Friday, December 12, 2008


Online Contract Disclosure: Slow Down

It's great that there's a flurry of activity to get the city's contracting information online, but it might be worthwhile to slow the process down and figure out how it can be made most useful.

I'm not as concerned with the sheer speed with which we get the information up, as I am with the format and accessibility of that information.

At present, bid results are organized on the city website by contract number. The rough type of commodity or service and the expiration date of the contract are also immediately provided:

From a practical aspect, users are never going to be aware of what Contract Number 018-05 concerns in order to be curious about it. Nor are they going to want to look up all contracts that have expired on 09/30/06.

Users are going to be curious about contracts awarded to (or denied to) particular firms. Or, they will want to look up a contract they know was just awarded last week. Or, they will want to scan for who is getting the most lucrative awards in different areas. Why not index the information by name of contractor, by date of the award, or by dollar amount?

Of critical importance, when users click on the contract number, what is provided is not another HTML page (a normal website page) but a PDF document. Since there are hundreds upon hundreds of contracts to pick through -- and the information provided on the index page is minimal -- users will sometimes have to download and open hundreds of PDFs in order to locate information that they desire.

PDF documents are stand-alone files that cannot easily interact with one another. If I have discovered that Bill Jones Contracting is providing the city with a certain service, I should be able to click on the words "Bill Jones Contracting" and get a page detailing all the other commodities or services that they provide the City -- a "baseball card" if you will.

When the campaign finance disclosure website is also up and running, it can be made to be included on this "baseball card". None of this is possible to build with PDF formatting.

I can't claim to know yet what exact shape of database will be most useful for end users -- but I can inform you definitively that PDF formatting is the least flexible medium for serving up this information. It makes searching impossible -- text searches are a good backup resource for any selected indexing system. And when tweaks and alterations are necessary, PDFs require individual and repeated edits to each document. That's a major disincentive to ever make improvements.

It looks as though, in the wake of a scathing Post-Gazette report about political contributors, the City is scrambling to get as much information online as possible in order to demonstrate transparency. That's an understandable reaction, but it would be a mistake to conduct so much time-consuming data entry towards a project that is essentially unusable. Voters who have concerns about city contracting outcomes shouldn't be made to feel even more suspicious and resentful when confronted with a frustrating data portal, and I don't believe that's the intention. Let's take a breath and nip this problem in the bud.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thursday: Patrick Dowd is melting down.

Can anyone dispute that? (Burgh Report)

Our own general impression is...

1) Pittsburgh is fully able to create a truly irrevocable trust fund in which we deposit money to pay off future bond debt ... thereby presently decreasing the amount of interest we pay and the amount we will be asked to pay in coming years. Because bond holders like that.

2) the City instead is going to put it under a bed of sorts and promise to pay down debt with it in coming years.

3) the City has already openly mulled investing that exact bed-money in other stuff, including high-yield bonds from our own Water Authority (think rate-payers)...

4) the City has long shown a penchant for investing too aggressively, or taking out loans to pay other loans (basically, anything the right finance whiz needs to sell us)...

5) upon Dowd's inquisitions, the ICA Board acted with the mayor late during the last evening before the budget vote to just take that money and stuff it under the magic bed of doing several things at once anyway...

6) yet the mayor's budget still shows numbers as though we are doing #1: Start paying the #$%$& debt already right now. And it just so happens to work out so that things look good on paper through 2013.

So yeah. We get it. The interesting question is why are they doing this to us? That will take a longer post.

The question I would ask if I were you is, "Hey Patrick! Why the meltdown?"

Or heck, you could try asking Bill.


Mainstream coverage of all that jazz is here and ... oh ho ho!! Look at this!

Hey, if Our Firemen say they need it, and they came by it in a grant, that's just fantastic. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

But I thought we were the taxingest, spendingest city and region in All Mehiko! I wonder if that's what the rightists like to tell all the rubes... (Trib, Brian Bowling*)

Something about charities getting together to help out needy non-profits makes our head spin ... but once again, the Pittsburgh Foundation, the United Way, the Hillman Foundation and others are to be commended. If it's not too far removed from your sphere of activity, put on some benefit concerts -- you already have a great name. (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

I'd be lying if I said the ones who seek me out for an interview don't get special treatment. (P-G, Team Effort)

This column started out really annoying, but then it took a turn and got really good -- and then took another turn and got all sad! And then a little inspiring. But mostly sad! But oh wait ... are we only talking Thursdays? Suburban Living? We get to keep Viewpoint? We can totally deal with that. (P-G, Ruth Ann Daily)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mayor's Budget Passes First Hurdles, 5-2

Dowd, Peduto vote against. Shields not present for votes.

