Saturday, November 2, 2013

'Burgh Politics: A Quick Lament

Lord of the Rings

This week I made an argument that one of the lead candidates in the race for City Council District 7 has a much more reality-based and helpful approach to the City's financial recovery, thereby seeking to ensure delivery of the services and resources we all need beyond the pension crisis we all see coming.

My colleague chimed in to opine that the other leading candidate, by virtue of his background and experiences, is more likely to be active in mitigating a predictable crisis of gentrification brought upon by a massive and likely disruptive new development.

What I see reflected out there in the comments and on social media, however -- among partisans of both sides and more amiable minds alike -- is an enormous tendency to reduce all questions of ideas, qualifications and approach to that of binary identity resentment.

One candidate and all the supporters behind her is cast as cosmopolitan, the other as parochial. One as privileged elites, the other as clannish thugs. One as more interested in innovative and alternative projects, the other a champion for heightened focus on fundamentals.

And it's not new to this race. Wagner vs. Peduto, Ravenstahl vs. Peduto, Bodack vs. Dowd, Kraus vs. Koch, Murphy vs. O'Connor, Murphy vs. Wagner, we've heard all the class rhetoric before.

Is it always going to be this way? Is that just the way politics is?

I cannot separate myself from it. Before I go any further, for example, I am obliged to point out that it was Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his cohorts, the longtime anti-elitist champion of "Real Yinzers" such as those who have represented the proud 6th Ward in Lower Lawrenceville, who was so determined for so long to grease the skids for Buncher Company's "Riverfront Landing" vision by pushing its own zoning proposal characterized by narrow river setbacks and limited public access, selling the historic public Produce Terminal for partial demolition, and providing them with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-increment financing. A decade before him, it was Wagner attempting more or less the same thing. Pointy-headed academics like Peduto and Dowd fought a lot harder to preserve the character of the Strip for its merchants and those who value its authenticity than anyone else.

But I'm letting it get away.

Pittsburgh is lousy with Democrats, and I used to think of Democrats as the folks who were not so hesitant about highly educated people, young people, the arts, new technology, new modes of transit, outsiders, treaties and alliances, or the infallibility of mathematics.

Not because that's all there is, but because Pittsburgh is not playing a zero-sum game. We're trying to retain and attract infinite sorts of different people and businesses to the City, we're trying to make it structurally more diversified and therefore stronger than it used to be or even is now. We're trying to grow the pie. And I'm not accustomed to thinking of Democrats as so wary of change.

However, it may be this is the very nature of electoral politics. Maybe these tired old costumes will be stowed away by partisans a week after Halloween. Maybe the few folks passionate about their candidates just don't have anything else with which to scare people.

But I do worry that Pittsburgh is chasing its own tail; that something ought to break so these two cultural archetypes can work together on what are clearly mutual interests. Maybe that will just take time.

Friday, November 1, 2013

City Council District 7: What District 7 residents should really be focused on...

Guest post by Shawn Carter

If you are a resident of Council District 7, the picture above represents the single largest issue that will have the single largest impact upon the future of where you call home.

It isn't about Luke Ravenstahl, he didn't seek re-election.  Or Jack Wagner, because he isn't on the ballot, either.  And for the time being, Bill Peduto, but we'll get back to him later in the story, because he earned the right to play an outsized role in this.

The only two names that matter, for the next 5 days, are Deborah Gross and Tony Ceoffe.

The picture you see above is an artist's rendition of what Central Lawrenceville could conceivably look like, in the future, according to the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan ("ARV").  Or, as Larryville natives call it, "the 9th Ward."

The ARV will change the Strip District and Lawrenceville, forever.  The conversion of former industrial buildings into residential uses (Cork Factory and the Brake House Lofts) and a tremendous amount of new construction and renovation in Lower and Central Lawrenceville have ignited the real-estate market and turned Lawrenceville into the "it" neighborhood.  Lawrenceville will no longer be a working-class neighborhood.  It just won't.  Developers are building $350,000 houses dahn on Hatfield Street, and they're ALL pre-sold.  Row houses that were worth $40,000 just 10 years ago are now going for $160,000.

