Monday, July 30, 2007

Tunesmith and Anthony

Just when we all need a dose of humor, Tunesmith and Anthony deliver. Introducing Lou Cravenstahl. Brilliant. Just brilliant!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

DeSantis Begins to Bring Ravenstahl's 'Surplus' Budget Into Focus

When you fish, there's a really easy way to make a picture of your catch look huge. Hold it out in front of you and the fish (in that perspective) appears much larger than it is actually. This is a little trick that adds to the storytelling of fisherman. When Ravenstahl claimed his budget 'surplus' he demonstrated that he can tell the tall tales that us fishermen take as our recreative liberty. Well, DeSantis is bringing the picture of the fish back into focus. Trib reporters Brown and Boren sat down with DeSantis and wrote, "Pittsburgh mayoral hopeful urges frank talk".

DeSantis boldly pokes holes in Ravenstahl's budget:

"So fudging numbers or coming up with phony or phantom numbers, or giving extraordinary estimates on revenue from gambling, and all those other fun things, all the tricks you can play -- let's stop doing that," he said. "Let's give people ground truth to what our situation really is and work off that."
I'm glad that he is doing so. I wrote on the fallacies of the budget 'surplus' in a previous post and I'm happy to see DeSantis taking public the difficult issues our city faces. And that is a demonstration of the type of transparency he would bring to the office. Making information public.
"As a private citizen, I cannot get good numbers, and I know how to get good numbers, and I can't get them, so right away there's a problem. Informed speculation: probably bad numbers."
In the previous post, I had to do some acrobatics to estimate how much Ravenstahl overstated his surplus and the problems that came with it. Numbers aren't readily and publicly available. One point he raises that is very interesting:
Consolidation of the budgets of the city's major authorities such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Water & Sewer Authority and Housing Authority under the city's annual operating budget to demonstrate the city's "true debt" and spending.
Now that is a point I never considered. The city's debt is considerably larger when one includes the financial health of the city's authorities.

The trick here is if DeSantis can whip public sentiment over the city's debt into a frenzied froth, and make Burghers listen. This would be his strength as a candidate. However, with the Peduto campaign we learned that the public didn't want to hear about issues, the CP offering an interpretation that the city was still grieving over O'Connor and tired of thinking about mayors for two straight years. With his several crashes, Ravenstahl may have re-interested the public in who is serving them as mayor. At minimum, I don't think they are buying the picture of the kid with a huge fish anymore.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

County Controller finally exercises rightful authority

In a previous post, I commented on the role of the controller and why this county position had never provided oversight to the approximately $25 million the county turns over to the Port Authority each year. We learned how the 'crisis' in the Port Authority's budget was years in the making and how Onorato, during his years as controller, said the authority had 'resisted' efforts to scrutinize what happens to that $25 million. When news of routes cuts went public he passed this hot potato to Flaherty, who would be the first controller actively involved in the authority. Ed Heath had commented then, "Now if the Authority raises rates or cuts routes, or even just has a mini-scandal, people will say “Where was the county in all this?” Well, were learning were the county stands on the authority.

State budget approval on Tues as reported in the Trib:

The bill, passed by the state House on Tuesday, would add about $55 million to the state's $135 million annual share of the chronically cash-strapped Port Authority budget. The state money, however, is contingent on Allegheny County coming up with about $30 million to $35 million in matching funds, which Chief Executive Dan Onorato has said he'll release only if the Port Authority cuts costs in the next labor contract.
So, the move by Rendell, seeming to be the theme of his budget proposal across the board, is to put more responsibility on the municipalities to attend to municipal problems, taking public pressure off the state.
"No more coming back each year and saying, 'We have a crisis.' No more living hand-to-mouth, month-to-month," Rendell said, adding that the bill provides enough resources to keep the transit agency afloat for at least 10 years.
What this has done is give municipalities a legislative option (alcohol tax or rental car tax) to levy taxes to solve their budget probems. Consequently, the burden moves from the state to the municipality (from Rendell to Onorato to Flaherty) and the Controller's role is forced to exercise its responsibility and account for expenditures, thereby assuring better delivery of services (in theory, of course). And Onorato shouldn't release that money until the Port Authority Board produces a plan marrying efficiency and good service.

