Friday, September 28, 2007

A tale of two events ... and a "hmm"

I wasn’t at the Mayoral Forum last night, I can’t say what happened. And I assume the Mayor is still the front runner in the race, after all, this forum won’t even be presented to the public on TV, and the audio portion is not going out over the limited airwaves of DUQ until October seven. But what I take away from the newspaper accounts is a “hmmm” moment.

In the book (and movie) “Presumed Innocent” the attorney Sandy Stern scores a home run with his cross examination of a pathologist, but scores a “hmmm” moment earlier in the trial with his cross examination of the former district attorney. He catches Raymond Horgan in an act of hypocrisy, in this case of accusing a trusted subordinate of bad behavior he himself engaged in.

From the Post Gazette’s coverage of last night’s forum:

“In the first debate of Pittsburgh's mayoral election, Republican challenger Mark DeSantis repeatedly said he would listen to the people in formulating city policy.
He said it so often that it drew a laugh at one point from incumbent Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who, for his part, said he already listens.”

“Mr. DeSantis throughout said he would go to the people to hear what they want regarding economic development and building in the city. He took a jab at Mr. Ravenstahl's absence this week at a North Side meeting on the new casino.
"If you're going to call a meeting and engage in dialogue, you have to be there and hear what the residents have to say," Mr. DeSantis said.
Mr. Ravenstahl blamed his staff for a flier that erroneously implied he would attend the meeting. He was on a business trip to Boston at the time.”

The Mayor already listens, unless he is on a trip to Boston, or took a trip to New York, or played in a charity golf tournament. He blamed his staff instead of assuming the blame himself for an error. The Mayor also said he would put his one year record up against any previous Mayor. I assume he didn’t mean to dis Bob O’Connor.

Last night I went to Off-the-Record VII. I had never been before, it was enjoyable to see news celebrities and politicians make fun of themselves. Ken Rice can tell a pretty good joke or ten, and he is certainly enthusiastic if not always on key when he signs; he gets points for real effort. Dan Onorato … well, he was surprising nervous for a politician, when he was telling jokes. It was really quite endearing. Samantha Bennett and Dennis Roddy can mostly carry a tune (him maybe less so). Because the title was “Blogged to Death”, my wife expected the audience to be chock full of bloggers. I thought I might have seen one or two bloggers before hand, and I meant to approach people afterwards, but my wife was getting cranky so out we went. If you were there and wondered about the guy with the gray beard and the bow tie (but not guy with the tux, who wears a tux to satirical theatre?), that was me. Just like the picture.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Imagine John C McGinley (Dr Cox of “Scrubs”) making that shrill whistle.

So there’s a plan to get rid of property taxes by sending sales taxes through the roof. And Jim Motznik wants to keep the Parking tax at 45% because those mean parking lot operators won’t lower the cost of parking. And the Mayor didn’t show up for a meeting (who knew the NorthSide was that pissed … besides DeSantis who had his own personal dustup at a campaign announcement).

*shrill whistle*

Let’s pay attention. Micro loans? Three year tax abatement on new companies that locate in Pittsburgh? Merge URA and City Planning? Any of this ringing a bell? We need to focus. Is any of this good? Do you think it might help the city?

The funny thing is that the Mayor is touting his one year’s experience in the Mayor’s office and presumably his three years on council as proof of experience. Now admittedly Mark DeSantis can say he wouldn’t invite people to a meeting and then not show up. But surely DeSantis has a bit of experience himself, at a level with real money.


I got distracted myself. I was just thinking about Boston’s Harbor Point, which the Intern referenced on the Burgh Report . I wonder if they will put a fence around that, whatis, Oak Hill?

Anyway, please pay attention to DeSantis' economic plan, there will be a quiz in November.

That’s it, you can disperse now.

Small loans, big ideas

So there is a DeSantis economic plan out. And by the way, a quick look at the Mayor’s campaign website reveals that the last piece of interesting news was in January, shortly before Bill Peduto quit. And according to his website, May 15th is still fast approaching. By the way, is anyone esle insulted at the name of the website "lukeformayor"? What, can't we spell Raven ... er.. stahl?

Of course, there is a new Mayoral budget out, available for the media, but not on the City website (or his campaign website). But this post is not about that, I’ll start again…

So there is a DeSantis economic plan out. No details really, but as I write this at 6:45 in the morning, I don’t think I could handle details. Still, there are nuggets of interest in the broad description.

It starts slow, de-politicize the URA, get abandoned and now city owned properties back on tax rolls, buy from local startups (we probably buy local now, although the North Hills Office Depot might not count), etc, etc, yada, yada. Some of the proposals might seem like they are catering to more affluent people, like the suggestion to develop housing suited to mobile tech workers, but that is a suggestion aimed straight at improving the city’s tax base. I’ll skip over some of the other proposals, interesting though they may be (Live/Work/Learn/Play zones: Lawrenceville? Live in a house with no yard, work at Red Zone or Red Ball or Red whatever, then after work go over to the friendly neighborhood crack house, and take the free Jackson Hewitt tax cheat class?).

The clearly interesting proposals are the three year tax abatement for new companies and the Micro Loan proposal. The three year abatement plan is quite interesting. Employees of start up companies might have to take a wage freeze after three years (assuming climbing profits), but let’s face it, if anew company is going to fail, it will likely be in the first three years. Pittsburgh might never see any business taxes paid. USX might re-name itself USZ and claim to be a new startup. Heh. Actually, this is a pretty good idea. I guess the state can’t tell the city to collect all its taxes, so we can actually control this. And taxes in three years is light years better than no taxes at all, from everyone’s perspective (even the State’s).