Many new faces have made their way to calling Lawrenceville their home.  And Bloomfield.  And Polish Hill.  And the Strip District.

The working-class families who stayed in this neighborhood as it struggled to fight off crime and abandonment will sooner or later be displaced by better-educated, higher-earning younger homeowners.  Normally when we hear about gentrification and displacement we think of the Hill District and East Liberty.  The residents who will face displacement, however, don't look like the residents of the Hill.

This isn't a cultural conflict.  The older residents in Polish Hill, Lawrenceville and Bloomfield enjoy watching these younger folks bring such vitality and stability to the neighborhoods they call home.  Their only fear is being pushed out of the neighborhood.


Widespread renovations of deteriorating houses and the construction of hundreds of new ones did far more than stabilize the housing market in these neighborhoods.  It sent it on an upward trajectory that has no end in sight.  Thousands of residents saw their assessments skyrocket, doubling or tripling their property tax bills because of their neighborhoods' renaissance.  And many of them are low- and moderate-income homeowners, working-class folks, many of whom are now struggling to pay their property taxes.  This includes senior citizens who saw the tax relief fought for by Patrick Dowd, wiped out in one fell swoop by court-ordered reassessment.

The only candidate to address this issue has been Tony Ceoffe.

Quoting this blog's author:

"Tony Ceoffe noted that affordable housing dovetails nicely with his recent work as a specialist at the Housing Authority, witnessing first-hand the effects on seniors of gentrification including transition to high-rises due to long waiting periods. else the care with which we must use Section 8 allocations, rather than doing it just to make the numbers work like at Doughboy Square, and the tragedy of pushing anybody out of their neighborhoods."


Lawrenceville is still a dense mix of residential, retail, commercial and industrial uses, and it doesn't come without its' share of problems.  Rt. 28 reconstruction, 43rd St. Concrete, School Bus depots and an oil refinery create no shortage of heavy truck traffic up and down Butler Street.

Many years ago, Councilman Jim Ferlo, determined to help his constituents in Lawrenceville fight the neighborhood's downward spiral, started a small but scrappy community organization.

Through the sheer determination and hard work of its members and volunteers, Lawrenceville United has been at the forefront of rebuilding the neighborhood and making it safer.

To quote this blog's author again:

"Yes, it's true. Ceoffe more often emphasizes the roles that community groups can play as partners, next points of contact, go-betweens with government..."

They believe in bottom-up development and again, Tony Ceoffe has demonstrated an indefatigable dedication to his neighbors.  So whether you live in Highland Park or the Strip or anywhere in between, I feel confident in saying you can trust Tony to work tirelessly to serve every resident in every neighborhood.


I would be remiss if I ignored Deb's background in community development, the arts, and many other things as well.

To be fair, I met Deb almost 9 years ago when I was a staffer on Bill Peduto's first campaign for Mayor.  Before Matt Merriman-Preston, Bill Peduto had Deb Gross.  Many of us who are still in this profession learned about the need to manage data and integrate it from Deb Gross.  I have always had tremendous respect for her talents.  She didn't know this, but simply watching her manage Peduto's data in 2005 did more to advance my career than anyone knows, including her.


1.  Tony will never shy away from rolling up his sleeves and doing the hard, unsexy, un-fun, unsung work, simply because that is who he is.

2.  The worries about Tony clashing with Bill Peduto are understandable but unlikely.  No neighborhood can reliably be well-served by the City when its member of Council is at war with the Mayor of the City.  Tony has too many friends and relatives, people he cares deeply for to allow his communities to suffer because of such foolishness.

3.  In large numbers, District 7 residents voted for Bill Peduto.  He will be the Mayor.  And, unless I missed my guess, he will make the entire City his focus.  The voters elected him to reform our government, modernize it and bring it fully into the 21st Century.