Today we learn the result of the audit the controller began back in April.

Among other inefficiencies, Flaherty said:
"We recommend that the board of directors and management of the Port Authority set a near-term goal of improving operational performance to at least meet, if not exceed, the average performance of benchmarked agencies."
From WPXI:
- Over the last five years, Port Authority's budget exceeded its revenue.
- Current rider-to-bus ratios show that 46 percent fewer buses would be needed if the trend continues.
-Pension contributions significantly increased between 2005 and 2006.
-Forty-three percent of the Port Authority's health care costs go towards retirees.
Hopefully, whatever suggestions proposed for the Port Authority's ills will include consultation with the employees' union this time. In the spring, a union rep had mentioned how the service and employee benefit cuts were news to him since the Board had never consulted the union.

It's a shame that it took so long to get the Port Authority to consider meeting benchmark performance standards - and responsibility for past failures rests with the Board alone. Perhaps we can consider what role a one-party rule in this region has contributed to the problem (that would take some investigation to make that argument).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Unnecessary Complication in Off-duty Police Assignments

Back in April, when the off-duty police assignment system was proposed, there was a great deal of discussion about this topic and I offered my perspective. I linked four parts of The Admiral's work on contracting and calculations. As expected, this issue has demonstrated itself to be unnecessary complicated and, most importantly, compromises the accountability of the police bureau. Bram and Ed offer a perspective on the current situtation when Rich Lord reports, "City making money on police officers' side jobs".

In the April post, I wondered where the money from the surcharge fee was going and what proportion would go to the police union's legal defense fund.

Assistant Chief Regina McDonald said much of it is instead covering overtime stemming from court dates. "If an officer makes an arrest while working a secondary detail, the court time is paid for by the secondary employment payments," she said.

Money from the side job fee also is going for uniforms, training and equipment, she said, with some left over to defray injury claims or lawsuits.

"I'd hate to see that money end up in asphalt or something," said union President James Malloy, calling the decision not to squirrel it away "a damn shame."
I don't remember reading anything in the MSM about the fee covering court dates, training and equipment. In fact, Jeremy Boren had reported that "The fee will feed the police union's legal defense fund and cover medical liability costs if an officer is hurt while working off duty." Now, only "some" is left over to defray injury claims or lawsuits. Might those fees end up contributing to the Ravenstahl administration's surplus budget? What, in fact, is the system on where this pot of money should go? I thought the first priority of the project was to prevent bankrupting the city coffers from suits against abusive police officers.

I had wondered about why private schedulers were still allowed to schedule officers and the fidelity of those schedulers to report off-duty assignments and secure the surcharge fee for city revenue. Yet:
The administration considered eliminating the practice of allowing officers to run small businesses scheduling their colleagues for private security work. In a concession to the union, though, the mayor allowed a two-pronged system, in which employers can ask the Police Bureau to assign officers on a rotating basis, or use a scheduler.

That concerns attorney Tim O'Brien, who represented Mr. Werling and has handled numerous cases stemming from police side jobs. He said better monitoring of the side work is a step forward, but private schedulers undermine that.

"If individual schedulers means less supervision, that is not desirable," he said. All side jobs should be "regulated from within [the bureau], in all respects."

As a result, the scheduling business, viewed by some as the Wild West aspect of the side job industry, is alive and well.

Of some 830 active officers, 80 are registered with the bureau as side-job schedulers, Chief McDonald said.
Of 640 employers approved to hire off-duty police, 203 have chosen to use private schedulers.
Now, about one-tenth of the officers are registered as side-job schedulers and about one-third of employers have chosen to use private schedulers. Those numbers don't tell us if big contracting businesses for off-duty assignments account for a majority of the scheduled hours. What is absent from this report is if there is a accountability check on the schedulers to report (and collect the surcharge) for every single hour of off-duty service. The scheduling business is 'wild west' because something is in it for schedulers. What is that motivating factor of being a scheduler? Are these schedulers skimming off surcharge fees? Is there a separate fee for providing desired officers for contracting businesses such as the Pirates who want the same officers they have used in the past?
"I won't use the city [rotation] system, because I don't know who I'll get," said Station Square Security Director Paul M. Wolak. The $3.85 charge cost him $900 last month, he said -- money he would rather have used to add 30 more hours of police protection.

