Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Mayor and the Challenger ...

Surprisingly, I still want to write (twist the knife in myself) a bit more about the race. The race for Mayor. A brief survey of my feelings about the two candidates.

I am really reluctant for this to be an ABL race: Anyone But Luke. But there are aspects of that to this race. Forget the Mayor’s five year plan with deficits in years four and five. It says more even about the state’s view of us than it says about the Mayor. And lots of things can happen in four years. I am still worried about the future of the city under this Mayor. He talks about a development boom, by which he means new buildings going up and other buildings being rehabbed. Essentially this is a boom for construction and construction workers (reliable democratic voters), but buildings themselves do not equal new or even expanded business. We have seen that over the long haul as retail and office space sits empty downtown and in the neighborhoods, year after year. That means no new tax revenues, no new jobs. But you can bet the Mayor wants to hire more city employees, even though we simply can not afford to, even if the Mayor offers new hires a defined contribution plan (an idea the Mayor stole from DeSantis).

The Mayor’s view towards minority opportunity is as narrow as his view of economic development. He points to African American police and fire chiefs (sorry to any one else who wanted to apply for those jobs, they’re filled). And he says he would like to hire more minorities to the police and fire bureaus. Good paying but dangerous jobs we would like to offer to the city’s African American community.

The Mayor’s relationship with the large non-profits seems weak. Certainly the non profits help in a few high profile ways, like the few million they give the city and the Nordenberg group studying city/county merger. But these groups are not going to leave if pressed a bit harder, indeed they simply can not physically move. It may be time for more of the big non profit corporate residents of Pittsburgh to feel our pain.

Meanwhile the Mayor has stated that the pension issue (at least) is a state issue, that the state has a legal obligation to help distressed city’s with their pensions. But in the last debate he said he would not go to Harrisburg to ask for money, only to tell them about Pittsburgh and its needs. I guess he expects Harrisburg to help us out of the goodness of their hearts.

On the other hand, Mark DeSantis has some troubling notions. There is that spending cap, with what a lot of people would think is a restrictive formula for growth of spending. I don’t think Mark could simply implement it, and I don’t think it will go far either among the electorate or in City Council. DeSantis’ cap would use a simple formula for growth of spending: the CPI plus the rate of growth (or decline) of the city. I think it should be the rate of growth of average income in the city, without the CPI.

I think that Mark should stop talking about the residency requirement. It is a state level issue, and for my money no Mayor will have that much impact in Harrisburg, though I’m sure Harrisdurg would listen politely. But since Mark wants to initiate a hiring freeze, probably the biggest benefit of lifting the residency requirement is lost, the ability to hire from a bigger pool of applicants (from outside the city and well as inside). Although I don’t know how he can get out of his previous statements, he doesn’t need to harp on it continuously.

But I am reasonably impressed with Mark DeSantis’ economic proposals. In giving new small business tax breaks for three years, he maximizes benefits at a reduced cost to the city’s operations. His minority development proposal will cost the city very little (maybe nothing). These are not panaceas, but this is better than what the Mayor has proposed.

So I have reasons for supporting DeSantis over Ravenstahl. And to the extent anyone reads my blog I hope they will think about the Mayor and the Challenger in economic development terms and ask themselves, who would do more for the city.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tonight's debate

It’s interesting to me that among the usual suspects, the Burgh Report, the Comet, Democrats for DeSantis, 2 Political Junkies, Matt H and Char, no one is saying anything about the debate tonight (as of 10:30). There is a collective deafening silence. Have we already reached debate fatigue? There is another coming, you know, Thursday.

One thing I think is worth mentioning. It was widely predicted, as I recall, that the Mayor would try to avoid debating DeSantis. Particularly there were predictions that the first two debates would be it (again, as I remember it). Certainly the Mayor has come through on debate participation, and deserves due credit.

Another point worth mentioning is that the assumption was the DeSantis would wipe the floor with the boy Mayor in the debates. Instead the Mayor has … (ahem) held his own and probably even beaten Desantis on style points. I still believe DeSantis is winning the war of content, if only just. But that’s a thing. Mark DeSantis has been a real candidate for less than a hundred days. Meeting sympathetic bloggers is no substitute for real campaigning. Working with employees (whom you can fire, but also who share a purpose with you) is no substitute for talking to voters you have to persuade. I am sure Desantis has made his share of presentations designed to persuade, but we expect something different from politicians than from businessmen. We expect politicians to be someone we can relate to, someone who wants to make us feel good about ourselves, and bad about the other guy.

But it is meaningless for me to say that DeSantis should be cut a break because he is in unfamiliar territory. It was up to him to demonstrate his commitment by getting out early to campaign. He chose to show character, but to the wrong audience (I guess wrapping up his business with his company as quickly as he could).

DeSantis has used the word humility a couple of times in the debate, as in what the Mayor lacks. It’s not a word I use much, if ever, in fact, it makes me a little uncomfortable for no apparent reason. I recognize that politicians, by necessity, usually have outsized egos and by extension thicker skins. It’s not clear with the Mayor; with his (extensive) use of the royal/editorial “we”, he seems to have the ego (why does he say “our administration” instead of “my administration”?). But I suspect the whole city has gotten a thinner skin impression from the Mayor.

The Mayor actually made a pretty crucial admission tonight. He said he had a sense he could keep a lot of his activities private when he started the job, but realizes now that isn’t so. As big as that admission is, the Mayor went on to say to Ken Rice something about the two of them agreeing to disagree about the significance of aspects of the Mayor’s behavior. That’s a little like a criminal telling a cop they should agree to disagree about the criminal’s little breaking and entering behavior. I personally believe the Mayor should follow what is in the ethics code as it is written, and if that means some sacrifice in not going to Steelers or Penguins games, you can watch them on TV like the rest of us. Because if I were Danny Schiff, I would want to see the Mayor’s credit card statements to make sure he hasn’t violated guidelines.

The terms I would use instead of humility are words like apologize and take responsibility. The Mayor has done some of that, but not for every incident, and quite frankly the Mayor gives off a simmering resentment and sense of impatience when he has been questioned about incidents. It is, again frankly, the resentment a bully gives off when caught bullying a smaller kid. If you would just see the world through my eyes, you would understand why you shouldn’t ask that question. And I shouldn’t have to explain.

Which is the whole point, I guess. Experienced politicians or natural politicians usually have the knack of understanding other people’s point of view, and slipping into an easy dialogue where they acknowledge a mistake and tell the other person they know how they were hurt and then the politician apologizes (and asks for their vote). I think even Mark DeSantis, in his hundred day career as a politician, understands that. I don’t think the Mayor does, and possibly never will.

One more quick point. I can’t remember if it was in response to Jon Delano’s question about local political experience, but as Mark DeSantis went through his resume, 14 years in DC in politics, 10 years in Pittsburgh as a businessman/entrepreneur, it occurred to me the man has been working almost as long as the Mayor has been alive. And has three more educational degrees than the Mayor.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Two stories today ...

There were two stories today that point to a level of disarray in the Ravenstahl administration that ought to be cause for concern. The first, from the Post-Gazette concerns William Rogers and Zora Mae Stone, who have both contacted the city with issues. His concern the length of time it is taking for approvals for his development, hers are with the trucks and construction of this development near her home. He started this development in 2001, according to the story. It mentions how several departments demanded changes in his plans. He submitted a second application for a second phase of development in 2005 (which apparently got lost in the system). He resubmitted in November 2006, and has been waiting ever since, but still working on his development. Now, we have heard the Mayor say, in the debates, he has (already) streamlined the process for building applications. Apparently the building inspection office has not heard of it. Neither has the building inspection department heard the repeated complaints from people living near the construction site to the 311 line, until the story was being written. That’s six years that the city administration did not communicate internally. This is all from the paper, so if y’all want to dispute it, talk to Rich Lord. And we are all aware the Mayor inherited a distressed city and understaffed government. But the point is that in some respects it appears he has made no progress in the problems of city government. For example, his 311 line is of no use if it doesn’t pass the issue to the right department.