The Micro Loan thing, didn’t that Indian guy win a Nobel Prize in Peace or Economics or Literature or Chemistry or Sumpin’ for that? It’s got to be a great idea! Even if they are doing it in Philladelphia (McNabb!). Actually, that this is an idea modeled on a Philly plan is a good thing. Philly is in a similar financial mess/state oversight thing as us, so if this institution passed muster with the state legislature, it must be OK. Now, Vinnie and Guido might have to come over to the Mayor’s office and complain about demarcation (yes, that is really is all I have; bad mob jokes – in fact, I was going to have DeSantis hire Vinnie and Guido, since they know how to run a business).

There’s a lot of reliance on public/private partnerships here. It feels a little like the faith based initiatives of the current federal administration, although I say that partly because I have nothing else to compare it to. These are ambitious suggestions, but on the other hand we need some ambition in this failing city. The Mayor has us getting by in his budget, DeSantis might help us pull ahead.

By the way, good luck finding this story on the PG website. I literally had to search on "DeSantis" to find the story with today's date. They changed their website again, and the was a story about a nutso proposal by a state legislator about killing property taxes and raising the sales tax to 9 percent (10 here).

The trib at first simply refused to open at 8:15, butthen revealed a fairly easily accessed story.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

parking on a 45% rate

Before I start this post, let me say about my previous post, I wonder if Mark DeSantis is thinking to himself some variant of “Wish I’d thought of that” in regard to the Mayor’s proposal to borrow no money next year for capital projects, instead paying for them through revenues. I mean, it may not be feasible, but it sounds like the sort of thing a Republican might propose. Maybe the Mayor got a hold of some DeSantis proposal and got it out before DeSantis could. Heh.

So there is a report in the PG about how Motznik is proposing and the Mayor is supporting a freeze in the parking tax, keeping it at 45%. They both acknowledge that the State Legislature will have to change a law for this to go through. Motznik actually proposes using whatever additional revenue stream to help pay down debt and go into the pension fund (sounds DeSantisian).

Motznik feels this ought to encourage the legislature to vote for the change in the law. The one legislator interviewed, Nike Turzai, claimed the measure has no chance. Perhaps other legislators will see Mr. Motznik's logic, perhaps not. The ICA/Act 47 teams are certainly on notice. It's hard to see how they will look at this. Will they approve the Mayor's budget with a warning?

The funny thing is how the two candidates different proposals are swirling around each. Any PDF's on your economics, gentlemen?

The budget, in theory...

I have kind of sat on the city budget issue, not posting on it yet, only a few snarky comments here and there. I guess it would be interesting to see the budget in person, to go downtown and request a copy or get a PDF of it. I don’t know if such a PDF exists. It must have been printed from something. It may have already shown up on the city website, but the previous year’s budgets on the city website look like abridged versions. None of them have five year plans, which again would be interesting to see, although apparently I’m not supposed to. Well, even if I could read it I probably wouldn't understand it.

So based on my current limited information, I really have only two thoughts. First is that we ignore the under-funded pensions at our peril. If we think that acting surprised is somehow going to motivate the state to help us out, well, I just don’t see that dawg huntin’. Also, the notion that pooling with cities around the state will work seems a great stretch. Cities will fully funded pension funds have no incentive to pool, and pooling with other cities that have under-funded funds makes no particular sense. Maybe I just don't understand what's in that plan. Considring I try to keep up with news, that indicates a problem with communicating the plan.

My second thought concerns what the Mayor noted himself: Paying for capital projects through revenues is apparently quite unprecedented, here, around the state, around the whole frickin’ country. Why? Frankly, I don’t know myself, but I can speculate a couple of reasons. One is that capital projects can be quite large, especially if they are to be done right. You could paint your house on the cheap, painting a wall here one month, a wall there one month. But that would be a pain, it increases the chances it won’t be done right, etc. Similarly doing city projects like street resurfacing on the cheap increases the chances they can’t all be done and they won’t be done right. Bascially, we have no safety net too if we spend the whole capital budget and then have a flood or a fire. We can borrow in that situation, but how quickly? Capital projects are supposed to improve the infrastructure such that the quality of life or the ability to do business is improved, more people or businesses move in and the tax base increases. That’s another reason why the projects are often financed by debt. Now, you don’t want to take on debt to meet payrolls or pensions, and cities don’t. But for buildings, equipment, roads and bridges, it makes some sense to finance through debt.

The Mayor’s own statements on being unprecedented worry me. The city’s finances are too shaky to do unprecedented things. And his lack of statements on pensions worry’s me. The fact that some on Council now oppose letting the parking tax fall to 40% worries me, in terms of what the Act 47/ICA people, and the State legislature behind them, might do. And it annoys me that council won’t get the budget until after the election.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The ride home ...

The ride home yesterday, on bike and bus and bike, was actually uneventful. I left a little later than I planned to from work. I crossed Fifth at Morewood, and while I did a pretty packed 500 rolled by (this was around 5:45). I rode to Centre and Graham, and got on a 71A bus with three or four people on it. It stayed that way, with one person getting on and three or so exiting before Negley and Hampton. Possibly the most exciting moment was crossing Negley. The rest of the ride through Morningside, gradually up the foothill of Stanton Heights and on to the city steps of Martha, was just as hard as I remember it.

I’ll probably try this again next week sometime, but I don’t think I will be looking forward to it. Still, maybe I will be able to feel somewhat virtuous.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A couple of Caveats to "Tales of the Commute"

I was thinking about gas used today by my family. This morning, early, my wife took the younger step daughter’s (Hayley) Chinchilla (Tequila) to the veterinarian to have her teeth filed (Tequila, not Hayley). The vet being in Gibsonia. Then my wife drove to work, to get there at a reasonable hour (she usually takes the bus). My step daughter drove to Gibsonia this afternoon to get Tequila (the chinchilla, not the beverage). They both drive small SUV’s, getting around 22-23 MPG, according to the Fed’s. My wife is driving home after visiting her mom in the assisted living place. Actually, the older step daughter is going too, she usually picks up my wife, but not today. The older step daughter drives (everyday) a three or four year old Honda Civic automatic that probably gets better mileage than my ’97 Hyundai Accent stick.

