Friday, May 25, 2007

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Traffic for the Casino and the City Budget

If not a traffic jam than it is a certainly congestion for coordinating stakeholder interests for the North Shore casino, and Ravenstahl wants to get it done quickly. In an earlier post, I cited something Sala Udin said back in 2000 regarding the lack of political will among city officials to follow the city's guidelines regarding contracting with minority and women owned businesses. He said, "There is no really strong political will for [the Sports & Exhibition Authority] to be strident in their enforcement of the guidelines because the goal is to get these projects moving". Following this pattern of city officials, Ravenstahl is prioritizing "moving the casino construction fahrd" because it plays a serious role in his loose city budget projections.

Back in March, Chris Briem pointed out some fallacies in the mayor's budget. He notes:

Why would the ICA be so concerned if things were looking up for city finances? One reason is that the city budget projections count on revenue from the casino coming in next year. I'd have to go check, but I bet the budget counts on some casino revenue this year. You really need to look carefully at the previous year's finances, which are said to have ended with $25 million in the bank. Superficially you may think that going from a $25 year-end balance in 2005 to $38 mil at the end of 2006 is a good sign. You have to dig just a tad deeper than that. Just consider that in 2006 the city:
  • Borrowed $50 million additional dollars.
  • Deferred ~$12 million in debt payments coming due into future years
  • Received at least $10 million in one-time payments from the state for capital purchases.
  • had more unfilled positions than planned as city employees rushed to retire before Jan 1, 2006 when certain retirement benefits would expire.
The city does count on casino revenue. Briem cited an article from the Trib regarding the perspective of the state oversight board chair:
Pittsburgh's financial watchdog said Friday it wants Gov. Ed Rendell to guarantee the city's local share of gambling money even if a planned North Shore slots parlor doesn't open on schedule next year.
According to Pittsburgh's $419 million 2007 budget and five-year plan, the city expects to receive $1.9 million in gambling revenues in 2008; and at least $10 million in 2009 and EACH YEAR THEREAFTER.
"There will be gaming monies coming to the state even though our casino won't be built," said Barbara McNees, chairwoman of the state-appointed financial oversight board. "Can those monies be directed to the city of Pittsburgh in the interim? That's certainly what we'll be requesting."
Other assumptions in the original budget proposal and a perspective from Peduto from an Oct 2006 PG article:
The budget assumes the city will collect $7.7 million next year from a slots parlor, down from the original estimate of $17.7 million. It figures the city will lose $6 million in collections on the $52 tax on people who work in the city, because of a change in the collection schedule the Legislature is considering.

Councilman William Peduto said he supports the lower council budget, but will vote against the overall five-year plan because it overestimates state aid, nonprofit group contributions and age tax revenue.

"This is not a five-year recovery plan," he said. "It's a one-year recovery plan, and it's a five-year financial disaster" that could lead to layoffs or tax hikes in later years.
Well, those projections have now come to bite the administration in the behind and Ravenstahl is now stuck in traffic in order to remedy threats to the soundness of his budget. We learn that he has gone to Harrisburg to lobby for guaranteed casino revenues (also pension relief and, all of a sudden, public transportation), even though it will not likely even open in 2008, and for the $10 million the he wants for the city even though it was only offered last year as a one-time payment from the state for capital purchases. The PG covers this lobbying trip here and here. From the PG:
The mayor is trying to boost the amount of state aid to the city from the $6 million proposed in Gov. Ed Rendell's 2007-08 budget to the $10 million the city got in the fiscal year that expires June 30. The city's 2007 budget and long-term plan count on $10 million from the state every year.
The mayor said that much of the $10 million in state operating funds the city got in 2006-07 went for public safety costs, but added, "The money is flexible and we will work with the state to be creative and help meet our needs."
In the event that the state does not come through with the $10 million requested and doesn't guarantee the shortfalls in the casino revenue projections for the city, Ravenstahl's budget will be short about $6 million ($1.9 from casino revenues and about $4million from the gap between the $10million requested and the $6 million in Rendell's budget).

