Friday, October 26, 2012

Editorialists Not Ready for Good News Just Yet

People Magazine


Timing is everything, and when it comes to releasing the city of Pittsburgh from oversight by its Act 47 state coordinators, it's not time. (P-G Edit Board)



Mr. [Jack] Wagner said he's still seriously considering a run for mayor. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

I actually had a chance to follow up on this, and can report that "seriously considering" is merely a courtly understatement. This is going to be an unprecedented hootenanny. Non-affiliated and cross-affiliated operatives as well as revolutionaries would be wise to find excuses to stay on sidelines for as long as possible; aspiring operatives will have to choose with excruciating care and confidence.

BONUS-BONUS CONTENT: A Day in the life of Rich Fitzgerald (Pop, Elaine LaBalme)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wednesday: Schenley High School, Storm Water Strategery and UPMC

Fresh, Hip and Healthy, A. Enyati

Indian summer! Get it while it's hot!

1. The folks dahn PURE Reform way are circulating a petition:

The appropriate remedy at this time is for the Board to investigate whether information was withheld [from them] and to obtain a clear statement as to the extent of asbestos in [Schenley High School's] plaster and a corrected estimate for renovation. The amount spent to move students on an "emergency" basis should also be specified.

Read some background on Schenley from July's City Paper. I for one could not sign this thing fast enough. Sure, an investigation might come back negative -- but you never know until you look.

Pittsburgh is probably too small and too neighborly a town for its School Board to actually go ahead and "investigate" its administration. But if information was withheld from members who later only voted 5-4 to close the school, and tearfully at that, that is a practice we must strongly discourage on general principle.

On an unrelated note, you might not want to do anything too dramatic with that school building through the end of the year. Get your head around that fact and look alive.

2. A few "little" green storm water projects are starting to spring up...

As impatient as a hungry raccoon, I always think "little by little" means "too little by too little" when I hear about another small, sustainable solution to our wildly expensive and massive problems. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

In addition to that particular synagogue in Squirrel Hill minding their own property, State Rep. Dan Frankel announced yesterday a small, state loan-financed project to plant a rain garden near to a very well-trafficked intersection in Squirrel Hill, and to install some green drainage features to Schenley Park.

And then along came this:

 "These projects" referenced in Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner's tweet link to this article which again highlights the Schenley Park work, but groups it with a collection of mostly "distributive gray"-sounding projects.

Remember that anything "funded by Alcosan" will in fact be funded by its rate payers in the final analysis. To "set aside" or "reserve" half of one percent of total borrowing for "deep gray" to pay for green is certainly a modest adjustment -- but it might be more colloquial to think of these as "over and above" costs.

Unless -- however and unless -- unless greenlings can buy enough time for storm water efficiencies along county roads, county parks, county airports and county hospitals (as well as local projects from any parties who might wish to "step up") to be predicted, tabulated and (ahem) "worked into" the present Alcosan deep gray drafts? In terms of gaining that necessary time, remember even the "recommended" and somewhat affordable draft option which Alcosan hopes will satisfy federal regulators... does not itself satisfy federal regulations. Yet an entirely green plan out of Philadelphia somehow did.

But let's back way up. The need for time to develop transformational measures might be illusory. Is the true goal for green political activists to systematically improve,  to make more cost-efficient or sustainable the region's storm water strategy? Or is it to grab enough projects on a scale of the one in Schenley Park to keep their backers placated? Because those are entirely different poker games.

3. I just can't believe Brian O'Neill made it all the way through this column on the struggle with "nonprofits" without mentioning "U.P.M.C." once. He's a better man than I.

And then there's this:

Pittsburgh could serve as a model for the rest of the state in determining how much money tax-exempt nonprofits should pay for city services each year, one of the city’s financial overseers said Monday.

In a meeting with Tribune-Review editors and reporters, Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority Chairman Dana Yealy said the mayor holds the key to the success of a task force that will consider the question. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl must appoint a chairman who can “look the nonprofits in the eye and say, ‘It’s time for us to think about this differently,’ ” Yealy said. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

I've never had much luck using psychodynamics with Our Mayor, Dana, but go right ahead.

Carbolic Smoke Ball
Notice again though we are talking about "the nonprofits" like the Feds have the joint bugged and we're gambling over "boxes of ziti". It may be true, we all usually manage to remember that when we talk about "the nonprofits", we're really talking about "eds and meds."

But when we talk about "eds and meds", do we remember that there are a whole lot more "meds" than "eds"? And that "meds" are even more profitable by comparison? And do we remember that for all intents and purposes, we really only have one "med", just one single "med" of any significant size, one hospital system?

Mr. Ravenstahl said that UPMC is not "out of the equation," but he has considered excusing them in light of their $10 million annual pledge to the Pittsburgh Promise of college aid to public school graduates. (Dec. 22, 2009)

Maybe it's a matter of appointing the right chair person to the right task force. I'm open to that.
The Comet is not even going to dignify this dull account of a secret government study portending huge cost increases and on a politically nuclear issue with an analysis.

Monday, October 22, 2012

"Green" storm water strategies attract interest. But what can be done, now?

WDUQ, Mark Nootbar: Fitzgerald 'Suprised' by County Vote
The next and potentially decisive phase in a billions-dollar, court-ordered Pittsburgh regional sewers overhaul is scheduled to take place on January 30.

"The EPA has not given any indication that it's open to delay," warned Arletta Scott Williams, executive director of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan). It has spent fourteen years preparing for massive upgrades of its systems, and six years drafting conventional "gray" construction plans to capture surface waters prior to treatment.