The second story is a profile of Nate Harper in the Pittsburgh-Trib. Now, I don’t know what to make of Nate Harper, but a lot of police seem to want to be on the record about what a good chief he is. On the other hand, the chief seemed to dismiss the concerns of a subordinate when she complained about the Mayor’s use of a Homeland Security SUV. Maybe the Mayor has a temper about such things or something. Anyway, the important thing about the story is that Harper reports he and the Mayor hardly ever meet. This seems like a big problem. We know it lead to the police promotion issue and possibly the SUV issue. The Mayor knows gang-related violence is up in some neighborhoods. Doesn’t he want to know what is going on, doen't he want progress reports or doen't he care?

Taken together, these two stories point to a city government that is not communicating internally, and thus not serving the people of Pittsburgh as well as it could.

The debate and the endorsement ...

My Sister-in-Law, Janet, is in town from Texas, visiting my Mother-in-Law. Janet is a nurse who works for the Texas department of …well, whoever regulates nursing homes. She drives around the state looking at nursing homes and investigating complaints. So she is reasonably well educated and intelligent. She is a democrat (she grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh), but she has no dog in the hunt for the current Mayor’s race. She watched part of yesterday’s debate because it was on. I told her a little about the Mayor and DeSantis ahead of time, so she might have been predisposed towards DeSantis. But as she watched little bits, parts of the three minutes the candidates got to talk, she expressed some inclination towards the Mayor (sounds like he has his “feet on the ground”) and disinclination towards DeSantis (using "double-talk"). Remember that Janet has no stake in this and comes (mostly) clean to this viewpoint. In some respects, I would take her viewpoint as representing that of “Joe Voter”, average person, even if she is a bit more educated than an average person.

I think most of us have already made up our minds, but I probably shouldn’t. I think statistics probably say that we make up our minds in the last week or couple of weeks before the election. I assume people have noticed, through the year, headlines and news teasers that indicate the Mayor has been involved in some shenanigans. I assume the people who watch the debate were probably more informed and had likely already made up their minds, thank god, since Desantis, in my opinion, did worse yesterday than in the first televised debate. Of course, I was watching in a room full of chattering women, who complained about the TV being on. But he didn’t mention his micro loan program that I heard, nor his tax abatement for new small businesses, the things he is excited about.

I called the PG endorsement (of DeSantis for Mayor) the kiss of death, which is probably unfair. The Mayor himself called it not unexpected, considering where the paper has been going the last few months. Yes, but the Mayor refuses to see how much of this he has brought on himself. From the start, from his denials about the Heinz Field incident and his actions in the McNeilly affair, the Mayor has tried to keep information away from the press. No one should be surprised if the press starts to look harder. Some of the incidents may have been overblown, as the Mayor puts it. But if they were, it is more the Mayor’s fault for trying to conceal events, time and time again.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Things along the way to the end of the race ...

I read about two freshman state legislators from this area that want to add 10,000 police in Pennsylvania. It reminded me of the Clinton administration, particularly because some commenter on a blog accused DeSantis of working for the Bush administration that had stopped the Clinton era federal block grants for police. As everyone should know by now, DeSantis worked for HW, not W.

But it reminded me about some thinking I have been doing about Bill Clinton recently. I almost never like current presidents while they are current. I tried to like HW (I was more conservative then), and he did several things I approved of, like trying to raise taxes to deal with the deficit, and Desert Storm. But he was sort of wimpy. I had a similar like/dislike sort of fing with Clinton. We knew he liked women a lot, and apparently wasn’t choosy (Paula Jones? Monica?). In a way, that’s sort of endearing (the not choosy part), but he makes Luke look like an underachiever in the dubious ethics department. Bill also milked his good fortune in having the internet boom occur during his presidency.

It’s the policies that came out of that spare money that I think about now. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. For example, the education credits that Clinton takes credit for, the hope and lifetime learning credits; the unintended consequences of those credits are still being felt. Basically the credits make it possible to spend up to two grand more on college. Since most people cover a lot of their expenses with loans, the two grand additional in a tax rebate (usually your student also qualifies for the child tax credit) comes in handy during those all important college spending years. And people wonder why college tuition has been going up faster than inflation. In fact, the fact that former trade schools (Triangle Tech, the Culinary Institute, the Art Institute) now qualify for both the education credits and all forms of financial aid (student loans) means that they have gone from a few hundred dollars to fifteen grand for an 18 month program.

Now, there should be no doubt that these changes are resulting in more people going to or going back to school. And eventually that should mean higher productivity and higher wages (without higher prices because of the higher productivity). But in the near term no one knows how they will afford school for themselves or their kids.

Now I told you that story to set this one up. Those two legislators reminded me of the Clinton spending on cops on the street. I guess Pittsburgh had a fairly large number of cops in the past, although it had more people then too. The thing was, the money for the cops was coming from outside the city, which meant it was supporting an artificial number of cops (for the amount of taxes people were willing to pay). Even now, now that the block grants are gone (to Iraq), people look back at the nineties and think and say, we don’t have enough police. And the Mayor hears them and wants to oblige. Will it bankrupt his budget? I want to revisit, for just a second, the deficits in his five year plan. The first is four years out, and is four million dollars. The second, as I recall, at five years, is 11 million. A very short upward trend. Could the third be twenty million? How long can the rainy day fund hold out?

Clinton had to know his block grants would have some problems in the future. I guess it is better in politics to spend what you can when you can, except not in this city at this time.

Meanwhile, speaking of spending (or the lack thereof), county council announced today that instead of a budget shortfall that could be taken care of with 200 layoffs, there is a budget shortfall equivalent to 800 layoffs. I had thought the county was ok, apparently I was wrong. Suddenly Mark DeSantis doesn’t seem for silly for fully embracing a city/county merger. The county now has maybe more to gain from pursing a more aggressive merger schedule. The timing of this new issue is funny too. Ravenstahl apparently was getting some traction in the merger issue. But if the well liked and respected Dan Onorato suddenly seems interested in some more service mergers, it may change a lot of minds.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Mayor has influence?

So I’m not much of a radio listener, I listen to music while I cycle stationarily and drive forward-ly, but not much talk radio (what’s NPR count as?), and certainly not talk radio during the day. But with the magic of the internet and the vigilance of other bloggers, I caught up with a piece on KDKA Radio. If you click on the play button on the “Funny Business in FOP Mayoral Endorsement?” item, you will hear Jim Malloy of the FOP. He is still talking about the residency requirement, but he makes some of the Mayor’s supporter’s case for them. He talks about a bill in Harrisburg, languishing in two (un-named) committees for some time, but finally on its way out, when Ravenstahl takes a trip to Harrisburg and next thing you know, the bill moves over to Appropriations, where it still is. So says Malloy.
You know, who knows. I judge the Mayor’s influence by the fact that Jane Orie cancelled a meeting with him when he was there last week on Monday and Tuesday. Maybe her kids (if she has any) had a soccer game, or maybe she was actually annoyed that the Mayor of Pittsburgh had let his council pass a bill contradicting state law. But Malloy implies the Mayor has pals in the legislature who will help him out by sticking it to the FOP. Maybe, not much would surprise me around here. It’s an awfully anti-union direction for a Pittsburgh Mayor to take, but what the hell, let's make the city employees stay in the city, if only to keep their property and wage taxes.
It’s possible DeSantis’ objection to the residency requirement is something to do with helping out his “pals” in the suburbs, as well as the usual republican union busting. You know how those people (republicans) are. Unfortunately there is nothing a casual Google turned up, as almost all entries under a search of “residency requirements municipal” are either research articles that I am not paying $25 for, or advocacy pieces mostly against residency requirement, or little snippets of municipal code.
Is Malloy correct that the Mayor is using his influence in Harrisburg to block a lifting of residency requirements? It seems farfetched to me, but I suppose it is possible. For DeSantis' part, I personally think asking the state to lift the residency requirement while also calling for a hiring freeze is a little silly, and I hope Dr DeSantis holds off on that particular promise.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Residency debacle ...