So, what to do? Like Sala said, we see why the goal is to get these projects (the casino) moving. Anticipating these budget gaps, Ravenstahl is pushing the casino construction 'fahrd' before stakeholders agree on what new traffic problems will arise because of the casino. The PG reported over the weekend, "Mayor wants casino construction before traffic study".
"I understand the concerns the Steelers would have with waiting until after the casino is open," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "I think it should be studied. Obviously you won't have as good of a feel for the impact until the actual traffic is there. But nevertheless, I think it is important to have a study completed prior to the facility opening."
Why study the damn traffic ex post facto? I don't see the logic unless I consider Ravenstahl's motivation for doing so - the city's budget. However, Rooney understands casino traffic and he's not happy with Ravenstahl's proposal to 'move fahrd'. From the Online Gambling Paper:
Rooney's family owns Yonkers Raceway outside New York City, and Art Rooney II says that he is very familiar with casino traffic, and that a study must be conducted before the casino building plans are approved. He fears casino traffic could double exit times for some fans leaving Heinz Field on game days, especially those heading across the West End Bridge.
Both this publication and the PG are reporting that the Steelers are threatening to sue the city if it goes ahead with construction prior to studying and resolving the traffic concern. Remember the Science Center had its own concerns. Elsewhere (and I can't find the source now), PITG, operating company for Barden's casino, said that they were frustrated because they had provided the gaming commission with everything requested and this is yet another barrier to getting the casino up and running. And Rendell has said that the state would put up the financing for the Penguins arena construction (but not the casino, right?) if the casino is not up and running according to schedule.

So, Ravenstahl proposes loose projections in his 'big surplus' budget, probably anticipated having
to appeal to the state to remedy it, goes to the state to lobby for $$$, and now risks yet another lawsuit against the city because he needs to rush the casino ahead of civic planning concerns so that his 'big surplus' doesn't turn into a big boondoggle. But perhaps this is the right time to bark at the state anyway.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Outcome Based Budgeting n'at

There has been some wonderful analysis of Tuesday's primary election results in the burghosphere and much deserved props to campaign managers, staff, and volunteers of our newly elected city council members Dowd, Kraus, and Burgess. While this has yet to be exhausted because of the many perspectives of analysts and the important things it symbolizes, I have begun to think of how policy-making for city government functions might take a turn.

Rick Earle broke a story "Pittsburgh EMS Response Time Below National Standards". He presents a shocking case of an 86-year old woman who waited almost half an hour for an ambulance to arrive after a neighbor called 911. He reports that:

National Standards call for paramedics to arrive at life-threatening emergencies within eight minutes 90 percent of the time.

Here are Pittsburgh EMS response times for the last four years:

•2003 : 75 percent of the time
•2004 : 70 percent of the time
•2005 : 65 percent of the time
•2006 : 66 percent of the time

EMS Chief Robert McCaughan told Earle that when the call came in at 4:32 p.m. the two units on the North Side were already out.

Paramedic Union President Jeff Vesci told Earle, “When the service gets taxed it's not uncommon for a half- hour to an hour to wait for an ambulance.”[because life-threatening emergencies take priority]
Vesci said budget cuts forced the elimination of 30 EMTs several years ago and that may be affecting response time.
Vesci told Earle,” We need four more ALS (advanced life support) units to make the system right and then we can handle anything.”
Vesci also told Earle there are other problems with the priority system.
Now, it was confusing in March when we heard that we did/didn't have a great disaster preparedness plan for the city. But the stewards of tax dollars must make decisions on what city services to prioritize and then how to fund those services. But city EMS is functioning below national best practice standards. And, while I'm sure they are doing the best they can, EMS experienced budget cuts and can only deliver the best services they can with that budget.

Back in 2005, Peduto was campaigning on "outcome based budgeting":
The budgeting method "is a move away from the special interests to the general interest of taxpayers ... completely overhauling the way we do budgeting in this city,"Peduto says.

Peduto is proposing a full-scale change in the city's budgeting methods, adopting an "outcome based budgeting" method that has been used by state governments such as Florida and Washington. Governments first identify their most important initiatives -- such as parks or police protection -- allocate their taxes and other resources according to those goals, and regularly benchmark their implementation.
Recently, Peduto advocated a performance based system with the issue of street paving. Dowd's campaign promises include listing second that "[he] will work to deliver city services at the high standard working people deserve by monitoring and assessing performance". And that's a smart and transparent delivery of city services.

