Thursday, June 20, 2013

The ICA's Journey of Understanding (and a bumper crop of blog links)

Bernard Langraf

Call it one or several changes of attitude, a "misunderstanding," or a moving of the goalposts until "by 2014", but the ICA (the State's financial oversight panel) is now easing off the whip in its drive to get Pittsburgh to implement suitable universalized accounting software.

Administration officials made effective presentations that there are still a considerable number of technical steps to iron out. These include attaining strategic mastery over the present hodgepodge of financial systems and the vendors that will be needed to merge them, as well as addressing hurdles that may be found in collective bargaining agreements.

A status report by what this blog is calling the ICA's "private investigator" was more interesting. While Gleason & Associates clarifies that it has not observed any fraud or cash-skimming, it sounded an alarm that several business processes found throughout the City do keep too wide a door open to that opportunity.

Due to their volume of cash-flow, to what is known preliminarily about their different processes, and to any logistical issues on the part of the inquirers, the following departments were listed by the forensic consultant as proximate "fields for review," and not in alphabetical order:

Department of Public Works

Department of Public Safety
- with an emphasis on the Bureau of Building Inspection

Department of Parks and Recreation
- emphasized very small amounts & many neighborhood ad-hoc processes including volunteers
Treasurer's office (housed in the Department of Finance)

The main things to look out for when it comes to opportunities for fraud and cash-skimming, said Gleason & Associates, is an inadequate segregation of duties -- receiving money, balancing books and receipts, depositing money -- and making these deposits as infrequently as quarterly, as well as a lack of automated card acceptance which would buttress the paper trails.

Some of these departments (DPW and Parks & Rec, as well as City Planning) presently utilize the same accounting software upon the point where the cash gets electronically recorded. City Innovation, Performance and Strategy Manager [CORRECTED] Chuck Half told the Comet that the game plan presently is to add the Police Bureau's Special Events office to that batch, owing to a streamline around building and permitting functions.


That's Church: "The Steelers want more public money. No."

P-G City Walkabout: A foreclosure by Dollar Bank is gifted to something called the Homewood Renaissance Association

Homewood Nation: Calculates 18% voter turnout within its sphere of interest.

Hillombo: Penguins development plan is moving forward, despite concerns including affordable housing in the Lower Hill

PURE Reform: Isn't being principal at Westinghouse hard enough?

Nullspace: Only itself and Jim Ferlo see sense in a merger with the Wilkinsburg school district, for some reason.

P-G Early Returns and PoliticsPA: Each showing trouble for Tom Corbett

PoliticsPA: Must-see politico-celebrity lookalikes.

City Paper Blogh: Byrne is shocked her name was mentioned

2 Political Junkies: Reminds us that Revenge of Gasland is coming tonight.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Transit bill passes Senate: opportunity for Equity component being bypassed

A Sensei's Journey

It's headed to the state House, but may lack for one easy amendment:

If the bill becomes law, there would be five appointees from the state -- one from the governor and one each by Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate -- and six from the county: four appointments would come from the county executive and two would come from county council members of the opposite party of the executive.

Two of the county executive's four appointments would need to come from a list of potential appointees developed by disability groups, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. (P-G, Kate Giammarise)

As far as the board structure, I'm fine with it. Maybe even a little impressed.

As far as the funding for a study of systems consolidation and privatization, I'm personally also fine with it. It's only a study, and we eat studies for breakfast.

What concerns me is the part about the "groups." The constituents of the Allegheny Conference don't have particular trouble being heard in any corridors of power as it is, and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (due to its own board structure) tends to lean conservative and Republican as well.

If this legislation recognizes that those with disability issues have a special stake in good public transit and deserve a seat at the table, why no other conspicuous populations, such as low- and moderate-income communities or Black communities? With all the recent talk of food deserts, and the degree to which Pittsburgh is capable of generating talk about "equity" and "two Pittsburghs" when it wants to, one would think that seeking to bolster the interests of geographically segregated and poor minority communities when it comes to public transit would be a no-brainer.

Pittsburgh has more than a couple of State Reps in a position to raise that point. And if doing so messes with the separate transportation funding bill, that would solely be the fault of the people insisting on holding transportation funding hostage to their every wish. When we wait for it to be "the right time to talk about equity," we end up waiting our whole lives.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Terrible Tuesday: Financial Software, Patrick Ford, and the Mexican War


Three major stories.

1. Wednesday's meeting of the ICA is set to be held in Pgh. City Council Chambers, and be pretty hairy.

One of Pittsburgh's state oversight boards is demanding that city officials explain this week why they haven't implemented a financial management system that was supposed to be in place by the end of last year. (Trib, Bill Vidonic)

We've been waiting on the purchase and implementation of this transparent, unified financial software longer it seems than we've been waiting on road and bridge funding. Only natural to begin assuming: maybe it's the transparency and unification that is being resisted by the administration. That's at least what the ICA is getting at in referencing its own "ongoing forensic invistigation" of the Harper affair (see also P-G Early Returns).