4.  The residents of District 7, for the reasons I stated above, need Tony Ceoffe in that seat, right now.

The views of guest blogger Shawn Carter do not necessarily reflect those of the Pittsburgh Comet's editor and lead author. In fact they tend otherwise. Consult your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Election in D7: Policy, Politics and Biases

Beyond My Ken

By Bram Reichbaum

The two leading candidates in the Special Election for City Council District 7, Deb Gross and Tony Ceoffe,  are politically similar within the broad spectrum.

They both believe strongly in civil rights and social equality, on the duty to invest in public transportation and education, on the need to inject tax fairness into our "Eds and Meds" economy and in the advisability of public funding for the arts. One is the Democratic nominee, the other retains significant support in the Party, and both have been local Democratic committee members.

Where the candidates differ distinctly on policy is the direction they would take the City -- and who they would take with them.

Gross supports remaining with Act 47 for now, has not called for a larger police force, and is allied with a future mayor and a County Executive who aim to cooperate on the shared provision of services.

Ceoffe favors withdrawing from state oversight as well as a call for the hiring of 130 new officers, and has been pointedly critical of the prospect of "mergers" with the County.

The Comet has already addressed the imperative for continued financial discipline favoring our pension crisis using Act 47. It should be obvious that the hiring, training, care, feeding, maintenance and supervision of a police officer is one of the most expensive long-term investments a City can make (besides which, now seems like a time in the Police Bureau to focus on leadership, vision and strategies). And there are so many broke units of government in our region destined to continue performing similar services, that any way in which the City and County can begin collaborating just to show it's okay is at the very least highly interesting.

In light of that, formally withdrawing from Financial Distress status, an eagerness to hire more "boots on the ground" in the neighborhoods, and alarm over City-County collaboration sounds less like a strategy for long-term civic stability than like a formula for giving away ice-cream cones: to the public-sector managers and workers most desirous of greater resources and control and disproportionately active in politics, and to fearful residents unaware of the extent of the City's continued financial straights and suspicious of outsiders.

That analysis confirmed my bias going into this race: that Deb Gross has long supported Bill Peduto, Patrick Dowd, and the "progressive" movement in local politics which takes as its mission curtailing patronage and transforming government to run more efficiently and responsibly, whereas Tony Ceoffe by in the past supporting Jack Wagner, Luke Ravenstahl and Len Bodack has been more representative of that "old school" more likely to protect the status-quo and make decisions based on political expediency and voters' immediate gratification.

Now is when we have a real duty to examine those biases.

Tony Ceoffe Jr. is experiencing his own special kind of purgatory.

He has published a photo of a Democratic party ward chairman / Citiparks employee allegedly "campaigning for Gross during City hours of operation".

He blasted the participation of "professionals" from Public Safety, Public Works and City Planning in a roundtable organized by Gross on Oct. 21st on the topic of "City Services".

He claims a tweet by the Gross campaign was at first tweeted mysteriously by a certain public official's Twitter account, before it was deleted there... and that nobody said anything.

And, of course, he argued unsuccessfully in Court that he was narrowly cheated out of the Democratic nomination, and besides which that various Committee members were threatened or promised things from Democratic leaders in exchange for supporting Gross.

Tony tells the Comet he sees a lot of bias in how his own accusations are being treated by various media -- or rather, ignored by it -- given the electricity such accusations have garnered in the past.

The Comet thinks it entirely likely Tony has a point here. Not that long ago, the Democratic party's machinery and Bill Peduto's own "progressive" coalition were at odds in most local elections. Once Peduto won the Party's mayoral nod in May, the two mega-factions must have had to begin planning a Shotgun Royal Wedding.

City politics has been unscrupulous in the past, old habits die hard, and this Special Election to fill a vacancy forced the newlyweds to begin working together without an adjustment period. If Ceoffe feels like his candidacy is being ill-treated by a powerful new coalition, an entrenched establishment and 3rd-party media observers all at once, that is probably is because it is.

Other sources of bias impact the race.
Rocky IV - Training Styles

The Comet perceives four models on how to get into politics:

  1. Be born into it. Learn by watching your family work.
  2. Work to become a politician's right hand, and wait your turn.
  3. Get active in community groups and "squeaky wheel" organizing, liaising between your neighbors and government.
  4. Develop skills and contacts through your profession and other public-spirited pursuits.