So at best my biking is something of an offset against these activities.

And I wanted to say that part of my job here is controlling the keys for a CMU building or two. That includes the master building key(s). That is one reason why it is a bad idea for me to make a practice of leaving early. Now there are some other master keys around, but the people who hold them either leave early themselves or are often not in their offices. So biking/bussing all the time would end up involving some long days.

Tales of the commute ...

Well, after nine months of thinking about it, I have finally done it. I rode the folding bike to the bus (71A), folded it, got on the bus and rode several blocks, got off the bus, unfolded and biked the rest of the way to work. I had been driving to work, parking for free on the street, and biking the rest of the way. This morning was, simultaneously, satisfying and the disaster I thought it could be.

I had not seen the Schwinn Run-A-Bout in person when I ordered it from Amazon. I keep telling people it is a compromise bike, in practically every respect. Fold up it does (as Yoda might say), and it is actually compact enough to fit under the handicap bench on PAT buses (as I learned this morning). But only just, and when you get off the bus you have to get it out from under there.

So I left the house I believe around twenty five *to* … seven. I still had to fish the bike from my car trunk, unfold it and I mounted the front light on the handlebar and set it to flash and put the rear flashy thing on my backpack (another five minutes or so). I got to the bus stop at Negley and Hampton at ten to, a bus came in maybe five minutes, I found I could store the bike under the seat and off we went. The disaster part came when more and more people got on, and I realized I was going to have a hell of a time getting off the bus, with the bike. I finally jumped out at Negley and Centre, partly because I thought the bus would empty some (not really) and partly because I remembered the stop at Centre and Aiken usually has a lot of people. I biked the rest of the way to CMU, a bit further than the ride I had planned from Centre and Morewood.

So the leaving the house at 6:35 was a compromise, but not enough of one. I was catching the early part of the Schenley HS crowd, at five to seven, when the bus came. I will have to leave even earlier from home if I want to do this again, although I have no arrangement to leave early from work in the afternoon.

Speaking of which, I have to repeat this silliness, in reverse, this afternoon, to get home. I think I will leave work maybe around 5:30, bike all the way to Negley and Centre, and hope the crowds have thinned at that distance and time. My wife is visiting her mom at the assisted living facility (in Oakland) after work, so I see her as a safety net in case of something going wrong.

Tomorrow I will go back to driving, because I will need to pick up my wife after she picks up, for the last time this year, the local produce we had signed up for through Pitt. Can't say I'm too upset, this will be enough for this week.

Although I used someone else’s diesel today, I haven't used any of my gas (with which I usually drive only myself or maybe also my wife around with). I arrived sweatier than I had planned, but not as bad as when I used to bike the whole way. This was, weirdly, my birthday present to myself, on the day after my birthday. An adventure in compromise, in lowering my impact on the world.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The President and the Mayor

I started editing this post last week. I guess it took me a while to get it where I wanted it. Might have helped if I had spent some time over the weekend on it, instead of aggressively resting.

I have to say I enjoy President Bush’s logic. He’s been saying we are winning in Iraq , and so last week in his speech he said we should withdraw 5 thousand troops, because we are winning. I actually started to watch the speech and then dozed off a few minutes into it, but I caught the essence of it from the morning papers.

The only thing worse (generically speaking) in government than Bush is Congress. Which is to say that in the three or so times this administration has had to go to Congress; for war, to authorize military commissions for detainees, and recently for wiretapping, Congress has given Bush everything he asked for, if not more. Mind you, the wiretapping authorization was under a narrowly democratic party Congress. Further, this democratic party narrowly controlled Congress has not curbed the President in Iraq at all. Maybe it is a good thing this administration is a go-it-alone administration, so that Congress does not have more of a chance to roll over and demonstrate learned helplessness a whole bunch more.

Similarly, the Mayor of Pittsburgh has gone his own direction, in his interpretation of matters ethical, in his approach to management, in his view of Pittsburgh ’s future. Particularly in the management arena, we just had a taste of the Mayor’s take on that. I think it was, what, 11 guys asked to leave, literally. Promise of a national search, talk of hiring a head hunter firm, because the Mayor wants nothing but the best for Pittsburgh . There’s a ninety day clock by law, although George Specter had already blown through that in his own acting status. And suddenly, on September 13th, it’s all over. A few minor shuffles and the rest are fine where they are. One of the two fellows fired commented to the Trib that in his interview with the Mayor “Graziano said Ravenstahl didn't explain why he was fired.” and the Trib also said “Ravenstahl was vague when asked why he fired Graziano and Tutsock.” (Trib).

It reminds me of the bit in “The Princess Bride”, when Westley is recounting his captivity under the Dread Pirate Roberts. He said that he had to work as hard as he could, since the Dread Pirate Roberts generally didn’t take prisoners. Every night the DPR would say “Good job today, Westley. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.” The DPR said that every day for some amount of time, five years or ninety days, I can’t remember which.

Of course, the question becomes whether the Mayor owes the voters an explanation for his actions. One way to look at it is the Mayor needs to explain only if he thinks the voters will hold him accountable. City government may have wasted a lot of time on the firings that weren’t that could have been spent looking for innovative ways to save money and the city may have wasted money on a head hunter firm. If elections were decided by people’s cold calculations about the costs and benefits of particular policies, then we would say the matter will be decided at the polls in November. Except that, as Bill Peduto might tell us, the Mayor’s popularity seems to have little, if not nothing, to do with his actions.

