Friday, August 23, 2013

Mid-August: Juuust about enough August...


Soak in these remaining rays, but start thinking about dusting off and climbing back on that horse! We need you...

The founder of PA Cyber Charter Schools is indicted for $1 million worth of fraud, which should spark renewed reflection on whether those foundational arrangements made with PA taxpayers were ever designed to be an efficient use of resources.

Pennsylvania Turnpike rates are going up again, but political pay-to-play indictments of Turnpike Commissioners are causing some to wonder whether reform isn't a better idea.

New weight restrictions are being applied to PA's bridges due to their disrepair. Senate Republicans and Democrats continue to advocate for passage of that body's comprehensive transportation funding bill, but the Metcalfe Caucus among House Republicans remains unmoved.

Allegheny County continues to debate natural gas fracking beneath its parks. A drilling company reached a three quarter-million settlement with a Washington County couple who accused it of having harmed them, but only after they agreed to a gag order. Another company's president admits candidly that "everybody knows that some wells go bad"; a recent documentary puts that figure at 5% within the first year of operation.

(One of these days, all people who think fracking is every bit as disruptive and hazardous as vital resource extraction has always been, but want it done anyway, will just have to go ahead and put their hands up. We know you're out there.)

Mayor Ravenstahl made a public appearance at a Downtown groundbreaking to defend both his economic development strategies and his continued presence on the city's payroll. Andy Sheehan of KDKA reports that "Even those in his administration privately grouse that he comes to his office downtown infrequently these days." It is suggested that a new restaurant in the works provides fresh evidence of local government transforming and thriving right alongside its City.

CMU is awarding money to start-ups (I had no idea the guy who brought us FlipCams got his start here!); "Mixed-Use Education" is a new approach for adapting to squeezed budgets and multiplying community needs; many states and cities are working on ways to put unused, tax-delinquent property to use; and the potentials and challenges of using data to solve social problems are being examined.

In September, next year's annual budget will be on the agenda, along with Lower Hill redevelopment and any other "last-minute business". Expect there to be some. Winter is coming.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wednesday: Old Business


In the first part:

How much do you know about Pittsburgh city government–and how much would you like to know? The Mayor’s Civic Leadership Academy addresses numerous topics including city organization, budgeting, city planning, redevelopment, public works and Citiparks services, protection of our rivers, public safety, and more! (Peduto for Pittsburgh)

Or if you prefer:

The Civic Leadership Academy is a free course about local government created by Mayor Ravenstahl to foster more informed, effective and inspired community and civic leadership. (City of Pgh)

Be sure to check out the media gallery. The program enjoys good vibes all around. Applications for its 25 spots this fall are being accepted 'til Friday at 5:00.


I sat down with City Council District 7 nominee Deb Gross recently and took some notes. Want to read them? Here they are...

- As a girl Deb says she was "always a geek," taking all the advanced classes but lacking people skills. Then late into high school she moved from the burgh to Florida, where she found herself elected to the Homecoming Court. Now she has a PhD in Sociology.

- In the late 90's Gross was working in the field of micro-finance, attracted to the idea of identifying tangible individual or community-scale needs that can be filled. The concept was just starting to gain significant traction, spurred on by a MacArthur Genius grant.

- She returned to Pittsburgh in 1998, and met her future husband at the new year's eve party at  the Voodoo Lounge, late of the Strip District. Later she would work with the Lawrenceville Corp. and the Bloomfield / Garfield Corp. doing "mostly fundraising" and "getting projects un-stuck."

- In 2002, St. Francis Hospital closed, there was a fresh marketing study to ponder for Penn and Main, and Gross was inspired to start community organizing along with others in her "roving potluck dinner" group and the neighborhood Cookie Tour. She remembers Jay's Design and the 1662 Design Zone as being early leaders in parts of Lawrenceville's resurgence.

- In answer to a question about redevelopment plans "in the pipeline", she said "there's a lot on the table" in Bloomfield; Liberty Avenue "from end to end" is in play. Two projects fell through on Liberty and Center in the past due to "difficulty getting neighborhood consent." She says she wouldn't presume to tell the community what should go there, but in her mind it's a "known Main Streets type of area" and so would look out to encourage pedestrian-area development, rather than long delivery truck entrances or blank walls on the sidewalk.

- On the Larimer redevelopment proposal which prompted me to ask about "the development pipeline", on the Friday before it passed she said, "It's usually a good idea to come up with a local match when it's being leveraged two-to-one."

-  On public safety, she clarifies that she cannot claim any expertise, but volunteers that she would like to see more "community-oriented policing" and that "I have lived places where there is a higher level of communication back and forth." In fact, when asked about her legislative priorities she said "I don't think everything is legislative" and that constituent services are a priority. She has concerns about how some City desks respond to incoming calls. But agenda-wise she would like to see "more small business lending" and ideas to bridge the gap between the 20-somethings and old-timers in District 7's neighborhoods.