So they were really mean to me over on 414 GRANT STREET. Wah, Wah. Anyway, come to find out the residency requirement thing is handled by the state legislature. Luke’s supporters apparently have their panties all twisted up and in a bind because the Mayor, whoever it might be, might ask the state legislature to get rid of the residency requirement (Heavens forfind!). Like asking for things has worked out well for us. If a Pittsburgh Mayor had that kind of power, we would be knee deep in pension fund bucks.

So it’s a non-issue. DeSantis can’t sell the city down the river, he’s got nothing to sell … it … with … OK, that analogy kinda went wrong, but you get the point. So how much does it piss anyone off that that was the big issue in the papers, and it is a non-issue. Meanwhile, the Mayor didn’t answer about the deficits in his five year plan, and said that the pension funds could only be fixed at the state level. Does he think state legislators don’t have people watching the Pittsburgh Mayoral debates? Does he never want to have a meeting with Jane Orie?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Quick takes on the debate - updated 7:00am

You know, if local politicians had as much ability as national level politicians, they would be national level politicians. That’s actually not fair, but tonight’s debate between Ravenstahl and DeSantis did not rise to the level of Bush and Gore or Bush and Kerry (which are themselves not terribly high bars to set). The thing to remember about Ravenstahl and DeSantis is that actually they are both relative political newcomers. DeSantis is smart enough, but naive enough to think voters should not be manipulated. He also has very little experience that I know speaking before audiences, and thinking on his feet in that format. Ravenstahl simply needs more seasoning.

So some short takes on the debate. Ravenstahl simply refused to answer Bob Mayo’s question about how his five plan goes into deficit in four years. He blathered about how his budgets are balanced, and how the ICA signed off on his budget. Someone should have asked if he understands the implications of Jane Orie cancelling their meeting in Harrisburg last week and the connection to the ICA signing off on his five year plan (ie, the state is happy for Pittsburgh to fail). Actually, Bob Mayo asked his question again, and Ravenstahl ran his pay as you go spiel, and claimed that in 2017 debt will go down by $50 million. That’s fine, if we get there intact. Ravenstahl also stated out loud that the state is responsible for fixing the $500 million pension shortfall. Of course, since the state wouldn’t let the city freeze the parking tax, what makes Ravenstahl think it will come through on pensions?

DeSantis didn’t say anything about his spending cut proposal (that I heard, anyway). That’s probably a good thing, as I don’t think that will sell well around here.

The Mayor dodged the ethics issue pretty completely. The problem with ethics is that the issue here is subtle and complex enough to make it almost impossible to deal with in a debate format. I wish a paper would devote a single article to it, but that would be the end of that paper's relationship with Grant street. Not that the Mayor has done, as far as I am aware, anything strictly unethical, but that is the area where his actions most closely resemble those of George W Bush's. Desantis proposal of an ethics compliance officer is fine, a gimmick, but his response about not accepting a gift as Mayor shows he hasn't devoted enough thought to the complexity of the issue (as it stands now in Picksburgh).

The debate was pretty boring, neither man hit a home run, or even much of a single.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Jumping the Shark ...

I seem to have posted everyday this week, which is not usual for me. I am, in fact, pretty well out of things to say. The FOP endorsed Mark DeSantis because he is willing ot do away with the residency requirement for the cops. I’m sure he thinks that residency requirements are a barrier to being able to select the best person for the job. Joe Weinroth got the firefighters endorsement in 2005. It apparently didn’t make a big difference.

A while back, the 2 PJ’s were noting that by looking in their sitemeter, or whatever tracking tool they are using, they could see the IP address of visitors such as the justice department. I had noticed that sometime ago myself on my blog site. I used to have regular morning visits from both the city and the county, but I noticed about two weeks ago that the visits from the city stopped (unless they subcontracted out with Comcast or some other Internet Provider). Not that I can see any more then who you pay to get you onto the internet. Maybe someone smarter than me could tell something interesting. Anyway, too bad the city seemed to give up monitoring my blog. I still see the county now and again.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Four year countdown ...

So I probably overstated the issue a bit in my last post. Just to be clear, when we run a $3 million deficit in 2011, we will still have the $40 million "rainy day fund" to handle that sprinkle and the next year's $15 million shower, not to mention a year or two of shower's after that.

But two things genuinely bother me. First, by signing off on a budget with built in deficits in four years, the state/ICA is making it clear that not only do they not care about the City's pension shortfall or debt, they do not care if the city makes it short term operating obligations. I see no reason to think we will ever get out from under Act 47 oversight, or if we do it will only be for a couple of years.

Second, when did the media know about this? Since late September? Or was it something that just came out after ICA approved the Mayor's budget. It might have made a difference at the candidate's forums. DeSantis had a copy of the Mayor's budget, and he might have found out. If so, the man is bucking for sainthood in his self restraint. Surely that would be a good issue to nail the Mayor on, after the Mayor has bragged about his balanced budgets.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Spending caps and the lack thereof

So I have downloaded some literature on spending caps and skimmed it. I have a 17 page paper from a liberal group, a 17 page paper from a libertarian/conservative group, a possibly neutral paper that says that spending caps don’t matter and assorted other stuff. I have to wonder if instead of using the CPI and population rise/drop as the expenditure increase allowable under the spending cap, maybe we should use the average increase in income for the city for the year. It’s hard to imagine a situation where that would be negative, and its likely that revenues would be increasing by that amount, keeping the budget tending towards being in balance.

Speaking of which … no, wait, first let me say that the Mayor did veto the parking tax freeze. This after Republican State Senator Jane Orie put the freeze on Ravenstahl, cancelling their scheduled meeting. Doug Shields is inclined to support the veto (despite the fact the was 8 to 1 previously, which could easily over ride a veto), since Orie had instructed the ICA to yank other funds if the bill wasn’t vetoed (and stayed vetoed).

Speaking of balance (and the lack thereof), the ICA approved the Mayor’s budget, according to the PG. There are a few conditions, including the one the Mayor met today in vetoing the parking tax freeze bill. Because we will have around a hundred million in a savings account, about 60 million will be dedicated to capital projects. Enjoy it while its there, because that’s all that’s going to be there … maybe ever. In 2011 we go into deficit to the tune of $3 million and in 2012 we will be in deficit of $15 million. Apparently this is ok with the Mayor, the Governor and the various city overseers. Let’s be clear here, the presumptive front runner and next Mayor of Pittsburgh has written a budget with built in bankruptcy in it. You know, not having enough money to make payments into the pension fund, meet payrolls, keep pools open, salt city streets - the whole Tom Murphy thing. Maybe Chapter 9, except the state legislature won't let us. And according to that same PG article, Doug Shields is talking to colleagues about taking us out of Act 47. Luke Ravenstahl is talking about expanding city government. Although he has taken a page or two from Dr DeSantis' plan: "The mayor also plans to offer new, nonunion hires a defined contribution retirement plan instead of a pension." and "The city is considering merging its own development, planning and business inspection units."

