Friday, December 18, 2009

Spoken Like a Scientist!

Google is moving its local offices from CMU campus to two floors in Bakery Square, and is said to be "aggressively hiring" to fill the rest of that new space.

"I'm so happy!" said Audrey Russo, president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. "Our self-esteem should start to go up now, don't you think?" (P-G, Erich Schwartzel)

Whattaya' think, Pittsburgh? (& see also Pgh Is A City)

And by the by: is this whole continuing Barack Obama / Bill and Melinda Gates / Google megacloud swirling over the City okay with everybody? KCool...

Brian O'Neill's Call to Arms: "CONVENE!"

By now you will all have reviewed Mr. O'Neill's proposal:

Using whatever grammar we like, Pennsylvanians need to take a cleaver to our oversized, over-compensated statehouse and begin anew. (P-G, Brian O'Neill)

And then again:

If there's a state constitutional convention (as we surely must have), changing the me-me-me culture of Harrisburg should be Job One. Mr. Dawida, for one, suggests that a convention shrink the size of the Legislature by 20 percent, depoliticize the redistricting process and set term limits of, say, 12 years. (P-G, Brian O'Neill 2)

First of all, I'd like to recommend that if we do this, the big heavy rock at the tip of our battering ram should not be "an online petition". Those are not so intimidating -- people fully apprehend how little physical and psychic commitment goes into affixing a name onto a computer form. Get those people on the streets with paper and pen, or with quills and cameras if possible.

Secondly, I'd like juxtapose Mr. O'Neill's frustration at Harrisburg with a portfolio published recently by PoliticsPA:

The Pennsylvania Influencers list is made out of the Commonwealth's top business, legal and civic leaders, whose opinions are respected by peers and elected officials alike. The writers consulted with a wide variety of geographically and politically diverse individuals who helped identify these 100 people as the "insiders who insiders turn to when in need." The group is a mix of donors, organizers, confidants and consultants. These are the people whose opinions matter in the Keystone State. (View from Burgh Chair --> .pdf)

The single-issue magazine came out just in time to hype the year's annual Pennsylvania Society dinner held in New York City. It is divided into the top 50 Democrats and the top 50 Republicans. John Verbanac is listed 40th or so and as a Democrat -- which is fair enough work for an anonymous blog that's good at "influencing" things.


My points about the Influencers in regards to a possible Constitutional Convention are as follows:

1. I imagine things are the way they are in Harrisburg because individuals such as the 100 Greatest Influencers are generally content with it. Lots of stability, lots of protective inertia, power spread thinly and accumulating in predictable, trustworthy nodes of control. A culture of, "Wait your turn and earn your stripes first," and then, "You can do anything you want." Difficult for the average person to use, easy for the right persons to operate reliably.

2. Do we imagine the prospect of a Constitutional Convention along with it's stated aims will earn support, neutrality or opposition from most of the 100 Greatest Influencers? (It is worth going through and asking them. They are not all History's Greatest Monsters.)

3. Nevertheless I believe most of them would be sorely disinclined to see slashed the number of their clients legislators to petition, to see cut short the reigns of some of their favorite and most dearly cultivated vendors legislative leaders, or to see reformed the agreeable, "civilized" way in which we manage redistricting every decade.

4. So. While I'm dubious about a Convention ever being convened, I'm not above capitalizing on that inspirational concept to stoke political demand for those specific reforms: overall shrinkage, modest term limits and neutral redistricting. Make no mistake -- those are necessary reforms in that body.

And if we're going to circumvent the Influencers, it's probably best to do so with a measure of populism.

5. Which means more tea parties. Much respect 2 online petitions, but if I've learned one thing about politicians it's that nothing scares 'em like a bunch of feisty people showing up uninvited.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Parking Authority Hires Yet Another Consultant, Will Pay It Instead of City *

This blog post will expand as time allows, but the questions begged in this news (P-G, Rich Lord) should be immediately apparent.

For background on the policy, see this archival post from the New Pittsburgh Hoagie (and many other sources).

Maybe it begs one main question -- what are the five four board members of the Authority purported to be experts in, if they can't make decisions on anything?

Morgan Stanley has been paid $3 million out of a prospective deal to manage its brokering, and Scott Balice was paid just $30,000 to provide "a second set of eyes." Now $600,000 out of the city's operating budget is being paid to "a consultant" to analyze the final decision, and upload its findings to a closed network -- for which we are paying an additional $25,000 to a company called Transperfect.*

SLOGAN SUGGESTION: "It's better than transparent -- It's Transperfect".

