Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday: Core Temperature Rising...

Councilman Bill Peduto just fired off a doozy to the ICA (which is meeting on Monday) and to the Act 47 team, and to the rest of city government and to the press. After raising some technical issues with Mayor's latest, somewhat rhetorical 2011 budget submission, Peduto objects:

But what is worse is the harmful and destructive tactics being utilized by the Mayor to cover up shortfalls within his Administration and penalize those who are opposed to his parking scheme. (Letter)

Also Peduto complains of "blatant lies" and "sophomoric retaliatory actions." And then:

This Council has resoundingly rejected ANY plan to lease our parking assets. Let me be very clear on this issue, City Council will not support ANY plan that would lease out our parking assets to a private firm. There is an alternative plan supported by the Controller and seven Members of City Council that has passed and is now law. The only person blocking it is the Mayor. (ibid)

This is all in the event that the ICA has been living in a cave, which is indeed possible.

Council President Darlene Harris is also on record at a recent high-profile meeting of Council declaring that "A lease is a lease is a lease, and privatization is privatization is privatization -- is privatization." So it would seem City Council is in an uncompromising mood.

What seems to be far less widely understood is that Mayor Ravenstahl, for his part, is apparently every bit as dead set against being any part of a "revenue bond", at least not in the $300 million ballpark necessary to elude a state takeover on its own.

There seems to be a widespread perception that once the Mayor spiritually or emotionally comes to terms with the fact that his lease has been rejected, he will acquiesce to doing his part to issue this debt -- and to either commanding or liberating the Parking Authority to do the same -- out of fear of getting blamed for the resultant takeover. Contrariwise, every indication so far seems to indicate that the Mayor would rather fight a large revenue bond with his last eyeteeth, on his own conviction that it is impossible in the remaining time-frame, or unworkable as written, or ill-advised, or maybe most importantly worse over the long term than even the takeover.

Now, there are several reasons the Mayor might feel politically comfortable with this position. For instance, somewhat vulnerable Council members Harris, Kraus, and Dowd, as well as Controller Michael Lamb, are all up for reelection just this coming May -- whereas Ravenstahl gets two whole years to repair any damage. Yet what would truly chill the Harris Council to their core (if they would credit it) is the possibility that the Mayor actually adopted his position because he feels it is the responsible choice for the city.

At any rate, what is news today is that The Fund that is Something in the Nature of an Irrevocable Trust for Debt Service Reduction -- remember, that which was to be locked down most responsibly to pay down debt and debt alone, formally even under a defeasement agreement, so that we couldn't do something else with it like prop up the pension fund -- is now being tapped to pay down debt whereas others might desire it to help with the pension problem.

NO, WAIT! What is news today is that Council would now rather have the City itself retain its own parking assets, and use raised rates and penalties to create "dedicated funding" for the pension fund -- cutting out the middleman (and obstacle) that is the Parking Authority. It does not appear from today's news that the Council intends to take out a bond leveraged against that revenue and deposit cash into the fund, but rather "infuse the fund with value"; so too is it unclear how much this differs from the original Council-Controller plan. I suppose it is also unknown at this time whether the state would acknowledge a "value infusion" in its calculations, since hypothetically the city could change its mind in February and do something else with the money (sort of like it may do with the Irrevocable $45 million) *-UPDATE: Nah, it's sounding like they intend it to be drawn up and notarized, possibly.

At any rate...


Who's up for some oversight NOW, y'all?

If this furious last-minute financial and political jujitsu goes on very much longer, there is a real possibility that it will cloud this blogger's faculty for parsing truth from nonsense. Evidently it has shattered the capacities of our newspaper of record some time ago, which plainly threw up its hands. We realize that our oversight boards under Act 47 for Financially Distressed Municipalities are not "authorities" in the sense that they are our lords and masters -- but the establishment of a few common sets of facts, and some insight as to which assertions floating around are credible, would be extremely helpful.