So in the end I am forced to grouse that the only thing worse than the Mayor is the electorate, with City Council and Main Street Media somewhere in the middle. We may be headed toward financial disaster, with debt and pension costs we simply seem to be unable to manage and thus ignore. The Mayor says everything is fine, the city has not had to take on any new debt and we are running surpluses. Jon Delano tells us that voters are going to stay home this election ( If that’s true, it is at least partially his fault, along with the rest of the MSM that sits on stories they know about and refuses to press the financial state of the city. City Council contributes to the mess by green-lighting the Mayor’s various shenanigans, including unethical behavior and sweetheart deals (and that’s just the stuff we know about). Council also refuses to address the issue of the future head on. But the major fault lies with us, the voting and non-voting public. I, for one, don’t know what to do. I suppose I could set myself on fire, like the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, except that no one would get the reference. Still, if you think about it, maybe suggest to a friend to listen to one of the Mayoral debates. If only for the entertainment value.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

It must have been a *Steeler* nation-wide search

So the Mayor announced the end of the long night for many of his managers today, with only two leaving and the rest no longer hovering on the brink of “acting”. The nation-wide search turned out not to need to go much further than the limits of the Steeler nation, and really not even that far.

For example, Pat Ford is shifting from Director of Economic and Community Development to the URA, and his post will stay vacant. Does this presage a merger of planning and the URA? Strangely Ford was listed as part of the Mayor’s office staff, instead of in a department (the City Planning department is run by Noor Ismail). Shows you how much I don’t know.

Several of the moves show an expansion in staff, such as making the fire chief/public safety director Michael Huss into only the public safety director. His replacement at fire is a deputy chief Darryl Jones. I know absolutely nothing about Mr. Jones, beyond what the PG says, which is that he was chief at Aliguippa, he left there in June to become a deputy chief here and he is African American, apparently the only one in this group of hires.

There is a new director of operations as well (Art Victor) and a new press secretary – Alecia Sirk, who is Pat Ford’s wife and more importantly, commented for a short while on The Burgh Report (come back, Alecia, most of us will be nice). Should I even notice that the only job with "secretary" in the title went to the only woman in the group of hires/transfers? No, I shouldn't. Still, maybe she will be able to edit some of the Mayor's press releases where others have failed; making the press releases more clear, if more boring.

The two who are leaving, Building Inspection Chief Ron Graziano and Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority Executive Director Gregory Tutsock, are not being replaced immediately. Perhaps to avoid saying anything negative about these two, Ravenstahl commented that the city had received a particularly large amount of applications for those two jobs. What a strange reason to give for firing someone: we have a lot of choices to replace you, too many for us to risk keeping you. Everyone else is staying, according to the PG in a series of qualified remarks: Raventahl “doesn't anticipate other changes in the immediate future” and says “As long as those we've retained continue to do their jobs well, they'll stay”. Of course, that includes Guy Costa and David Onorato, so maybe the city’s relationship with the county and commonwealth will improve.

By the way, apparently no EEO officer yet. As Bram pointed out, the city was ready to make a choice between two candidates two months ago, and had said they would not fill the "acting director" positions until the EEO job was filled. I imagine a bit of fluff floated by and distracted Barbara Trant, or whoever was in charge of that process. Funny little thing, I noticed on the city’s website that Barbara Trant’s name appears no where in the personnel department that I could find, even the “message from the director” section. Weird.

But perhaps most important, experience and perseverance have paid off, George Spector, 72, is no longer “acting”. If I were him, I would be thinking of sunnier climes. Or of pulling a Tony Snow and joining the private sector for more money. Which is why, no doubt, Mr. Specter is a better man than I.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

WWRAS (What Would Ruth Ann Say)?

2PJ’s seem to have started a regular feature of reviewing Jack Kelly’s Sunday columns. I have no such plans with regard to Ruth Ann Dailey, but I do reserve the right … *ahem*, maintain the prerogative to comment on her columns when they really cry out for it.

Her latest effort almost reaches a degree of fairness, but in the end she has to be true to her conservative roots. She is discussing health care, and in particular bashing, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches call for a single payer health insurance plan. For example there is this paragraph:

“The council's essay also contains an inadvertently funny claim: that a single-payer system would lead to "efficiencies." This would indeed be a miraculous event of divine proportions, as a government bureaucracy has never, in all of human history, delivered any private service more efficiently than the free market.”

Which she follows with this sentence: “Not that what we have right now is a truly free market” Instead of expanding on that, however, she goes back to the ‘40’s to explain the origins of health insurance: a work around for government “foolish” wage controls.

Her whole column concerns the notion of what Jesus might want in the way of health insurance/health care. Uncomfortable with having Jesus advocate naked free market greed, Ruth Ann focuses in the other direction, discussing the inefficiencies of government.

Except that she doesn’t, really. She doesn’t explain the remark about us not having a free market in health insurance/health care, and she seems to think that just saying government is inherently inefficient is sufficient. Fool that I am, I would like to rush in where Ruth Ann was hesitant to tread.

She claimed that some at the Labor Day parade opposed the Single Payer notion, although she had just one quote: "That's not going to be an easy sell … Smoking, overeating -- some of the most expensive health problems out there -- are to some degree self-inflicted," she said. "Who wants to subsidize someone else's bad choices?"

Except that we all do that now. Fat people and smokers still seek health care. Actually, if they can’t pay they probably wait until they need the more expensive treatments, and go to the emergency room, driving up (written off) costs when they don't pay. If the woman Ruth Ann spoke to has health care at work there are probably fat people or smokers there, driving up the group plan rates as the health insurance company decides that maybe working people aren’t such a good insurance risk.

