Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thursday: Squaring the Circle

So this is also interesting:

"If they refuse, it is my understanding that the city could remove the partially constructed sign on their behalf and then charge the company and/or the Parking Authority for that expense. Either way, it is time this blight and sign of poor government administration be removed from such an important location," Mr. Dowd said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

What happens if LAZ Parking and their Wall Street investment bankers add yet another sweetener to the deal -- if they offer to cover the Parking Authority's expenses in dismantling this troublesome sign on its headquarters, including any hypothetical lawsuit from Lamar Advertising?

On this issue, I'm finally going to have to play the self-interest card. I have a hard enough time impressing anybody with the idea that I'm a local political blogger. One of my best moves is to arrange a meeting somewhere near the corner of Grant and Liberty, and then casually mention, "Oh, funny story about that half-a-sign over there..."

When I first started this writing experiment, there was another blog -- anonymously authored -- which was the most entertaining and by far the most informative portal onto Grant Street at the time. Most of what I learned about the scene, I learned from it. These were the very early days of the Ravenstahl administration, so much of which was regrettably slapstick at its improvised outset. It is a matter of public record that this other blog dished the puck onto my stick in regards to that billboard story, and once I pulled the trigger -- well, that was my brand. Viva la revoluciĆ³n.

Lately I've been writing a lot about "pragmatism", and with some distance from those heady events I believe that's where my core political convictions lie. It's consistent then that in my ideal Pittsburgh, sure, I'd prescribe some technocratic outsider for a captain, bloodthirsty after government savings but with a bleeding heart for the poor -- or maybe more of a mercurial, swashbuckling intellectual. Yet the Pittsburgh we all know and love, like any other mid-size metropolis, is going to produce leaders whose core strengths lie in human politics -- a lifetime of coming up through the apparatus, forging alliances, working the community, making enemies and pandering earnestly to constituencies. Just like every one of the folks we happen to know.

The mission is to remove impediments to getting that motley human concerto to perform well, which can be defined as being far-sighted, innovative and compassionate. "Mission impossible", one might quip -- but most public servants sincerely desire nothing more than to perform well. It only helps to provide them with a safe and inviting space for working out that which is most "well", and to expose and remove those impediments.

I don't happen to think that a $60 million annual aggregate penalty for a lack of negotiating skills, or a billion dollar surcharge for coming around to a compromising attitude a little too late, qualifies as doing particularly well. Some residents actually depend on city government services to a degree that such latitude is not an acceptable option.


All of which is to say it sticks in my craw that we were credulously instructed at the table yesterday that the most recent proposal to contract out our government-run parking system is "just like the deal in Chicago", and that those who believe otherwise must be poorly read, dimwitted or much worse. The evidence presented for this was a few national news stories describing increasing interest in infrastructure partnerships across the country, the highlight being a potty-mouthed ideologue at Rolling Stone with his own branding concerns.

The Mayor of Chicago presented his parking deal a mere 24 hours before that city's council was asked to vote on it -- a procedural crime deserving of the boycotts and vandalism which followed. In Pittsburgh we were informed of the proposal almost 2 years in advance, had the complete contractual details in hand 2 months prior to a scheduled vote (during which time said proposal suffered in a vacuum of any discussion of our alternatives) and have all been substantively and successfully negotiating for an additional 2 months and counting. Very different.

In Chicago there was no competitive process for the concessionaire, or for the broker / transactional advisor. In Pittsburgh, both functions were subject to formal RFPs and long bidding processes to which no one can credibly raise any objection. Very different.

In Chicago no study was done to ascertain the value of the assets until after the fact, which made for a very unpleasant and clear demonstration of Chicago having gotten ripped off. In Pittsburgh the Council rightfully ordered a such an outside professional analysis beforehand, only to discover that the present value of the assets is about $50 million less than the dowry which was actually offered. Very different indeed.

Lumping in the Pittsburgh deal with that of Chicago, if you will excuse the muddled metaphorical time line, is like arguing that since the Iraq War was such a fiasco we should never have stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated Europe, because war is war is war. Then again, opposition to a serious monetization of our government-run parking system has rarely roused itself very much beyond a noun, a verb, "Wall Street investment bankers" and "Chicago". It has been distinctly (and shockingly) hackneyed, political, non-empirical and anti-intellectual at almost every turn.

There have been better arguments against a professional services accord, and sounder considerations including some real popular opposition -- and this blog will respectfully engage these while there is still time to forge a new compromise solution. But I thought it best to dispense with the crap first.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Song: Powerhouse

The Artist: Raymond Scott


Liveblogging the Failure to Make Progress on a Pensions-Funding Plan.