"All it is, is a tax on the business," he said.
Well, yes sir, you could frame it as a tax on business. You could also frame it like James Malloy, police union president:
Whether the fee drops or not, business won't dry up, Mr. Malloy predicted. That's because businesses want something private security firms can't provide.

"They're buying the psychological appearance of a uniformed officer," he said, "who has the power to point a finger at someone and say, 'You're under arrest.' "
That ability is the police bureau's comparitive advantage. If you don't want to pay the fee than you are free to hire private security firms.

This whole piloting of a system to regulate and secure fees from off-duty police assignments has resulted in a display of unnecessary complication. What is clear is that this program should be revisited and ensure that ALL contracting for off-duty assignment goes through the bureau. Since Malloy has thrown a few fireballs at Ravenstahl in recent weeks, perhaps the mayor would use this as an opportunity to go against the union and remove the opportunity for private schedulers to exist. Perhaps, like Bram stated, "likely dates to watch for the "pilot program" to end would be just prior to the start of football season -- or just after the election".

Thursday, July 5, 2007

HB 1631 and Hill District Community Benefits Agreement

Last week, the PA House passed a bill that seems to provide casino-generated funding that could be used for development projects in the Hill. According to the PG's report:

House Bill 1631, which still lacks Senate approval, authorizes an additional $500,000 per year for up to 30 years for a "community development fund for infrastructure, construction and redevelopment projects" near the proposed arena.
That money could go for development in the lower Hill District, adjacent to the new arena. Hill officials, including state Rep. Jake Wheatley, have insisted on being involved in the overall development of the lower Hill, including the land where Mellon Arena is.
Calling up the bill, the wording is somewhat vague:
(D) Payments related to the construction of a facility designated for use by a professional hockey franchise, including $500,000 $15,000,000 to a nonprofit community development fund to fund infrastructure, construction and redevelopment projects
(Base Project Allocation - $8,000,000)
This is to be $500,000 for 30 yrs yielding $15 million total to this development fund. That accounts for half a million of the base project allocation but does the rest of the $7.5 million go towards state grants to Allegheny County and city of Pittsburgh for infrastructure (new plumbing/electric/roads in and out of arena) improvements for the arena? Is that a reserve for overage costs that the state and the Penguins will share (up to $10 million to each)?

Secondly, did anyone check with community members about how it might be publicly interpreted that activists, many Hill District residents, refused to have a casino in their neighborhood but will be given casino-generated funds?

Thirdly, the Hill District is left with a 'good faith' arrangement with the Penguins for their share of a community benefits agreement. No master plan on development in the Hill has been coordinated with arena construction plans.

At least this is a start, but of what is the question.

LCB is a Barrier to PA Businesses

Buy fresh. Buy local. Wouldn't you like to sample and maybe purchase reasonably priced wines that are produced within a 1 or 2 hour drive from your home in Pittsburgh? Wouldn't it be nice to purchase some fresh locally grown produce, locally smoked salmon, but not locally caught, (and bacon!), fresh bread and then find a nice Riesling or a Cab to go with it? And right in your neighborhood? Well, if the LCB (Liquor Control Board) had its way you wouldn't.

A spokesperson for the LCB said:

Approval of special permits should be limited to wine and food expositions, where the focus was on educating participants about the availability, nature and quality of Pennsylvania wines. Events like fairs, arts festivals, flea markets and farmers' markets do not qualify for permits under current law.
Legislation permitting PA wines to be sold at Farmer's Markets was recently introduced by State Rep. Tim Solobay (D-Canonsburg) and was easily passed in the House and the Senate's Law and Justice Committee. The full Senate should vote on this legislation within a month or so.

And we wonder why we have such non-adaptive and silly alcohol laws in this state? Like Pittsburgh's Department of Public Works (think Quigley), the LCB is a public entity that often serves as a repository for hacks.

Check here for a Farmer's Market close to you. Maybe by the fall (likely next year) you'll be able to buy a bottle.