The broken part of the health insurance/health care system comes in several parts. The insurance system spent far too long not questioning doctors and paying whatever they said something cost. Now there are “managed care” controls, but the pressure is still on doctors to over-charge. The new controls, such as paying a guaranteed 80% of what is a usual, customary and reasonable charge in a particular region (as detirmined by the insurance company), encourage doctors to explicitly or implicitly collude in raising prices, to maintain their income. And then there are prescription drugs, the variety of which proliferate tremendously and so are poorly understood by doctors. They are priced to recoup “research” costs, which costs are actually dwarfed by the cost of the relentless advertising pharmaceutical companies bombard us with. And of course the hospitals have to get in on the health insurance gravy train, with their precautionary diagnostic tests that, absent health insurance, cost as much as a small automobile (the things that nobody drives any more).

Most of my ideas about government efficiencies come from Paul Krugman, whose economics I feel more comfortable than his politics. He points to the pure government parts of Medicare, and the VA during the Clinton years.

Clearly a Single Payer plan would need to immediately limit the growth of physician salaries to no more than the rate of inflation. Pharmaceutical companies would now be negotiating with one entity, and I expect drug advertisements would be limited in the way cigarette ads are now.

Ruth Ann complained about how taxes would rise, under both Ed Rendell’s and a single payer plan. But here’s the thing, her company (the PG) wouldn’t need to split the cost of her health insurance with her. If she and her company were paying $250 a month each, she should expect to see a $3000 raise, plus her take home pay would be $3000 closer to her gross pay. If her taxes went up by $5000 a year it would still be worth it. The argument conservatives always seem to be making is that under single payer your taxes would go up and you still would the same health insurance bill, but that assumes you would have to pay twice for the same health care.

I’ve always thought the biblical Jesus might be a philosophical Marxist if he were around today, but I realize that might not be a popular opinion. Still, I’d like to think Jesus would see things more clearly than Ruth Ann Dailey. The current private health insurance/health care market is a clear case of market failure. A Single Payer system, while not a Panacea, would only have some problems compared to our current many problems.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Third time's not so charming ...

This is maybe the third time I have written this post this year. Well, not this exact post, but one with this topic. At least the third time. My views about it have changed, but I am kind of annoyed that I am writing it again.

First (I think) I noticed the Awesome Bill Peduto didn’t really have any policy or position papers on his website. You could go fishing, or more accurately Googling, and find stuff from his ‘05 primary run. Surprisingly those PDF’s were probably still relevant. Anyway, Peduto dropped out of the primary, so I guess it didn’t matter. Now there’s Reform Pittsburgh Now with articles from the statewide reform movement (and no Pittsburgh material beyond videos)…

I don’t know that Pat Dowd ever put up any Council specific PDF’s, which is to say something like a study or a paper. But there were definitely detailed statements, and Len Bodack, with more money than Dowd, had no website through the whole campaign.

Luke Ravenstahl has a website. Under the issues section, it has videos of the Mayor talking about his views on subjects. I’ve watched one, but I don’t remember really what he said. And I don’t want to have to sit through a whole video or four to check what he said.

The Mayor’s campaign website has pictures (40 of ‘em) of campaign events, including one from an April fifth campaign event. The news hasn’t kept up quite as well, the last news story on the Mayor’s website is from the end of January. There’s a real contempt for the voters in a Mayor who doesn’t bother to keep his campaign website up to date, not saying anything about a Mayor without a single PDF on his views or plans. “Just trust me” I guess is the statement (or maybe its more of a “whadda you gonna do about it”).

Mark Desantis is going a step beyond contempt for the voters, but only a step. His campaign website is updating practically daily now, with stories from the press about DeSantis. The problem is there isn’t a whole lot of original content, certainly no PDF’s. We are starving for detail, for back up on how the pension funding plan would work. Does DeSantis or his team have some different growth ideas, that the city can divert the gambling and non-profit revenue to the pensions. We know that an extra 25 million into pensions will actually only be a token, a sign to the state that the city is serious about it’s problems, even if the state isn’t actually serious about Pittsburgh’s problems. But then there is this Doug Shields quote from Chris Briem’s Null Space: "“We know that in 2009, 2010, and 2011 we’ll probably — without adjustment to the plan — see some structural deficits,” Shields said. By 2010, the city projects a structural deficit of $6 million and a $16 million to $18 million deficit by 2011."

In other words, both Mayoral candidates are taking us for a ride. Mark Desantis is probably promising us a new level of austerity we can’t actually afford, and Mayor Ravenstahl is wrong about how well the city is doing. We need more information, and maybe other policies, in print, from the candidates, to consider and evaluate.

Except that, as I said in the beginning, I am changing my mind about wanting to see facts. I think I might well rather see video instead. I am coming to the conclusion that it might be nice to have PDF’s, reassuring to the voters, but the PDF’s probably don’t get downloaded much. The voters make up there mind based mostly on their habits, whether they have always voted democratic or republican. We know that there was some change in voting habits nationally in 1980 and 1984, with the Reagan revolution. Except probably not here. And there was Clinton bringing voters back to the democrats in the nineties, and the change with second Bush in the oughts (‘00’s). Except apparently not here. Mostly Pittsburgh has always voted democrat, period

Desantis might have a chance, with the right kind of advertising, to even win the election. I am relatively convinced of that, but it would have to be the right kind of advertising, and enough voters would have to see it. He would have to differentiate himslf from the Mayor in a way that resonated with voters. Maybe some mention about how Desantis is old enough to remember when the mills closed, and how he doesn’t want to see that happen to the city. Only with a better resonance with the voters. Or something. Maybe an internet interview with iJustine. Or not (deifnately not on a bus). But I don’t think there’s time and the right sort of expertise to figure out what the right message is.

