Friday, March 13, 2009

More questions than answers (mostly opinion)

I have attended a couple of workshops for PittPoint, a citizen journalist project of the Public Square Project. I don’t know where that will take me, if anywhere. I might have to give up this blog to establish and maintain some semblance that I can be objective, but there are lots of other issues (like having a day job) that come into play here. I plan to blog on this in the future (realizing the irony there).

But I mention that now to establish a framework for meta-analyzing (I think I made that word up) the PWSA issue that has popped up this week (, The PittPoint workshops have stressed the importance of trying to be fair and balanced (not like Fox News) and present both sides of an issue. In this case I think both Pat Dowd and Luke Ravenstahl are condescending to us, but both hope that they are doing it in such a way that we will think even worse of their opponent. Actually, I think both are doing it in a purely reflexive way, but I think what that says about their instincts in instructive.

(Enough foreplay) When Mayor Ravenstahl complains that it is unfortunate that Pat Dowd is “politicizing” the PWSA problems, he seems to be saying that this is not an issue he should be judged on. After all, Council (including Dowd) voted on this, and anyway, it is what voters hired Ravenstahl for, to make the tough calls. Nothing (much) has happened yet, a paltry extra three million paid, and the City is in negotiations with new insurers. I am assuming, by the way, that you have read stories and blogs on this, that you are up to speed on the role of insurers (you may know more than me on this). The administration is handling the issue, voters don’t need to be unnecessarily frightened by Dowd’s grandstanding and the only thing Dowd can accomplish here is to distract officials from doing their job.

Meanwhile, for Dowd’s part, he did vote for PWSA deal (as did the other eight on Council) back last April. He says he spent last weekend reading the 2000 page document of the debt package. Which is funny, Chris Briem put, on Null Space, a two hundred page document concerning the package, as well as other interesting links (like a document on the SEA debt). Not to say the 2000 page thing doesn’t exist, but maybe reading the 200 page might have got the job done. Dowd does say the document he read was the most difficult and opaque thing he has read, and why can’t these documents be written in plainer language. I am pretty sure Pat Dowd understands the importance of using precise technical language agreed upon by financial professionals, but there could also be a plainer summary that could be agreed upon by the parties to the deal.

Still, there is a subtext to Dowd's complaint that the PWSA entered into a risky deal and it should not have. Even the Trib points out thousands of cities and other public institutions and entities used the “interest-rate” swaps to finance (or in this case re-finance) debt. Should the PWSA have used a fixed rate refinance? It would not have gotten the extra hundred million (which is has since put in an interest account to pay the higher than expected rates) on the refi. Which is the problem. I don’t know who even came up with this deal, whether it was the administration or the PWSA or who. Michael Lamb and Eckert Seamens (as noted by The Pittsburgh Comet) criticized the deal at the time. Should government always take the safest, most conservative path? Doing so will mean in general that citizens will have to pay higher taxes, if they want an ambitious government. In specific in this case, it would mean the PWSA would have gotten much less than the extra hundred million in the refi. On the other hand the PWSA could have actually used the lesser amount; right now it is has the hundred million in savings until the situation sorts itself out.

On the third hand, Dowd complaint that the details of the debt package was not easily accessible to PWSA’s ratepayers does have some teeth. Maybe it is only my projection, but one thing that Pat Dowd has remained consistent about since even his days on the school board is his commitment to the idea of transparency of government. Even though there is a digital divide, and even though most people who do have high speed internet probably aren’t interested, the government has an obligation, as it spends our tax money and incurs ever increasing amounts of debt on our behalf, to share the details of what it does, in painful detail. We should get to know not only the Controller’s audit on street maintenance, but the Public Works department reports on what potholes in plans to fix and how it will spend it money (sealing cracks or re-paving). Since Public Works says it has no way to track how many potholes are fixed in a day, the citizens of Pittsburgh should be invited to make suggestions (such as the PDA’s the GOP issues for it’s door knocking operations during campaigns) on how to address that problem.

Dowd may be trying to make unfair political points by accusing the Mayor of having made a bad decision when many other Mayors and other public officials were making similar decisions across the country at the same time. But Dowd’s instincts on transparency seem dead on to me. And Ravenstahl’s seeming reflexive inclination to deny and conceal when challenged are just more evidence to me that he is a poor choice for Mayor.

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