It's not well known that Pittsburgh gave birth to emergency medical services, the model that is now used WORLDWIDE, with Freedom House. It's sad that the city that pioneered this essential public service is now underperforming according to national standards. Perhaps this swelling of progressive candidates will divest the old patronage system of its negative human capital and return city government to the people with transparency and accountability.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jim Burn on Lynn Cullen's Show

Remember the snappy editorial written by Allegheny County Democratic Chair Jim Burn? Remember the problems with the piece pointed out by Admiral and Bram? How about John Riegert's letter to the editor of the PG today? If you have an opinion about the ACDC, and you are able, you can share your opinion with Mr. Burn on Monday morning.

Dianna Wentz, Allegheny County Dem Cmte's spokesperson, will be subbing for Lynn Cullen.

Monday, May 21st from 9 AM to 10 AM on radio station WPTT – 1360AM

Wentz will interview ACDC Chair Jim Burn and Executive Director Ian Harlow "about all the changes and progress being made at the County Committee".

WPTT call in: 412.333.1360

Monday, May 14, 2007

New Jobs for Skrinjar, Dobkin and Cassidy

The Trib's Jeremy Boren reports, "Cassidy offered parking authority post". Whereas salaries and job titles were uncertain before, 23-year old O'Connor loyalist-now interim mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven released the info on salaries and position titles for Dobkin and Cassidy. One point, however, I don't get in Boren's report:

Cassidy, 51, shares a Point Breeze home with Ravenstahl's former Director of Operations Dennis Regan, a close O'Connor friend. Regan resigned Dec. 1 after Ravenstahl suspended him in October amid accusations that he meddled in a disciplinary matter involving Cassidy's brother, Frank Rende, a city police officer.

The accusations weren't proven.
How about this from Judge Ambrose's preliminary injunction ruling on the McNeilly-Regan-Ravenstahl case (h/t to The Burgher for the originally posting of the poignant quote):
"Furthermore, let me make something very clear. Contrary to how some may perceive this case, this case is not about corruption in the Police Department. It is about allegations of wrongdoing and improper and undue influence by officials within the Mayor's office in Police Department matters."
Is there some semantic difference I am missing that allows Boren to write, "The accusations weren't proven"? Haven't we been through this already? Doesn't reporting like this give the public the impression that the issue was just about some accusations that were later proven untrue. Those accusations only cost $85,000 in taxpayer money, right? The cost of the lawyer's fees, additional details that follow, and the story, altogether, is then sunk, not because it describes corruption within the mayor's office but because it no longer is a sexy story? Am I off here?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Everybody's Doing It

"But everybody else did jump off the bridge, mom!" Well, that seems to be one of the arguments Teamsters Local 249 Vice President Joe Rossi is making in defending the city's Redd Up Crew. Today, Rich Lord reports, "Union defends city workers on campaign T-shirts".

"The city's past practice is that we've been allowed to do this," Mr. Rossi said of the wearing of political shirts and buttons. "If the city wants to [suspend the workers], that's fine, if they think they need to do that to keep up public perception. . . . If the city wants to suspend these guys, it'll probably cost them $15,000 in arbitration and then [the workers will] end up getting five-day paid vacations."

The Redd Up crew, he added, had long been allowed to diverge from the city's public works uniform policy, and members of that group often wore shirts emblazoned with the name of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, who created the special unit of the Department of Public Works.

Let's see, Mr. Rossi. Policy and practice are two different things. ReddUp crews wore shirts emblazoned with Mayor O'Connor's name on it because the program was Mayor O'Connor's Redd Up initiative. Street cleaning trucks also used to display Tom Murphy's name and a phrase, "We're cleaning up", because that was Mayor Tom Murphy's program. Koch is no O'Connor or Murphy. City code is city code, and only when local media or vocal citizens bring them to our attention does it get enforced. In officer, now detective Rende's case, no city law or logic, for that matter, seem to apply. While that is a problem in its own right, that's the way it seems to go in Pittsburgh.