I’ll probably be putting this post up in ’09. Oh well, give experience a chance. Hoo rah.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Act 205, Act 47, Act mouthwash ...

Why did Bob O’Connor want to be Mayor? Why does Pat Dowd want to be on City Council? The answer, of course is that both people, and also Luke Ravenstahl and Mark DeSantis and Bruce Kraus, Len Bodack, Ricky Burgess and the rest of the universe of locally elected city officials or candidates love the city and want to do right by it, as they understand “right”.


The more I read about the pension issue, the more depressed I get. I have to say I think there are two camps in this debate, the merely deluded and the seriously delusional. I’m not taking bets that we are not all in the second category. And this is one of those things where just screwing in one CFL will not do a damn bit a good.

The fairly new blog 414Grant Street seems interested in addressing Mark DeSantis’s policy suggestions on a policy level (if not entirely politely). I think this debate will be peripheral to the results of the election, but it is damn interesting, and I, for one, would like to play along. 414 asserts that the state is not keeping up with it’s aid for the pensions, as promised in Act 205 of 1984. Now, I looked for a while tonight and couldn’t really find any articles on Act 205 of 1984. It is hard for me to believe that the state said “put in as little or as much as you like into your pension funds, and we’ll make up the difference”. Even if they did say something like that, we shouldn’t have been stupid enough to believe them.

Chris Briem alludes to 1984 in a 2005 opinion piece he wrote about the last Mayor’s race. He talks about how Act 47 seems to have little to do with and does not try to alleviate the pension crisis. Chris even mentions the 400 million dollar shortfall figure we still hear today, which scares the crap out of me because I suspect that figure is badly out of date.

So 414 tells us we should blame the state for the pension crisis, that we should not take any steps to even attempt to solve it ourselves, that the state is obliged to help us and other distressed municipalities. We’re told:
“Pittsburgh did not get into this mess by itself, Mr. DeSantis, and it cannot afford to get out of this mess by itself. The Pennsylvania Public Employee Retirement Commission (PERC), which oversees revenue from the Act 205 charge on foreign insurance companies, must be held accountable for coming forward with serious reform proposals to ensure that truly distressed pension funds receive the help they so desperately need.”

Actually, if Chris Briem is to be believed, we are partly to be blamed for this problem, by letting pension contributions slide over the years in the first round of businesses closings and population fleeing-s (and that’s not even looking at the collective bargining agreements agreed to over the years). That's what happens when you are supposed to balance your budget with a shrinking tax base, you hide the shortfall where people won't notice for a few years. Chris also mentions that currently the state system contributes money based on the number of city employees, so as we had rounds of layoffs, we made things a lot worse (decreased the state contribution, increased our liability). Actually, the PERC 2006 report on pensions on the PERC website does say Act 205 needs to be updated. I’m sure all those suburban republicans and rural republicans and democrats are going to get right on that, because their constituents are aching to pay more taxes to help union retirees from the cities (since PERC is currently funded with taxes on out of state insurance companies, perhaps they can be jacked up, since they won't pass the additional charges on to us...right?) .

Plus 414 takes the Ravenstahl line that Casino revenues have already been spent, in the future, on city services. We’re told:
“Any money that is diverted to pensions, be it casino revenue or non-profit contributions, is money that will then not be available for essential city services – like street paving or cleaning; vacant lot cleaning; the hiring of police officers, fire fighters and paramedics; building demolition; and other important activities that keep Pittsburgh functioning. And that is money that is counted on, every single penny of it, to fund the city’s general fund expenditures for the next five years and counting.”

This is pretty crucial. The Ravenstahl administration is chafing under Act 47. But they are told that if they can pull off five years of budget surpluses, they will be free of Act 47. So of course any additional contributions to the pensions are seen as counter productive. They reduce the chance the city will be back on its own, to borrow and spend as it sees fit.

414 finishes with: “Real leadership, Mr. DeSantis, would be holding Harrisburg accountable for the mess it created.”

Neat trick if you can pull it off. But since legislators like Jim Ferlo and Lisa Bennington have districts that include vast swaths of suburbs, you can’t even count on Pittsburgh legislators to take the blame for or help with the pension mess, as if any politician would ever assume blame for problems anyway.

Now, to be sure, the DeSantis proposal is a band aid. The kind of money we are talking about will need state aid. It’s just that unless we show ourselves willing to shoulder part of the pension burden, I can’t see the state legislature lifting a finger for us. They probably feel they were already overly generous with Act 47.

Then there's health care for retirees and current employees. Good thing no one votes based on candidates' actual policies...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

DeSantis Speech

Thanks to the Burgh Report, there is a link to today’s speech by Mark DeSantis. I know nothing about the link, or how the speech got there, but I linked to it because it is the only lengthy document from the DeSantis campaign so far. It strikes me as a good speech. I might have led with something specific, like giving a name to a pensioner, although it’s not clear DeSantis didn’t do that, since the speech seems to start abruptly.

Now, DeSantis is only talking about contributions to the pension shortfall. The Mayor mentioned a figure of 90 million for debt service when he was on the KD/PG Sunday thingie last week, and you can find that number on the city website, in the budget. In fact, I couldn’t find the city’s contribution to the pension plan, but I have no reason to doubt Dr. DeSantis’ number, 23 million plus 15 million currently from the state. So Dr DeSantis is only looking at adding 23 million a year to the contribution, but it is a nice symbol of a new commitment in Pittsburgh to tackle our own problems.

