Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday: Everything but the Politics (Kinda)

Important things first.

"They're clearly the best team in the division," Steelers safety Ryan Clark told reporters. "I'd give my left arm to play them again.'' Maybe in the playoffs. (T. Star, Garth Woolsey)

Ryan Clark is being classy, but I'm sorry. Did anyone watch that game and witness the Bengals playing like some kind of elite team? Did anyone see the Steelers playing -- um, period? The Benglas performed pretty well, but it was the Black and Gold putting in a very grey and bronze effort which was the problem.

If this all gets the Steelers players humble and keyed up for next time (and there will be a next time), then great. But I'm not buying what the sports media is selling this week about the Bengals. I sure hope the Bengals are, though.


Here we go again:

The 2006 restructuring dealt only with elementary, K-8 and middle schools. DeJong's plan would close two high schools -- Oliver on the North Side and Peabody in East Liberty -- with entrenched identities. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Comments reserved until I learn what I might be talking about.


Lots of people are commenting on the proposed Student Tax and what we might do instead in its place. The Mayor asked for ideas and he's starting to get them, though none of them are perfect yet.

Rep. Bob Freeman suggests taking the 18 percent tax on wine and liquor -- long called the "Johnstown Flood Tax" because it was implemented to meet the 1936 crisis -- and dedicate it to Pennsylvania's ongoing, slow-motion nightmare of city financing. (P-G, Brian O'Neill)

That'd be great, except elsewhere in the article we are assured it won't happen.

Yarone Zober, Ravenstahl's chief of staff, said the mayor has spoken with Mr. Freeman about his bill and welcomes any relief to communities that host tax-exempt organizations. Mr. Zober said when the mayor met with university presidents a couple of weeks ago, he didn't specifically mention this bill, but told them, "We need your help. We need you to be lobbying in our behalf." (ibid)

Well -- why won't it happen? Can we organize something? Get a few more folks involved?

And if the Governor is the problem -- what do our gubernatorial hopefuls think about the idea?

At day's end, Luke's Fluke is the direct result of Ravenstahl's refusal to cut costs when and where he could have in years past. Consolidation of city functions -- purchasing, parks, trash collection, snow removal, insurance, street repair and others -- with their direct counterparts in Allegheny County government would be a good start. (Trib, Joseph Sabino Mistick)

I would have loved to see that as well on its own merits, but in fairness there is some question as to whether the cost savings would have totaled those figures and have been realized in the short-term.

But if Ravenstahl really believes that all our nonprofits should be contributing more for city services, he should show some political courage, fight them head-on and not try to get to them through our kids. (ibid)

That is good stuff.

Meanwhile it should be noted that Doug Shields was the first to strongly recommend to the ICA that it must get together and make a ruling on the Student Tax, adding:

Believe me, I’ve already heard from a number of city residents who presently pay their fair share of wage and property taxes who would be paying “more than their fair share” because they are also enrolled in a post secondary educational institution within the city. If this is to be enacted I would argue that there is going to be a need for exemptions. (Correspondence)

And Bill Peduto sent out an e-mail to supporters with the subject, "Moving Backward" also assailing the tax, and advising of an announcement probably later in the week of a "better idea" for balancing the budget.


Health care! Yeeeeaargh!

In this case it's everyone's moral imperative (those who oppose abortion rights do so with the same authentic moral fervor as those who support them) against everyone's other moral imperative (those who believe decent health care is a human right versus those who believe it is no such thing). (P-G, David Shribman)

It sounds like Shribman has intentionally or unintentionally bought into a conservative framework of the issue. Advocates for public health care do not need to believe that decent health care is a human right (and many of them don't). They only need to believe it is a good idea if you are a country. I do not believe for example that regular oil changes are a basic automotive right to which my car is entitled. However, I know that if I don't change its oil regularly it will run poorly and break down on me, and then I'll be a sad sack public transportation and walking person, and my options and earning potential will be limited. We're not asking for health care to be humane -- we're asking for health care so we can get back to beating up on China and the E.U.

Elsewhere in Schrib's column, I think he runs afoul of 2PJ's frequent point that Stupak does not simply prohibit funding of abortions, but strongly disincentivizes plans in the private sector from offering the option of covering abortions.