Finally, in a somewhat roundabout but a very real way, our tax dollars are paying your salary. And it's a high salary. Get overseeing, oversight boards!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Holiday Feature Film: "FINAL CUT"

Battlestar Galactica: S2 EP 8
"The support the troops episode"


And among others, see: KDKA's Mary Robb Jackson covering Pittsburgh's 91st Veterans Day Parade, interviewing Donna Euhause (sp?), from Sharpsburg; and Harry Killey (sp?).

"Unless you're a true veteran n'at, it's hard to explain."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Actual Open Thread.

Councilman Shields's municipal drilling ban passed preliminarily and resoundingly, with even Councilman Dowd acquiescing with great trepidation and concern; and Mayor Ravenstahl's approach to the pension problem took another seeming body blow when a measure to renegotiate his lease deal morphed into a measure to further along a transfer of assets to the Parking Authority necessary to Council's competing retention-and-borrowing plan. I posted some impressions on that down here but am opening it up because I feel less certain than usual over what is afoot.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Daily Dance of Death, AKA Pittsburgh

The Mayor's budget address can be listened to HERE (c/o WDUQ).

The Council President's response statement can be read HERE.

Words I feel like offering:

1) We haven't heard much from Council members Dowd or Kraus since before Thursday. Nor has Shields lately drawn any particularly deep lines in the sand.

2) Council's majority didn't find the lease to be at all acceptable. The Mayor and the Parking Authority didn't find borrowing through the Authority to be at all acceptable. I'm not sure why to some, one of those equates to "ridiculous" insistence on a "dead plan", while the other equates to "a workable plan that's before us on the table."

3) I guess Pittsburgh is never going to do any business with Wall Street as long as Sheriff Harris and Deputy Peduto are wearing their stars. (There's that categorical imperative again.)

4) Remember in the future, people, never outright sell a thing capable of generating revenue, because then you will literally forfeit an infinity amount of money forever. Nobody can afford that!

5) Although the messy rhetorical door again swings open with the President's assertion that the lease on the shelf would allow "investment bankers" to "drain the life out of our city" -- expect a more empirical, numerical fight to be waged over whose course of action actually drains what out of where faster. This is not something your average newspaper article is capable of conveying with sensitivity but I have some faith. Of course some might say as long as it's not Wall Street that is wounding either ourselves or our egos, whatever drainage we experience will somehow be more tolerable.

6) How about we lease the Downtown and Oakland lots and meters to Lazowski Morgan Draper Pryce, while retaining the rest of the city's community assets and taking out a revenue bond leveraged against those? First of all, Downtown and Oakland comprise the juiciest part of the deal for investors, so the dowry we negotiate should still be pretty good. Subsidizing parking makes far less economic development sense in well-established Downtown / Oakland than in gently percolating areas like Bloomfield / Garfield / Lawrenceville, for example, or the South Side with its myriad issues. Besides, space age parking meters might actually look impressive to visitors in Downtown and Oakland, whereas in Beechview and Larimer it's like, don't make things complicated. By the way there are valid city planning reasons to keep control of our fringe neighborhood meters, so we can alter their layout as needed in an unfettered way. But there are clearly a lot of good fiscal reasons to maximize and fully ensure capitalization on as much as we can obviously. And you know, you can really add Squirrel Hill and Shadyside to the lease pool as far as I'm concerned; they can afford it, are already well-established and thrive more on foot traffic than most -- but I'm trying to be nice here. Meanwhile tighten up the language and envelope on "compensation events" and attempt but don't expect terribly much on shortening the duration.

The only problem I foresee is the concern, "Oh, if you deviate from the bid proposal too much, people will sue!" People won't sue. These infrastructure world dingbats all know each other and work together, and don't want to get litigious amongst each other for years, and for what? To whine over spilled milk in a crumbum town? Let's split the baby as outlined above and compromise within reason, within our ability to collect at least $250 $300 million, and within our capacities to walk away with something to show people.

