Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rigging the Lottery

I'm not big on lots of quotes in my posts, but I couldn't pass up all the juicy whining tidbits I've included below.

The only justification when the drink tax was instituted was to give the County a way to pay for their share of transit system expenses. Period.

Roads may be "transit-related" but they are not "transit systems." The drink tax was not instituted to pay for road repairs.
County Solicitor Mike Wojcik argued that if the Legislature meant the Port Authority specifically, it would have said so, and bridges and roads can be defined as transit-related.
Laws in this state stay on the books for decades longer than they should (Johnstown Flood Tax for example) and if Harrisburg could envision a time when this Pennsylvania county might have more than one "transit system", or god-forbid change the name of their "transit system", then god bless them.

The drink tax was not instituted to add money to the county's fund balance, unlike what Amy Griser wishes.

County budget director Amy Griser testified that a $21 million hole in the budget would wipe out the county's fund balance and make it more difficult and costly for it to borrow money.

The drink tax was not instituted so that the county would never again have to raise property taxes, unlike what Rich Fitzgerald is dreaming of.
Council President Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said that if Mr. McCullough and his allies win the suit, it would amount to a "straitjacket" on county spending and force a property tax hike to fund crucial infrastructure improvements.
Poor planning is no excuse to break the law and take advantage of taxpayers. Please, Judge Judy, don't let the whiners in the county rig the lottery. I want smart cards.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Eat Those Words

Once again the controversial drink tax is in court.

As I've mentioned in my previous rantings, Onorato and his team have repeatedly said that we should be proud to join the ranks of other cities with a dedicated tax to support public transit.

Clearly, when County Council regretfully passed this tax, they were under the impression that the drink tax was intended to support public transit (and its only incarnation in the county - Port Authority.) Similarly, when I complained about the unfairness of the drink tax, Erica Cohen personally responded to me on behalf of Onorato to say:
While the drink tax and rental car fee were not
the County Executive's preferred options, they were the only options
provided by state lawmakers as a dedicated funding source for mass
transit. With the approval of the 2008 County budget, we have joined
other metropolitan areas in creating a dedicated funding source for mass
transit that does not include property taxes.
Now, Dan wants to use it to repair roads and bridges. Unfortunately, I do believe that there is probably a loop-hole in there for him in the wording of the state law. I also believe that Dan the Tax Man was well aware that the drink tax would bring in excess monies and was hoping for this budget boon. Thankfully, Mr Onorato does not get to be the final judge in this case. Judge Judith F. Olson will determine it for us.

While, the County Council is lowering the drink tax this year, I can only hope someone on County Council has the brains to learn from their mistakes and detail explicitly in triplicate exactly how the money is to be spent and exactly how the money is to be distributed.

Are We Going Somewhere?

Councilman Peduto - the only person on council that appears to be putting forth bold ideas and attempting to sidestep council politics - has put forth yet another bold and interesting idea in council today.

Peduto's idea is partially converting a freight line that runs through Hazelwood/Oakland/Lawrenceville into a commuter line. More public transportation is good. Building on existing infrastructure to work on a project that costs potentially less than $100 million instead of a project costing in the billions is a very smart use of our resources.

However, who is going to take this train? Carnegie Mellon folks who want to reach their robotics center from the central campus? The people who want a relief from parking in Oakland and are willing to park their car at either end of the line in a cheaper less crowded garage? Would this connect to the new Children's Hospital and give parents and UPMC workers more access to this grandiose new Lawrenceville destination? And where does this plan fit in the grand over-arching scheme of Pittsburgh public transportation dreams? Does such a dream plan even exist? There are a ridiculous number of freight lines throughout the city. How many of them could potentially be converted to commuter rail?

And most importantly, are these connections valuable enough to CMU or UPMC or someone else to drive some public-private partnership money?

At an upfront cost $9,000 it's worth finding out the answers.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mincing Words

The headline of the day:

Pittsburgh to use 45.3 Million Surplus for Debt

This article was found on not 1, not 2, not 3, but at least 4 sources.

Was this a public relations stunt promoted by the ICA to encourage Dowd to shut up? Why do so many people care about Pittsburgh's surplus last year? And how can you use a "surplus" for debt? Doesn't being head-over-heels in debt mean that there is no such thing as a "surplus"?

Let me put this in Joe Six-Pack terms.
When you get a Christmas-bonus, which do you do:
a) buy a flat-screen TV?
b) use it as a down-payment for your $400,000 McMansion summer home?
c) put it toward your high-interest credit card debt?