The meeting which had been recessed since Monday resumed with Patrick Dowd reading a letter submitted by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority to the Council "very, very late" yesterday, which he noted had been copied "very late" to the Controller.

At issue was $45 million the city would transfer with the intention of balancing future budgets "in the nature of" an irrevocable fund. This fund would be intended for defeasance or debt-service, placed under the custody of the City Controller, and subject to certain restrictions by the ICA.

Michael Lamb, when brought to the table, said he's had "no discussions with the ICA how it's gonna work." He said that fund appeared to be set up to be spent "how Council and the administration decides." In a conversation about whether it is appropriate or advisable to take those funds off the city's balance sheets in the interim, Lamb said ordinarily that is not the way it works.

Dowd compared the maneuver to saying one's mortgage is gone because one put money in one's savings account. Although in favor of sequestering monies to pay off debt in coming years, especially in light of legal requirements to show balanced budgets, Dowd insisted this fund provides "no guarantees".

Dowd then alluded to a request made just yesterday by the ICA to the Controller to transfer funds to the capital account -- a move ordinarily requiring Council approval. Lamb said of that request, "there are a number of accounting processes in this administration we need to take a look at."

When Bruce Kraus asked Lamb who would have access to this reserve fund and for what, Lamb responded the only way to access it is "a five vote on Council", and nothing necessarily determines how that money is going to be used. Kraus answered that "it's clear that an element of trust has to take place".

Lamb responded that it all depends on what the Council wants to do; he "doesn't have a dog in this fight". But if the Council wants the money off the City's statements, he suggested an "enforceable commitment" be made. If Council decided it were "serious" about paying down the debt, it should create a restricted account that must be additionally subsidized if it failed to earn the proper interest.

Ricky Burgess opined that "most of this discussion could have occurred in private". It's clear he said that the ICA has not yet created the terms of this (quote) "irrevocable fund" (unquote), and until that's done, "we're discussing this like it's an issue." He urged that now is not the time to discuss accounting differences, and trust that the appropriate restrictions and details will be hammered out off-camera.

Doug Shields concurred generally with Burgess. He said "the reason I'm not crazy about [a restricted account] is there's no turning back". Citing the need for flexibility in uncertain times, he couldn't see casting that money "in stone"; he preferred to put the funds "somewhere it might provide comfort to someone in Harrisburg".


Bill Peduto said, "Prior to this morning, I would have gone along" with the Mayor's budget as written. However, citing the request made by the ICA to the Controller to transfer funds last night, "now that trust is gone." He said the ICA "usurped the role" of Council by transferring that money.

In additionally, Peduto noted that the city has a reserve fund for if, say, the City-County Building catches fire or some such; the need for "flexibility" for emergencies is overblown. He would prefer to safeguard future debt payments.

Dowd mentioned that he had seen a "draft" defeasement agreement from the ICA -- and he bristled at the suggestion was about some obscure accounting principles. He suggested the Council "take a breath" until they see the defeasement agreement, this being its last point of leverage. Once the budget passes, "it's over".

Urging that on the issue of taking care of debt, "flexibility does not correspond with leadership", Dowd moved to hold the 2009 budget until the mayor provides a defeasement agreement with the ICA. This motion was overruled 2-5.

The tentative vote for the whole budget was called, and it was approved 5-2, with Dowd and Peduto in dissent. After a recess, the preliminary vote passed by the same margins.

For more detail: see notes in first comment below.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thought of the Moment.

"One result of this actuarial assumption is that the calculated contribution required for the city to make into the pension fund each year is insufficient to even maintain the funding ratio at its current level.

"To try and catch up, the city's pension funds have been forced into an aggressive investment strategy. Aggressive investment means a greater mix of riskier stock investments and less in more predictable bonds. Recent years have not been kind to the city's investment portfolio." (P-G 2005, Christopher Briem)

Tuesday: Full Sail

Mr. Ravenstahl said he will dedicate his $2,473 raise to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank next year. He said he will invite his staff to do the same, which would bring the total to $25,000, and would welcome council members doing the same, bringing it close to $40,000. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Eat your heart out, Joe Mistick. This move is what you might call shrewd and decent.

Council put the brakes on its budget process because of concern over a proposed shift of $37.8 million to a "restricted fund" meant to reduce the city's debt. That transfer, and other moves, are supposed to set the stage for a $45 million effort to pay off debt, and reduce payments by a total of $51 million through 2013.

Somehow, that is the crux of Dowd's major present malfunction with the budget.