But god knows we can't have a spendig cap, to head off deficits in 2011, because that is a standard rethuglican boilerplate plan for cities. And Mark DeSantis is the enemy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Grover DeSantis redux

Previously I have looked at Mark DeSantis the person, or at least DeSantis the republican. Then the PG did it too, on Sunday, and much better than I could.

Now I want to take a look at a specific part of Dr DeSantis' economic recovery plan for the city, his proposed spending cap. I realize this is supposed to be an example of both “out of the box” thinking and his commitment to fiscal responsibility. A lot of people (or maybe one guy in a lot of places) are bringing up Grover Norquist, and also Colorado, in reference to this cap, and I can see why. There is some similarity in the barebones description of the two spending caps, a formula based on the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Colorado spending cap was set up as a constitutional amendment, and the DeSantis spending cap is proposed as a change to the Home Rule Charter. I’m actually not sure how you amend the home rule charter (and I’m too lazy/busy to look), but the Colorado spending cap required a statewide popular vote to be changed. Interestingly, that’s just what happened in 2005 to the 1992 law, a popular vote suspended it for five years.

There are differences between states and cities, and the kinds of things they have to pay for. So a spending cap would have a different meaning for a city compared to states. But both have to worry about health care spending, for example, and that has consistently grown faster than the inflation rate. Now, I have just started to look at this, and I will admit to being both intrigued and concerned. Pretty much isn’t the city budget supposed to be balanced? Obviously, somewhere along the line we fell down on that, or we wouldn’t be financially distressed and in debt and having under-funded pensions. So the DeSantis cap would be supposed to protect future generations from future free-wheeling spending.

As I say, I am just starting to look at this. I want to take a look at spending caps used by other cities and counties. I have heard some hints that they use different formulas. But just off the top of my head I could propose an alternative amendment to the home rule charter. Instead of capping spending at a certain rate, I would suggest that every time the Mayor proposes and the city council passes a budget with more spending than revenue coming in, the Mayor would have to pay a penalty of 1% of his (or her) salary, and city council would have to pay a penalty too (1%? .5%?). This way, if a Mayor really felt the need to spend out of balance, and could really convince a majority of council of that need, he or she could do it. But the Mayor would have a good incentive not to casually spend past tax revenues.

Is my idea too silly for the adult world? Perhaps. And I take comfort in the idea that the DeSantis plan would I guess have to be voted on the city. It's too bad that it does resemble the Colorado plan as much as it does. If DeSantis gets elected, maybe some variant can be proposed that would be more acceptable to all. Meanwhile I will have to come back to this in the near future.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Who is Mark DeSantis?

Mark DeSantis is starting to seem like that crush you get when you are sixteen. The girl (or boy, for those of you of the opposite gender) can do no wrong, and you attribute all your favorite characteristics to her. Thus in an AP piece (from TWM via the Burgh Report) there is a small business-woman from the Hill who supports DeSantis, saying "He says he's a Republican, but he has a Democrat heart because he's all about, like, people and the community and helping, too." In my limited experience with DeSantis he is, in fact, all about helping business people because he doesn’t want to see the city go under and business people generate the income that can be taxed at the right rate, where everyone makes the most money they can. That kind of makes him a republican, in my book.

Or DeSantis is like the boy (or girl) who is going out with your crush, evil incarnate. My last post was an attempt to respond to an anonymous commenter on 2PJ’s who compared MarkDeSantis to Grover Norquist. One point I tried to make was that if Dr DeSantis wanted help out his rich friends, and cut government assistance for the poor, he would have gone after the county executive’s job, which is better positioned for that because it controls home assessments and county funded public health. I wasn’t saying Mark DeSantis said any of those things, just that a real conservative republican would want to do that.

But make no mistake, Dr DeSantis wants the city to do more with less, and that would be at least partially a painful transition. Painful because when people have gotten used to doing things a certain way, they generally resist change. A little painful too because City Council has a few of the same members it had when it resisted Act 47.

At the moment, Mark DeSantis is also at least partially the ABR candidate, Anyone But Ravenstahl. As people are starting to say, it’s kind of the Mayor’s fault, since he keeps making errors, the kind that most people would think, I’d better not do that. But being the ABR says nothing about DeSantis himself, it only says he’s not Luke. For some people, that’s enough, but maybe not for all. I kind of hope that’s not the sum total of the prevailing spirit around the Burghospree … I mean, Burghosphere.

The best I can say is to go the Dr DeSantis’ website and/or read the transcript of the latest debate and decide for your self. Mark DeSantis – myth or man?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Grover DeSantis?

Some commenter's here and there have accused Mark DeSantis of being a Grover Norquist like Republican, of wanting to shrink government to the size where it could drown'd in a bath tub. Also, of course, Dr DeSantis will give away special tax perks to the wealthy of Pittsburgh, while crushing the rest of of with crippling taxes.

Well, fair enough, we don't know that much about Dr Desantis. He was a policy analyst to the Science Advisor to the rather rational George H W Bush, worked in the commerce department, apparently on science related issues and worked for the relentlessly moderate John Heinz. So, yeah, we have a lot of reason to see DeSantis as a rabid Club of Growth type, espousing tax cutting, small government and conservative social values. Like when Dr DeSantis announced he was pro-choice. I believe the Mayor grudgingly accepts the idea that birth control clinics shouldn't be blown up (something about accepting the idea, sort of, of bubble zones, but the Mayor is not pro-choice, or so I am told).

Anyway, assuming Dr DeSantis is the monster some people have portrayed him as, the arch conservative friend of Rudy Giuliani (who by the way has only recently become conservative to play to the base in the primaries), should we be bothered by that? Assuming that is the case? I say no, and here's why.

Yes, Dr DeSantis is prescribing Act 47 like cuts for the city, though in a fairly careful way. Actually, to my way of thinking, he is prescribing the Act 47 program that should have been implemented in the first place, real help for all the city's problems, not just a short term fix that leaves us crippled in five years. Yes, he is cutting some taxes, in a very careful way. His service cuts for the city involve (I believe) putting everything on the table in terms of how it should be done (services being outsourcing or being provided by city workers, what kind of benefits to provide city worker, etc), but still slowly shrinking the workforce through attrition, 1% a year. He will probably want to renegotiate some contracts, and there may be some tough fights with labor ahead, but they may be fights labor is willing to have since there is a sense labor maybe does not trust Mayor Ravenstahl (and with good reason considering how he has dealt with the media recently).

And the tax cuts he wants to make maybe could be seen as a give away to the rich, three years for new small businesses of not paying certain Pittsburgh business taxes (he has pals just waiting to start buisnesses. Except that there are small businesses on the near Northside and on the Hill and in other undesirable neighborhoods that Republicans don't want to help. If DeSantis wanted to help his friends, he might put a cap on the amount of income that can be taxed, capping it at one hundred thousand, say. Then his millionaire pals would only pay city wage taxes on their first 100,000 bucks. Why hasn't he proposed that? Probably waiting to ambush us.

But Dr Desantis has proposed none of that. Instead, his proposed budgetary program first builds city savings up to one hundred thousand, and he wants to limit city spending with a goofy formula related to the city's growth and the CPI (requiring an amendment to the city's home rule charter). Then, after whatever time period needed for that, his plan starts to make what payments we can to the underfunded pensions and to the city's debt. It's hoping that when the-non profits see how serious the city is, and how hard it is working, they will kick in in a serious way themselves. And when the state seed how hard the city and the non-profits are trying, they will maybe kick in a serious way too.

Actually, if DeSantis really wanted to fulfill the dream of arch conservatives, he should be running for another office, the county executive's office. The county controls property assessments, for one thing. If DeSantis really wanted to help his rich buddies, those in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, but also those in Upper Saint Clair and Sewickley, he would cap the value of any house that can be assessed at something like two hundred thousand and make it stick. So all those million dollar houses would only be taxed as if they were two hundred thousand. Mayor's can't do that stuff.