If you're Joe, you choose option a) or b) and you plunge our economy into a recession. If you're smart, you choose option c), and live to borrow another day.

Let's hear it for the news media advertising that Pittsburgh is choosing option c).

Though as I hear it, are we?

The Merger

Am I beating a dead horse by talking about the PNC / National City merger?

The merger has been approved. Theoretically, this seems good for Pittsburgh because a bank based here is getting more and more powerful. However, I'm sure there are a lot of people in the region who will lose jobs because of National City leaving.

What about the current National City skyscraper? Does PNC really need another tower with their name on it in Pittsburgh? Won't they want to get rid of that office space because it brings down their LEED-certified building count? (Plus, isn't it kind of ugly?)

"It doesn't strengthen Cleveland at all," shareholder Melanie Deutsch told The Associated Press, calling yesterday "a sad day for Cleveland."

Nobody is quoted in the Trib article as saying that it's a good day for Pittsburgh. Is that just good old-fashioned Pittsburgh self-deprecation?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

F****ing Equitable - or why my gas bill is going up 7% this winter.

The price of natural gas has plummeted. I've been over-paying through the nose for my natural gas rate which has not plummeted on my gas bill. Where is this extra money going?

Dominion has dropped their gas rates significantly.

Equitable is trying to raise their extraneous rates.
Do they want people to freeze to death this winter?? Don't they know dead people don't pay bills??

Now I know why my neighbor opted to heat his house by wood burning stoves... in the city.

Ahh... state-approved and managed pseudo-monopolies. Gotta love them.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Are you disappointed with the mayor's wish list for the city?

I understand your disappointment. There are no public transit initiatives on the list. And there are very few green initiatives. There ARE some crucial water and sewer improvements on the list.

In terms of public transit, it's important to keep some things in mind though.
Controversial as it is, we ARE currently working on the North Shore connector. There is a LOT of federal money contributing to that project. We are also working on Point State Park - which will be a major boon to the city when it's finished. I'm psyched about all the connecting parks that are in progress.

My question is why isn't Maglev to the airport on the list?? That is totally shovel-ready. A lot of money and time have been spent on this project already. I understand it's another controversial project, but it would clearly be a positive addition to the area (I refuse to comment on whether it's worth the money.)

In terms of becoming a city with nationally respectable public transportation, though, we need to connect Oakland and Downtown with something other than buses and cars. Light rail seems like the best option, but I don't know for sure. I'd be happy with a monorail if necessary. Unfortunately though as far as I know there are NO solid plans for this connection.

Also, there is a TON of resistance to the Oakland-Downtown line for some reason. I don't know why... It's disappointing to me to realize that that project is NOT shovel-ready.

Friday, December 19, 2008

More Simple Math

I admit I don't know too much about the Mon-Fayette Expressway. Being a city dweller, it doesn't really affect me. However, I know that things like bridges and ports and sewers draining into the rivers do affect everybody. Plus, I can do simple math.

Cost of MFX: $5.2 Billion

Cost of EVERYTHING else the county and city wants: $2.2 Billion

That's an easy choice. (And you know the powers-that-be won't give us enough for both.)

Let's get EVERYTHING and bypass the MFX for now.

P.S. Mr Ravenstahl, can you learn to share? Would it have been very difficult to ask City Council to come up with a list of their top priorities and make sure that those items make it on the list? It's a big list. There's room for everyone to give some input. I'm sure that this process is a political mess around the country. That's to be expected - talk to anyone who's just one the lottery and has their friends and family knocking down the door. But let's try to make it as easy as possible.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Throwing a Dog a Bone

On rejecting Baba Ds application to serve alcohol at their restaurant:
I think it is a safety issue for the residents that live there, for the people that drive on the streets, for the students that are consuming all of this alcohol when alcoholism is a disease," said Councilwoman Darlene Harris. "And for us to allow more alcohol on that street, we're contributing to that."
Ms Harris, I beg to differ. For you to not insist on drunk driving laws being enforced, or public urination laws, then you are contributing to the problem. Rejecting Baba Ds is a bone that you're throwing South Side residents instead of actually attempting to deal with a serious problem.

Pittsburgh has a serious drunk driving situation throughout the city and it's magnified on the South Side. I walk home from drinking at the bars on Carson St (in an orderly fashion without stopping to publicly urinate along the way), so maybe someone else can enlighten me on the following. Where are the drunken checkpoints??? Where are the cops that check to see that every single car that crosses a bridge leaving the South Side (let's pick the Birmingham Bridge and 10th St Bridge) isn't filled with drunken imbeciles thinking they can drive?