Right now, Council is debating how and how much to fund the city's hunger groups in 2011. Councilman Burgess has recommended an increase to $125,000 worth of its CDBG funds, and Councilman Peduto is pointing out that this "has always" been matched by the mayor's "ULO". Burgess is now offering to withdraw his budget amendment for one week so as not to turn this into a political football. Councilwoman Smith mentions that she hopes that next year we can add some accountability measures to make sure the funding is going to the people we're trying to reach, but now the question is resurfacing what accounts this money is coming out of. Councilwoman Rudiak says it's "unfair to the groups in [her] district, in all of our districts, who must rely on this funding" to present an amendment on the day of tentative approval of the budget without previous discussion. "A house divided cannot stand."

So basically, everybody is getting in the mood to discuss saving the pension fund.

Council votes without discussion to hold for one week (?) its consideration of the "present value calculation" solution concept (not hearing much about that one these days).

On the Revenue-Sharing Services Contract, Burgess motions to hold for one week (?) with discussion. Kunka and LAZ are invited to the table. Burgess's introductory spiel takes us back to 1787 and the compromises in the framing of the Constitution.

And here comes the PowerPoint.

"This compromise plan has been supported by I think all of the unions who work for the City of Pittsburgh", says Burgess, and he rattles off almost a dozen. "We have perhaps a week or less to do something against a state takeover." Burgess says despite his previous strong advocacy, from here out he'll be an honest broker and try to work out an agreement. "This is just a framework for us to have conversations."

Councilman Lavelle, to Finance Director Kunka: "With the time we have left, how do you see this being done?" Kunka says we can't get to a closing by the end of the year, but if we reach an agreement we can get some bridge financing.

Alan Lazowski from LAZ comes to the table, thanks Council for the opportunity, and the opportunity to hear constituent concerns to respond to them. Says people were not comfortable with a 50-year plan without revenue sharing, and not comfortable with high rates in neighborhood business districts. Says its not a lease, but a revenue sharing services agreement. Most rates, hours consistent with Council-Controller plan. LAZ also to chip in $340 million on construction, including $93 million in first (was it 10?) years. Plus new technology for the city's own residential parking permit program -- license plate recognition and online permitting, will be provided by LAZ.

In short, this is "a wonderful blend of both plans that everyone can be proud of."

Nobody has questions for Mr. Lazowski, but some have some comments.

Councilman Kraus: "I have remained relatively quiet throughout this issue, though some have belabored their comments ... as though to convince themselves of the validity of their arguments." Has met resounding opposition from his constituents. "You cannot lease public assets to investment bankers." "It's liken to tearing up the floorboards of your house to heat it." If we're not managing the assets good enough, we have to do it better, so people profit not investment bankers. Has done extensive reading on Chicago, where there are boycotts and vandalism.

More Kraus - Somehow vehicle management got mixed up with pensions and that's a shame. We should be talking about light rail from Downtown to Oakland. Some members are choosing to waver. Calls out Dowd in the paper, who sat here and pontificated about rejection and now says it's the centerpiece. I will be more than happy to work with whoever we need to work with to solve this, but will not go against "99.99%" of his constituents.

Lavelle: I agree with Kraus that our constituency, 99%, have voted down original plan. Public has NOT had the opportunity to learn / sound off since real State takeover consequences came out, and since this new plan came out. "I think there's a conversation to be had."

Councilman Dowd: Hasn't wavered one bit since 2009. Doesn't believe everything he reads in the papers. Will now take as much time as he needs (he warns us). Has always said public assets should remain public. That includes management of the pension fund. That includes managing our assets, but it doesn't mean not working with anyone.

More Dowd - "For someone to say they're totally opposed to anything and for the status quo ... that's a very easy path. But the reality is we've got to do something." He doesn't walk the streets and hear anyone happy about the status quo. "We have to get something going here." "We'll never get anywhere if we continue to dig our heels in and stick our heads in the sand."

Smith - "We either want to solve this or we don't." Doesn't even want to hold this for a week; wants to vote it. We shouldn't be leaving this building until we solve the problem -- no Christmas parties or anything. It shouldn't matter who put the plan on the table. Is getting "fed up."

More Smith - "If you want to bring up Chicago, we've learned something from Chicago, we're doing things differently." "LOOK AT OUR OWN BLOGS LOCALLY AND SEE WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT THIS." :) :) :) "Somebody call a meeting and let's sit down and work on this.

Peduto - The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Bloomberg News, Rolling Stone have been covering this. Wall Street is using this to make money. Anybody who says this isn't the same as Chicago "doesn't even understand this issue a tiny bit." :( :( :( "This is a deal that was struck by this mayor, and that's why we can't compromise -- because he can't walk away from this deal."

More Peduto - "Mr. Laz, you're a nice guy, but it's time to go home." "I don't return your calls, because I don't want to give you even a little bit of hope." What do we sell next, the Water Authority? The City-County Building? Will be voting no so he can defeat bill and leave it from this chamber once and for all.