Each of these are legitimate paths into public office. City Government can boast representatives from all four. Each tend to entail certain advantages as well as certain disadvantages at the polls and in office. Deb Gross comes from Source 4 and perhaps a bit of a Source 2; Tony Ceoffe comes from Source 3 as well as Source 1.

One uncomfortable truth is, if you hail from a challenging socioeconomic status or class, Source 3 is likely the most accessible pathway to you. But its advantage is, those stemming from Source 3 will be able to make a strong case that community group work is the best qualification for public office because they roll up their sleeves, are visible and know what's really going on.

Yet one thing candidates from each "Source" are equally capable of is acquiescing to short-sighted or self-satisfying pressures, even the arbitrarily political ones. Pittsburgh needs to elect candidates with the right instincts, no matter where they hail from -- who act in fidelity to all the facts of what's "really going on".

Tony Ceoffe Jr. tells the Comet that he has identified the funding to hire 50 additional police officers, and that "obviously the long-term funding issue is something that would have to be worked through with the community at the [Council] table" for the remaining 70 he now seeks. He has signed on with Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith's legislation that attempts to "trigger" a hiring process when the count dips below 900. He also maintains that although crime statistics have risen of late only in line with the seasonal norm, it's the intensity of incidents that seems to have increased and what is causing residents' concern.

Ceoffe clarifies that he would "never sign on" to something like sharing city RAD parks services or management with the County unless the hydraulic fracturing issue was disposed of at the Council table (a legal mechanism by which a services agreement makes City fracking more likely than otherwise is unclear) as well as the critical issue of "what happens to those jobs" (sources close to Peduto say any excess staff would be transferred to other overworked functions, rather than laid off.)
Finally, during an interview with GLTV, Ceoffe claimed he had high regard for Patrick Dowd as a "great" prior Councilman who was visible in the community, who is doing an honorable thing now by making a transition into education advocacy, and whom he will miss... but at the same time that he ran against Dowd in 2011 because he felt Dowd would not stick with the the job and always had his eye on something else. When the Comet asked Ceoffe to clarify this seeming contradiction, Ceoffe responded by confirming he "was not surprised" Dowd left office early, and reaffirmed that was the very reason why he ran for office in 2011.

Dowd narrowly won office in his own right in 2007 by unseating then-Councilman Leonard Bodack with a fiery campaign targeting "Patronage" and championing "Efficiency, Transparency and Accountability." Today, Ceoffe's campaign war chest, less than a third as flush as that of Deb Gross, boasts a $500 check from Friends of Leonard Bodack, for whom Ceoffe had worked as a youth. We couldn't get Tony to open up too broadly on that race and dynamic, but he says Lenny donated to him this year because he "knows that I do good work out in our neighborhoods."

I feel like I've examined my biases as thoroughly as I can. Although Pittsburgh's "Old School" candidates are getting a lot smarter, more passionate and more progressive than in the past -- which is phenomenal news for the City -- there is still a "School Whose Thinking Is Old" with regards to a visceral resistance to internal transformation, efficiency and collaboration with others. Natural skepticism of transformative designs is a healthy commodity, but Pittsburgh already has it in abundance. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and you've run field tests on it to mitigate against duck bias, then it is probably destined to be a force for unnecessary friction, obstruction, and retrograde spin. At least until a little more restorative time is spent in the political wilderness.

Meanwhile, Deb Gross comes with excellent recommendations and varied experiences, demonstrates both intelligence and a fidelity to sound policy, and for a long time in local politics has been on the righteous side of history. She seems to me like the safer bet. What are you going to do?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Act 47: The REST of the Story

By Shawn Carter

Yesterday's treatise on fiscal restraint was a timely reminder to those of us who have followed, for whatever reason, the City as it traveled the road to fiscal sanity and a pretty decent primer for those of you who are just now beginning to pay attention to these sorts of things.

Throughout the year, ever since Mayor Luke Ravenstahl petitioned the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for rescission of the City's distressed status, it has been the topic of several local discussions.

