us. Whoopie.

  2. Ed - I changed the images in the post, and some extremely minor grammatical corrections ... but the Dowd reference remains unmolested. Thank you for being a frequent reader!

  3. Bring on the discussion about merging parks. Parks, if I had been elected, would have been spun out of Citiparks and out of County and into a new 3rd entity -- with democratic controls. Not another authority.

    It is in our parks where we teacdh and learn how to play well with one another. We all need to go to the parks and work on those lessons -- NEXT.

    The parks discussions will get the gears moving and everyone on-board. Then the others will be a snap.

  4. I heard they took the NS Uglitheater off the agenda today.

  5. Sorry to disagree Mark...nothing is a 'snap' when it concerns mergers...

    The County has hired someone to study reducing energy costs and for 'Greening Up' County facilities.

    The City has embarked on a similar adventure...heading for same destination in separate craft...

    As both the City and County share the confines of the City County Building would it not make sense to perform 'studies' in microcosm rather than macrocosm?

    Not that it takes much, but it is enough to make me break out the 'Bud Light W Lime'.

  6. Maria - Yes they did. Got an e-mail from NU at 10:30 saying so, didn't update the blog; hope nobody trudged down to 200 Ross Street on my account.

    These postponement requests at the Nth hour are ANOTHER issue already.

  7. Needn’t be Rocket Scientists to see potential Energy Savings for City/County…only need wear glasses in winter:

    Egad…What ever happened to County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty’s proposal to build small Boiler Plant in proximity to the City County Building (CCB)? Plant would feed CCB, County Court House, Family Court, Municipal Court, County Office Building, Morgue and Jail.

    When proposal first appeared in print I was Mark’s biggest supporter and maybe the only one.

    Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal (PACT) currently supplies steam to aforementioned buildings... cost is out of line. Both figuratively and literally…ever walk by sidewalk chimneys? Liberty and Stanwix Street…steam plumes fogging up glasses? City and County Taxpayers pay for the heat lost through unauthorized venting to atmosphere.

    The reason I suspect Mark’s plan failed was private buildings would see their loses increase proportionately to Government savings…PACT is government subsidized inefficiency…

    Stand on any City Sidewalk, next to sidewalk chimney in January and watch your tax dollars fog up you glasses…

  8. BACK-UP

    County Exit Would Take Steam Out Of Downtown Heat Supplier P-G

    Monday, October 31, 2005

    By Jerome L. Sherman, Pittsburgh


    Allegheny County could save more than $1 million a year if it stops using steam from the miles of pipes and tunnels that run below Downtown to heat its buildings and instead installs furnaces, according to a recent report by county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty.

    Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal Ltd., or PACT, the nonprofit organization that supplies steam to about 100 Downtown buildings, has doubled its price over the past five years, the report says.

    In 2004, county government spent $2.7 million on PACT steam.


  9. why would the city relinquish the parks to the county? the county doesn't want the parks, either.

    at the county, operations is out of the parks and special events departments, maintenance and improvements are out of public works. neither of them have adequate staff for the parks facilities they currently have.

    ... for some strange reason county parks cant be unblemished green space. apparently, we need pools, fishing ponds, action parks, ADA playgrounds, dog/horse parks, firing ranges, boy/girl scout camps, soccer/softball/football/lacrosse/field hockey facilities, etc. and they want private capital to pay for it, and private enterprises to operate it...

  10. n'at

    Last time I visited South Park(County, not TV)...park looked like hell.

    County ought to sub out to Citiparks...Pittsburgh.

    Current mindset... County does better in all things, is misplaced...

    It is a suburbanite white supremacy 'cop out'...

  11. the white hairs and a few of the grays had it good under the old guard. The county provided more services than the city and state, at one point. they even provided services to other counties during emergencies.

    I say let the eds and meds take over all of these ancillary services in exchange for not taxing their beds.

  12. So Shields talks too much, often doesn't make sense and gets inappropriately dramatic. It's always been that way, but it seems like everyone's learned to work around it. When Ravenstahl matures a little more he'll learn to not get too ticked at Shields.

  13. n'at:

    Love you, man...

    You are no doubt a City Guy..

    Analmouse: Post June 25, 2009 10:27 am.

    Maybe Doug needs lesson in maturity..

    Doug could piss off the Pope!