Ethics, Gifts and Travel Abroad

No, don't get excited. I'm not throwing any flags on Mayor Ravenstahl and his chief of staff's recent trip to Shanghai, China and Seoul, S. Korea. Very legitimate and laudable business in my own opinion and in those of most others. But thinking about it does lead one down some interesting paths.

The first question everybody asked is, "Who's paying for this?" Although it was a business venture the air travel, accommodations, dining and incidentals would not pay for themselves, and over 10 days it is not as though there would be zero opportunity for business-class leisure and refreshment. Heck, even if the official schedule was jam packed solid, I'm still jealous. Travel broadens one.

Shortly we discovered that Shanghai was paying for the officials' trip to Shanghai, and that the Allegheny Conference and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (which is also the Allegheny Conference) for the trip to Seoul. And everyone said, "Oh."

Now, if we had learned UPMC for example was paying for the leg to Seoul, of course that would have been uproarious. Similarly had it been Duquesne Light, Target, K & L Gates, or any other discreet outfit with business presently or frequently enough before the city, there would have been some concerns: does the city now owe somebody a favor, or at least a much more generous hearing?

Yet join most every major prominent regional corporate interest together and viola, we instinctively view it as just fine. Almost as though the Conference is some kind of government, now. I don't argue that the Conference, in its many facets and functions, does not do a lot of good and sincere work for the city and the region -- but that does not automatically mean that their interests can not compete or conflict with the interests and desires of other interested Pittsburghers. Indeed it exists, in large part, to advocate policy and engage in the political process.

In fact, let's imagine William's Widgets desired itself to whisk the Mayor off to the Korean peninsula, and to Singapore. Realizing how that would look, how difficult would it be to filter the money and handle the logistics through the Conference, if it is an active member?

So then. Understanding that the Conference is a player and represents an identifiable hue of players, if anyone were to feel concerned that "these" interests were appropriating and unduly ingratiating themselves with Mr. Ravenstahl, we actually have vehicles to sort that out! It's called the City Ethics Code and the City Ethics Board, and it was recently reformed and refurbished.

The rules state, if a public official receives a "gift" worth over $100 it requires electronic disclosure, and if $500 or more, a more fulsome explanation and a review by two members of the Ethics Board. Now, looking at other language in the Code, it is clearly somewhat debatable whether the side-trip to Korea for example should even count as a "gift", and to what extent does it matter that it's in anybody's "official capacity" and conceivably even accorded by a "sponsoring organization." Maybe there is, or should be, something special about the Conference or a chamber of commerce.

What engaging in the City Ethics process would do, however, is begin building a body of thoughtful precedent for ethical behavior. We can begin applying categorical imperatives to real-life situations -- which can absolve proper behavior when it's being questioned for questionable purposes, and clarify gray-toned behavior which might actually deviate from norms we would all like to see established.

And the danger of not using these ethics tools at all is, of course, that eventually, some official actually will accept a sizable gift for "Win a City Contract Day," and we will attempt to remedy this under our ethics laws, enabling this malefactor to turn around and say, "We have never used our ethics laws, the Board is atrophied as an institution, we can't possibly begin applying these dated rules so selectively!"

Which brings us to the penalty flag I actually am throwing. We see that since the new ethics legislation passed last summer, requiring the electronic disclosure of all gifts valued at over $100 to any city officials, exactly two gifts have been declared -- by the same guy.

Bravo, Mr. Molinaro! And bravo to the scores, perhaps hundreds of remaining city officials, who have all scrupulously refrained from accepting a single item of three-digit value from any conceivably interested party this entire last year!

It appears Pittsburgh is well on the road to another cycle of bitter scandal, constitutional crisis and unsatisfying resolution. Let's start flexing our ethics muscles not because we must, but because we can. Because it's healthy. Because it's helpful.