From the home page:

Virtual Data Rooms (VDRs) can shorten the due diligence process by over a month. TransPerfect Deal Interactive offers the fastest VDR solution in the industry, allowing you to host and close transactions in record time.

I'm picturing the Director of Finance, the Director of Operations *-UPDATE: the Chairman or Director of the Parking Authority, and the Manger of Policy all bursting into Council Chambers one day, screaming "Sell! Sell!"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

R.I.P.: Fred Honsberger, Local Talker

See link: KDKA.

In addition to many notable achievements, Fred Honsberger defeated a notable blogger way back in 2005.

Fred ran a great show, and I always enjoyed listening to or watching him. Period. He could do a straight-into-camera take that deserves mentioning in the same breath as Johnny Carson. And you could tell he cared. My sympathies to his family and loved ones.

BELATED ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Penn Hills police officer Michael Crawshaw. Gunned down in the line of duty, like so many others on our streets and overseas. The Hons Man would not wish to jump out in front of any of them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hoeffel: Pittsburgh Needs More Revenue. [*]

"I do know that Pittsburgh needs more options for local taxes," Pennsylvania candidate for governor Joe Hoeffel said yesterday afternoon, on a conference call with "progressive bloggers" from across the state.

"It's bad for a government to rely on one tax so heavily -- and the property tax is such an unfair tax!" He made reference to lost homes and a weak correlation between property value and ability to pay.

The Governor of Pennsylvania gets to appoint the chair of the 5-member Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), as well as directly appoint or influence the appointment of many officials at the ICA and at the Act 47 Team -- the two bodies which govern Pittsburgh money matters. Pittsburgh was declared a financially distressed city six years ago, and receives some state protections along with increased state oversight.

When asked about the possibility of a Commuter Tax, the Montgomery County commissioner pointed out that Philadelphia employs a "significant" Wage Tax on all persons who work in the City -- which is similar in function to Pittsburgh's Occupational Privilege Tax, which sometimes itself gets called a Commuter Tax. Some in Pittsburgh have considered raising that tax from $52 to about $150 annually, but the oversight boards and the state have not gone along. He says he would favor something along those lines for Pittsburgh.

"The Mayor -- acting in good faith -- proposed what I think is a bad idea," that being the Tuition Tax now being considered. "But I can't really criticize him for proposing it, because the City needs more revenue."

On levying a "payroll preparation" tax on the non-profits, he said, "That's tricky" due to the legal issues, but that he does not yet know enough about Pittsburgh's notions in that regard. *

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has often stated that "it's irresponsible to say 'you can't do this' without coming up with a solution to the problem." State Auditor General Jack Wagner -- another candidate for governor -- said today of the Tuition Tax that "it is not a time to increase taxes."


Earlier during the call, Hoeffel repeated his call to exploit Pennsyvlania's natural resources for jobs and energy, and his call to levy an Extraction Tax that coal, oil and other energy companies would pay to cover environmental remediation.

"That's the only way to deal with it in an intelligent way."

Since some damage can not be remediated -- the wrong ground water well gets contaminated, for example, and that's it -- Hoeffel was asked whether it would also be necessary to strengthen regulatory oversight and roll back relatively recent "streamlining" among permitting bodies.

"I think we have to, if not reverse it, we have to catch up to these environmental issues," Hoeffel said. "D.E.P. has to step up to the plate, and has to have the funding to do so." This returned him to the Extraction Tax.


Hoeffel also reemphasized his call on Tom Corbett and the other gubernatorial candidates to support state bills that would expand both hate crime and anti-discrimination legislation to include protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

One voice on the call pointed out that Hoeffel has one of the only websites that makes clear his position on abortion.

"I'm not sure why they don't stress these issues," Hoeffel said of his Democratic opponents, upon being asked. "I'm trying to set an example. I'm gonna lead by example."


Hoeffel had recently returned from the Pennsylvania Society weekend retreat in New York.

"First of all, it was oversubscribed," Hoeffel informed us. "1,500 people packed into the Waldorf Astoria."

In addition to his attendance at that event, he also hosted a "midnight reception" at the W Hotel across the street.

"You know, a little edgier. We called it 'Hoeffel After Dark'."

He said that although this was his first time at the society's Dinner, he'd been to "the event" before. During this year's political pilgrimage he had the honor of speaking before the PA Manufacturers' Association -- as one out of only three Democrats accorded a speaking role at that event. He says he just laid out his usual ideas regarding jobs and environmental concerns.

"It was ... well received."

