Saturday, December 31, 2011

On Allegheny County Property Tax Follies

If we're going to have property taxes (and I'm not sold on the necessity, but here we are!) we have to reassess property values regularly -- so that perceived increases in property value don't pile up, don't go unchecked, aren't as daring when they do happen and don't ruin the stability and predictability of Allegheny dwellers' budgets. Also so that all County reassessment functions remain good at what they do over a decade.

Secondly, if we are going to reassess property values only after a rare court order, we should NOT send out tax bills to ANYBODY until ALL property in the county has been duly reassessed, the appeals exhausted, and the tax rate DULY LOWERED. Not a day before.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday: Occupy 'Till you Drop

The Comet presents another unpublished submission to the ol' P-G.

This one we began writing only this morning, so we have no idea if we're going to get a bite. And this one is intended to be column-length; actually by those standards it comes in about 100 words under the ceiling. We're probably going to use some of the balance to add some nice words about BNY Mellon's evident civility, and other positive attributes.

But now. If this online, in-progress rendering doesn't jinx it, consider this a "sneak preview" for you loyal Blur-Go-Sphere holdouts. If it fails to be published in the papyrusphere, well, here's what I have to say. Cut and paste follows:


If unemployment were low and wages high, if health care were affordable and widely accessible, if public transit options were plentiful and public schools successful and expanding, then Occupy Wall Street would not be necessary. As things stand, it is little wonder the movement has spawned franchises in over 300 cities in the United States, including at least 13 in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps no occupation sits on a site quite so appropriate as Occupy Pittsburgh. BNY Mellon Corp. is now the world's most overgrown securities and asset management firm, after the merger in 2006 which gave it its name. The juggernaut extracted $651 million in profits just during this last fiscal quarter -- but it is the sources of much of that profit that are so troubling.

BNY Mellon prevailed upon the U.S. Treasury to be hired as "master custodian" of all $700 billion in federal Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP funds. These were utilized to bail out banks deemed "too big to fail" immediately following the catastrophic failures of non-regulation and opportunism which created the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The taxpayer money went to job security and bonuses for those responsible for the economic collapse, without providing relief to homeowners and small business owners seeing their bills skyrocket.

Additionally, BNY Mellon finds itself defending fraud charges filed by several state Attorneys General and a US Attorney for having allegedly skimmed billions from public pension funds. The raft of lawsuits claim that BNY overcharged its clients for foreign currency exchanges by making purchases at the best prices available on a given day, but then providing pensioners and others with the worst prices notched on those same days.

Finally this week, BNY Mellon was sued again on behalf of three more investment funds for "gross negligence" in the administration and custodianship of a fund linked to Bernard Madoff's audaciously destructive Ponzi scheme, for which he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

Meanwhile, the lobbying and "campaign donations" -- also known as bribery -- continue stronger than ever. Those questionably-attained billions are cycled back to politics in the name of fighting attempts at consumer protection, and ensuring that as little profit as possible trickles back to public schools, public transit, public infrastructure and sustainable energy development. A favorite slogan on these occupations has been, "I couldn't afford a lobbyist, so I made this sign."

BNY Mellon is not alone in fostering this perversion of democracy, but for generations it has been a notable player. In 1921, Andrew W. Mellon graduated from banking and industrial concerns to become U.S. Treasury Secretary, urging tax cuts and "liquidating" public investments. In 1932 after the onset of the Depression, Articles of Impeachment were introduced in Congress against Mellon for wielding his public office to enrich his own and his family's aluminum, shipping and other interests -- but he resigned before he could answer these. Fast forward to this day, and we find executives from Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase similarly insinuated into government, yet the incestuous relationships produce nary an official rebuke.

In short, the country is accelerating on the wrong track, deaf to the needs of its vast majority and in a state of emergency. Drawing within the lines clearly has not been working; those lines were drawn by "the 1%" in the first place. Occupy Pittsburgh is absolutely committed to peaceful tactics, and has demonstrated that commitment to a fault over the past two months. Yet if "trespassing" on what was meant to be an "open public space" at the foot of a morally bankrupt Goliath is necessary to awaken others to extreme and immediate crises, most will gladly remain. Even if courts and public officials ultimately feel they must intervene to clear out the demonstrators, most will be eager to demonstrate how life goes on even after a bit of peaceful defiance.

Occupy Pittsburgh remains at the corner of Grant St. and 6th Ave. in Downtown Pittsburgh. You will find Old Glory flying high above its arctic tents and yurts, housing its subzero-rated sleeping bags and blankets. To take a stand at this overdue moment in American history and ensure that people and communities are prioritized over profits for a diminishing few, come together on that spot this week.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

DECEMBER: Deep Cut from the Pension Album

Right. How to get things started? How about some rare, B-side, never-before-published material?

I wrote the following letter to the P-G in the wake of its 9/22 editorial Pension Reprieve. I edited it only slightly and resubmitted it after a follow-up editorial four days later entitled Better Mayor. It was not picked up (not a criticism -- some great letters appeared on the days it might have run) but even still, it tends to stay relevant after pieces like Tackled for a Loss and most recently He's no JFK.

So without further ado:

In recent weeks, PG editorialists have bluntly set themselves the task of deposing Luke Ravenstahl as Pittsburgh's mayor. While I certainly appreciate the thrill of donning a helmet and charging into political battle, we must remember that the challenges a city faces are indifferent to simple changes of the guard.

To wit, the pension "solution" crafted by City Council and the City Controller satisfied the whim of the state Legislature but did nothing to address the underlying funding crisis. Although your editorial pointedly refused any credit to the Mayor for helping to avoid a "state takeover," the fact that underwriters and state officials credulously assented to the unprecedented arrangement is proof enough that city leaders must have been working grudgingly in concert.