Also all those social services for the poor the county provides, aid to sick people, public health programs, mental health programs, well the churches should be providing that aid. Time to cut those programs until they can be drown'd in a tub. Of course, Mayors can't do anything about those give aways to the poor.

So we can see that Dan Onorato really outsmarted Mark Desantis when Onorato put himself on the Rebulican ticket for county executive as a write-in. DeSantis was stuck running for Mayor instead of county executive, stuck running apparently for a chance to save the city from itself, because that is all his republicanism will let him do. Curse this power that forces him to do good when all he wants to do is evil!

Friday, October 12, 2007

A couple of questions ...

So there were a couple of debates this weeks, and we have to say that DeSantis probably lost the week because he failed to put Luke away. Remember that in a tie in a debate, DeSantis basically loses; he needs to win people over everytime he opens his mouth. I still go back to Drew Weston's somewhat slimy but probably necessary book "The Political Brain". If Mr. DeSantis had lead his segments with a personal statement or a story about a real Pittsburgher, maybe he would have gotten more traction. But we have to remember that for all his technical experience and ability, this is his first race, his first effort at reaching out to the public. He is doing ok now, and I suspect people who hear him up close sense his sincerity and concern. But there are only so many people he can reach personally.

The Ethics Board is starting to fence with the Mayor on the issue of how much of a contribution from private companies for charitable events is acceptable. The Board wants the Mayor (and others) to only accept tickets from the charity itself. The Mayor wants to report any contribution made on the Mayor's behalf over $500 on his annual ethics form (so that he could get into a golf tournament). The Ethics Board is going to create a subset, a committee of two Ethic Board member, plus one member chosen by the Mayor's office, and one chosen from council. Annual Ethics Form. That is a document I would like to read. Maybe he records his hot dog receipts there.

I have been wondering lately about all the negative publicity that the Mayor has been receiving. I don't know how many Pittsburghers read the New York Times, but I did hear (second hand) one person say that "no thinking person could vote for Luke". Ravenstahl has had very little positive press recently, and it seems like every week he is linked to something bad. The 70% positive approval poll number is cited often, especially by the Mayor's supporters. Has anyone done a poll recently? You gotta wonder how much of a toll all these negative stories are taking on the Mayor's popularity.

Are the casino revenues part of next year's budget? If so, maybe someone better get around to amending the budget. Maybe that's what the Mayor will say in Harrisburg next week. We aren't going to have the casino bucks, so let us keep the parking revenue.

I wonder if Mark DeSantis will sneak into city hall next week and try out the Mayor's chair.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Are you better off than when that do-nothing Bob O'Connor was Mayor?

The bag of Health and Politics wants bloggers to start writing pro-DeSantis posts, instead of anti-Ravenstahl ones. See, the thing is that Mark doesn’t give us new material everyday, while Luke generally does. And Luke’s material generally leads me in a negative direction.

Maybe because I don’t like incumbents who brag the Mayor’s statement/question during the PG forum about being better off than we were 13 months ago annoyed me. I know it is the sort of thing an incumbent has to say, but it bothers me on a visceral level. Maybe I just don’t like incumbents. The Mayor also recently said something about reaching out to people more than any other recent Mayor (I know, I’m not even going back through my own posts to get the exact quote, I only have a minute here). My point is that the Mayor is not thinking about what he is saying, he is just mouthing political phrases. If he were thinking, he would realize he is disparaging Bob O’Connor, his immediate predecessor of 13 months ago. I wish the press would pick up on that. By the way, this was most recently mentioned by Jason Phillips on the Comet, previously on Chad Hermann's TWM.

The Mayor could say something like "Are you better off now than you were 23 months ago, when Bob O'Connor came into office and I now continue his work?" or "I reach out to more people than any other Mayor in recent history, besides Bob O'Connor, of course". No politician likes to share the limelight, but the (interim) Mayor is comparing himself to others, and saying all others fall short. Bob O'Connor can't hurt Ravenstahl politically, unless Ravenstahl says something negative about O'Connor.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Bear with me, this analogy is going to get a little strained ….

Bear with me, this analogy is going to get a little strained ….

I guess a political campaign is a bit like an extended job interview process. Job interviews might seem more rational; you don’t hire from a pool of only two applicants, and you don’t automatically choose an applicant just because they wear a blue suit instead of a gray suit. But then most managers get less information about their job applicants than we get for candidates, and most managers have no better skills at assessing people than any one else.

Anyway, we have the two applicants, Ravenstahl and DeSantis. We know a lot, by now, about Luke Ravenstahl, although only a few of us have voted for him, and at the time of that vote the biggest factor was his familiar name, and the fact that he is a democrat. We know next to nothing about Mark DeSantis, few of us have met him, and few of us know what he stands for.

If you haven’t gone to Mark DeSantis’ website, I urge you to do so. He tells us what he wants to do about the city’s problems. Now, we only have his word that this is what he will try, but when do we have anything more from any new politician or job applicant?

You can look at Luke Ravenstahl’s website as well, but unless something has changed in the last week, it has not changed since April, since Peduto dropped out of the primary. In fact, the Mayor has said publicly that he wants to lay low for the next few weeks. He is taking your vote for granted, he does not feel he should have to work any harder to convenience you to vote for him. UPDATE: the Mayor's campaign site has been updated. It *looks* like it has the same little movies as his policy content, when I get a chance I will look.

In terms of resumes, obviously Mark DeSantis has a longer one, with work at the White House level. It is reasonable to point out, though, that he has never held elected office. Ironically, Interim Mayor Ravenstahl has a year’s worth of OJT, that really should count for something. Technically not the incumbent, he nevertheless has been doing the job. Do you think, if he had run for Mayor in 2005, he would have surpassed Bob O’Connor, Bill Peduto, or Michael Lamb in the primary? But now, by accident, by virtue of being a compromise Council president, he is the Mayor of Pittsburgh.

I don't want to go through a litany of the Mayor's adventures. In my opinion, most don’t rise to the level of much more than errors in judgment, but as Doug Shields said, voters “have” to reflect on them as character issues. There was the $85,000 whistleblower payout to Commander McNeilly, and a Homeland Security grant may be in danger. But look, the Oakmont Golf thing (for example), with Tiger Woods, could have involved an embarrassing call to the Oakmont police for trespass. The airplane ride with Ron Burkle could involve a future call of a “I already scratched your back, now scratch mine” variety. The Mayor recently said he wanted to be able to do the kinds of things 27 year olds do. You don’t often hear someone, in what amounts to an extended job interview, tell their future potential boss(es) they intend to commit youthful indiscretions. That is a fair interpretation, although not the only one, of the Mayor’s statement. It's important to remember that this Mayor has come to the notion of honestly answering questions only recently and reluctently. He is on record as not wanting to diviledge personal financial information, and he seems to separate sporting event tickets from the notion of ethics. How the Mayor handles the ongoing parking tax fiasco will be a decent barometer of his progress towards maturity.

Mark DeSantis did take a long time to start running for the job. As I said, he’s never run before, and also sometimes it seems he is oscillating between just trying to make a good showing and trying to win. But he has mentioned (to me, at least) the promises he made to his board and his employees as part of the reason for the slow start. He appears not to divide his loyalties easily, which is both heartening and a little disturbing. Heartening because it shows depth of commitment, disturbing because at some levels politicians need to be a little slippery, especially a republican in a democrat town.