*-UPDATE: At a campaign event in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty, Hoeffel clarified his remakrs about allowing Pittsburgh to explore a Payroll Preparation Tax that can be applied to some of its largest nonprofits (e.g. the "Eds" and "Meds").

"I don't want to come off sounding too negative about that idea," he said. "I think it's a very appropriate tax base."

Yesterday's Meeting on the Student Tax

So here's what happened yesterday:

Council member Theresa Kail-Smith led a televised special session of Council on the proposed Tuition Tax and on the City of Pittsburgh's desperate financial straits. It included four or five university heads and leaders -- including Pitt's Mark Nordenberg -- and of course the rest of the fairly evenly divided-over-the-tax Council members, and also the Mayor.

Mayor Ravenstahl sat sort of squeezed in to the left of Chair Smith, nudged into a corner, but was given generous leave to have a turn at speaking whenever necessary or appropriate. The whole format was uncommonly free-wheeling but fundamentally organized.

The one rule most frequently enforced by the Chair was that everybody should "focus on solutions". Of course that did not always happen -- there were recriminations on both sides sprinkled around fairly liberally -- but the discussion proceeded adroitly.


Especially once Tonya Payne got to it.

"Let's say, hypothetically," she said, and this is not an exact quote but it is very, very close, "and I hate to even say 'hypothetically', but let's say hypothetically we table this on Wednesday. What's your move?"

There was a low chuckle or two and then a silence. Motznik was looking suitably shocked and impressed.

"No really, what's your move?"

The University presidents said some stuff about being productive, figuring out a better way to solve these problems, working together, early in the year, not waiting until November and another year's budget deadline to get on it. Acknowledgments all around that trust is a huge issue and we need to start actively, seriously and urgently soon.

Motznik said he hates the tax but he hated having to raise property taxes or slash city services worse. "That's who I represent." He also asserted that the meeting didn't seem to be very productive and that nothing had changed.


Reverend Burgess talked about certain legislation he has authored, something that has earned the unanimous support of all City of Pittsburgh elected officials (what was it going to be? Zoning, maybe?) --legislation having to do with the formal acceptance of PILOTs. First of all, it would make non-profit contributions no longer anonymous under the umbrella of the Public Service Fund. Second, it sets up the formal legislative authorization to accept them and I suppose to stipulate certain assurances in return. He challenged the university presidents to take advantage of that and hand over the money.

In the event that offer is not seized upon, Burgess also said he's going to try to amend the bill so that the Tuition Tax won't kick in until July 1. In any event he'll vote for it.

Burgess also talked about the two sides as two warring armies or rival gangs. He wants to be a negotiator, but both sides want to have a "shooting war". We shouldn't have one, and this tuition tax will start one, so don't make us go through with it and start shooting.

This "shooting war" is a lengthy legal battle, which will necessarily precipitate an even fiercer and wider media battle. Politicians complaining about Pittsburgh's own rip-off universities. Universities talking about how awful the politics have gotten in Pittsburgh. Everybody in the world made increasingly aware that the City is in state oversight and a financial basket case. Real scorched-earth material.

So Burgess is willing to enact the tax, but wants to hold off on "collection" until July. It seems like what the Rev wants to do is fire a warning shot -- in a room where everyone has guns, and everyone has someone from the other side locked between his or her cross hairs, and many have itchy trigger fingers. But he wants to avoid a fight.


Dowd started talking, and everyone got up and left. No not everyone -- but Ravenstahl and Payne and Motznik and maybe some other people at least, not to mention most of the reporters.

Dowd said, "Well, it's clear something's changed", and talked about how "in 2011, I'll have to vote for something," meaning most likely some kind of tax, somewhere, on something. "I can't be against everything."

Darlene Harris said some things, mostly supportive of the tuition tax idea in comparison to other alternatives. Kraus meanwhile was opposed. Ditto Peduto, who called it "taxing debt", and potentially "the most regressive tax in the state". Ditto Shields, who called the old Act 47 plan a "pack of lies and garbage". Kail-Smith seemed genuinely solutions-oriented throughout, and just a little sharp toward Burgess regarding his extremely frank and passionate negotiations, and the many allusions to warfare.

ANALYSIS: If I know one thing about Tonya Payne, it's that she's all about the community first. And at this point I think she's legislator enough to admit that her constituents educated her, brought many valid concerns to her attention -- and that's a good thing -- and besides which the tax will not be taken "off the table" like the universities demanded. There will be a vote to table the tax, not to shelve it or defeat it. Future Councils can always decide to enact it when future Councils feel that it is appropriate.

For this Council to now authorize a tuition tax "ambush" sometime out into the future would set a foul precedent -- I think everybody can see that.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Glance Over at the Five-Oh

Now this is a story about the police department and the Mayor that I care about.

