Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Council Presidents

"I have issues with both [declared contestants], to be honest," Councilwoman Theresa Smith said yesterday. Mr. Burgess seems too close to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, she said, and Mr. Peduto seems too far away.

Councilman Peduto has shown backbone. He took a strong stance against Ravenstahl's tuition tax. However, he has repeatedly shown that when push comes to shove, he can work with Ravenstahl on issues from street lights to over-arching reform.

Let's give Peduto a chance to keep Ravenstahl on his toes and compromise when needed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Google and Pittsburgh

Multiple choice question:

What's the #1 reason Pittsburghers move away?

a) They want to live in a sunny climate.
b) Not enough bands and music acts have Pittsburgh on their tour list.
c) They want to pay more for housing.
d) They can't find a job.


And the answer is?

d) Jobs

Anecdotally, every person that I've talked to that left the city, did so because they couldn't find a job in the city.

Google, our potential savior, is tapping into that lack of jobs. They have expanded their operations from 2 employees to 100 in the past few years. From a software engineering perspective, Google is Mecca. When I told friends I was moving to Pittsburgh, they started gushing to me that Google had an office in Pittsburgh. But I was turned off because Google was on Carnegie Mellon's campus. Being a graduate of a different technology school, I felt I would be shunned from that club. Now, Google is taking a big step in Pittsburgh. Google is moving to the new Bakery Square development in East Liberty. Google and Pittsburgh's relationship has moved beyond the college campus boundaries and only good things can come of it. Congratulations to the folks at Google for realizing that there's more to Pittsburgh than CMU. And to those software engineering Pittsburgh ex-pats, there's never been a better time to come home.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Congratulations to Baba D's

When Toby Keith and whoever has enough money can open a bar on the South Side, then you knew Bruce Kraus's stop-gap measure of a "saturation limit" on bars in the South Side wasn't going to fly in the courts. This was proved yesterday by the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas.

Judge James found that the ordinance was illegal because the city can't create special rules for bars. The city law was "an infringement on the power of the [state] Liquor Control Board and is invalid" becasue state law reserves most power to regulate alcohol for that agency.

I completely understand why the "saturation limit" was imposed. People that live on the South Side Flats were sick and tired of people pissing on their lawns and leaving broken bottles everywhere.

But the stop-gap measure was not the solution. All limiting the number of bars did was make it more expensive and difficult to get a liquor license. It did not increase the number of toilets on the South Side. It did not increase the number of trash cans. Ultimately, it was bad for small businesses. Baba D's was the scapegoat of this law. This restaurant was denied a liquor license and fought the law. They won.

Now, maybe we can get serious, read the South Side Hospitality Proposal, and actually address the South Side's issues?

Or not.

City Councilman Bruce Kraus, who represents the South Side, has already proposed a slightly modified version of the ordinance in a preemptive effort to keep it in force in the case of a court decision like the one rendered yesterday.

Oh well.

Port Authority Police

Did you know Port Authority has its own police? In the past 8 years, they have expanded their operations to include digital forensics (2001), a bike unit (2002), and 2 canine units (2003).

For the past 2 years, this 39-member police force has been in time-consuming and money-consuming contract negotiations with Port Authority. What do they want? Health benefits just like the city and county police have. My suggestion? Port Authority stops wasting more county money and rolls this department into the County police department. Then the Port Authority officers can get the benefits they deserve. I shudder to think of all the duplication of services here between high-tech equipment, canine training, and an entire police station to say the least. How can we even begin to consider consolidating city and county services while entire police units roam wild?
"Members have the legal right to strike, though DelSole said the police had not decided whether to do so."
Of course, the big question is: Would anyone even notice if they went on strike?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Weird Pittsburgh News

3 Weird Pittsburgh News Bits that caught my eye this Friday

1) A church bought by a controversial billboard company may become a national immigration museum. Perhaps Lamar wants to clean up their bad name around these parts? Perhaps they'll move the unfinished electronic billboard to the vicinity of the church and finally clean up the mess that is the lighting of the Grant Street Transportation Center?