Specifically, the Mayor was wise to leave certifications of compliance and his Finance Director's signature from the documentation entirely -- in some matters, discretion is the better part of valor. An I.O.U. for $735 million over 31 years time generates no present-day liquidity with which to earn interest, make investments or actually pay pensioners from an account poised to empty in a handful of years. The claim of being "62% funded" is a grand, mutually agreed-upon fiction.

Like it or not, the only solution proffered on a scale befitting the crisis was Ravenstahl's proposed leasing of public parking garages and meters to private investors. That it proved unpopular should have been no surprise, as it committed the cardinal political sin of honesty -- the honesty that a billion dollar debt cannot be paid without noticeable discomfort.

Soon we will again be right here, facing the same intractable difficulty only with a slimmer menu of options. Try not to be surprised if in hindsight we regard this mayor as having somehow seized the mantle of seriousness and foresight.

I realize this begs for some explanation. How, during the very week that protesters had garrisoned Zuccotti Park, could a future 99 percenter issue a letter advocating the selling out of public assets to Wall Street investment bankers?

Obviously the answer has a little to do with public employee pensions -- and a lot to do with basic math and Pittsburgh's pension history. I wouldn't recommend leasing revenue-enhancing assets as a general rule; the city obviously was (and remains) under the thumb of bond holders and a legacy of evacuation, parasitic financial advisers and near-sighted political leadership. A spiritedly negotiated long-term parking assets deal would have constituted a a bit of swashbuckling derring-do, a turning of the tables, a "So crazy it just might work" style of arrangement.

Meanwhile, in a world with no parking lease and the Non-Lease Plan generating more sparks than revenue, Mayor Ravenstahl now seeks to borrow $80 million for routine capital improvements from Wall Street investment bankers while City Council remains skeptical.

Mr. Peduto suggested that the city borrow a smaller amount for 2012 and 2013 and preserve borrowing power for future years. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Indeed. Trying to recollect if anything might possibly occur as we turn the page to 2014 that would make the receipt of bunch of money more palatable to several at that time.

The real issue however is, how much money would we have to borrow come 2014? How much will we have to borrow, either and any way, to satisfy the pensioners, the other creditors, and the demands of our routine "capital needs" we have routinely been failing to meet? How many hundreds of millions of dollars? Two? Three? More?

A better question: who is working on a new, presumably improved parking assets deal? After all it is that or "renegotiate" with our various creditors, isn't it? I know it seems like campaign season already, but it is in fact still 2011. The time horizons for the "Wait until somebody we all like better can execute various maneuvers" gambit make it the more fantastical, unrealistic feat of derring-do. Not possible without a ton of CGI and willing suspension of disbelief. Do not try this at home.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday: State of the Yinzion

Also, there are new old new news links along the sidebar: Check 'em out, check 'em out, check 'em out. --->

We are assuming the Mayor's 2012 budget address this afternoon will be livestreamed, livetweeted or otherwise made lifelike today.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Don't Forget to Vote

I didn't almost forget to vote, but I definitely almost forgot that Election Day usually means something in regards to this web area.

Here are some endorsements by Infininymous to get you through the ordeal. Here is Early Returns which usually kicks in with burgh-centric elections returns and news-tinis.

There will also be no customary results heraldry this evening, as I believe I will be playing Jenga or Balderdash or Scattergories or one of those. Congratulations to all winners including Rich Fitzgerald, Chelsa Wagner, Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and Corey O'Connor. You've all earned it.

Finally, you should all be aware of Don't Just Vote -- March, what looks to be another friendly scrimmage in Oakland in evening.

Monday, October 31, 2011

We'll be Back...

There is a big fancy indoors General Assembly of Occupy Pittsburgh being held tomorrow (Tuesday) night at 7 PM at the United Steelworkers Union Building.

We should be back to blogging regularly and largely on normal topics after that.

There is a monster agenda for the big fancy GA, including: a policy related to the receipt of some donations, a political statement, and a policy on how and when Occupy Pittsburgh will commend or stand with outside groups. All that, and it's going to be hard to avoid the late-breaking political story concerning the true origin of the portable toilets. Having watched a thoroughgoing variety of Pittsburgh City Council meetings, we can tell this assembly is destined to be grueling, contentious and consequential.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


It's coming to City Council. What's up with that? Which council districts are set to be gaining or losing territory, and where most likely? And why?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

To the Media: Occupy and Embed!

(This blog post is an act of personal autonomy, written in a spirit of solidarity with Occupy Pittsburgh.)

(That is the kind of thing you have to say and show that you're thinking about a lot in Occupy Pittsburgh.)

To all members of the media:

Great job covering our marches, rallies, and day-to-day camp living!

This is, for the most part. Yet even then, attempts at due journalistic diligence on behalf of the reading public are greatly respected.

Media brothers and sisters: you are all cordially invited to stick around after dark, covering nighttime at the camp -- a time of conspicuous energy and ferment!

General Assemblies pertaining to the "movement" issues start at 7:00 PM every night. General Assemblies pertaining to "camp" issues start at 10:00 PM nightly. The street corner outreach, art and hospitality crews are relentless and creative through 11:00 PM. There is always tent space available for you, just go to the Media / Hospitality / Camp Nexus of Tents. Morning at the camp is a time for calm reflection and "magic hour" sunlight.

One stipulation: if you work for the corporate media, it would be best to keep a press pass dangling from your neck or poking up from your fedora at all times. It just keeps things more harmonious. Believe me, you'll get great, important stories, without going all Harriet the Spy.

We are at Mellon Green, on the corner of Grant St. and 6th Ave. in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"The Fight for 'Real Democracy'"

Some of its conclusions upon its conclusions are in error, but yeah...

The clearest clues lie in the internal organization of the movements themselves -- specifically, the way the encampments experiment with new democratic practices. These movements have all developed according to what we call a "multitude form" and are characterized by frequent assemblies and participatory decision-making structures. (Hardt & Negri, Foreign Affairs)

This article together with this post will get you to some of the next steps in Occupy Everything.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


[This is why the movement needs time. This is just like, one little issue.]