You have a point insofar as Mayor Ravenstahl's co-opted Redd Up initiative picture appears as his campaign logo. I've seen Parking Authority employees wearing "I Like Luke" buttons, and Ravenstahl and others have campaign signs posted on public roadsides, abandoned properties, and potentially URA-owned properties. But, just because the law wasn't enforced in the past is NOT a legal argument.

What you might argue is that the Ethics Board hear complaints in an even-handed fashion and enforce these city laws across the board. In that case, documentation to file your complaint is found here and here. That would help solidify the "public perception" that this city follows its own laws.

While you're at it, drop this one on them. And you might also want to follow up whether Ravenstahl repaid Burkle for the flight to NYC. Put that in your broadway show.

We need to Redd Up city government.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Taxpayer Financed Campaigning Revisited

Mayor Ravenstahl isn't the only one who can whore out the Redd-Up Campaign. Kraus crosschecked Koch today. PG's Rich Lord reports, "'Redd-up' crew caught wearing campaign T-shirts". And the Trib's Jeremy Boren, "Photos show city workers wearing campaign shirts".

It's really too bad. Thanks to the political campaigns of Ravenstahl and Koch, the public will likely start perceiving the Redd-up Campaign as a political tool instead of a sincere aim towards the culture shift we need in the city against littering and illegal dumping and to reclaim abandoned property.

Kraus to comment shortly.

Pittsburgh Comet
Burgh Report
Agent Ska

Monday, May 7, 2007

Grant St. vs Main St.: Tax Abatement

Bob Zebra, a board member of the Carrick Community Council, said of the mayor, "I used to think he was a good guy. Now I don't. It is bad up here now".

Nanny boo boo. You get nothing! Looks like Onorato's gesture could be applied to Mr. Zebra's concern about the mayor's tax abatement proposal. We knew that with either Peduto's or the mayor's proposal there would be some neighborhoods left out. But neighborhoods would be left out for different reasons. Today, the PG's Diane Nelson Jones reports, "Mayor's tax plan leaves out some city locations". Josette Fitzgibbons, a principal planner for the city, described the criteria the city used in its proposal.

One is the planning department's vitality index, developed from an analysis of neighborhoods over the past year with help from Carnegie Mellon University's community information system. The indicators include population loss, education levels, single-parent families, tax delinquency and violent crime.

I mentioned my concerns about the mayor's proposal because we hadn't seen it before it went to council. However, the Admiral posted a link to an overlooked portion of an article from Rich Lord that provided some details about the mayor's plan. I take issue with the 'vitality index'. This is quintessential top-down non-participatory policy planning, that is, it is generated only out of the mayor's office with 'help' from CMU's community information system; criteria that may not align itself with concerns from local CDC's, such as the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, where Rick Swartz sits as director. Peduto's plan was generated by a working group, a number of stakeholders with different perspectives and concerns (listed on p.2 of Peduto's report).

Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., said she has heard from those concerned that "people will follow the money and leave us behind if we don't have the incentive. But we have a three-year abatement incentive that we're benefiting from now in Garfield," where community nonprofits have developed new housing over the past decade.

The mayor's proposal may be one way to ameliorate imbalances between neighborhoods that have strong development presences and those that don't, she said.

Notice that criteria stated by Fitzgibbons does not indicate that neighborhoods with weaker development presences were targeted. Secondly, the plan does not develop upon strengths, such as CDC's, that would harness the tax abatement and guide development according to the needs of the particular neighborhood. Again, Mr. Zebra:

“We've been fighting and fighting, and it's like hitting your head against a brick wall." In Troy Hill, a housing plan for Cowley Street had been foundering for years when, in March, the contractor "took off," said R. Dennis Hughes, chairman of Troy Hill Citizens Inc. "We had contracts with them, and it took a long time to get stuff in order. March 15 was the deadline for them to get back to us, and they don't respond. Now, we're seeking other contractors." A tax abatement might be a sweet lure, he said.

Peduto has his concerns:

"There is no safeguard that absentee landlords won't develop and make neighborhoods worse," he said.