If you crack down on drunk driving, there will be less drunken driving. If people are worried about getting caught, they will be much more likely to take a cab, take the bus, or have a designated driver.

While we're at it, let's encourage the bars on the South Side to take more responsibility. Let designated drivers into bars without a cover, give them free soda. Have deals with taxi companies. Force the bars to contribute a sum to Port Authority such that late night bus rides are free for everyone from midnight to 2am.

I don't think there's one person that thinks that Mallorca, La Pommier, or Dish encourages public drunkenness. Yet they all seem to have liquor licenses. Stopping Baba Ds from serving me a glass of wine with dinner isn't going to fix your problems. Addressing the actual issues will at least treat the problems.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Get Wishing!

Dear Mayor,

Please wish for something for the city of Pittsburgh.

Even if it's just LED lights city-wide, make a wish. Add it to the list. Santa's not checking if you were naughty or nice.

Yours truly,

P.S. Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Lancaster, State College, and York have all done it!

My Smokebox

When you pass a joke of a smoking law, you must expect the jokers to take advantage of it. In this case, it's the casino-owners who are claiming that their smoke-free area slots are making less money than their smoking area slots. And lest you think it's for their sake that they want to increase the number of smoking area slots, it's actually to benefit the people of Pennsylvania. They don't want to cost Pennsylvanians money.

According to a spokesman for the Meadow's casino,
"State taxpayers are losing a lot of revenue" by limiting slots for smokers to just 25 percent of floor space.
How thoughtful of them.

Casinos are allowed to expand their smoking area if they could "prove" after 90 days that the smoking area slots made more money. Of course, they didn't have to "prove" that the slots had an equal opportunity for usage. They also didn't have to "prove" that those slots had equal opportunities for winning. Maybe these guys should take side jobs as NFL referees offering "conclusive evidence" for overturning challenges.

My whacked-out theory: Eliminating smoking in public places will actually begin to deter smoking in general. Philip Morris seems to agree:
"Smokers facing these restrictions [no workplace smoking] consume 11%–15% less than average and quit at a rate that is 84% higher than average."

The more you make exceptions to the rule, the more you're encouraging smoking, spreading lung cancer and other smoking-related illnesses, and exposing more people to second-hand smoke.
Again, Philip Morris seems to agree:
"Milder workplace restrictions ... have much less impact on quitting rates and very little effect on consumption ."

But maybe I'm just harping on this because of my Aunt that passed away due to a smoking-related illness. It sucks. Moving to Pittsburgh from New England was like stepping back in time to the 70s when smoking was cool. The only friend I had in college that smoked was from Pittsburgh. The high rate of smoking in this city is a major problem that should be addressed.

The city of Pittsburgh should pass a serious smoking ban. Harrisburg should allow Allegheny County (and any other county that wishes) to legally pass a serious smoking ban. And the folks in Harrisburg should be ashamed of their half-assed joke of a law.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Long Term Thinking

Most of us at home have at least debated switching to energy efficient lightbulbs. Now, the city is thinking about it on a grand scale. I applaud it. Personally, I've seen my electricity bill plummet after switching over to energy efficient bulbs. It's an investment that's good for the environment and good for your wallet as a taxpayer and as head-of-household.

Cheers to Councilman Peduto for making the grand gesture to switch all of the city street lights to long lasting LED lights.

For more info check out the full plan.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

neighborhoodwalk 2 - public art

neighborhoodwalk - public art, originally uploaded by cjette.

This is the newest public art in my neighborhood.

This representation of the South Side Slopes was forged out of the same steel as the US Steel building and will thereby last forever. The artist included abstract details such as houses, trees, streets and stairs.

This piece of art was made possible by the Elm Street program.

For more public art, check out other neighborhoodwalk 2 entries.

Now That's Inflation

After 20 years, in the middle of a recession, E&O Partners has decided to raise the rent at the Penn Brewery location by 360%.

Potential reasons?

a) The rent was ridiculously low here.
b) There's some ridiculous feud going on between the owner and brewer.
c) E&O has someone lined up to move in and pay this new price.
d) E&O is stupid.

Real estate hasn't really declined in Pittsburgh versus the rest of the nation, and we're a good place to ride out a recession, but filling a niche market location at a new much-higher rate isn't easy.

End Result?