Friday, October 14, 2011

Videos to Show This and That

One of the forthcoming critiques about this "occupation" movement is that (aside from the fact that it has no clear goals yet) all of its complaints are so doctrinaire, exhausting and impenetrable. Inevitable really, since social and economic problems are so complex that problem-solving requires a certain amount of digging backwards.

So with all that as a throat-clearing -- here are some videos that we've really enjoyed:

[Don't worry, the magic marker stops squeaking very early]

The Comet is undecided on the Fed existentially, but it strikes us that we should all agree Greenspan was a disaster.

Obviously these cartoons are leading and glib, but they're also decently illustrative.

Finally, the reliably over-the-top dramatic Anonymous:

"We are dirty. Oh, yes. Unamerican. Stupid."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Developing story...

Dear BONY Mellon -

We must complement you. You have a lovely building there, with lovely and thoughtful signage. Not to mention the art.

You have a golden opportunity here:

Protesters have selected Mellon Green -- a Grant Street parklet located conveniently near One Mellon Center, and the US Steel/UPMC building -- as the site for their encampment. As a political statement, it's an ideal location: Grant Street is the heart of the city's political and corporate establishment. But the site is owned by Bank of New York Mellon itself.

And Mellon, ultimately, will decide whether the protesters are allowed to stay or not. (Pgh. City Paper Slag Heap, Chris Potter)

Because Bank of New York Mellon supports people trying to make their dreams come true -- and because you are enthusiastic about constitutionally enshrined values and civil discourse -- you can let these charming folks camp on your lawn for a few days at least. A week! As long as the demonstrators retain decorum of course.

And then, you can say, "Well, for goodness sakes, it's time we keep the place well taken-care of, mind the landscaping, and no longer unduly burden our neighbors! Sorry, out." By then, some of those demonstrators will desperately be missing a night at home sleeping.

Meanwhile, it's a beautiful postcard. The grove, the flowers, the fountain, the colorful people -- it would make a lovely picture. Moving picture, what have you. Lots of exposure.

Think about it.


UPDATE: And we have an accord! (Trib, Bill Vidonic)


Sunday, October 9, 2011

We've Heard, Competition is Good

Better deals... quicker results... more varied architecture... more desperate businesspeople.

"The bottom line is that we're in the middle of a very successful development here, and I don't know why anybody would want to change developers at this point," [Art Rooney II] said. (P-G, Jon Schmitz)

Really, he doesn't see it?
(Image: Inside Sports)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Pittsburgh: Heading to the Market

Deciding on a Date, Time and some Locations
Sorting out the Comment Policy and how to deal with Trolls.

The regional autonomous collective styling themselves after the #OccupyWallStreet protests in New York City has published a write-up of yesterday's meeting, which was held at the First Unitarian Church in Shadyside:

After much discussion about where best to have a group congregate to begin the movement/events, it was decided that the location working group would work on it, but anyone who is not in contact with the movement between today’s GA and October 15, 2011, should choose to meet at 10:00 am at one of these 3 locations: Freedom Corner, City-County building, or Market Square.

If the base location has changed from any of these locations, members of the Occupy movement will be on hand at these locations at 10:00 am to direct people to the new location(s) where they can assemble/march/camp. Some reservations were expressed to using Market Square, since there is a possibility of entrapment by the police if too many people assembled there, and this is noted. (OccupyPgh)

346 people had indicated an intention on Facebook to attend this first Occupy Pittsburgh General Assembly, or organizational meeting.

By all accounts, between 300 and 350 did attend.

3,607 "like" Occupy Pittsburgh on Facebook.


About 50% of the crowd at the First Unitarian Church looked to be between 18 and 29 years of age.

"Be gentle with each other," implored a moderately more mature Cassi Schaffer, who would later wind up becoming the lead facilitator for the first General Assembly and -- we'll write it -- the "leader" of Occupy Pittsburgh on that particular evening.

"Remember, the person sitting next to you right now, you might be sleeping next to in a week!

"Wait, I mean..." and there was a deeply appreciative chuckle.

The dozen or so organizers -- whom Schaffer describes as nothing greater than those "early adopters" on Facebook who became active just a week to ten days ago -- presented to the audience an elaborate consensus-seeking process patterned after the one being used in New York, imported to the group via #WallStreet veteran and one-time "acting spokesperson" Nathaniel Glosser. Handouts were on every seat.


This formal process was practiced for a time, or at least attempted, over sometimes vociferous objections from those more impatient. Then it was largely ignored for another long stretch. Applause, grumbles, out-of-turn exclamations and executive fiat replaced hand signals and formal processes. Then the rules were all humored or restored again towards the conclusion.

Early on, some sharp objections arose from several attendees regarding a proposed consensus statement endorsing non-violence -- which the organizers had hoped would pass that night.

"It says here I'm supposed to 'be prepared to absorb suffering,'" said one speaker, lodging a formal procedural "block" which at that time was still being honored. "I'm not going to do that." There was a scattered applause.

Another speaker in that same section of the church chimed in, "Look, anyone who has been in touch and who knows what's been going on here for years, they know we've been debating non-violence forever. We're never going to solve it tonight! Let's just forget about it and decide what we're going to do already!"

The two would leave partway through the meeting. Some followed them -- and this was loudly pointed out and complained over, again from that corner -- but some new attendees were still arriving.


Everything else on the agenda aside from the date, time and locations was tabled and to be sorted out by seventeen "working groups":

Outreach / Media
Outreach / Organizations
Outreach / Labor
Government Relations
Art / Entertainment
Food (there was a call among professional chefs to really get together and git-r-done)
Statement (ibid)

When it was asked how the working groups should get together amongst themselves, and then how to coordinate with the rest of the organization, an answer came swiftly.

"Twitter and Facebook," called out a droll voice. And there was much rejoicing. No need for another consensus-check on that score!