I had occasion to interview fellow candidate Tony Ceoffe Jr. on background about a month prior, and may post from recollection or new notes in the weeks ahead. These and the other candidates.


Do you remember several weeks ago, we mentioned adult entertainment establishments or "strip clubs"? That subject matter prompted several to wonder what ever happened to the adult entertainment regulatory proposal I helped Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith to develop in 2011.

As it happens, two or three other Council members expressed specific concerns, signaling they would like to offer friendly amendments to improve it. But the calendar eventually turned over to 2012, which would have required introducing a new zoning segment to the Planning Dept. Since it was zoning that was at issue in several respects, the bill was permitted to expire. The research and the draft legislation remains on a shelf; in my personal opinion and with benefit of hindsight, anyone picking it up again would benefit by paring it down some (get rid of the prohibition on full nudity, for example) and perhaps adding to it (exemptions for unionized adult entertainers).


Finally, Director of City Planning Noor Ismael took a moment at a semi-recent Council meeting - once the URA and HACP were done getting broiled by the Councilors - to inform all of the assembled and watching that the "components" of the City's first Comprehensive Plan are just about complete, and the work that remains involves tying it together. She urged all officials, agencies of government and other relevant interested parties to engage with the Dept. of City Planning ASAP to help resolve the plan. (Of course, that was several weeks ago.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Should we DOUBLE-SOLVE our Pension Probs?

There are two workable solutions.

It's possible that we ought to, need to, and only can do both.

Deal time?

A analysis shows that more than 120 of the country's biggest state and local pension plans contain a range of problems. “Thanks to a patchwork of accounting practices and rosy investment assumptions,” according to the report, it's unclear just how bad off they are.

But based on adjusted funding gaps, Pennsylvania and nine other states “would see their funding liabilities exceed an entire year's worth of state revenues,” according to the report. (Trib Editorial I)

The severity of these coming waves of pension crunches are not really in dispute, and these are certainly no strangers to the City of Pittsburgh.

The zombie invasion we fended off in 2010 is bound to return having worsened. And although we like to celebrate operating budget surpluses, better credit ratings, a "debt cliff" coming in 2017 2019 if (we can hold out) along with the ability to boost the capital budget some... we talk less about our pension burden because it's less scary and impossible.

And so...

Avoiding disaster in Pennsylvania begins by getting the Legislature off the dime and shifting new state employees and public school teachers from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution plan — which should have been done years ago. (ibid)

Boy, this takes me back. Many conservatives cry "Tear up the contracts," but in the autumn of 2007, Mark DeSantis cried "Switch to defined contribution plans!" and it struck us as not grievously insensible.

It's a different economy than in the postwar boom, and has remained mean for a long while. The cost of health care in particular has become exceedingly prohibitive when not distributed. Do hold the line for retirees and workers under a contract, as if we have any ethical choice. But for new hires into the future? If we get clearance from the State? Who knows? It's worth thinking about.


The [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette] editorializes that Detroit's bankruptcy somehow is a clarion call for “a new urban agenda,” one that “can be a prescription for national prosperity.” But as the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy reminds, “Calling for a new urban agenda is just a dreamed up politically correct scheme to avoid dealing with disasters created by earlier statist schemes.” (Trib Takers)

What is their beef this time?

No one should expect a Marshall Plan for cities, but the federal government must become a stronger partner. States, too, must develop urban policy agendas to grow. Unfortunately, too many states have cut aid to local governments while pursuing a myopic development strategy that focuses largely on tax cuts.

Money for transit systems, regional economic development, public safety, housing, education, health care and job training are investments in solving not just the problems of cities, but also those of the nation. (P-G, Editorial Squad)

Yup. Easy to see how conservatives would recoil from that as though from sunshine. (And so, politics being the art of the possible, there is little danger of next Great Society breaking out any time soon.)


Peduto said the state's formula for giving cities state pension aid favors newer cities because it's based on the number of active employees, not retirees. Newer municipalities have fewer retirees, he said, but receive generous contributions. (Trib, Sidebar Bauder)

This suggestion is by no means new either to Bill or to the discussion table. But Pennsylvania's pension aid formula is so obviously slanted and out of whack, it can't do it's job providing a baseline of governmental stability.

You want to talk about "moral hazard": what about the city worker who votes her own pocketbook interest for 20-30 years, then retires with that pension and benefits package, but moves the family to the suburbs (as a great many did) thereafter contributing very little in taxes to support their new town's workers thanks to the slanted and inefficient State pension aid formula, flush with funds from metro area tax receipts? This isn't an ideological problem, it's math and logic.

More importantly, Comet readers: are we crazy or are there the makings of a deal here? Encourage defined contribution plans that moderately recognize increasing limitations in public budgets over the last 60 years.. and fix the state pension aid formula to recognize the immutable history of all older cities and our continuing stake in them, and other aspects of a rational "urban agenda".