My personal take on Mark DeSantis is that he is big on symbols and symbolic government, which I suppose might relate him to the late Milton Friedman (because of Friedman’s study of expectations). That's not his only quality, by any stretch, but I find it intersting. His proposed reduction of wage and business taxes in a couple of years are pretty small, more symbols of the city's commitment to becoming more business friendly. But he also seems to have plans that actually and concretely tackle issues like attracting new businesses, unlike anything I have heard from Ravenstahl. I think a Pittsburgh with Mark DeSantis as Mayor and Pat Dowd on council (2 PhD’s!) would be one that would start to lumber toward modernity, embrace computing as it as not yet done and try to find some smart, long term solutions. My comparison point for Mark DeSantis is Michel Bloomberg, who is an actual democrat who ran as a republican. I think both men are smart technocrats who seek solutions, not slogans. Well , not many slogans for DeSantis, anyway.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The politics of parking indeed ....

Today’s Early Returns column has it just about exactly right. The Mayor has been handed a piece of political dynamite which could derail his career in many ways. The bill the council approved, to keep the parking tax rate at 45%, not only defies the state legislature. It also throws a wrench into a complicated set of negotiated taxes and deals made to get Act 47 going.

Now, I don’t believe Act 47 was ever designed to get Pittsburgh fully out of its mess. I personally believe it was simply designed to keep Pittsburgh afloat until there was a new governor. Act 47 seemingly has nothing to say about debt and pensions (except maybe lots a luck). Motznik’s bill actually has the virtue of addressing those problems in a tiny way.

But the state legislators from around here tend to represent either the suburbs, the city and the suburbs, or have no power. Suburbanites have been paying the $52 EMS tax to Pittsburgh if they work in city limits and the jacked up parking rates. They are going to demand to their legislators that they stop Pittsburgh from bailing out its debt and pension problems on the backs of those from suburbia who are foolish enough to work in the city limits.

The Mayor has to know the legislators are not going to be sympathetic when he goes to see them, but if he doesn’t sign this bill he is going to have to tap dance fast to explain why he didn’t, to council and a public tired of a financially distressed city.

Meanwhile, I keep saying the ICA team for sure, and maybe the Act 47 team, have to approve the Mayor’s budget. They may act as the legislature’s heavy, throwing the budget back to the Mayor with recommended cuts. They could do that for a while, tying up the Mayor’s attention.

The last paragraph of that part of Early Returns is interesting:
“One card the mayor could yet play: A Dec. 15 legal opinion by Solicitor George Specter finds that the city's "home rule powers do not permit it to exceed the rate restrictions adopted by the General Assembly in Act 222," which set the schedule for the parking tax reduction to 35 percent by 2010. There's nothing like a legal opinion to get council members to change their votes. We here at Early Returns just wonder why the mayor didn't use it prior to today's vote.”
So the Mayor can say that council has overstepped its bounds with this bill and refuse to sign. But maybe he’d better do that soon.

Mayoral Health

I am going to sound like that surrealistic “I LUV LUKE” blog, but I am concerned about the Mayor’s health (BTW, their URL is a lot easier to type than mine, I really should have gone with something that simple). He is reporting that he gave up coffee for 12 diet pepsi’s a day, which “keeps his energy up”. Er, … diet drinks have no calories. This is not energy, this is caffeine, unless some of them are decaf (hoping the ones he drinks after 3 pm are, or he might be up all hours). All that phosphorous is going to rot his teeth, too. These are probably 20 ounce bottles, I assume, since it’s hard to find the 16 ounce variety. No wonder the Mayor wants to go to a bar for a drink with his wife. The stress and caffeine is doing a number on him. He's self-medicating.

It’s good to hear he is running three times a week, to “clear his head”. I can absolutely understand, although at the moment I am restricted to an Airdyne type stationary bike because I partially tore a bit of knee ligament or tendon or something. The Mayor needs to cut back on the caffiene, get more sleep, eat more fruits and vegetables, keep up and even expand his running program and perhaps try some meditation. A few years of that and he will be as calm as Tom Murphy. Er … Well, maybe he could run a marathon, like he says he wants to.

One man interested in diets is Mark DeSantis. But the target of his weight reduction program is no one person, rather it is the city government. It is hard to believe that among recent Mayors the mercurial Tom Murphy was the leader in fiscal discipline, but there it is. Bob O’Connor and now Luke Ravenstahl seem(ed) to want to sneak some expansion in, under the Act 47 radar. A good test of the Mayor’s commitment to fiscal discipline will be his reaction *if* city council votes today to freeze the parking tax. I don’t know if that is something he could veto, if so, he should; if not, he should complain loudly. Meanwhile DeSantis, ever the believer in symbols, is willing to trim the Mayor’s office by half. Mike Huckabee, another republican, whose concern with health and weight lead him to lose one hundred pounds while in office, suggested that leaders don’t ask people to do something the leaders are not willing to do themselves (shades of Mooon Over Parador). Mark DeSantis won’t ask the city government to make do with less until he does. Of course, he may have to break his “no layoffs” pledge to shrink the Mayor’s staff (if he is elected), but I think they probably would be moving on anyway. If Desantis has to make do with half a staff, he might start drinking 12 diet pepsi’s a day…

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Mayor in the NYTimes

By now, all good Burghospree readers have seen the NYTimes story about the Mayor. Mostly it speaks for itself, but I want to interject just a bit. Around about the middle of the story the Mayor stipulates to five different controversies that he has largely brought upon himself. It is left to Doug Shields to mention *part* of a sixth, the police promotion/Lemiuex tournament-gate. Perhaps wisely Mr. Shields did not include the Mayor’s visit to the Ethics Board. And everyone pretty much knows that the Mayor has, in each instance except perhaps for “TailGate”, had to amend his story because the facts did not support his original statements. Yet the Mayor says he is not going to attend Steelers games because he believes the press will hound him continuously during the game. Which, by the way, means the Mayor missed Sunday’s game, I guess, and will miss one Monday night game the day before the election (big sacrifice).

Has anyone seen a TV or print story where the Mayor was approached at a Steelers game or on the golf course? There was Schultz’s blog entry about the Mayor at a Steeler’s game, but that was apparently happenstance. I’d be curious, and willing to trumpet loudly bad media behavior, at least as loudly as I complain about the Mayor.

So, in the story, the Mayor admits to several controversies only after he accuses the press of harassment. The media in Pittsburgh is reasonably respectful, presumably because it wants access to the Mayor’s office in the future. Yet in a town with two papers and three TV stations, there is enough competition that they have to report these stories.

Maybe it is a good thing the Mayor isn’t going to Steelers games for now. I still remember this quote from last March, concerning accepting tickets for multiple events, while staying under the $250 ethics limit:
“”So accepting a ticket from the University of Pittsburgh that night in my opinion in no way violated any ethics code in the city of Pittsburgh," he said.
"I don't necessarily keep track, but I don't believe that I've ever exceeded that amount with any corporation or any entity””

Maybe no one wants to give the Mayor a ticket right now, which might explain this closing statement form the Times story ““But asking whether I paid for my own seats at the Steelers game and requesting for me to show the hot dog receipts still seems ridiculous to me.””.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Strength of opposition ...

So, to me, the interesting thing about the opposition to the Mayor is the strength of it. I'm not saying that there is an anti-Ravenstahl majority out there, rather that the anti-Ravenstahl minority seems fierce. There are a few ardent supporters of the Mayor, such as Matt H and a few other anonymous commenter's. But the people who speak up against the Mayor seem very specific and determined. For example, there was a phone in poll on KDKA radio that I gather that ran 67% for DeSantis. There were the three letters in the Sunday's PG about the Tailgate affair. Of course, there is near universal Burghospree disapproval of Ravenstahl, but I wouldn't necessarily credit that.