A cool building will be vacant for at least a year or some, but there's a chance Penn Brewery will eventually move to the South Side and I'll be able to walk there. I recommend the as-yet untouched South Side High School location. A brewery/condo partnership in a former school would be a perfect fit for this well-educated city of drunks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What's Missing?

Yesterday, Mayor Ravenstahl issued a directive to post justifications for all contracts issued since the last time he insisted that city departments publicly post contracts.

And tada!

"City staff worked into the evening and by 8 p.m. had posted online 29 justification forms for city contracts" Only 84 to go!

I discovered these bid justifications on the finance department's website, but clicking on a few of the justifications leads to a lot of NAs and no actual information. Hopefully, these are place-holders for information that will actually be filled in.

A brief look at the Parks and Recreation Department's bids reveals that all were less than $10,000 in value and not actually advertised. All 4 posted happened to go to the same biddee who also happened to be the only biddee but coincidences aside at least they always pick the lowest bid. Hmmm....

These forms are really lovely. They are just missing one teensy-weensy insignificant detail if you ask me. THE DOLLAR AMOUNT OF THE ACTUAL BID!!!! Not even a spot for it on the form. Who designed this form??

2 more directives and another 60 days and maybe we'll have some actual transparency. In the meantime, can the Parks Department stop blindly giving away all contracts to J.T. Sauer & Associates, Inc.?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Give Me a Break

There is a bi-partisan effort in Harrisburg to eliminate automatic cost of living adjustments (COLA) for elected officials. In Pittsburgh, the lone Reverend Burgess proposed to cancel raises locally and no other councilman can even bother seconding it for a vote.

Give me a break.

Yes, it's a token.

But I'm not getting a raise this year. Are you? Is your neighbor?

Not even brought to a vote in Pittsburgh City Council.

Thanks for trying, Burgess.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Pension Funds

Big News or not?

We all know pension funds suck right now. We are all scared to look at our 401ks. We all are freaking out over whether we're going to have a job tomorrow or next week or next month.

Let's take some perspective. A quick search brings up the following losses nationally.

Iowa state pension - 19% or $4 billion

Wyoming down 25% or $1.5 billion

State of Kansas employees down 27% or $4 billion

Locally in Franklin County, Pennsylvania:

"The pension fund, worth about $66 million at the beginning of the year, was worth about $51.5 million as of Sunday, according to Franklin County treasurer David Secor.

The county's annual required contribution to the employee pension fund will more than double in 2009, from an estimated $1.5 million this year to $3.5 million budgeted for 2009."

In the lovely state of Massachusetts - $14 billion loss

"The Massachusetts state pension fund may shift part of its equity-heavy $39.3 billion portfolio into cash after posting a $14.4 billion loss so far this year. The fund, which will distribute up to $900 million to retirees this year, has been forced to sell its most liquid assets, mainly US bonds, as it makes monthly payments"

Here in Pittsburgh - $124 million loss

"The city pension fund's investments had to earn 10 percent to keep pace with $6.7 million a month in pension payouts. Instead, they lost 25 percent."

We appear to be in line percentage-wise with the rest of the country. How have other cities with a similar pension value fared? Will this hit us even harder than other areas because we were severely under-funded to begin with? Is this a good opportunity to invest as much as we can in the city's pension fund? Is there going to be a nation-wide bailout of pension funds? These questions and more I'm hoping someone else can answer for me or at least discuss.

Monday, December 1, 2008

It's About Time

Pending paperwork, the "controversial" drink tax will be lowered from 10 percent to 7 percent for 2009.
The controversial drink tax, which took effect in January, is to be dropped from 10 percent to 7 percent, but that could force the county to raise property taxes as soon as next year, said Councilman William Robinson, chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee.
I understand that the economy is sinking nationally and there may be some concern that a tax based on consumption is not reliable in a poor economy. However, one thing I'm willing to bet on is that when people are down in the dumps, they buy more liquor. My gut says that we'll see an increase in liquor spending in 2009. Of course, we may not be going out as much so the County may want to consider an extra tax on store-bought beer and wine in order to capitalize on the recession.

Finally, Mr Robinson, I have to ask you a question. You made an extra unexpected $8 million this year from the drink tax!!! If you were so concerned about the county having enough money next year, why not save some of that money instead of voting to spend it anyway Dan the Tax Man chose?? Also, why shouldn't property taxes increase as expenses increase?? Why the insistence that bar drinkers in this county should pay for any and all cost increases in this county???

EDIT: Make that an extra $12 million and counting...