Monday, October 18, 2010

Monday: The CPRB; the CELDF; & the PMRS

The Citizens Police Review Board has suffered a rash of conclusive indignities recently. Whether it was the matter of once-controversial new board appointees winding up mundanely and anti-climatically confirmed, or the universally respected Judge Wettick neutering it by invoking the Criminal History Record Information Act in the city's and the Chief's defense, or the outright unfortunate situation of its legal counsel being handcuffed by executive red tape (that one guy just has the worst luck getting his invoices approved!), it is being shown to be even more powerless than we have grown accustomed to seeing it -- and that's saying much.

Add to that the frustrations surrounding officers who now stand accused of excessive force, assault and battery in the Jordan Miles affair in Homewood remaining in paid limbo now for a tenth month with no investigatory conclusions forthcoming, and of the city being unable to enforce disciplinary policies on its cops even when it would clearly like to do so, and one has to start wondering wherein our problems lie.

Somewhere between Pittsburgh's consenting to host the world with all its tensions and anxieties as part of the G-20 Summit, and our purchase of an insurance policy to cover blithely anticipated legal liabilities connected with seeing that project through, Pittsburgh lost the conceit of having a homey, independent, meaningful review process to which its police are in some way subject. Now even for more humdrum, everyday instances of alleged misconduct, that conceit may not return. Having reached what is hopefully the nadir of our confidence in our current institutional and legal frameworks, it is perhaps a good time for our leaders to take a few sizable steps back and retool our approaches to the general difficulty.


Can anyone read this article and not come away with the impression that Councilman Patrick Dowd's approach to combating Marcellus Shale drilling impacts in Pittsburgh -- i.e. zoning law -- is more prudent than Councilman Doug Shields's extremely well-intentioned, noble, righteous, valiant and ultimately groundless approach, i.e. a municipal drilling ban, which has been offered endlessly and fruitlessly by CELDF?

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund should really think about becoming the Community Environmental Legal Prosecution Fund; it would probably gain a lot more yardage. It sounds as though individual and aggregate aggrieved parties will have under the state Constitution the right to sue drilling industry companies, and maybe even those governments which negligently enable them, once their water or air is poisoned. Yet not before, at least not quite yet via injunction.

Not encouraging. But at the same time, we just listened to a gubernatorial debate in which the leading candidate proudly boasted not of eschewing a drilling moratorium, not of strengthening the Oil & Gas Act to allow for more local control, but for not even deigning to tax the tumultuous extraction of this precious resource from our earth one penny. Can't even tax it! If the grassroots were ablaze over hindering the gas industry, that would be one thing -- but we are sailing into a bitter political headwind. A senseless one, but bitter and merciless.

Best to protect ourselves, our neighbors, and our most important watersheds as best we can, while science and experience make absolutely clear the depredations that are most definitely going to be inflicted elsewhere.


The city's present Comprehensive Municipal Pension Trust Fund (CMPTF) is run by a board. The Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System (PMRS) is also run by a board.

One can immediately see some similarities -- CMPTF's Joe King and Rich Ruffalo, for instance, have counterparts in PMRS's William Junkin and Barry Sherman to represent for fire fighters and police officers respectively. However in the CMPTF, four officials represent for the public sphere (interestingly, Controller Michael Lamb and City Council President Darlene Harris count among them) whereas in PMRS there are six seats allocated to township supervisors, county commissioners, municipal authorities, boroughs, township commissioners and finally to cities. Each subset elects their board representative through its own fashion of statewide civic association.

A board representing that much diversity is an advantage to PMRS in terms of stability, and surely also in terms of incentives. Operating a system that large is advantageous in terms of economies of scale and talent. It speaks especially well for PMRS that its secretary, James B. Allen, has survived the job since 1984, spanning five governors and three recessions.

There is precious little reason for the average 'burgher to fear the mere management of our public pension dollars being handled by PMRS instead of CMPTF. Their investment assumptions are more conservative, their operations are sleeker and cheaper, they buffer risk and reward better and they demand mature, realistic pensions funding discipline.

The City of Pittsburgh, however, would rank simply as just one among the cities which together are accorded that one seat on the board. That would be a huge come-down for this town from having seven wholly local characters with smaller and more narrow constituencies in control of hundreds of millions of dollars. It's something to keep in mind no matter what occurs in the super short-term.


On Tuesday, it is looking more likely that City Council will irretrievably reject the parking assets lease deal with LAZ and JPMorgan. Immediately afterwords -- in my mind, ironically so -- it will open serious discussion of a last-ditch effort to deposit into our pension funds only the bare minimum requisite funding to elude an automatic PMRS takeover on January 1.