As a City employee myself who has concerns about the impact of said rescission upon certain upcoming negotiations, I understand that Act 47 limits the damage the City's bargaining units can do the City's fiscal situation through either negotiation or binding interest arbitration.

Some background:

Act 47 forced the City of Pittsburgh, largely as the Coordinators had to drag it, kicking and screaming, to get control of its fiscal house.  Employees were let go, budgets were trimmed, maintenance on infrastructure was deferred, just to name a few.  As some of you may know, the biggest drags on the City's budget were (and still are) payments to service the City's general obligation debt and pension bond debt and legacy costs to retired City employees (most of whom happen to be policemen or firefighters).

The problem, historically, with cost-containing measures with respect to police and fire contracts is that the panel of arbitrators who get to decide the award should the City and union come to an impasse was PRECLUDED from factoring in a municipality's ability to pay in deciding the question.

Yes, that's right!  A panel of arbitrators could decide that despite the fact that a municipality could not actually pay the wages being sought, the municipality could be forced to do so anyway under a binding arbitration award.

This is where Section 252 of Act 47 steps in to safeguard the treasury of a distressed municipality.

In relevant part, Act 47 states:

     (a) General rule. Except as provided in subsection (b), a collective bargaining agreement or arbitration settlement
executed after the adoption of a plan shall not in any manner violate, expand or diminish its provisions.

In OTHER words:  Once the City has adopted a Recovery Plan pursuant to Act 47 and said Plan is filed with the Commonwealth, no police or fire contract can exceed the fiscal limits imposed by the Plan, and no panel of arbitrators can force the City to do so through arbitration.

You can see why Act 47 is a constant target for destruction.

I listened during the primaries as various candidates argued either in favor of or in opposition to remaining a "distressed" municipality.  There are legitimate arguments on either side of it.  I've read an editorial in last week's Post-Gazette in which they cited as their primary reason for supporting the candidate they endorsed was that candidate's support for remaining in Act 47.

And, despite the fact that the proponents of remaining IN Act 47 have been beating the proponents of getting OUT of Act 47 over the head for being fiscally irresponsible, here's a question the "Let's stay in Act 47" crew, myself included, have not bothered to let slip:

Does it even MATTER at this point?

We'll start with this quote --

     "We hold that Section 252 of Act 47 does not impinge upon interest arbitration awards under the Policemen and Firemen Collective Bargaining Act" - 29 A.3d 773 (2011)

Yeah, and that pretty much is what happened to our protections under Act 47, too!!!  LMFAO!

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in ruling in favor of the FOP and Firefighters Local Union No. 60 in their legal battle against the City of Scranton, Pa., another "distressed" municipality, basically said that Act 47's contract protections do not apply to contracts negotiated or awarded pursuant to Act 111 of 1968 - the Policemen and Firemen Collective Bargaining Act -- the very two unions the statute was designed to reign in.

So where does that leave us?  At present, up a creek without a paddle.  Because without legislative action by the General Assembly, and FAST, the City will be without this crucial protection come the beginning of contract negotiation season (which begins July 1, 2014).

More importantly, as the Department of Community and Economic Development hasn't given a determination one way or the other on the Mayor's request, the Act 47 Coordinators aren't even in the process of developing what would be the Second Amended Recovery Plan, which by the way, does usually take some time.

So, proponents of remaining IN Act 47 have failed to mention that any future benefit of retaining the declaration of distress is dependent upon a Governor and a Legislature, all Republican-controlled, voting to enact revisions to Act 47 during a season where 25 out of 50 state Senators, all 203 members of the House and his Honor, the Governor himself, all facing re-election, knowing that statewide, policemen and firefighters represent a powerful constituency and typically support Republican statewide candidates (outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia).

So, what are the chances that the Republican-controlled legislature can pull off this gambit between now and June 30, 2014?  Even if they do, simply changing the law won't be sufficient, the City must adopt another Amended Recovery Plan BEFORE June 30, 2014 for the City to benefit from such a gift from Harrisburg.