Yet even the relatively minor ways it got marked up yesterday has stirred controversy...

The mayor said he is wary of the budget amendments council approved.

Council members voted to approve hiring an attorney to represent City Council in 2009 for $66,552 and to spend $133,448 on "education and training" for employees in various city departments

The mayor said he might use his line-item veto power.

"It's my hope that (City Council) will understand their role and responsibility and approve the 2009 budget in the form that it was originally submitted to them," Ravenstahl said. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

That seems like an overly aggressive standard. If the Council indeed has a role and a responsibility to approve the budget, you'd think that entails a role and a responsibility to try to improve it. This isn't a competition.


This is a competition:

Mr. Lamb said his office expects to begin posting all city contract awards online in the first quarter of next year. He said he believes the city can create a separate system for posting campaign contributions online before the primary.

Contracts are subject to state open records laws, but are not easily available to the public.

Campaign contribution information is filed on paper with the Allegheny County Elections Division. Mr. Lamb said he would like to require city candidates to provide his office with electronic campaign contribution records, but if necessary, he will have staff type in the information. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Might as well put both the contracts and the donations on the same website. That's what people are so curious about, it's no outrageous secret.

What we like about Michael Lamb's initiative is that he gives us a firm timetable for action and results. Makes it seem like he thought it out and feels seriously about it of his own accord. In some fairness to Mayor Ravenstahl, his 2-month old pledge seemed to be taken up operationally by the URA board instead of his own ways and means.


Matt H has a new list of notes for us. We especially like his take on this, which we missed.

Maria and I got into a stupendous row. In the end it got me thinking about the idea of equivalencies between different types of social offenses. Is there really an apt analogy to be drawn between groping cardboard cutouts and burning crosses? Meanwhile, Maria and John hash it out on related subjects.

Burgher Jon points out that shares of Burghshire-Hathaway are trading up sharply.

I was expecting Ruth Ann Daily's prayer for the newspaper to veer into economics and the business model. Instead, she stayed focused on the apparent decline of wholly disinterested, Voice of God journalism (is how I would describe it), until...

This polarization is bad for business: A biased outlet eliminates at least one-third of its potential audience -- a terrible reality for newspapers (and for the broadcast and Internet outlets that rely on them).

But, even worse, it's bad for democracy. There is a strong correlation between newspaper readership and voting -- between staying informed and participating.

I'm not at all sure "polarization" (what I would call "differentiation") is bad for readership or inherently bad for democracy. Certainly I think more people are much better informed now than they ever have been because more media is catering to their specific desires -- including the desire of a liberal Obamaphile to read The Corner regularly.

However, polarization / differentiation is bad for business, which left unchecked can be bad for democracy. Unless the newspaper industry, without quite realizing it, is suffering from a kind of Detroitism.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Wind Power: Ravenstahl and Comet Unite

To cut energy costs, Ravenstahl told the group the city is pursuing putting windmills atop Mt. Washington to generate electricity via wind-driven turbines. He acknowledged such a plan could prove difficult.

"You know how tricky it is even building a building on Mt. Washington, much less building a windmill up there to generate energy," Ravenstahl told the group. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

$4 Billion (by back-of-the-napkin estimates) is about to pour into the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from the federal government, for those projects explicitly such as alternative energy infrastructure which are both objectively worthwhile and "shovel-ready".

The narrative of a smoky old city figuratively fanning away the soot from its hellish past is astounding. Windmills, if done properly (no advertising) can be aesthetically charming, and would blend almost seamlessly with our "built environment" -- fancifully engineered bridges and inclines, industrial relics of all kinds riddled along the riverbank and up the slopes of Mt. Washington. These 21st-century energy mills could win renown as the greatest of the Seven Wonders of the Obaman World.

This is brilliant. If it works as it is supposed to (pending of course assessments of both neighborhood impacts and incidental environmental impacts), it will save the region money for decades to come and be a source of support, instead of exerting a continuing drag on our economy like some of the massive investments of the past.

This is how serious I am about this project: zoning and bureaucratic realities being what they are, and given the magnitude of this undertaking, I would not object to the City hiring for these purposes some kind of special consultant. He or she would have to be a zoning expert -- certified as an expert -- to present, negotiate, and advance the position of the Mayor in moving the project forward. And to do that and that alone, since it's obviously such a high-value, signature public investment, requiring total focus. I would welcome it.

Aside from that, Mr. Mayor -- what else can we do, quickly? President Obama will want a brief with something scrawled out upon it by the 3rd or 4th week of January. Isn't a lot of that property along the hill crest For Rent?

Photo: AP: Sandy Huffaker