A disquieting thought, moving into...

2. InvestigatePGH has taken a new turn towards the Urban Redevelopment Authority

Though the process outlined in the requests called for a vote of the URA board before any lease award, and set maximum rental payments as the first goal, neither occurred. Instead, in June [2008] the URA staff, then led by Rob Stephany, picked the winners [incl. William Penn Parking] based on other considerations in consultation with Mr. Zober. (P-G, Lord & Balingit)

Frodo lives!

At the times this parking lease RFP was conceived, issued and the bids first reviewed, Pat "Patrick" Ford was the director of the URA under Zober and Ravenstahl. At that same period, during the height of the billboard scandal which led to his fiery resignation, Ford pointedly demonstrated to City Council that he keeps "copious" notes on every meeting, every interaction, every phone call he takes a part in.

"The mayor directed Pat to issue the [request for proposals] at issue," Lawrence Fisher, Mr. Ford's attorney, told the Post-Gazette on Aug. 26. (P-G 9/08/08)

If federal investigators have any questions, Ford's own records would surely fill in a more complete picture of how these contracts came to be, and how many other things dated to that time period came to be. Of course today he has business interests which may make a seamy spectacle undesirable.

My own notes on the supercharged five-hour Council meeting in which Ford brandished his notes can be found here:

Introductions, Legalese and Anticipation
The Problems Surrounding Mr. Specter
Who's Running Things?
Having fun at Patrick Dowd's expense
Pat Ford arrives
On Blogging, Part I
Looking back, the first lesson I take is that Pittsburgh city government was shamelessly and brazenly evasive about subverting all manner of rules back then, making the flimsiest of excuses and most arrogant of appeals against submitting to them -- back when the Ravenstahl administration was still essentially unscathed, and its execution duly entrusted to Housing Authority chairman, Parking Authority chairman and URA executive director Pat Ford in spring of 2008.

The second lesson I take is, Pat Ford took copious notes on his every interaction. This parking lease with Mr. Gigliotti's company would be reflected in them.

3. On the North Side, long-simmering tensions are boiling over in advance of a community development vote.

Proponents said expanding the historic district would raise property values and prevent developers from destroying historic homes. Detractors said it would force out low-income residents who can't afford home improvements to meet the historic district code.

I think they should expand it. Owners should take care of their properties,” said Eliza Carey, 77, who has lived in the neighborhood for 57 years. Her home on Jacksonia Street is in the proposed expanded zone.

“It will keep the property values up. I'm having problems with a Section 8 mess around me,” she said. (Trib, Bobby Kerlik)

If this is what proponents sound like, I'm not surprised there is so much organized opposition. See also P-G.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Transportation Funding Needs To Happen... Now! An open letter to Senator Scarnati, Majority Leader Turzai and Governor Corbett

By Shawn Carter


Honorable Thomas Corbett, Honorable Joseph Scarnati III and Honorable Michael Turzai:

Throughout the course of the year, concerned citizens have advocated, begged and pleaded with you and your party for more transportation dollars.

Here in Pittsburgh, that discussion sometimes seemed weighted toward transit.

For good reason.  We happen to need transit, badly. 

But transit is only one piece of the transportation puzzle.

Unless no one in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County or Harrisburg concerns themselves with the dozens of spans across our rivers and valleys.

Pennsylvania needs comprehensive transportation funding, now.

Senate Bill 1 is the closest we will get to it.  And we thank the Senate for passing it.  Of course we'd like more, but we certainly can't afford less.

I fear the day I turn on the television and see the Liberty Bridge in the Monongahela River, or the Greenfield Avenue Bridge sprawled across the Parkway East during rush hour.

I-35 Mississippi River Bridge Collapse
Trust me when I say none of you (and none of us, either) want to be asking or answering the question posed by this graphic.  It tends to be one of the single most expensive questions any government official ever gets forced to answer.

Lots of zeros behind it.

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars building new infrastructure and potentially millions more settling implied liability claims.

We don't need that either.  Let's just build it now.

Speaking of urban expressways...

Many Pennsylvanians don't realize, as we talk about bridges, that the Parkway East is essentially a 70 year-old bridge from Churchill to the eastern portal of the Squirrel Hill Tunnels and over the Four-Mile Run to Glenwood.

Parkway East Spanning the Nine Mile Run
In fact, the next time you're stuck in traffic on the Edgewood side of the Squirrel Hill Tunnels, just look down.

On second thought, please don't.  There are enough traffic jams in and near the Squirrel Hill Tunnels.

There is a steel diaper under the Greenfield Ave. Bridge to keep chunks of that span from impaling Parkway drivers.  

Greenfield Avenue Bridge and Diaper

Speaking of bridges over valleys, the ones that span the East Street Valley (I-279) are very, very high.

Swindell Bridge

My point here is that we care about transit around here to be sure, but even our buses and light rail need roads and bridges and tunnels.