Consider the difference, whether we go the state legislature and say “We need money for our pension plan, we have nothing extra to contribute ourselves, because we have given our senior citizens tax relief” versus “We need some help with our pension plan, we’ve channeled all our new revenue into it, and we’ve held the line on government spending and increased efficiency where we could”. The legislature may want to help those who have at least tied to help themselves. So in fact the DeSantis strategy may be the best way to get additional help from the State.

Interestingly, the Mayor has gotten out the door with one good, new idea, the RFP for a computerized paving management plan. Of course, Bill Peduto had called for that in the spring and had been shot down by the Mayor. And we have to worry that there will be enough bidders, and the review process for RFP will be fair and unbiased. Also, what’s the county do? Any way we could share costs?

Also, there is a new program that may make the Mayor look good, the citizenobserver program. It was in today’s paper. It appears to be a way to get alerts from the cops on things that happen in your neighborhood. I can only assume there is an email address as well to send information to the cops. It had started out in the spring as a Northside thing, but now suddenly it is citywide. I signed up for it as quick as I could. Hey, who couldn’t use emailed alerts of things that the cops think are important?

Bad Mayoral Critics, Bad

So this is going to be an example of the total lack of research I do for these posts.

I guess the Mayor has been in office for a bit over a year. This seems like a good time for a bit of reflection. Something Matt H said in a recent comment about the original Mcintire post about the Mayor’s '05 Halloween Steeler/police experience got me to thinking. Actually it was the only thing Matt said; that Macintire’s post was not correct (he didn’t elaborate). We know that prior to the January ‘07 Mcintire post, the Mayor had denied anything had happened that night. We know that in fact the Mayor had been handcuffed and detained briefly, and then was released without further legal process. The Mayor viewed that as a sort of non-incident, and so had denied that anything had happened that night, when asked about it. The Mcintire post had spurred the media, some witnesses were found, and the Mayor had to add some further detail to his account of that night (all right, I did have to go back and find an article for that one, so much for no research).

Over the following months, there have several such stories, where details about what the Mayor did on a particular day have been disputed and then been resolved as he adds further details. Some bloggers might have said that the Mayor has lied about this or that, but the Mayor’s supporters (and the Mayor himself I believe) have disagreed that there is lying. I have to say I think I agree with the Mayor and his supporters. The Mayor hasn’t lie, he has omitted details, something quite different. In fact, in the past I noted a PG story that stated the Mayor omitted details about his mortgage and home loan, when filling out a declaration of his outstanding obligations on an ethics form for City Council. The Mayor apparently said that there are disclosure instructions allow him to omit that information, and apparently some other council members may do that as well. The reporter on the story was able find out the information anyway. The same story also notes the Mayor does not keep a tally of the total value of city sporting events tickets he accepts, offered to him by “someone”(s). No detail in the story about who “someone” might be, a thing that is now of more interest than it was six months ago. Not keeping a tally is that sort of omission thing, isn’t it? (By the way, I still want to know if anyone is looking into that).

The Mayor has said recently he is just trying to keep his private and personal life private and personal, but the media and other politicians keep prying. Now, some may say that anytime the Mayor’s bodyguards are on duty the Mayor can be assumed to be performing some official function, worthy of scrutiny. But that argument can be reversed: if the Mayor is conducting meetings at an ostensibly recreational function, it could be asserted that the parties the Mayor is meeting with might have an expectation of privacy, if they are to give the Mayor their full and honest opinions (UPMC officials want to keep their rumored innovative “Quo pro quid” program a secret from their competitors)(OK, I just started that rumor; remember, no research).

The Mayor knows that Pittsburghers have a considerable amount of stress, what with the installment plan for living in the “Most livable city” running maybe five grand a person, due any minute. The last thing ‘burghers need to worry about are the details of the Mayor’s activities. As long as we know the Mayor has a five year plan, that should be enough. The last thing we want is to know specifically how what revenues and expenditures are planned, so the Mayor has wisely omitted the five year plan from the city website.

It’s clear that the Mayor has our best interests at heart. If he was simply just another political type, I’m sure he would lie to us in a heartbeat. But because he wants progress and to move the city forward, he carefully omits extraneous details that we just don’t need.

In other news, Mark DeSantis proposed today using casino revenues and increased non-profit contributions as dedicated funding towards the city’s pension debt. Now, of course the city has been paying debt service every year, so this could be an additional amount of debt service or it could replace some funds (which could flow back into general operations). I would have to look at the city budget and look back at the Trib stories about the DeSantis proposal (the PG apparently was caught flat-footed) to have any kind of analysis, but that didn’t stop the Mayor from complaining that he had had plans for that money. As of five o'clock there was no new text on the DeSantis website, but it appeared someone might have been preparing to make changes (as it froze with just a top menu for a minute or two).

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Coming down to the wire (not just the election) ...

I learned a new phrase, from a friend. Actually, I should have known it previously, but since I am not an expert in anything … Well, the phrase is “Chapter 9”. That is the bankruptcy of cities. It is entirely possible we will be hearing it soon, if not in reference to our fair city, then from the other side of the state (if the Allegheny Institute is to be believed). It’s worth Googling the phrase. Actually it looks like it is a bit less restrictive than going through Act 47, and maybe less damaging in the long term.

Chapter 9 reminds me a little of the Penn Square Bank of Oklahoma episode and particularly of “Okiesmo”, the idea that the more you owe, the less people can afford to let you go bankrupt. It comes from oil rig wildcatters, who take ever-increasing loans for new rigs, figuring that someone who owes a million dollars to creditors can be written off, but not someone who owes 50 million (or one billion six). The story of the Penn Square bank is worth a trip to the library, although apparently I remember the book “Funny Money” by Mark Singer differently than its review.