What's amusing is that I remember that Bill Peduto had talked about the kind of negative poll numbers that would have been generated by attacking Ravenstahl. But the Mayor has created a near continuous series of attacks on himself. Just recently between the Northside meeting, asking DeSantis to leave a forum and then the Tailgate thing, the Mayor has found himself explaining situations nearly continuously. If Peduto had stayed in the race, I wonder if maybe the Democrats might want to switch their endorsement at some point. You know, the way things have been going.

Anyway, the anecdotal evidence is that those who oppose the Mayor are pretty firm in their position. Phone polls are notoriously unreliable, although they might be a decent indicator of who is going to vote. So maybe one hundred KDKA listeners are firmly going to vote for DeSantis. Maybe the radio voters and the letter writers are all republicans, but I don't think so. They have the feel of disillusioned democrats. Meanwhile the party faithful may be wondering what they have signed on for.

We will see how the upcoming debates go.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Odds n'ends n'@

The Burghospree is buzzing again, and not just because of the return of B94. The Mayor's Yukongate scandal apparently has legs online. Chad Hermann over at TWM has apparently coined a term “TailGate”; we will see if anyone in the MSM picks it up. Bob Mayo, for his part, has two interesting downloads at his blogsite. First, he (or WTAE) stepped around the problems the PG has with getting a copy of the Homeland Security grant (for the Yukons) from the city by getting a copy of the application form from an HS website (Bob cautions us that it is a large file: Cable Modems eat one megabyte files in 30 seconds, if that). The application truly mentions little about vehicles, except to say that the money can not be used for general purpose vehicles. I’m sure the actual grant spells out how the vehicles can be used. Which leads us to the second download, two to three minutes of the Mayor and Chief Harper being interviewed (outside in front of the Mayor’s Impala, in the heat). The Mayor’s performance was reminiscent of the promotion’s affair (“I knew nothing”), but Chief Harper was especially fun as he hypothesized a crisis such as a homicide and no vehicles available to the detectives. Should they wait (an by implication let suspects get away) or should they use a Homeland Security SUV? Of course, it is some distance between a homicide investigation and a Toby Keith concert, or even a trip to DC.

A reinvigorated Char has also talked about who knew what and when in TailGate, and about Nate Harper. For my money, Yaronne Zober’s role in this thing seems blown out of proportion. Over a year ago he witnessed a signing of a grant. He has since ridden in the SUV to DC and I think maybe somewhere else. But remember, the Mayor died in the interim. He may have forgotten some things while trying to deal with other pressing issues.

On another subject, I heard, very much second hand, that former Duquesne University President and ICA team member John Murray had seen the Mayor’s proposed budget, and noticed that the Mayor was “adding personnel here and there”. Dr Murray apparently didn’t approve and thought this boded ill for the future of the city. It would be interesting if the current ICA or Act 47 team rejected the Mayor’s budget, even while the US Attorney was slapping the wrist of the Police Chief. It was too bad that Dr Murray didn’t comment on Mark DeSantis’ proposed budget, or if he did I didn’t hear about it.

In other important news, RiffTrax had released a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” thingie. RiffTrax is the latest Mike Nelson venture, essentially Mystery Science Theatre 3000 without the robots.

Friday, October 05, 2007

A tale of two news stories....

There’s a weird race to a bottom between two news services I look at. Yesterday evening KDKA reported that when the four intelligence unit SUV’s arrived last March, Chief Nate Harper immediately thought of the Mayor. Sergeant Wallace apparently started protesting immediately. Although KDKA does not say so, we can assume the protests only got as far as the Chief’s office, since the Chief apparently was the one who put the Mayor together with an SUV. Only in August did Sergeant Wallace go over the Chief’s head to Public Safety Director Michael Huss (and was reprimanded).

Tangentially, I wonder if Nate Harper is becoming the designated administration fall guy. The Mayor reprimanded him in the hiring thing, and now he is being volunteered as the person who was informed that the Mayor was breaking the rules and let it happen anyway. Will he be offered up to the US Attorney as the rule breaker?

Today the PG reports that Mayoral Chief of Staff Yaronne Zober witnessed the signing of a federal grant with Homeland Security, in April of 2006 (the PG sees KDKA’s last March and raises them April 2006). In witnessing the signing is implied the idea that Mr. Zober understood the rules for use. And Mr. Zober has ridden in the SUV, to Harrisburg and to DC. The PG lists the grant Mr Zober witnessed as around 60 grand. For four SUV’s? Sure. The PG also complains that the Mayor’s administration won’t let them look at the grant. The PG uses the phrase “citing national security” in the title of their story, but the quote from the Mayor’s office reads: “"The City of Pittsburgh cannot release them, they are 'Official Use Only: Sensitive Homeland Security Information,'" mayoral spokeswoman Alecia Sirk wrote in an e-mail response to questions.” Interestingly, the FOP continues to volunteer how this could endanger the grant. They have been very visible on this particular story, aggressively complaining about how the grant is being endangered by the Mayor's behavior, and commenting about how the chain of command leads to the Mayor.

It should have been common sense, I would have thought, whether to use that SUV. If there is a chance people will find out, you should *not* use something bought with federal money. I have to think if the Mayor was older, he might have wondered how the financially distressed city bought four SUV’s. If he did ask, and he may have done, he should have maybe wondered, and asked, are there any restrictions on using this vehicle?

There is also the issue of humility. The Mayor has many chances to set an example. He could ask for the city to buy a Ford Escape Hybrid, as Senator Dick Durbin has bought for himself, to set an example. He could have requested a different *car* from the city motorpool. I don’t know if the Mayor was being relentlessly practical about the larger passenger capacity of an SUV, but he could think about different considerations as well.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The boy who would be Mayor/Fiscal redux

I read somewhere, maybe in a blog, that the Mayor had put 300 miles of extra mileage on the Yukon. Maybe, maybe not. But this is a direct quote from the PG: “Chief Harper said that when the mayor's car was in for repairs, or when he needed a larger vehicle, the bureau often sent over the Yukon.” (emphasis mine). And apparently the police sergeant who complained, had tried through channels to have something done for “at least a month”. The chief almost sounds proud of giving the Mayor “the best vehicle available”, but her superiors sound perhaps frightened of a capricious Mayor’s firing power: “"They basically said, to the best of their knowledge, the mayor can take any vehicle he wants, because he's the mayor."”. That last was the statement of James Malloy of the FOP.

We haven’t heard anything about the Mayor’s bodyguards recently, it might be time for some reporter to ask about them again. Before the US Attorney’s investigation seals the records.

You may remember the two detectives assigned to the Mayor, one at night and one during the day, were on track to make more than the Mayor by the end of the year. I guess Mayoral protection detail must automatically pay time and a half (and maybe double time for overtime), because otherwise these gentlemen would have to each work maybe twenty five extra hours a week, guarding the Mayor when he is out in public, to stay on track to double their salaries.

This is relevant because the Mayor is complaining that he is a regular 27 year old, and like a regular 27 year old, he likes to go out and have the occasional drink and go to concerts. In fact he says "that is what 27 year olds do and I shouldn't be any different". He thinks this is something the city “should” embrace, as he has embraced this lifestyle. In the next sentence he talks about looking at “issues that are of importance and what we've done as an administration over 13 months I'm very proud of where we're at”.

We should be looking at issues of importance. We should also be willing to accept, if perhaps not “embrace”, the night life of the Mayor. But the Mayor seems to expect respect. Respect will not come from having an active night life. And so far, for at least some people, the Mayor’s daylight record is mixed. The Mayor inherited a city in financial distress that is now showing small surpluses that were designed into the five year Act 47 plan. A major initiative, Pittsburgh Promise, has really gone no where. There was the traffic light contract, the bidding process for which was run in an at least unusual, not to say shady, manner. There was the firing of directors, which at the end of the day achieved almost nothing. There is the Penguin’s arena and the casino, but I don’t see exactly where or for what to give the Mayor credit for there. In fact, he has missed some opportunities, in my opinion, to step and maybe negotiate and resolve traffic issues around the North Shore.