Firstly, a necessary CORRECTION: while it is true that updated data from Harrisburg will soon tell us whether we need $220 million at the low end or up to $300 million at the high end to achieve to 50% funding, Councilman Dowd made it clear with Secretary Allen during a late round of questioning that as far as State Act 44 is concerned, Pittsburgh only requires $220 million, which was taken to represent 50% funding at the time of Act 44's passage.

So then. In reality, the city will mull taking out debt of some $220 million, and mandate by default that the Parking Authority shall raise rates sufficiently, improve management and operating efficiencies sufficiently, and implement everything well enough, quickly enough to guarantee new revenue to meet the payments on that bonded debt (i.e. assume risk) and also zero-out some annual fund balances besides -- all in an effort to achieve what will actually turn out be roughly 43% total funding. In a system that will continue to have a $30 million negative annual cash flow.

And then we will pray that the state Legislature -- which next year is unlikely to be any better disposed toward cities like Pittsburgh than presently -- will not recognize the very same "train wreck" which provoked them to act initially.

I'm certainly going to head into that discussion of the bonded debt route with an open mind. Of course, my mind is not so closed to a PMRS takeover as are some -- yet all theses deserve a respectful review.

But can you understand why it's supremely irritating that a $452 million deal which erases debt and assumes no new risk -- which was judged to be of fair and even good value by Council's own consultant of choice -- is not being considered alongside this fresh specimen of public-sector brilliance?


  1. Funny - when you write a well thought out and evenhanded post you get no comments. Maybe you should go back to pushing the Burgess agenda. ;)

  2. Infinonymous's comment on this was actually pretty hysterical.

    To be fair, Monk chimed in but it was mostly a laundry list of borderline personal cheapshots at council folk. Might have passed if he weren't interned in the Comet gulag.

  3. This idea that Council needs to consider all plans all at the same time is just pathetically ill-conceived. The parking lease assumed an incredible amount of risk when you consider the lost opportunities for economic development, the "compensation events" that would be triggered at the drop of a hat, or the huge increases in parking fees in our neighborhood business districts. It was not a "risk free" plan--far from it. Not only that, but most other cities that have entered into these recent PPP arrangements have come to regret them in a big way.

    Saying that the City needed to keep it on the table to consider it with the other two options is just like saying, "Well, its Friday night and I can do three things: Go see a movie, go out to eat, or shoot myself in the face. I think I will leave all three options on the table because any one of them could be a good option."

    The mayor's parking lease was clearly a highly controversial option, that had many unsatisfactory components that ultimately made Council sour on supporting it. Not to mention that it was HUGELY unpopular. But it isn't about politics, its about making the best decision for pensioners and for taxpayers. The lease plan was good for neither.

  4. Anonymous 10:30 - Thank you for engaging.

    The very fact that details of the Council-Controller plan were released a mere hour after the lease deal was rejected, tells me that its sponsors were afraid it would have a hard time competing side-by-side with that lease. To argue at this point that the lease was so obviously, recognizably valueless that a side-by-side public analysis would be "pathetically ill-conceived" is just ... well it's intellectually dishonest, I'm sorry to say.

    And now I notice we've arrived at the mirror-image "Chicken Little" scenario; the parking lease would have been like shooting ourselves in the face.

    The compensation events couldn't be triggered exactly "at the drop of a hat"; these were fairly well-defined in the lease. If the scope of these had to be tightened or negotiated further they could have done so. I'm not convinced neighborhood business districts would crumble if meter parkers were asked to pay $2 hourly instead of $1 for a host of reasons. And it is certainly breaking news that "most cities" have lived to regret infrastructure P3's. Chicago was notably controversial only because its mayor executed the arrangement in a way this mayor must justifiably wish that he had, and that future Pittsburgh mayors will remember to unleash after witnessing this haughty political show trial.

    The lease wouldn't have been good for pensioners? Putting an extra $100 million or so into the fund wouldn't have been good for them how? And not good for TAXPAYERS? Eschewing new debt now and canceling out old debt besides, and strengthening an existing revenue stream (via the parking tax) is bad for taxpayers how? I'm not following at all.

    Even "success" for the Council-Controller plan has been defined way down now, aside from the other questions surrounding it. It's little more than a State Takeover Avoidance Measure anymore -- and a band-aid solution as far as that goes. Maybe tape and gauze.