"We really need to see creativity and leadership," urges Merritt Busierre, a researcher for the Clean Rivers Campaign, a group that has been active for the last year in urging widespread adoption of the sorts of "green" measures (permeable pavements, bioswales, rain gardens etc.) that are elsewhere in various stages of development as part of EPA compliance strategies.

"We want to go with Alcosan to the EPA to get enough time to get as much green as we can in," stated Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United, a coalition of labor, faith and environmental groups involved with that campaign.

Oursler also warned, "The EPA is not funding any more demonstration [green] projects."

That means it's time to cut out the show-and-tell -- to present only systemic-scale solutions.

Alcosan will be presenting before the EPA and a federal judge two versions of the "wet weather plan" it has completed with input from regional leaders. One is a $2 billion plan that would still be insufficiently compliant with health and safety regulations -- and is described as significantly painful to rate payers. The other is a $3.6 billion plan that would be fully compliant with the regulations, but is described as tremendously painful to rate payers.

"We need to show how we can capture the millions of gallons of water," in a storm event, insist Alcosan officials. "We catch what is sent to us."

The Alcosan plans are both "gray" in that they rely heavily on new underground construction -- mainly in the form of seven large regional catch basins or "tunnels".

There is as yet no "green" plan anywhere to provide an alternative -- only aspirations and frameworks based on what other cities have done or are presently pursuing through likewise court-mandated processes. Some of these models are more relevant to Pittsburgh's situation than others due to differences in climate, topography and political geography.

Janus Films, Rotten Tomatoes
The question remains: along what axises will parties and officials seek to negotiate and litigate with the Environmental Protection Agency?

Any so-called "green" plan would be only marginally "less gray", its proponents readily clarify. A large proportion of new sewer construction would still be needed to fully capture and reroute even moderately intense seasonal downpour or snowfall -- preventing flow into our sewage system and causing the present combined system to overflow into our rivers.

Green advocates draw a distinction between "deep gray" and "distributive gray," suggesting more of an emphasis on the latter in any ideal "green/grey" plan.

"There is more construction to be done with green infrastructure and distributive gray, rather than deep gray, and more permanent jobs" in the maintaining of it, asserts Oursler. "And more of that money is spent locally."

Yet the distinction suggests that to cost-engineer or retrofit Alcosan's "deep gray" plans to any modified "green/grey" framework might comprise less an adaptation and more of a return to square one.

The financing of one centralized plan as well may provide cost efficiencies and be easier to plan for than scores and scores of locally grown projects, say its proponents. Yet to green activists, that is all also money that is goes "elsewhere"-- to larger banks and financial services firms rather than to communities.

"How are they going to get the funding for it?" Williams asked about any brand new, greener study or plan which might emerge.

Alcosan organized 3 Rivers Wet Weather six years ago precisely to assemble engineering data, local government input, and to lobby for the funding to produce its draft overhauls.

"The first time we got a call about 'green' was in about October of last year," Nancy Barylak, a spokesperson for Alcosan said. That is about the time Oursler and Tom Hoffman of Clean Water Action joined its Regional Stakeholders Committee, which had been meeting quarterly.

"We were still at the point of building organizational capacity," describes Oursler of efforts early in through 2012. "Rich Fitzgerald was just getting into this, he was council president" before winning election as Allegheny County executive and earning responsibility for Alcosan board appointments and County policy.

In response to the question of what County Executive Fitzgerald means when he says he wants to "fight" for green infrastructure, one Alcosan official said, "That's a good question."

Alcosan and Allegheny County government's basic capacity to enforce sufficient "green" storm water measures across the region is a concern. With 130 separate municipalities in control of their own zoning and development, refusal by some to participate will result in the need to capture all that storm water anyway, which inevitably winds up in Alcosan systems.

Incentive measures such as the creation of a stormwater district or adjustable water rates could eventually generate revenue as well as encourage "green" behavior, but Alcosan director Williams insisted that "the conversation and willingness to even accept the problem rests at the municipal level."

Examples from other cities facing stormwater consent decrees is a mixed bag. Portland, OR benefited from a notoriously progressive political culture, but also features different soil challenges related to its freeze / thaw cycle. Philadelphia, PA benefits from having a fully consolidated countywide government, making the two challenges almost incomparable. Cleveland OH, which has been touted by Pittsburgh environmental advocates lately, seems to include more similarities -- but Cuyahoga County may be more solidly Democratic and receptive to environmental appeals across the board than is Allegheny.

On the flip side, these examples from other regions all seem to indicate that these federal storm water mandates can be a lengthy process, with ongoing points of negotiation -- making it noteworthy that neither present Alcosan plan is destined to be a smash hit with both ratepayers and regulators.

P-G, Joe Smydo
What the advocates for greener local solutions cannot afford to do in January -- if indeed they mean to move forward against these headwinds at all -- is show up empty-handed. A reasonable facsimile of a framework for developing a comprehensive draft plan for "green infrastructure" will have to be palpable, demonstrably underway, credibly researched, as well as delivered on official stationary.

One official who is exceptionally well-positioned to provide guidance on whether or not to pursue these matters happens to be Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb. As a board member of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, Lamb would be able to lend credence to, point out any blind-spots in, or suggest and rule out methods of jockeying around with the current "gray" plans. Furthermore as Controller, his joint audit of Alcosan in 1999 (pdf) spotlighted several significant compliance issues with contractor and consultant disclosures and justifications, to which he could now provide assurances of improvement or speak of how such matters might ever have been related. With a hinted-at mayoral run around the corner, Lamb would have all the reason in the world to demonstrate leadership and vision on a consequential issue.

"Our documentation and procedures are now in full compliance with rules and policies," Barylak said of Alcosan since the joint city-county audit.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alcosan must submit draft plans to regulators by Jan. 23, 2013. The correct date is Jan. 30. The Comet regrets the error.