The truth is, God forbid the day we lose an interstate highway bridge (I-79 over the Ohio River, I-579 over the Allegheny River) like Minneapolis or Tacoma.

Can any of us fathom the grief if one of the bridges over the Parkways failed, especially during rush hour?

Or the logistical headache?  Or the political headache?

Getting from Downtown to Cranberry gets more difficult if the Veteran's Bridge is clogging the Allegheny.

I realize that the Turnpike Commission replaced its' 70 year-old deficient span over the Allegheny River recently, and for good reason.  It would have eventually landed in the water, crippling the economy and damaging Interstate Commerce.

But many of Pittsburgh's bridges, some of them 50+ year-old Interstate spans and many others, are at or near the end of their useful lives.

Over the preceding days, this blog and its authors have zeroed in on transit issues.  Our colleagues in other places have as well.  We know from all available data that transit is an economic engine.  The only "welfare" transit represents is that of the "welfare of our economy."  How else does an underpaid workforce make it to their job sites?

We may disagree with you on education funding, mandatory ultrasounds, gun safety, severance taxes for mineral extraction or even drilling, period, and on and on and on, but keeping people, goods and services moving in, through and out of the Commonwealth has to be one of those issues that rises above our sometimes ideological, partisan divides.

Our two-party structure, while often leaving us diametrically opposed on a whole host of issues, can not be the justification for leaving the Commonwealth's taxpayers on the hook for billions in implied liability actions, economic impairment and the potential and unnecessary loss of our single most treasured resource, the lives of our Citizens.

Roads and bridges are the tie(s) that bind Pennsylvanians.  The Lincoln Highway, the National Road, the William Penn Highway.  And when those couldn't get people and goods from one end to the other fast enough,  Pennsylvania built the nation's first superhighway, twenty years before the Interstate Highway Act for National Defense funded many of the rest.

And here's the only cost-benefit analysis that matters:  The longer we wait, the more expensive the infrastructure our lives and economy depends on becomes to build (or rebuild).

Please keep that in mind in the days to come.

Councilman Patrick Dowd resigning to head new nonprofit

Bob Donaldson, P-G

Surprising to the last:

Pittsburgh City Councilman Patrick Dowd will announce today that he will step down to head Allies for Children, a newly formed advocacy group.

Mr. Dowd was elected to council in 2007 to represent District 7, which includes the Strip District, Lawrenceville and several East End neighborhoods. He is also a board member of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. Prior to that, he served a four-year term as a Pittsburgh Public Schools board member. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

A loss for City Hall in terms of capacity and moxie. I was looking forward to him pivoting against Mayor Bill Peduto, whom he supported in the election, because screw all and just to keep him honest.

This presumably sets the stage for a very Special Election in the fall wherein party committees designate nominees. Suitable Democratic possibilities which leap to mind include Lauren Byrne, Tony Ceoffe III and maybe even Jim Ferlo.

MORE ON DOWD:  City Paper Blogh 
MORE ON CEOFFE: City Paper Blogh

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday: Summer Squalls

Gary Sullivan Online

Allegheny County seems poised to do some slant-drilling under certain County parks. As you do. Coincidentally, a free screening of Gasland Part 2 with director Josh Fox arrives later this week.

The grand jury hearing evidence for InvestigatePGH allegedly is going to be active this week. As I review that which has fallen under suspicion, I see a consulting business set up by the indicted former Police Chief listed in McKees Rocks, a "gentleman's club" raided in McKees Rocks, and a Fire Bureau equipment contract with a company in McKees Rocks causing consternation. Do you suppose that's a bingo?

Payday lending in Pennsylvania is apparently making a comeback under a new monicker in the State Senate, although apparently it has been shown to weaken national security.

On the Port Authority management bill, due for action Monday, the latest draft circulating as to board appointments looks something like this:

4 go to the Allegheny County Executive (but 2 among these must come from lists provided by groups such as the SPC, PDF, the ACCD and others)

2 go to Republican members of County Council (both of which must come from lists provided by CAT and perhaps SPC and/or ACDC too; again, this may become more clear on Monday)

1 goes to the Governor.

1 goes each of the 4 Legislative caucus leaders.

The strangest thing of course is the appearance of these lists of outside organizations which limit the local yokels' choices. At least one of these, for example, represents interests already demonstrating significant ease getting the ear of political leaders. And if we have several advocates for one community specially impacted by transit options, why not certain others?

Sen. Vulakovich confirmed to Helen that this Port Authority bill (SB 700) is important to House Republicans to make the Senate's Transportation bill (SB 1) "more palatable." Road and bridge repair apparently is not sufficiently appetizing without a side-order of extracting maximum tribute over various trifling outrages.

Finally, there is "some language about privatization" being bandied about as part of this Port Authority bill -- perhaps funding for a study, perhaps more. Helen says she has Vulakovich animatedly on record stating, "But I don't care. I care about getting riders from point A," he said, pausing dramatically, "to point B. That's it."

That's it, indeed. Have a nice remainder of your weekend!