This blogger recognized very, very few of the "usual suspects" one runs into from a variety of local political events and rallies. To me there were exactly four familiar faces out of 300+ at this General Assembly.

One of those was Antonio Lodico, Co-Director at the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee and one-time Coro fellow.

"I was impressed with the brevity," Lodico offered. "You didn't get a lot of 90-second preambles like you get at a lot of these."

Some disinterested observers left feeling bewildered by the "cluster" they had just witnessed. Other attendees departed more upbeat, smoking cigarettes and lingering, chattering over working group ideas. More than a few left with both hugs and the rejoinder, "It was nice to meet you!"

Nearly everyone's favorite moment of the evening was Rev. David Herndon's of First Universalists Church very brief welcoming statement.

"You are all immensely welcome here," he said deliberately. "Go forth and occupy."

*-UPDATE: Potter recognized a few more faces: Slag Heap.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs at City Council

Oddly enough, this is how I'll remember him:

"And uh, and, so, I think the overall feeling of the place is going to be a zillion times better than it is now -- with all the asphalt."

All manner of men and women must needs humble themselves before the municipality.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Marcellus Taxes & Fees: Is KISS on the Table?

We have read about State Reps DiGirolamo and Murt's plan to collect the money with extraction taxes, and we have read about Gov. Corbett's plan to collect the money with fees. It's fascinating.

Firstly, it looks like the tax plan on the table will raise more money than the fee plan on the table. Operating under the assumption that the Corbett administration would have erred at most instances on the side of capital, then we say if the Governor raises his fee schedule we might be convinced to prefer his fee methodology over that of the state Reps and their vulgar taxes.

Then again, under the Corbett plan each time one digs a well, one will get hit with fees. It does not matter how much gas and gas money is produced. Corbett's plan might be more fair in one sense, since impacts aplenty would be caused simply by digging, fracking, disposing and attempting.

But in another sense, developers of successful wells will actually better possess the money to pay an extraction tax on those wells. This question of taxes vs. fees might actually be a contest between smaller producers hoping to enter and begin to expand in the market, a few wells at a time, versus sprawling established conglomerates, more comfortable paying moderate individual fees for a lot of strikeouts rather than much larger payouts culled from their profitable scores.

Regardless, two more facets of the Corbett plan could use a bit of work. First, by allowing county governments to assess lower fees on wells than those permitted by the state, one causes significant problems sufficiently addressing downstream, downwind and down-the-line impacts.

Next, the fact that those allowable well fee maximums descend over time, might actually disincentivize investment and job creation now. Businesses will be operating with a certainty that their costs will diminish in the near future.

We do congratulate Gov. Corbett on the 75/25 county-state split. Let us address the bulk of this locally, according to our own tastes, aspirations and prejudices. Compliance will be a key issue, however. We can't have county officials spending the money on statues and obelisks.

Certain kinds of infrastructure, absolutely. And toothbrushes, with which to scrub the otters.

MORE: Pgh City Paper, Chris Potter. Turns out Corbett's proposed fee schedule may generate a third less revenue than even the Marcellus Shale Coalition once lobbied for.

Monday, October 3, 2011

50% of Today's Younger Adults have Zero Wealth

There are different programs available on 90.5 on the FM radio dial than there used to be. Sometimes when we listen to WBUR in Chicago's On Point we desire only to choke everybody equally, but today the NPR program was particularly on point.

Today's piece is the aptly titled A Lost Generation? [question mark]

Starring Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, plus three other voices which taken together weren't half bad.

THOUGHTS: If we assume the kind of strong national stimulus targeted toward younger demographics that he suggests towards the very end will not happen -- and let's -- what happens next?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday: Rolling in the Deep

Never don't not neglect to read Friday Happy Hour:

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is ready to unveil his fifth city budget with no tax increases, making him 5-for-5 during his tenure. If he were in Philadelphia, they would nominate him as Mayor for Life. In Pittsburgh, his detractors will undoubtedly shrug this off and complain that Ravenstahl was late appearing at a parade or something, or that his tie had a coffee stain on it at his last press conference. (The Triadvocate)

If history serves as any reference, this public affairs / lobbying / strategic communications / web-blegging firm out of Harrisburg and Philadelphia will get around to determining Ravenstahl should be shot out of a cannon and into a bigger cannon in about three years time -- just as he's being outfitted for a crown. And by then the Washington Post will be left wondering, "What's their ish?"

Triad also points us in a direction we should have been looking anyway:

And while [the state Senate] thinks transportation funding is a must, all sides are standing outside the Vatican right now, waiting for the white smoke to rise from the Governor’s Office. Nobody seems to want to move until Governor Corbett weighs in. (ibid)

There seems to be a swell of griping out there about how come things like this and others aren't moving much in Harrisburg.

In response possibly already to this gurgling public relations problem, today Corbett was all, BAM, privatization task force, and PIFF, Marcellus Shale bill. However, those still anxious over public transportation funding might have to wait to see how the Marcellus tithe shakes out. Or maybe that's what he wants us to think -- better not hold up Corbett's drilling bill for any diddly-twink reasons, if we want transportation funding in time! So this is what chess actually looks like.

Speaking of the Marcellus, Congressman Glenn Thompson (R-PA) has some interesting news:

"Marcellus shale is something I've been very involved in. It's an opportunity that comes with responsibility," he said. "Two of my counties have a zero percent unemployment. This has been very positive." (Ithaca Journal, Jeff Murray)

Only slightly less laughably detached from any semblance of reality, we learn from Null Space, is word that Marcellus Shale interests are taking credit (let alone exclusive credit) for the Downtown construction boom. Someone out there has got to be hosting a Marcellus Truth-O-Meter, right?