These pension reckonings are so significant, we might need to "fix" them twice in order to actually fix them once, but good.

Lower Hill redevelopment: The TIGER and the Elephant

Carol Liddiment

Meanwhile, at the heart of all things...

The Sports & Exhibition Authority is rethinking its schedule to develop the site of the former Civic Arena now that it has applied for a federal grant that could be worth $18 million.

The authority had expected to begin work in July at the 28-acre site in the lower Hill District. That changed when officials decided in late spring to pursue the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant and delayed construction plans until 2014, Executive Director Mary Conturo said on Thursday. (Trib, Aaron Aupperlee)

Federal money in municipal hands dedicated for the Lower Hill, and serving to underscore the public's skin in the game, is good.

“Now, with the TIGER, what we're going to do is design the whole thing,” Conturo said. (ibid)

Comprehensiveness in civic design is good, all things being equal.

The authority is using other funding — grants and revenue from taxes — to pay for the initial designs by engineering firm Michael Baker Corp. of Moon. (ibid)

Ah. Just so.

But the large and multifaceted plan has yet to be given a formal airing...

[T]he first part requiring approval is a Preliminary Land Development Plan, which include details for infrastructure, development patterns, landscape design, and architectural details and is accompanied by updated zoning text.

Hill District city Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle told the New Pittsburgh Courier that plan would be submitted to the Department of City Planning within two weeks.

“I’ve been having weekly meetings with the Pittsburgh Penguins about this for some time,” said Lavelle. “We have a couple more to go then we’ll submit the plan. So, after that, if the process goes smoothly, we could begin site work in six weeks.” (NPC, Christian Morrow) [Emph. ours]

Optimism. Planning Commissioners themselves are renown for their ability to uncover livability weaknesses in need of fixes here and there. Additionally, many stakeholders will be viewing this draft for the first time, while still others who have been following along closely will only now be arriving at solid stances on it.

The SEA and Michael Baker Corp. are either game for any design parameters the City ultimately throws at them, or else are confident these applications will motor through City panels at top speed with Lavelle at the joystick.

Furthermore, as both Lavelle and Hill Community Development Corp. Director Marimba Milliones reminded the audience, that initial site work offers opportunities for people to bid on contracts ranging from construction management to the guy who sells hot dogs on site.

“At every phase in these projects from before, during and after, we’re looking to maximize participation,” she said. “All of this is in keeping with the Hill Master Plan to connect the human side with the development side. We have a total of eight different designs stretching from the Upper Hill to the Lower Hill.” (ibid)

One must now wonder: is anybody ordinarily prohibited out-of-hand from bidding on contracts?

The Comet has heard or read THREE GENERAL CONCERNS expressed by the Penguins' neighbors about the Penguins' plans as presented informally at community meetings...

Charles M. Schultz
1) Any further special concessions or considerations "for the community" by the Penguins themselves in tandem with this laboriously enabled, exclusively bequeathed and lavishly subsidized development complex will be the topic of what the Pens were in April prospectively calling a "Collaboration and Implementation Plan". This plan will not be produced until after all public hearings and meetings at which crucial factors (like zoning) are determined for good and all. This is in keeping with proud, long-established civic policies guiding Hill redevelopment such as "Now is not the time for that," and "But that's all irrelevant." On the horizon is an interesting discussion about a proposed $1 per car district, but there is no substitute for optimal, careful and far-sighted city planning.

2) The Greater Hill District Master Plan was developed in a committee-shepherded participatory process in consultation with local government and several professionals hired by it, and enjoys passingly high regard in the community as far as it goes. But it is itself a long-term visioning guide, a thought exercise without official standing. Prior documented "understandings" between these parties have yielded mixed results: a very nice YMCA facility has appeared, and a Shop n' Save is finally manifesting. But a "First Source" resource center would not materialize in time to steer jobs and contracts for construction of the new hockey arena, and a community heritage pedestrian walkway or "garden wall" was forgotten. Today, some few features of this ambitious Greater Hill District Master Plan are just starting to creep forward -- funded by taxpayers, nonprofits and foundations mostly. But the Master Plan's designs for the connective high-value nexus known as the "Lower Hill," now being expedited, may face disproportionate antipathy from the neighborhood development leviathan. Hillombo reminds us frequently of affordable housing benchmarks as one example.

Google Maps
3) There are a passel of walkability and traffic concerns, e.g., the capacity of certain street corners (especially towards Bedford Ave., Washington Place and the Crosstown Expressway overpasses), the number and location of stop signs and traffic lights, and strategies to address steep gradients.

This issue should heat up again presently, maybe hotter than ever. The land is as fertile for investment as land gets, but we would do ourselves a favor by planting an appropriate mix of crops. If we argue, listen and interact skillfully enough, we can build a foundation for mutual assured prosperity at the city's center, right where it belongs.

Summer's Blue Moon...