Friday, November 19, 2010

Decision Point

I realize how sick you all are of this -- but I want you to LOOK at what we're turning up our noses at:

  • $355 million now
  • $6 million a year extra in parking tax
  • $97 million to fix up the garages
  • $800 to $1,000 million over 40 years in revenue sharing
  • Neighborhood rates lifted straight out of Council's vision
  • 100% of the advertising revenue
  • Fully executable in 42 days

Pittsburgh has done a truly phenomenal job as a team doing its due diligence, negotiating, walking straight out of the dealership, making JPMorgan chase after us for weeks and extracting a price for which we should all be very proud. After one final round of total engagement in which we surreptitiously demand the leather upholstery and undercoating, we should take the deal and absolutely pole-vault over the long, hellacious public pensions disaster which will mire most others in impossible misery for decades.

If we choose not to, it is the dictionary definition of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Restuarant Review: Sonoma Grille

(See Gift Card Sweepstakes details at bottom!)

Pittsburgh City Council member Bill Peduto has suggested that one reason to continue significantly subsidizing the cost of parking, despite the city's $800 million pensions deficit, is that cheaper parking can entice people to come Downtown and enjoy a restaurant they might not otherwise visit.

Another way this can be accomplished is to write a monstrously powerful political blog, and thereby have the folks at Näkturnal marketing suddenly start arranging for you complimentary tastings at Pittsburgh restaurants, along with giveaways for your readers -- all for the privilege of having that experience written up online. One of these days I look forward to universally panning one of these eateries, but that most definitely will not be occurring in regards to the Sonoma Grille.

I'd passed the facade of 947 Penn Ave. on many occasions, and always thought to myself, "Man, look at that ritzy restaurant, with all the fancy people inside!" Turns out that impression is more a function of the three-martini lunchtime crowd and the nearby Federal Building. On this Monday evening, families were dressed rather casually, several with babies, and the radio was tuned to whatever is the satellite equivalent of rhythm & bluesy WDVE. Two flat screens above the bar were set to ESPN in advance of Monday Night Football.

Dinner entrees at Sonoma run about $26, with the filet mignon topping out at $34. Salad courses will put you back an extra $8 or $9 -- that's how they get you -- but I grabbed a lunch menu and discovered you can get a sandwich or an omelet for just ten bucks.

Sonoma's wine list is somewhere in the vicinity of 400 varieties deep, a major feature of this "wine bistro". I was also shocked to learn that they serve regionally grown and organic ingredients mainly, which is to say most of the time -- though my server James was quickly able to rattle off a few instances where that was not possible, and it's not treated quite like an emergency. The cuisine is described as "West Coast" or "California", with occasional French notes owing to the owner's background.

This is what I ordered, and what I thought about it:

  • Avocado and Crabmeet Tian: This appetizer had the appearance of green cat food with a cucumber garnish on the side, yet was, well, a tangy and exciting mix of avocado, crabmeat and chili oil. I yearned for a second can.
  • Beet Salad: This was the sleeper highlight of the meal, of a deliciousness entirely out-of-proportion for something called "beet salad". I expected a mixed greens salad with some beets in it, but no, the salad was made entirely of honey-glazed beets. And pecans. And feta cheese. That's pretty much it, but somehow the combination of these flavors produced a savory alchemy I am intent on reproducing in my own kitchen, for the reaping of massive dividends. Oh yes.
  • Lamb Ravioli: These were just plain fun-tasting. It was somehow pleasantly greasy yet unmistakably healthful at the same time, what with the cucumber-yogurt sauce. James informed me for example that this dish had its origins in Jamison Lamb Farm and the Allegheny Creamery.
  • Char Su Duck: If fancy-pants food is not for you, enjoy these barbecue chicken wings served on a bed of stir fry. Or if you dig duck, enjoy gnawing away on the perfectly prepared and crispy duck skins.
  • Carmel Creme Brulee: Oh, geez. Served with individually and delicately caramelized thin slices of apple, and a modest cookie for dipping. It's just lasciviously indulgent, but somehow packed into a dishware dainty enough that it appears you're being dignified and reserved.