And finally, Tuesday Oct. 4th is Double Your Charitable Contributions Day at the Pittsburgh Foundation? As in, any donation to anything from A+ Schools to Zachary's Mission will be matched by the Pittsburgh Foundation for 24 hours? That's Church provides some suggestions out of several hundred, including Comet fave CHS. So early next week, get your Jewish New Year off to a sweet start, and may you be inscribed for a year of health, happiness and peace. L'shanah tovah!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Morning Call Erects Paywall; We Have Analysis

Just weeks after we finally linked to and started reading the incomparable Capitol Ideas blog daily, this happens:

If you're even a casual student of the media, then you know that we've been going through something of an upheaval these last few years. It's also no secret that newspapers have been looking for ways to make money off the Web.

So, starting Oct. 10, The Morning Call will start offering digital subscriptions to its readers. Purchasing a digital subscription will allow you to view an unlimited amount of our website’s articles, blogs, photos and videos.

If you choose not to subscribe, you'll have free access to 10 pages each month. And if you blow through that limit, you'll be asked to become a digital subscriber. (Capitol Ideas, John L. Micek)

Micek goes on to write that the subscription will cost 35 cents a day, and links to the parent newspaper's announcement, which repeats the line about 35 cents a day.

On such notes these new relationships always begin. Or fail to.


Assuming the "35 cent" rate is available monthly -- and you know what they say about assumptions -- a subscription would cost $10.50 per month. Which is how one would pay.

So don't condenscend us, man, just say it costs ten bucks a month. You're a newspaper. Have you ever reported that a proposed tax cut or increase will save or cost people just pennies a day? Or do we all pay our taxes on April 15th at 10:30 PM, and that's how we are accustomed to weighing impacts on us? Even PWSA didn't try to tell us that their opt-out water line insurance program would cost 17 cents a day, and they're horrendous in every way.

If our phone bill went up $10 next month, we'd have to consider switching carriers or downgrading service. That's just life -- no way around that. And we'd more seriously consider such change if our carrier came at us all Tricky McMarkety about the rate hike.


But this is all transference, of course.

The real difficulty is this: although a subscription to the Morning Call might actually be worth it -- and mostly because of Capitol Ideas, literally the only place to reliably learn about campaigns in Harrisburg to save HEMAP or to keep abortion services practically available -- we don't actually look forward to reading the Morning Call, we look forward to reading "the news".

Which means ALL THE THINGS.

If we pay $10 to the Morning Call, that means we know we will ultimately have to pay $10 to the Post-Gazette, $10 to the Tribune-Review, $10 to the Philadelphia Inquirer, $10 to the New York Times and $10 to the Atlantic Monthly so we can continue reading Andrew Sullivan. Taken together, that comes to many hundreds of cents per day!

Which is unsustainable. Which is why this model isn't the future.

At best, the Morning Call will time their situation in the market well -- that is, acquire a set cache of subscribers, enjoy a boost, and get to keep some talent in the newsroom contented for a season or two. But shortly new Internet readers will fail to catch on and develop their own addictions, as we did a couple weeks ago. Meanwhile, subscribers garnered during the roll-out will slowly drop out as they encounter months and moods where money seems a little tight and maybe their debit and credit cards turn sour for a spell, or read MC editorials which enrage them and cause snits, or simply no longer enjoy being able to discuss MC content with as many friends and colleagues.


We still believe the answer lies in more innovative advertising and marketing. We know everything has not been tried, or um -- resorted to.

Perhaps if individual features of the paper or individual authors were sponsored exclusively, each according to their own style and swagger. One could even ask reporters for help in securing their own sponsors.

Perhaps if reporters and editors were made to cleverly include product placement within news articles. Don't make that face. It can be done with a wink and a smirk; today's readers will recognize it and understand. It's been happening on the radio for decades. These are not "modest proposals", these are real.

Finally and most crucially, perhaps if more opinion, analysis, cross-source synthesis and sensationalism (you know: all that awful, valueless derivative blog stuff) were made to be included seamlessly and in one piece with existent excellent reporting as a part of regular daily news content, that might make newspapers more engaging, useful and entertaining to many, many more consumers -- thereby improving advertising and marketing prospects all around.

That last idea might have a side-benefit of encouraging a wider, better-informed populace on average, including much better-informed young people. What's more desirable: a better-informed populace and increased sales, or fewer 60-year old high priests of Journalistism throwing up in their mouths a little? We know what we'd choose.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"What the Property is Worth"

UPDATED below.

Strangely developing resuscitation of a story:

Merrill Stabile, general partner in 501 Martindale Associates and president of Alco Parking, is offering the city Stadium Authority $13 million for two parcels on North Shore Drive now used for parking, in part to develop a "signature office tower."

The land is reserved for Continental Real Estate Cos. to develop under an option agreement reached with the Pirates and the Steelers nearly a decade ago. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Yesterday's quick version has Mr. Stabile promising not to seek public subsidy for his project.

Mr. Kass of Continental sounds indignant. Ms. Conturo of the Stadium Authority sounds queasy.

BACKGROUND: [Hmm... let's stick with] P-G Mark Belko, 9/05/08

UPDATE: On the flip side:

It appears from the offer letter that Stabile might not be committed to building an office tower, Zober said.

"If, after 10 years, these projects have not materialized, the authority will have the right to repurchase the parcels under a pre-determined formula taking into account the purchase price and the elapsed time from the purchase date," Stabile's offer states.

"That paragraph creates that uncertainty," Zober said. (Trib, introducing Alex Nixon)

Notwithstanding the fog, Trib editorialists are dancing in the street.

The offer was "delivered" to the Authority on Monday, but somehow we all found out about it on Tuesday. Stabile seems to be end-running his proposal around city leaders through the press, as though he's Rob Pfaffman or something. The parking baron should by now be much better equipped at doing business in these parts than having to rely on hail marys.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday: Bank Errs in Our Favor

Collect $10 million.

"This is once and done," Mr. McAneny cautioned.