We wait with baited breath.                         

Monday, October 28, 2013

Act 47: A crucial and welcome Enhancement

Fashionably Geek

Pittsburgh owes so much money...

By 2003-04, in the wake of suffering mass traumatic population loss, Pittsburgh voluntarily entered into State Act 47 Financial Distress status -- due to high debt to the banks, and due to mushrooming pension, workman's comp and other workforce costs.

At the dawn of Act 47, Pittsburgh cut the City's workforce and services way down. Firefighters, police officers, laborers and administrators accepted early retirements or were laid off, pools and recreation centers were closed and resources withdrawn. It was painful, shocking to many. But since that first wave, there have been few further cutbacks.

Eventually in interacting with the Act 47 Coordinators and with the ICA, Pittsburgh managed to get a lid on its debt to the banks -- meeting payments steadily, not borrowing anew for many years, receiving credit upgrades. It looks forward at this rate to having paid off a fair chunk of that debt by 2018.

However, Pittsburgh never made any progress on the mushrooming pension and other prior workforce obligations.

Near midnight on Jan. 1, 2011, a State repossessions vehicle was backed up against the City County Bldg., threatening not to leave until it had either a $220 million check made out to the City's own pension funds, or seized power to make all our pension fund investment decisions for us and enforce a payment plan of its own formula for most of the entire $700 million we are unfunded. Then come what may.

(Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said we ought to get the sought-after $220 million ransom for pension fund, and get as much again to play around with, to boot, by trading away the City's metered parking spaces and our public garages to a private firm backed by J.P. Morgan. City Council said, "Nah.")

At midnight Pittsburgh asked to the repo men from the State, "How about this. Here is the City's extra-last $40 million rainy day fund, all up front, and here is a revised payment schedule to start making up the balances. Sound good?"

An extra $13 million the first couple years, and extra $26 millions thereafter... a future payment schedule "equaling" the $220 million up-front required to make the pension fund merely half-full.

The State replied, "Ugh. Sounds good. Man, I hate you guys."


Utah Mud Wars
So Pittsburgh has and will again owe an extra $13 million, and soon an extra $26 million thereafter, into the pension fund.

To connect this with our reality, the City's annual capital budget for road work and neighborhood projects required a bailout recently. Although Pittsburgh certainly had improved its credit profile by refraining from borrowing for a long time, the City did finally borrow $80 million in order to top off the "capital budget" during 2012 and 2013 budget years at previous levels. But that money is now dried up, and presuming the pattern does not shift, we will continue to be impacted by this increased need of roughly $40 million more annually for roads, repair and rebuilding.

Consider the two together, and Pittsburgh will walk into future budgets with an approximately $53-66 million of increased annual tug-of-war budget pressure. Zero-sum squabbling, re-wringing the sponge, and scraping together efficiencies.

Here are several things that Act 47 has enabled the City do:

1) It puts a box around the raises that can be sought in collective bargaining (generally about 2-3%) based on the City's ability to pay.
2) Has ensured that employees pay a small percentage of their health care premiums.
3) Has ensured that workers compensation claims be verified by doctors approved by the City.
4) Created a new trust fund called "Other Post-Employment Benefit" for everything not covered by either pensions or worker's comp.

Every point is helping saving the City a ton of money in the current framework already.

Disengaging from the Act 47 financial relationship while our operating and capital budgets are experiencing increasing pressures of the pension tsunami seems inadvisable.

(Fleeing Act 47 with the intention also of embarking on something like a major police hiring spree, at a time of low general crime stats and problems implementing some targeted public safety initiatives, seems reflective of an alarming pattern of financial and/or political instincts.)

Thankfully we do benefit from the relationship with the State, and retain a fighting chance at balancing the books even while maintaining City services and providing workers with good pay, benefits and protections, if we make the right decisions. The improvement on the debt side allows for encouraging headlines and the ability to borrow more cheaply, but the wolves are at the door in as far as our contractual obligations to our workforce.

Pittsburgh's financial recovery is decidedly half-finished. Let's not turn around and go back.