Mr. Peduto proposed the incentive for areas of large-scale, very costly development, including the Strip, South and North Shores, Uptown and the lower Hill. The abatement span of 10 years is applicable to such heavy investment, he said, while other incentives, like $1 houses and elimination of closing costs, are better fits for neighborhood projects, he said.

Indeed. There is no safeguard against absentee landlords making neighborhoods worse. He was also not quoted this time but said previously that partnering with the school board was essential to any tax abatement plan. There was no mention of partnering with the school board in the mayor's plan.

"I want to express gratitude for Elliott[which made the mayor's list]," said Norene Beatty of the West End-Elliott Citizens Council. Elliott made the mayor's "in" list. "But it's important to have a follow-up of how these properties are maintained."

She admonished City Council to "look hard at why people left the city. They left for safe streets, good schools and quiet neighborhoods. This is a start, but we need to do more."

Well, Ms. Elliot, we need updated info on that one. Chris Briem had a nice post about why peeps left the city and it seemed to be related to earned income taxes. There are probably too many variables to consider to really understand why people left the city anyway. But the quality of city schools and public safety need to be addressed regardless of tax abatement.

Finally, I've been concerned about arena 'development' in the lower Hill. You'd think that with the amount of construction in the corridor 'spurring economic development' and the concerns of Hill District residents to redevelop Centre Ave. and attract some investment in the Hill the tax abatement plan would have included the Hill. Nope. While Peduto's plan included the lower Hill, Ravenstahl's plan does not. You'd think that with all of the meetings Ravenstahl has had with concerned Hill District leaders the Hill would be on his mind. It might seem like a good idea to piggyback arena 'development' with tax abatement for the Hill so that the neighborhood might be able to use it as a tool at this critical time to attract investment. Nope.

This is top-down public policy. Grant St. vs Main St. development.


Breen from Progress Pittsburgh is also concerned.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Luke Crashes Tiger's Party

From the Trib:

The story making the rounds in political circles has Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl getting the folks at the Oakmont Country Club upset recently after Tiger Woods played a round of golf there.

Seems that after Woods was done practicing for next month's U.S. Open at Oakmont he attended a private party sponsored by American Express.

Political insiders say Ravenstahl showed up at the event uninvited and angered folks by worming his way into pictures with Woods and others.

Country club officials would neither confirm nor deny they were perturbed at the young mayor. Nor would they comment on whether Ravenstahl was able to secure Woods' autograph.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Casinarena and Community Coalitions: Pt. II

Onorendellburklestahl, Inc. tried to wash their hands of a community benefits agreement with concerned Pittsburgh residents of the Hill District. Ervin Dyer reported yesterday in the PG, "Family meeting aim is to unite Hill neighbors". This meeting was characterized as a 'family' meeting in one sense because it was aimed to unify the voice of various fraction 'coalition' groups that have popped up to secure community benefits for the Hill District out of the arena deal. I was very happy to hear that this was the aim of the meeting since, in a previous post, I was concerned that opportunists like Payne and Robinson, who seemed to be vying to represent the Hill to score political points, and other coalitions, such as those made up of concerned Hill and non-Hill residents and Milliones/Developer's, would do Onorendellburklestahl, Inc. a favor. The favor would be creating the public perception that the Hill can't unite in one voice about what needs to happen. Therefore, they could operate with the old British tactic of divide and conquer and get away with whatever is in their interest.

Backtrack to before the arena contract was formalized. An original coalition from the Hill, of concerned Hill District residents and community leaders including Rev. Johnnie Monroe, had in fact organized and approached Onorendellburklestahl, Inc. and began discussions about their concerns and pressed for some kind of community benefits agreement. After some time they were told not to worry and lay off the pressure so the deal could get finalized. They were assured a community benefits would be worked into the package. Alas, this was not the case. A clear community benefits arrangement was not secured in the contract and, rightfully, this original coalition was alarmed. The Allegheny Institute's analysis of the contract pointed out how the Penguins will retain all profits from all events in the new arena, hockey events or concerts. Not only was the Hill District shafted, the public, generally, was shafted.