"The law requires that the money be put into the pension," he added. He acknowledged, though, that some municipalities may decide that the increased state aid allows them to put less of their local tax money into the pension fund next year. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Then it couldn't have come at a better time, if say, one wants to avoid doing anything rash such as raising meter rates and expanding enforcement. We'd be worried about what Rich Lord was doing poking around Jim McAneny's office in the first place, but still.

Meanwhile, the Mayor's proposed 2012 budget finally calls for borrowing some cheddar. Some disinterested analysis:

Spending on roads and other infrastructure (parks, garbage cans, playgrounds) are the coin of the realm in municipal government. One might note that the budget announcement on the two years of capital spending comes the same week as Luke Ravenstahl's moves toward reelection . . . in two years. (P-G Early Returns, Tim McNulty)

What interests us most about this, if it passes and is transacted, is there will be no more talk about reaching the Debt Cliff in 2017, or indeed about ending our Credit Card Mentality. There may be no way around it, though. That guy in the McNulty piece wasn't pointing at a broken swing set or the lack of a cotton candy machine.

Is anyone else bored with this? WE ARE SO BORED. That's it: there will be far less stuffy financial and budgetary analysis in this space; few care, and for excellent reasons because apparently almost none of it is real. Take for example the indispensable Null Space's perpetual incredulity. Is anyone else reaching the conclusion that politicians intuitively understand something fundamental about the real world that economists and even attorneys do not? That somehow it's turtles all the way down? There's always a bigger fish? No damn cat and no damn cradle?

The city is nearly a quarter poverty-stricken ... public education and public transit are bad and getting worse while our prospective leaders compete over who can best trusted to starve government ... and our public charities are engaging in profit-seeking terrorism. How much did we leave out? There have got to be stories there which are likely a bit more satisfying.



Saturday, September 24, 2011

Assessments Solution: Hit the Road

Okay. We give up.

It is clearly more urgent that Allegheny County compete economically on a level if screwball playing field with neighboring counties, than its own residents finally be treated equitably and constitutionally or that its schools and localities be allowed to benefit from all its general prosperity. Clearly.

But this:

It just so happens that the governor, Tom Corbett, is subject to the same county assessment system. The longtime Shaler resident would be prime for lobbying on the issue because he knows the reality firsthand. (P-G, Edit Board)

Mmm. Yes. State politicians are frequently motivated by "knowing" and "realizing" things, not by the self-interested passions of innumerable legions of rural and affluent property owners and stakeholders, who fervently desire to be left alone to benefit from prevailing absurdities.

Instead, try this:



Send them to Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Instruct them to seek out school district officials, property owners invested in declining communities, and one-time political players relegated to the wilderness. Illustrate the real injustices from which they all either suffer or can take advantage. Motivate them to copy, paste and refile that lawsuit which a similar ragtag bunch of misfits launched in Alleghenyland. If they need help doing their own localized research, send Ira Weiss down for an afternoon to get them started.

Wait a year. Maybe more. Maybe less.

At a minimum, all our neighbors will get similarly stuck having to institute fair and constitutional taxation regimes. In every likelihood however, one of those judges is bound to see this issue is crying out for a statewide solution (as we all expected the first time around) and will force the state's hand.

Then finally, release Rich Fitzgerald from prison, a vindicated civil rights hero.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thursday: WHEYEN is it GOING to EYEND?

1. Thanks to CBS Local Digital Media for selecting the Comet as the "Editor's Choice" for Most Valuable Pittsburgh Blogger for local affairs! Especial great thanks go to Chad Hermann at the P-G's Radical Middle for the nomination in the first place -- he who has long added a fair amount of value to the blurghosphere himself.

More thanks certainly go also to everyone who voted for me -- although we did lose the popular vote for the "People's Choice"award (in retrospect, it might have been a poor month to spend bombing you all with, "This pension plan is goofy and notional! Maybe the State should just take over, you guys!") but those of you who did vote probably helped the Editors feel justified in going with their gut.


She could have been talking about parking meters, you know.


Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is poised to announce his re-election run -- more than two years before the next mayoral election -- while the two candidates for Allegheny County executive prepare to start running ads on television. (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

Opposing Ravenstahl in the 2013 Democratic primary will be the Post-Gazette.

It took hard negotiations and persistence, but the immediate threat of a state takeover of Pittsburgh's wobbly pension fund was averted Monday, no thanks to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. (P-G, Edit Board)

How you gonna play a mayor like that. He worked with actuaries, accountants, antediluvians, and so forth! (Worked on keeping all their big mouths shut most likely but still.)

4. Doesn't even sound like we're going to see a decent implosion:

Ms. Conturo said the full demolition -- or more precisely, the dismantling -- should be completed by May.

The SEA is clearing the 28-acre arena site as part of the 2007 agreement to build the Consol Energy Center for the Penguins. As part of the deal, the Penguins were given development rights to the land. The agreement also called for the Civic Arena to be demolished. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Time to get into the right frame of mind for reflecting on past errors and encouraging future triumphs.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Group hug:

Wrapping up a season-and-a-half long story arc:

State officials today approved Pittsburgh`s plan to bolster its chronically underfunded employee pension funds, staving off a state takeover that city officials predicted would cost up to $100 million annually. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

Next, of critical importance:

The city now must determine how it will offset the general fund deficit. Council`s plan for plugging the gap with revenue from increased parking garage and meter fees has been stymied by disagreements between members and the mayor`s office.

Pittsburgh Parking Authority officials say they must first address capital improvements to the parking facilities before the authority can turn over any extra cash to the city. (ibid)


Two contentions there: 1) That the Council-Controller / Controller-Council plan did the trick (fairly accurate) and that "the pensions" are "saved" (fairly shorthand).

That'll be the overwhelming consensus contention.

Sounds like a rip-roaring good time.