On a different tack, me and the wife went to see “The 11th Hour” on Saturday. The wife was out shopping and running errands in the morning, and so we rushed to the single theatre in Pittsburgh (the Squirrel Hill) showing the movie. “It’ll be like Star Wars in the 70’s”, I joked. “Lines around the block”. We were the only people in the theatre, for the 1:00 showing. Mind you, I had noticed the movie on the NYTimes website, but my wife had gotten an email (from Al Gore!). So people who give money or sign up for email lists should be hearing about this movie. An elderly couple did show up about midway through the movie. I guess they couldn’t see us at first because they talked loudly for a while (I certainly don’t want to engage in stereotypes, but we were in Squirrel Hill, land of the little old lady who crashes into your ankles with her shopping cart in the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle). There were several (elderly) people waiting in the lobby when we left the movie, so I guess the movie did a little better in the second show of the day.

If you don't know, "The 11th Hour" is another what have we done to the environment movie. It is sort of narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose low key manner rivals caricatures of Al Gore. But mostly there are a dizzying variety of “experts”, some clearly legitimate and some questionable, all telling us we are running out of time (although it would help if you would replace one incandescent light bulb with a CFL-Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb). The movie ends up a bit oppressive because of the parade of experts, and perhaps we miss the science of “An Inconvenient Truth”

I guess we have been in our house for about five years. Before that we had rented an apartment, which had included a fairly large basement. I had put a 60 watt CFL down there, in one of the two or so light fixtures, so I would have good light when Nordic Traking. Since CFL’s are suppose to put out three to five times the light ordinary lights put out, it was suppose to be the equivalent of 300 watts. Facing down, it was probably not at the level of efficiency, but anyway my point is that I have known about CLF’s for a long time. When we rented, my wife called them "Force be with you" lightbulbs, although she has come around since seeing "Inconvenient Truth". I have, in fact, put CFL's in about 16 light fixtures in our house, depending on how you count them. It's sort of easier to look at the fixtures I haven't put them in, in the dining room ceiling fan and a couple of night stand lamps. I even have an 18 LED bulb upstairs set up as a reading lamp. It uses all of one watt, focused in a beam, casting a bright light at half a page and dim light elsewhere. Of course, other new appliances we bought are not particularly energy star related, since that would have added a hundred or two hundred dollars to each purchase. And I have only added one layer of insulation, over the first floor of our story and a half (more planned real soon now).

So my wife and I being at “The 11th Hour” alone was the worst kind of choir preaching. Oh well …

In other news, I see that Mark DeSantis was out at the Labor Day parade. That was a great move, since he had access to a huge crowd to work. It sounds like it was effective, I hope it was. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting on a policy statement (to dissect).

Sunday, September 02, 2007

November's coming....

As I mentioned peripherally in my last post, I met with Mark DeSantis last Saturday (sorry Mom). He does seem to know the issues, and we now know he can pick an interesting policy team, capable yet politically incorrect because so few of them live in the city. I am pretty eagerly awaiting policy output, which I assume I should be able to take from the campaign website.

We chatted about the impending doom of Pittsburgh, among other things. At one point, he stated that he thought the city might not be allowed to go bankrupt, which might be worse than going bankrupt. I remember saying that bankruptcy protection is essentially a private sector function, where you are given “official” shelter from your debtors in one form of bankruptcy or your assets are liquidated in another. I assume your debtors are allowed to write off bad debt, which then has tax implications, to give them a measure of relief (from your folly) as well. So using bankruptcy to describe what a city would go through is using the wrong word.

By the way, I was sent information on the city’s bonds, which I have yet to go through, but there is a report I am finding informative on the city website, the Controllers’ Annual Report. One of the pages lists the city’s debt, inclusive of Authorities, at one billion six. I do not believe that includes healthcare for current and retired employees.

It took a few days, but it occurred to me that one way to describe Mark DeSantis is as a supply-sider. If I’m right, I would say he comes by that inclination honestly, as a Pittsburgh businessman who advises other business people. He talked some about the various business taxes that are placing a heavy burden on starting or maintaining a business here. Some of those taxes were probably created in the Act 47 legislation, but that doesn’t make them an optimal solution for the long run. And in fact, encouraging the growth of for-profit business is probably the best long term solution for the city’s problems.

You can look at it in terms of incentives. Unionized for profit businesses are certainly not going to want to set up here. The taxes are high and the unions have been strong and know how to agi- negotiate. Non-unionized small business in fact might want to start up here because the low cost of living means you could sell over the internet at a bit less than New York prices and still make a profit. But those taxes kill you. Non-profit business have none of the business taxes and few of the unions, so they thrive here, consider Pittsburgh’s number one and two employers, UPMC and Pitt.

I said DeSantis is a businessman, but he is also a policy wonk of sorts (sorry Mark) with a doctorate in Public Policy. Another PhD ran for city council in the primary, fighting what was considered an uphill battle, and worked hard at it for a bit more than three months, knocking on doors. Pat Dowd squeaked by with 81 votes, in a district where four years prior Len Bodack had won with a plurality, less than a majority. Everybody being democrats in the primary, there was none of this five to one ratio to overcome.

Mark DeSantis has said he has been working at his other job, and feels he owes his investors and employees his hard work. Chris Schultz has mentioned here and there (couldn’t find a second link) around the Burghospree that DeSantis has been showing up at meet and greets. I hope it is a lot of meet and greets, and maybe it is. Dr. Dowd managed to knock on a lot of District 7’s doors while still teaching at Ellis, and I would match the schedule of a dedicated teacher against the schedule of a dedicated CEO. But it is easier to walk around and make meaningful contact with a council district than to cover an entire city, even one as shrunken as Pittsburgh.

If Jim Roddy can raise a lot of money for Mark DeSantis some TV air time can be bought. I think personally you can win an election with a good TV ad campaign, but the bar for how good is rising every day.