Several things did not make it into Dyer's report on this meeting held on Wed night at Weil elementary. One is that Wheatley specifically addressed the large energetic crowd in the auditorium and asked representatives of the Hill in public office to come up to the front of the room. Robinson was there early but left by the time Wheatley spoke. Payne was not there but sent a representative. Some speculation (not discussed at the meeting) about why Payne was not present is that she is too aligned with the Penguins. Ferlo sent a rep. Other public officials representing the Hill were not present. Onorato and Ravenstahl were not present. Wheatley was sincere and eloquent in encouraging the crowd to avoid publicly condescending their representatives, which is warranted, and work toward coming up with a unified plan for a community benefits agreement.

Another is that the folks in the room are very concerned, very motivated, and very determined in preventing another catastrophic 'development' in the lower Hill. The mindset that contributed to the original 'development' in the Hill is captured in a statement in 1943 by George Evans, a member of city council.

"approximately 90 percent of the buildings in the area are sub-standard, and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if these were all destroyed."
If the original coalition had not started to organize prior to the current arena deal this mindset, very much alive but perhaps unconscious among Onorendellburklestahl, Inc., would have helped to repeat the same mistakes of the fifties.

I also must retract my previous suspicions of Milliones' motives. After her presentation Wed night I am convinced that she is operating with sincere intentions and is of the right philosophy on community development.

If this broader coalition is successful, and I believe it will be, Onorendellburklestahl, Inc. will hear a unified position on a demand for a community benefits from the arena deal. There will be no operative argument, "Oh, the Hill doesn't know what it wants and we don't want to prefer one group's demands over another", and then drop the issue or throw a bone their way. They will have to satisfy the demands of the group. If they don't, this issue will fester and grow. If they don't..... well, fuck that.

After the broken promises of 'urban renewal' and the original civic arena, after Heinz feild and PNC park, this coalition is serving the public interest in amplifying the concerns of citizens as stakeholders in 'development'.

Future meetings will be held on Wednesdays at 6pm at Weil Elementary at 2250 Centre Ave.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Tax Abatement Debate

The PG covers the city council tax abatement debate.

Pittsburgh City Council held a public hearing yesterday on the merits of a property tax abatement plan that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl proposes to offer housing developers over 10 years Downtown and in 20 other neighborhoods.

Numerous representatives of the 21 neighborhoods and developers lauded the proposal while advocates of excluded neighborhoods took umbrage. Councilman Jim Motznik said his whole South Hills council district was excluded "and needs a shot in the arm."

Others questioned the criteria that included neighborhoods that have some momentum over those with none. Josette Fitzgibbons, a principal planner for the city, said two criteria were used. One was neighborhood ranking based on a vitality index of 11 indicators, a system that resulted from a year of neighborhood analysis. The other was sluggish property investment.

Council's next move will be to schedule a preliminary vote on the matter.
So, the 'vitality index' does seem to indicate a fair and systematic approach in offering abatements to neighborhoods. I did not attend, nor did I watch (I don't have Comcast! rrrrrgh - shouldn't these be taped and posted online?), the council debate the mayor's plan so I can't put these critiques in context of the entire debate.

While the 'vitality index' seems reasonable, there is no indication that it is a validated approach to successful tax abatement. 'Successful', or the targeted goal of this tax abatement attempt, is centrally defined by an increase in investment in residences within the city and, therefore in 10 years, an increase in city revenues generated from property taxes. I'm missing the indication that a 'vitality index' accomplishes this goal. Peduto's plan specifically targeted downtown and neighborhoods that have a high likelihood of accomplishing that goal, build on strengths that already exist in those areas within the city, and decided upon by an 18-member team including real estate experts along with other stakeholders affected by tax abatements.

The fact that Motznik raised some concerns with the proposal raises a red flag for me. By providing some resistance he accomplishes two things. First, he shows his constituency that he is arguing on their behalf (which may or may not be the case). Secondly, he seems to be giving some resistance to Ravenstahl's plan and displaying distance from Ravenstahl (which we know isn't really the case) while giving the plan legitimacy in the sense that MLR's yaysayers aren't just going along with it. Sort of like "creating a challenge" that MLR must struggle to push through council. Motznik did this before (for the emergency preparedness plan) feigning rough and tough headbutting with the administration but really just acting to give an air of legitimacy in an otherwise yaysaying pro-Luke council.