Excerpted from a press release from Mayor Ravenstahl:

“This is extremely good news for the people of Pittsburgh,” Ravenstahl said. “We worked very hard to make sure that the City's plan would be accepted by our accountants, actuaries, and ultimately the Commonwealth. I want to thank members of my finance team for their hard work in ensuring that we can continue to provide quality services and balanced budgets with no new tax increases. This is a critical step for us as we get closer to completing our financial recovery."

Council President Darlene Harris sent out her own press release touting funding that is "sufficient to avert takeover by the Commonwealth", and naming, crediting and/or quoting various officials for last year developing "the inspired idea of using present valuation."

The Allegheny Institute adopts a tone of confusion:

[W]hy was the City so afraid of a takeover? The state law clearly stated collective bargaining would remain at the City level. Also, where is the binding language that holds future City administrations and Councils to honor the promises of 2010? And, if we are to take the comments of the City Controller at face value when he said the bailout plan "is no long-term solution [but] a mechanism to avoid state takeover", then what is the long-term solution? (Allegheny Institute)

An oft-cited rationale for takeover aversion has been that the mandatory commencement of annual $100+ million pension payments was deemed infeasible. Of course, questions persist as to how long the fund can remain solvent without dramatically more substantial cash payments -- notwithstanding the commitment of 30 years worth of future parking tax receipts.

As for the blogger/professor/economist/nabob, we are left with this:

[N]o matter what the state says today, nothing at all has changed impacting the long run financial health of the city of Pittsburgh. This all gives 'accounting fiction' an entirely new meaning. (Null Space; see also from this pm)

Well. Be that as it may. But look on the bright side. We'll still have chances to make news.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sewer Issue Spill Over

As part of the furious political battle to determine who will be seen as the least-taxingest candidate since biblical times and in any universe, a side-issue has emerged which verges on something of urgency:

Democrat Rich Fitzgerald accused Republican D. Raja of doing a "bait and switch" as a Mt. Lebanon commissioner by promising to lower taxes while running for office and then, once elected, imposing a sewage tax on residents. (Trib, Tony LaRussa)

Or if you prefer:

Mr. Raja, [Fitzgerald] argued, has not owned up to a monthly sewer fee he approved in Mt. Lebanon last year. (The Republican says it was offset by a simultaneous drop in property taxes.) "What you get from me is you get the truth about what we're going to do," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "What you get from him is a bait and switch and he gives you half the story." (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

We hope Mr. Fitzgerald effectively communicates that his beef is with hypocrisy, not with the wisdom of upgrading sewers and establishing drainage protocols. The creation of a regional "storm water management district" is something that public officials have been discussing for at least a year, and has recently been lent new urgency for obvious reasons. Water flow is something that cannot possibly be managed effectively on a municipality-by-municipality basis or a Good Samaritan volunteer-basis. Many consider such regional management to be desperately necessary and a timely challenge in a region with three rivers, 8,792 streams, mountainous topography and burgeoning new concrete and asphalt developments all over the place.

The very fact that our probable next head of Allegheny County is loudly trumpeting that sewer fees should really be regarded as just another tax, is something that is politically unlucky. We should all hope Fitzgerald and his campaign staff aren't accidentally painting the man into a corner from which he will later need to maintain that sewer investments and drainage regulations are outrages in and of themselves.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Water Bombshell: RDM Slams PWSA *

And then. Get a load of this performance review of the municipal water authority, which apparently was just released:

Problems at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority run the gamut from excess turnover among top managers and over-reliance on outside contractors at much greater cost, to inadequate attention to cleaning and maintaining the system and a lack of accountability at all levels, according to the authority's most recent performance review. (P-G, Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, AKA ShaarDog.)

It's a very fortunate thing that Amy doesn't read blogs or anything of that sort. Things could have gotten seriously out of hand.

*-UPDATE: Apparently this review has only recently been re-released after a very exclusive opening run. Search therein for the term "83-page report". Who is revealing this 2009 report with such guarded discretion and at such portentous junctures?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Harrisburg still Calculating Level of State Act 44 Pension Legislation Seriousness

Put these together for yourself:

The Comet: The Three (3) City Money Problems

3 Murky Rivers: An Asset You Have to Believe In

Null Space: Paper Chase

Pittsburgh Business Times: Pittsburgh pension loses out on millions and a follow-up Letter to the editor.

And what should you get?

BOTTOM LINE: If we were lots of different people, we would already be describing in epic terminology to everyone who could be made to listen, what life was like in Pittsburgh all the way from autumn through Christmas, so people might better understand the mere footnote coda trivia of that which transpired as a consequence on New Years' Eve.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does anybody else smell Napalm?

Shorter Rich Fitzgerald today:

"You call it 'unethical' of me to have sent that campaign email to Marcellus Shale drillers? Why you LONELY, BORING, VAPID, BACKWARD, LYING, HACKNEYED, CRIMINAL, CALLOUS, EXPLOITATIVE FAILURE -- how dare you go negative!" (P-G Early Returns, Tim McNulty)

That's all for today. I just feel too disenchanted to engage in the political process. :(

Monday, September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day, Pittsburgh!

That one day every year we take an interlude from honoring job creators so that we might appease job doers.

The United States Department of Labor provides its own online History of Labor Day.

PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer fills in some blanks regarding such things as the Pullman Company strike, Eugene Debs, President Grover Cleveland and over 12,000 federal troops and US Marshals:

But now, protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike. (PBS)

Better make it count, then.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Council Sends Frank & Open Letter to Ravenstahl

In the letter, Council members Harris, Kraus, Peduto, Rudiak and Shields make clear that they will merely be temporarily suspending expanded parking meter enforcement (sorry, Ginny) until such time as the Parking Authority comes around to Council's way of thinking.

*-UPDATE: Mayor Ravenstahl and Finance Director / chief administrative officer on financial matters Scott Kunka each respond in short statements.

Further, the Harris majority is setting out to transfer $1.3 million from the city's 2011 general fund balance [which we all hope will exist] to the pension fund.