There is so much to try and it all tastes so varied and fun, I actually recommend ordering the "tasting" yourself, enabling you to sample smaller portions of 3, 4 or 5 dishes at $35, $45 and $55 respectively. I have a prodigious appetite and the 5 dish sampler filled me up entirely; ordinary diners if they are friendly and stack up on entree selections will probably be able to split a fiver contentedly.

The ambiance, though elegant, is wide-open and roomy, and the dining room stayed well-lit even after nine o'clock. I'd classify the Sonoma Grille not as much a first-date place as a double-date place or a bring-your-out-of-town-friends-over-Thanksgiving place. There are only so many times you can go back to that one Shadyside bar which used to serve you and your cronies alcohol with your bad fake IDs. This year, show those diasporans how Pittsburgh is passing them by.


And now, THE GIVEAWAY. Sonoma Grille has furnished us with a $25 gift card. To win it, leave a comment under this post with a unique handle, or an e-mail address in the body or the URL field; something enabling me to say, "Schploopjuice017 won the contest!" so that person can at least e-mail me. If you are a notable public figure, well, use an alias and when we connect over e-mail I promise to protect the facade that you don't read blogs. If you're absolutely paranoid we can arrange a dead-drop.

One entry per person. To enter, leave a comment answering the question, "If I could ask any political, business or non-profit figure in the region any question, what would it be?" I will select the winner via random number generator. Monk, you may enter this contest, provided you can keep your entry clean and under a dozen total lines of text. Winner announced Monday at 5:00 PM.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Comet Money Desk: Life Settlement Securities

You know we have a wide array of interests:

After the mortgage business imploded last year, Wall Street investment banks began searching for another big idea to make money. They think they may have found one.

The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die. (NYT, Jenny Anderson, 9/05/09)

Sounds like there are clear risks for the initial purchasers and for the investors in the bonds these policies ultimately become -- and then in the long run, risks to the insurance market and to conventional purchasers of life insurance policies for whom this might make the whole business more expensive. And, at the end of the road, possibly more bubbles and crashes.

However to those who would initially sell these policies, it seems like the main risk is simply that it has yet to be attempted on any kind of major scale, so investors and bond ratings agencies alike would take very long and careful times in valuing and underwriting these investment vehicles. Maybe more so than it might sound like in a preliminary sales pitch.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pensions / Parking: Digging In, Throwing Grenades.

In most alternate universes, this is news:

In an e-mail to council members today, LAZ Parking CEO Alan B. Lazowski said his consortium would pay the city $355 million up front for a 50-year lease, which it could cancel after 30 years in return for a partial refund. Unlike the original bid, the compromise offer would have the city get a share of parking revenue from 2022 through 2061 that would total $800 million to $1 billion. LAZ would also modernize meters and spend $93 million improving garages. The city would get all revenue from advertising in the garages.

Coming increases in neighborhood parking meter rates would be trimmed to levels proposed in a plan floated by City Controller Michael Lamb and some council members, Mr. Lazowski wrote. (P-G, Rich Lord)

And so is this, maybe even more so:

Mr. Lavelle's plan would involve leasing Downtown garages to private interests for around $160 million, while selling Mellon Square Garage, five lots and all meters to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority for $170 million. Combined, those deals could pay off the authority's debt and shore up the pension fund. (ibid)

Not here though.

Council Finance Chair William Peduto, though, said privatization was a dead issue. (ibid)


He'll keep tweeting it until it sinks in:

The Trash Heap has spoken! NYEEEAAAAH!


If we could all talk a little less about which plans are "dead", and talk a little more about which plans, twists on plans or combinations of plans might actually work, we'd be a lot better off.

Let's face it: All of the plans are dead. Every single one of them.

Most of them are dead because we have exactly 44 days left to begin seriously analyzing them -- with professionals -- and somehow pull them off with the cooperation of whomever else these things require: bond buyers and insurers, state government officials, etc. Some of them are even more dead on top of that because they represent 100% total political victory for some politicians and 100% total political defeat for others, and that's just never a practical option once things reach this point. Still others, even some brand new ones, are especially dead because as it says in the Torah, Thou Shalt Not Privatize. So we're really talking about what dead plans we should try to breath a little life back into.

Besides which, if we keep pointing out that the old lease is dead -- the only plan everyone knew with complete certainty would have worked as far as avoiding the takeover goes -- it only makes sense for us to hold an inquest and an arraignment.