Back to Burgess (w/o 1st round discussion by Harris, Shields or Rudiak.) Asks about timeline and says is ready to work 'round the clock about compromise.

Smith - "Wall Street's in it to make money. No kidding. That's what they do. But last week I sat in a meeting with foreign investors (reference to the Harris life-insurance proposal!) and if I had to choose I'd choose Wall Street." Taking umbrage at the suggestion that the problem is people don't understand or aren't well-enough read on the issue.

Dowd - "I do believe the Council-Controller plan is the best possible solution.", doesn't mean it can't go through in the future. Thinks the 40-year duration in the latest LAZ proposal can be shortened further. Must start with that "idea block". We need to go to "somebody".

MOTION TO HOLD: Fails 4-5.

MOTION TO APPROVE: During roll call vote, Dowd asks for his full minute to think, and gets passed over. Finally: "I hate to abstain, but I have to abstain. I abstain." 2-5-2. Motion fails.

What a convenience, to know who are the good guys and bad guys.

*-UPDATE: I don't know why I keep forgetting these Wednesdays are just preliminary votes -- they're going to have the opportunity to make sure everybody understands all the big-picture arguments again through Tuesday 12/21.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

9 Days Remaining in CHS Gift Drive...

Info about the nonprofit gift drive is still here; their website to learn exactly how to help is here. These are just a few composite stories, provided by Sue Kerr of CHS, to illustrate the kinds of people CHS helps and what will become of your gift card or other donation:

"Jim and Elizabeth are parents to a 3 year old girl and 4 year old boy. When a fire destroyed their rental home, they were forced to live apart in shelters because there are so few family shelters. Jim was unable to keep his job because of the housing instability. With the help of CHS family programs, they were able to find an affordable apartment and reunite their family. Jim works a full-time job and Elizabeth volunteers at the children's preschool. Now that they are back on their feet, they need your support for the holidays so they can stay on track with their financial plan. Jim and Elizabeth have asked only for gifts for their children."

"Joey is in his fifties, and independent. He lives near staff for a sense of security, but takes care of his own matters. His requests are modest -- a few books of stamps, a VHS tape cleaner kit and a model for his collection. We'd like to treat Joey to a simple meal out (Wendy's is a favorite) often outside of his modest budget as he always pays his bills. Joey is an example of how successful a Mental Health program can be."

"Ken is a single father raising two teenage boys, one of whom is confined to a wheelchair by a physical disability. Caring for his son’s medical needs consumes a lot of Ken’s energy and financial resources. With your help, he can continue to meet those needs and provide a memorable holiday for both of his sons. Ken’s wish is simply to have gifts for his teenage sons, nothing for himself."

"Bronson is in his mid-50s and has held the same PT job for 13 years. He shares an apartment. Bronson is an avid reader and writes many letters to the editor about an issue he cares about – free speech. Bronson and his roommate split the bills and housework 50/50, pooling their money to buy in bulk for savings. Bronson enjoys collecting clock radios and helps his neighbors by taking out the trash each week for those who are a few years older than he is. Bronson’s wish for the holiday is a winter hat and glove set and some blank paper for his printer."

Like I said, here.

Monday, December 13, 2010


UPDATE, NEXT DAY: Council unanimously waved Rule 8 today in order to begin deliberation on the new proposal tomorrow. This could enable final action on it just a week from today, which is more or less what would have to happen to get it done. The P-G carries the so-called latest.

At least I hope** this is verifiable news:

LAZ Chairman Alan B. Lazowski sent council a second revision Nov. 29, and Councilman Patrick Dowd said he thinks it could be the centerpiece of an agreement. The Post-Gazette agrees. (P-G, Edit Board)

Dowd emceed the celebrity roast of the initial lease offer from LAZ, which in retrospect was deservedly dead on arrival. But now it seems his objections to it were detail-oriented rather than religious in nature. Maybe he was simply negotiating aggressively -- while the rest of us got taken in by the "must be completed by October" deadline, which now seems rather quaint.

Irregardless. One step closer.

NOTED: Just in case it surfaces again, this theory sounds so broken I can't even begin to wrap my brain around anyone's supposed motivation to play their roles in it.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: If we're having a difficult time relinquishing our government-run parking fiefdom and/or justifying it politically to some parties -- shouldn't we be asking for more money on behalf of our city? It seems perverse to be shaving features off of the deal while whittling the payoff further downward ... perhaps instead we should be demanding more?

*-UPDATE: It is:

Let's just not allow the perfect to become the avada kedavra of the good. And I'm sorry if I ruined Deathly Hallows for anyone but the book was released in 2007 and your time has expired!

**-UPDATE B: Or not. Or kinda:

How about I just give up trying to understand.