On December 11, 2009, the ACLU and CCR filed an amended complaint in the case alleging that the police engaged in a deliberate campaign of harassment and intimidation that prevented the two climate and environmental-justice organizations from organizing and supporting demonstrations. (ACLU)

Local police leadership over the G20 period made some rash decisions based on political passions. The results were frequently pretty ugly. I want to live in a free, politically vibrant and welcoming city with safe and active college campuses. I would be uncomfortable moving forward to the next world event (or even local event!) without a thorough legal accounting.

This is a story that I don't care about, no matter how hard I've tried:

Mr. Ravenstahl declined to answer questions about Cmdr. Trosky's role in his protection. (P-G, Jonathan D. Silver)

Well, strike what I just said: the Chief probably should not have changed civil service rules in 2007 to allow Mr. Trosky to make the leap to Commander so quickly. Those rules were probably in place for a reason -- something to do with decreasing tensions within the police department just exactly like this. Similarly, rules against berating and cursing at subordinate officers, to say nothing of drinking on duty, are probably in place to ensure an efficient level of morale and smooth operations all around. Perhaps a vigorous refresher and some serious reflection is in order.

The Mayor however deserves broad latitude in determining who gets to serve on his or her own personal security detail, how and when he or she wants to, without explanation -- so long as employment and civil law is not being violated. Period.

Anything else is a matter for the new Director of Personnel. Welcome aboard! It's a fun job.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Return of City-County Consolidation; or Solvency via Rapture

I never supported the unilateral consolidation of the City of Pittsburgh into Allegheny County -- and I still do not.

But the argument proffered today by Duquesne University chancellor and former ICA big shot John E. Murray Jr. in the Post-Gazette is delivered with such impeccable timing, and with such refreshing frankness and focus, that it deserves to be seized upon by all of us as a challenge to produce something better.

The tuition tax, even if determined to be legal, would be another Band-aid. (ibid)

Yes. That is correct. Neither the $15 million per year this imaginative tax would generate nor certainly the annual $5 million we are requesting in its stead would be near enough to sustain Pittsburgh through the end of its debt plateau in 2017, especially given yet-to-be-determined mushrooming of our pension payments.

But the essential solution is not to tax more; it is to spend less. (ibid)

In point of fact, we need to do both. If today we were to wave a magic wand, undergo a lightening-fast political enlightenment and commence cutting with enormous political courage, we would still retain enormous obligations from the past to pay in full. And those few agitating for bankruptcy should understand that bankruptcy judges realize that governments possess more options for revenue generation than individuals and businesses. Governments are too powerful to be given permission to fail easily. Since governments can access pools of taxpayer funds from hundreds of avenues, they might be compelled to do so -- brutally -- if we ever went down that road. So we need to pay for all the irresponsible decisions of the past -- of decades ago and of months ago -- whether we like it or not. Period.

So we need to raise the right taxes -- and a commuter tax and our non-profit payroll preparation tax are both truly fair, utterly commonplace and fully responsible options that would be available to us, if the state legislature and its oversight boards ever roused themselves from their own narrow political machinations or tired of resisting.

And at the same time, we need to reform our government practices -- from switching our employee benefits packages to defined contribution plans and 401(k)s, to bargaining aggressively with our unions at the conclusion of every single contract from now on with the aim of dramatically shrinking our payroll expenditures, to closing every police station and fire house that neutral outside public safety experts advise us we can, to consolidating every service appropriate with the County and other governments starting with Public Works.

What we do not need to do is this:

The city should have appropriate representation on the non-salaried County Council and a professional manager, similar to a borough manager, working under the authority of the county chief executive. (ibid)

Thanks but no. We will not allow ourselves to be managed by an unelected and necessarily less visible bureaucratic appointee. We will not put all our faith in County Council, upon which the city already enjoys proportional representation, but which can never be constituted to adequately address, understand or even notice all the challenges of city life. And we will not imagine for a second that our County government, given its comparatively slender portfolio of present responsibilities yet its own extremely significant financial problems, is any better capable of tackling these issues than our existent suite of City representatives.

The solutions to our problems do not lie in handing them over laterally, or up to somebody better suited. Walk the earth and try to find naturally superior politicians -- you will be gone a long time. The solutions lie in hunkering down and bringing the tactics of all our political schools and ideologies to bear without prejudice, like people with something immediate and personal at stake.

It is in fact human nature, not Yinzer nature, to resist change and delay hard work until crisis is upon us. Well, here we are. Bring it on.