That "further" part has us a mite confused. As part of its New Years Eve deal, Council already diverted money from the parking tax (which winds up in the general fund) over to the pension fund. The difficulty has been that this general fund revenue has not been replaced by Parking Authority revenue as Council had intended. Is Council here saying that the Powers That Be have refused also to move the parking tax money over to the pension fund to begin with? Because otherwise, why send more money over to the pensions than previously arranged?

The timing of the nastygram makes this all the more curious. The fact that Councilman Patrick Dowd, a leading architect of Council's New Years' Eve plan and critic of the Mayor's alternative, did not cosign today's missive is only mildly curious.

Meanwhile, just to stir the pot a little further, check out how folks from Harrisburg are seeing these machinations:

The City of Pittsburgh this morning submitted its new municipal pension shortfall estimates to the state, hoping to avert a state takeover of the fund. The submission was the culmination of a two-year battle between council, which wanted to dedicate future parking revenue to the fund, and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who preferred shoring up the fund through leasing the parking facilities. Council ended up getting its way; now we get to see if it actually worked. If it doesn’t, expect the mayor (after a hearty round of “I told you so”) to re-submit his plan to lease the city’s parking garages. (Triadvocate)

That ain't necessarily so. But it ain't necessarily not so.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thursday: Department of Innovation Department

62%! Wow! A large number, m-hay! (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Acceptance of this calculation is going to turn on a point such as why the state settled on the figure 50% as being determinative of "severe distress" to begin with. Was it arbitrary? Did it seem like a good round number, or what? Had to draw a line somewhere?



Township commissioner D. Raja (R-Mt. Lebanon) thinks a Department of Innovation is the kind of thing for which we all might clamor. (

County Council President Rich Fitzgerald (D-East End Pittsburgh) responds to this news by painting Raja as a failure, a phony, a liar and vaguely absurd. (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

NOTE TO RAJA: You might want to try critiquing your opponent's record on Allegheny County Council. Call it a random neuron.


New poll: 65% of Pennsylvanians favor the natural gas industry; 23% are opposed to it. (PoliticsPA)

Whatever that question is -- and it's admittedly a different question than, "Are you opposed to drilling in your city, the one that is dense and noisy already?" -- much like the Civic Science survey it should give people a certain amount of pause just to see those numbers. Not everyone is out there all, "It's the People vs. the Corporations!" People like their royalties and signing bonuses and idea of jobs and economic activity. To not take that into account is to appear as something of a weirdo.


Do you count yourself as still confused over what happened in Bloomfield involving gay activists, City police officers and at least some anarchists? Me, too!

In addition to a City Paper article on that incident and a follow-up Slag Heap blog post, blogger Thomas C. Waters was there in the flesh. He has published many ruminations already, which in turn have garnered many comments. The first of five personal dispatches from the rally is right here; his latest, a report on some follow-up with the City is here. Lots to digest in between.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

POTUS to Address Congress on Jobs Proposals

A week from today: Wed. Sept. 7th, at 8:00 PM. *-UPDATE: Or Thurs. the 8th. "Logistical impediments".

It better be good. We need first-down yardage.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday: Here They Come

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) is holding hearings today on the Hispanic invasion. John L. Micek at Capitol Ideas has posted a fascinating breakdown of some of the facts surrounding this crisis-for-some. *-UPDATE: P-G

(Las Palmas, the Mexican grocer in Brookline which opened in 2009 seems to be doing well. No reports yet on whether or not they're putting french fries in the tacos. Legal immigration is one thing, but they have to be willing to assimilate.)

Super Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) is reportedly holding a (a) Town Hall Meeting clear on the other side of the state on Sept. 1st. If I'm reading that correctly, that's three days notice to plan a visit to Jim Thorpe, PA -- which sounds absolutely lovely, but it doesn't leave a lot of time to pack and write a little speech.

It looks like Rick Santorum (R-Your Body) is seriously lining up to take down Rick Perry and try to become the natural, notable cultural conservative willing to play attack dog, and to one day testify that Mitt Romney has "steel in his spine". He'll even score sympathy points for his problems with Dan Savage, and who doesn't love milking those? Nonetheless, we're not sure whether that pairing wouldn't exacerbate more problems than in solves.


The Allegheny Institute wonders whether the Pittsburgh School District (amidst the many other changes it is making right now) moving seven teachers from classroom instruction to "making students feel safe and welcome" is a useful or cost-effective idea.

From the School District website:

Learning Environment Specialists are teachers who demonstrate strength in positive classroom management, leadership and peer coaching skills. Learning Environment Specialists will be classroom teachers in high-needs schools, have a reduced teaching schedule and will participate on school teams, possibly leading teams, to ensure that school-based goals for a positive teaching and learning environment are being met. (PPS)

"High-needs schools" and "teachers who demonstrate strength in" seem to be the operative phrases there.

If it's true that the City of Pittsburgh actually leads the nation in poverty rates among working-age racial minorities and young minority children, and if it's true that growing up in poverty and amidst much poverty can lead to a sticky situation as far as schooling -- then it's hard to see any reason for bafflement here. We've got to try something to get these kids feeling more positive about school, right? It sounds like these teachers' roles will be to teach the merits of personal responsibility among children who were especially likely to have missed those memos.

What do our buddies at the A.I. advocate in its place, we are left wondering? Charter school vouchers for everyone, but no special resources for acclimating and acculturating the students, or even for steering all of them into appropriate schools to redeem those vouchers? What?


It is two days until September 1, the deadline for handing in our financial homework to the state. Is it going to be submitted on time by the appropriate administrative officer with all of the T's crossed and I's dotted correctly? Do we think the state will try to take notice of any possible distinctions between pension obligations and pension liabilities? Or are we going to sail right through the 50% funding threshold into comfortable waters -- before being gifted with a new, strengthened form of Super Oversight? In the City of Harrisburg, they're talking about yet another kind of state takeover just because our state can -- and seems amped for the challenge.

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