These are all issues to debate in the election. Speaking of which, the Mayor asked his opponent, Mark DeSantis, to leave the room yesterday morning at a candidate's forum, when the Mayor was to speak and then take questions. This doesn't seem to be in the spirit of a free exchange of ideas. Of course, the Mayor could just be following the lead of George W Bush, who also likes to have election events controlled.

I was asked, by at least one person, what my opinion of the DeSantis fiscal plan for the city is. I read it more carefully over lunch yesterday. It seems like it really is DeSantis’ markup sheet for the Mayor’s budget, which also means that it probably makes better sense if you have the Mayor’s budget to read along side it, damnit. But maybe I am wrong.

I think DeSantis’ fiscal plan is as notable for what it doesn’t mention as for what it does. He has already allocated casino tax revenue and non-profit contributions in an earlier plan, so he largely ignores them in this plan. I know he wants to use tax cuts to entice business to locate in Pittsburgh, but he needs to be oh-so-careful, cutting taxes in a distressed city. His tax cuts are across the board, won’t benefit any group more than any other (except perhaps businesses), and they are small enough as to be close to not much more than symbolic.

The plan is only an overview, but the point is the direction it points to, one of fiscal austerity, so that the city can survive without bankruptcy and can start to make meaningful contributions to its pension funds and debt, eventually recover and leave state oversight. Maybe city council would refuse to pass a lot of it, maybe they would have other helpful ideas. Even if we keep some of DeSantis’ plan, we would be headed in a better direction.

Don't watch that policy, listen to this scandal ...

I swear to god that the Ravenstahl administration is keeping little mini-non-scandals in its back pocket, to overshadow DeSantis' announcements, like Desantis’ proposed fiscal policy from yesterday. I guess the Ravenstahl campaign/administration figures to make the Mayor's immaturity work for him. "There he goes again, isn't it cute?" Another scandal for the Burghospree to tut-tut over.

I guess only Rich Lord could tell us how he found out, but he reports today on the Mayor’s use of a police Yukon paid for with Homeland Security money to go to a Toby Keith concert and for other "personal use". Seems like the other "personal use" could be interesting, but we only find out about the concert, which we already knew the Mayor had attended. The police sergeant who complained apparently isn’t talking, so the report must of come from someone else, and our public safety department, in rare reversal of policy, confirmed the story sufficiently that Mr Lord could report on it. What was it that Danny DeVito said in the second Batman? “Played this city like a harp from hell”?

In other news, Chris Schultz informs us that what I will call the first official PDF of the whole … Frackin’ campaign is available: It is a PDF version of the DeSantis press release on fiscal policy. I can’t say whether it was produced by the DeSantis campaign or the PG, but I suspect it was the later. Enjoy the download, take it with you on your laptop or pda, trade ‘em with your friends …

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

fiscal policy

Apparently Mark DeSantis released his plan for Pittsburgh’s Financial Recovery today. This one seemed like a quiet release to me. I had to search on “DeSantis” on the PG website at lunch time to find an article on it, though it was (is) front and center on the “DeSantis for Mayor” website.

In the introduction for his plan, DeSantis suggests that the Mayor's five year plan is heading the city into bankruptcy. Considering that the Mayor seems to be expecting the state to bail out the pension and possibly the debt issues, he might have a point.

DeSantis' plan is divided into six parts, which I will just highlight. First is an annual 1% reduction in spending, second is doing more with less as a culture, third is merging as much city and county services as possible, fourth is auctioning off city owned properties (those tax lien things), fifth is reducing pension liabilities and debt and six is reducing business taxes.

A lot of these ideas would not survive contact with city council. In the real world, a republican mayor would have to make some compromises. But these proposals may help DeSantis raise money for his campaign, because they will appeal to the business community (even the part, or maybe particularly the part about not going bankrupt).

To say the plans seems draconian seems inadequate. Actually, I overstate a bit, but I can’t imagine any city workers cheering at this budget, although it does promise no layoffs. Instead, DeSantis suggests a hiring freeze, and using attrition to “rightsize” the city workforce. City workers would end up working harder and would see smaller raises than under Ravenstahl. I suspect that some slots would be refilled no matter what, but I also believe DeSantis has a better chance at making this work than a democrat like the current Mayor would. DeSantis is also proposing lowering some taxes starting in 2011, to improve the business climate in the city. That’s tricky in a city like ours, with so much debt, but we need to do something besides having our Mayor go on Letterman to promote the city.

Again, there is not a PDF available, but the cut and pasted press release ran 7 pages in Word. Certainly better than either the Mayor’s campaign website, or his pseudo campaign site;

Monday, October 01, 2007

Still trying to understand ...

I am still trying to get my head around the Mayor’s budget. That bit about paying for capital projects with revenues is admirable, but troubling. No one else is doing it?

Bear with me for an exercise, to work this out. I give you Joe Pittsburgh, homeowner. He makes a decent living, say he takes about five grand a month home, after taxes (heh). He has a home equity loan, a mortgage on the house, student loans, car payment, credit cards, etc. He has made some flashy improvements on the house, a Heinz deck and PNC hot tub, but he’s been ignoring some structural stuff, and he’s not too sure about the wiring, and afraid to look at the roof and the foundation. Even his fence could use some work. His mom is in a nursing home, and has a fund for her care with annuities coming in. He’s not too proud of it, but he diverted some of the annuities back a few years when he was having trouble making ends meet, and he might have to transfer mom into a state-funded home if he can’t make up the money (if the state will take her).

Joe does make a good living, like I said, and recently he’s been careful, so he built up his savings account to ten grand. He’s decided no more spending on credit cards or taking out home loans. He has a few hundred every month extra, after paying all the monthly bills, so he will do any work on the house from that or from his savings account.

The thing is, Joe owns a really old house. You never know what might break next.

So let’s say Joe decides he needs some wiring work done. That’s maybe a thousand, maybe a fifteen hundred. Easy enough, a bit out of the savings account, a bit from the monthly surplus, and hopefully we build the savings account up again. And if Joe decides to sell the house, he’s probably brought the value up, maybe by two hundred fifty to five hundred, by replacing old wiring. In fact, he improved his crappy credit rating by a little bit.

Suppose the issue of the roof comes up. That’s a big ticket item. Just a minimum fix will cost maybe $7500. The minimum fix helps with the value of the house too, and the credit rating, by maybe $3750. Which means if Joe borrowed $3750 of the amount, he would come out essentially even (sort of, I have to qualify the analogy some for that part to work).

Before I qualify the analogy, though, let me extend it a bit more. Suppose something else happens, which Joe didn’t have in his monthly budget and which involves no structural upgrades to the house. Suppose he has a root canal, or his car gets demolished in an accident, or he accidentally beats up a neighbor, who sues him. His savings may take a beating in any of those situations, and paying for any of them does not improve the value of his house.

I believe I argued before that some capital improvements can help improve a city’s finances, by encouraging businesses to move in. If Route 28 is widened, could businesses on the near Northside make the case to Stanton Heights residents that their commute will be easier? So the Casino (and strip bar) will have a wider pool of qualified applicants to hire from, productivity may improve and the Casino (and strip club) may charge less because their costs are lower. They make a hirer profit and contribute more taxes. Which the city can use to pay down the loan it took out to widen Route 28. Which is why you take out loans for capital projects.

Except for Mayor Ravenstahl.

Of course, I may totally misunderstand this.