And here come the special agents:

When city workers plowed her street first, it wasn’t hard to find some yelling favoritism.

And now a KD Investigation has found that was just one example of what some might call special treatment – something City Council President Darlene Harris denies. (KDKA, Andy Sheehan)

Watching this exposé, it doesn't take an angel lady to figure out who might have tipped off the newsroom. With the exception of the plow jobs during Snowmaggedon, the work detailed looks like it was done two to three years back, back when Harris and the mayor's office were getting along quite a bit better.

Then again, it was previous Public Works director Guy Costa who was at the helm during that period, and who is defending Harris today -- and Costa, inherited from previous administrations, had a rocky relationship with this mayor even before he was ousted. And it's present Public Works director Rob Kaczorowski who now volunteers to a reporter that "undue influence" has been at play. So if my theory of where the news came from checks out, it's not as though the administration is much implicating itself.

I know that Darlene Harris and her staff consider honesty and ethics to be her bailiwick -- they take any allusions to the contrary very seriously. Indeed, she doesn't deny lobbying for any of the work in the report, she only denies the "unduly" part. It takes a special kind of political confidence to confront these sets of facts and assert calmly into camera, "I work to help the people, not to help myself ... I’ve never taken anything for myself."

But can you imagine running against Harris, and being able to door knock houses and say, "According to KDKA, in the years since Harris was last elected she has had all three streets around her house repaved, had a retaining wall built to protect her property, had the house next door to her demolished so she could use it as a side yard, and had her own street very well plowed during the historic snowstorm that buried most of the city. How is life on your block? And here is what the fire fighters are saying about her leadership..."

Confronted with an attack, Harris again brings up her 35-year history of public service and asserts that her constituents know her work. It's conceivable she knows more than a majority of likely voters in her district personally, and has done each and every one of them a solid. Still, 35-year histories in government are not so much in vogue these days, particularly when they acquire the whiff of entitlement.

It'll be interesting to see what happens, here and everywhere.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Our Municipal Drilling Ban: You Don't Has One?

The people of Pittsburgh have decided to grandstand on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling, the theory being that it is still so intractably foul and dangerous that we are endowed by our Creator with a certain unalienable right to keep it as far away from us as we can manage to police.

Not the politicians, mind you, but the people have insisted upon throwing this party, by their direct action or their amiable assent -- and a good many of them with their eyes wide open as to the legal, um, difficulties? Is that the right word? Point being, this is an educated crowd, and they know roughly what they're getting into.

Well, I'll tell you what: there are worse issues to grandstand over, and ones with less practical upside. This could parlay into some extended, modest, slow-burn G20 type of action for Pittsburgh -- activists, artists, scholars, scientists, policymakers and lawyers from all over the U.S. convening here to strategize, network, behold our fair city, eat at our restaurants, attempt to mate and what have you. It's very conceivable that all that activity will result in some genuine locally-grown advances for the cause of safe and sustainable energy development, or else some other things entirely unexpected. The ban is a respectable decision.

In terms of dreary bookkeeping, let the record show there are two (2) dangers in this course of action. One is that if the ban on drilling is challenged in Court, and fails, and then we attempt to pursue zoning restrictions as a fallback, then a new challenger who finds our restrictions too restrictive might claim it was our clear intent to covertly ban drilling, as evidenced by our prior overt attempt. So that could leave us with closer to nothing. A second danger is that we might end up paying the legal costs of these Marcellus drillers out of our own pocket, as that tends to occur when a party violates what other folks thickly insist on treating as constitutional rights.

It will be diverting to learn whether this legislation prompts a veto from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. The veto would be easily overridden, but who cares, he has vetoed unanimously passed legislation before on sheer principle. The city's Law Department cannot be imagined to be particularly enthusiastic about this, and one would hope a mayor of four or five years experience would be trained to listen to his or her law department. So a veto would also be respectable -- but, it might be more profitable and a lot more fun to join the party.

Mind you, the Marcellus Shale Coalition and at least one driller say they have no plans to challenge our ordinance, as there are no serious drilling leases within the city due to geology and science and a little politics. Yet that could change if the technology, the economics, or our consideration of the geology changes, or if municipalities more comfortably situated on the shale bed take a look at us and think, why not us?