Back to the City. As if pensions weren't bad enough:

"[The 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 2006 Chrysler Sebring convertible and 2007 Buick Lucerne are] totaled," [a guy from Squirrel Hill] said. "It's heartbreaking." (P-G, Rich Lord)

There! Cars! Are you interested in the Water Authority yet, Pittsburgh??

On Friday, Mr. Kenney confirmed that the authority has been considering a 5 percent rate increase since September. A draft budget includes a $9 million gap, half of which would be filled from the rate hike, the other half from the authority's $38 million savings account. A board vote could come Dec. 11.

The authority didn't raise rates this year or last, but before that had raised rates every year from 2003 through 2007, compounding to a 50 percent hike. (ibid)

And that will only pay for the right to continue to be in this deteriorating situation.

Last year the authority's debt surpassed that of the city government, which has a budget three times the size of the water system's. That was driven by the authority's decision to enter into a complex $414 million debt package that included instruments called swaps, in which the authority and finance firms make payments to each other. The amounts of the payments shift as variable rate debt interest rates change. (ibid)

That made a bad situation almost comedic. And it was not impossible to know at the time that that maneuver was a risky maneuver to make on the behalf of the public, and we should remember that. But here we are.

The region, and authority, will likely turn to the federal government for help, but can't count on getting much, said Mr. Strauss. "That's like planning on the tooth fairy," he said. (ibid)

You know what? If you have baby teeth, and you know your parents are attentive and at least somewhat affluent, then relying on the tooth fairy is a safe bet.

We can demonstrate that we are dealing with other problems. This is public infrastructure. Much of these are legacy costs that do not even particularly fall into the "poor decisions of the past" category. There is still a favorable atmosphere for "economic stimulus". We should be able to make a strong case here. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised we haven't heard anything already.


  1. Who sold the swaps anyway?

  2. Much of these are legacy costs that do not even particularly fall into the "poor decisions of the past" category.

    Maybe not "poor decisions" per se, but "decisions not made because I want to keep my (political) job". Face it, NO ONE in any government job or authority made, makes or wants to make tough decisions, including proper rate increases, saying "NO!" to Unions (actually, that should be "HELL NO! You WILL take a pay cut. You WILL take job cuts. You WILL pay more for your health insurance. You WILL take a cut in your pension.") Then, and only then will legacy costs be properly addressed.

    Never gonna happen, though. I hope to be out of PA by the time the sh*t hots the fan in 2-3 years... moving South. Gladly. PA and Western PA, in particular, is a cesspool.

  3. Is it true that John Verbanac and friends made money on the water deal (finder's fee by arranging the financing) and that he stands to profit from the lease of the parking authority assets? Seems very curious that Verbanac worked so hard to push the pension deal through Harrisburg, until when you see that he was pushing it through as linked to the lease of the parking assets. THIS is what Tom Corbett should be looking into.

  4. Anon 7:52 - Since Greg Zappala brokered the bond swaps, its very likely John Verbanac profited off them. Whether either or both is continuing to accrue profit as our fees and interest skyrocket I have no idea.

    Similarly, it's becoming widely rumored that Verbanac stands to gain from the parking garage leases, but what we don't have yet is an actual link to any actual client.

    Would either be.a reason to interest a prosecutor? Depends. Making a profit is not illegal. Not unless there was a quid pro quo made with a public official and the right phone was tapped. But that's pretty fantastic. More likely, if the same cronies keep reaping profits off a city in all its transactions despite some of them working to its detriment, that should call for a political / popular remedy. Ideally.

  5. After reading Doug's "correspondence" that you reference, it is eminently clear that he needs an editor for his written, as much as his verbal, communication.

    While his letter to McNees contains some needed off-the-cuff analysis, it also relies on a fair amount of rhetorical smoke screens (again, like his conversational style). For instance, straw men, like this:

    "So far as I can tell, the administration’s present legal position rests solely upon their interpretation that education is a “privilege” and therefore taxable."

    Well, yeah, PUBLIC elementary and secondary education are a right, not a privilege, but that's not what we're talking about. Higher education is still not guaranteed to all, ya gotta have the grades and/or the dough to get in.

    So as always, Doug gets points for stepping to the plate, but too many swings and misses too often sends him back to the dugout.