2) Both Russell Crowe and Jake Gyllenhall are self-proclaimed fans of Pittsburgh. Jake Gyllenhall went so far as to show off his (presumably fake) Pittsburgh Steelers tattoo. After the Sienna Miller fiasco, it's a shock to hear celebrities speak well of the city. I guess they left their hotel rooms.

3) The county and Judge Wettick appear to have agreed on a timeline to *gasp* reassess property values. This is my favorite unexpected news of the day. County Executive Onorato has been on a high horse about refusing to perform anything even tangentially related to a property reassessment, even if it's requisite to taxing county residents fairly (and is required to follow the state constitution). This about face makes me breathe a sigh of relief. But the following caveat makes me wary: "[P]roperty owners would have to pay taxes before appealing [property assessments]."

Monday, November 30, 2009

4 Tuition Tax Myths and 1 Suggestion

I feel the need to dispel some myths regarding the "fair share" tax.

1. Income tax, property tax, and sales tax are not sin taxes. Don't we still tax text books?
'Councilman William Peduto took the same tack, saying that taxes are often placed on "sin" products, like alcohol or tobacco -- but not on self-improvement. "Why would we ever tax education, where somebody is trying to better themselves?" he asked.'
2. College students are not the only ones who pay the drink tax. Many, many non-college students visit the many bars and restaurants throughout the county and share this burden. It is also important to mention here that the aforementioned drink tax is a county tax.
"Let's face it, we [college students] are the ones that pay the drink tax"- graduate student, Mackenzie Farone

If you owe income tax to the city of Pittsburgh, you can deduct the amount you paid on your tuition tax against your income tax. This would serve city residents in two ways. First, it would prevent any ridiculous double-taxing and calm fears of anyone working their way through college while living in the city that they will be taken advantage of. Second, it might encourage city dwellers to take a class at a local university with the inherent 1% discount. Not much of a discount, you say? Not much of a tax, I say, but every little bit helps.


No one wants to pay taxes, but the city is desperately running out of money and is running out of methods they can use to tax because of antiquated state laws. The city would love to tax non-residents who work in the city, like New York City and many other cities, but the state of Pennsylvania won't allow it. The city would love to slap a property tax on non-profit buildings, but once again the state won't allow it. Heck. The state will probably crack down on this tax as well, but the city has to keep trying to come up with innovative solutions in a hostile environment.

What can I say? I love this city, and I don't want it to run out of money. I want to keep all of our libraries open. I want our roads to be paved and our trash to be collected, and most importantly I want all the police officers and other city workers who have put their time in over the years, to continue to have their pensions paid. So if we need to come up with creative taxes that don't further stress our residents, I'm for it. Because when it comes down to it, if it's a choice between me paying 4% on my income tax or the college students coughing up another 1% on their $50,000 per year education, you're not going to find too many residents (who also manage to pay property taxes and income taxes and county taxes and state taxes) shedding a tear for the college students.


Can someone actually figure out if this tax is legal or not, so we don't have to waste any more time debating it?

Happy Cyber Monday

In the blog world, Cyber Monday is more of a celebration day than Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving Day recorded the least number of hits to my blog pretty much ever, but today everybody is back and surfing the web in a miserable fit of back-to-work blues.

Ways to make the working person feel better while wasting some time today yet avoiding saving money on deals?
Go surf and celebrate.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cut Expenses Not Libraries

City Council has banded together with State Representatives to fill the immediate funding shortfall for the library and keep all our city libraries open.

Clearly, there still remains a problem of rampant spending amongst our libraries, so let's see Ravenstahl and company stick to their guns and perform an audit of their budget. Their total expenditures are over $23 Million. Nationally, average library funding per capita is $40.49 which should translate to an expected $12.8 Million in Pittsburgh. Why are we so far over average per capita spending? Let's see an audit which reigns in the spending while keeping libraries open.

My first suggestion?
Library Cards currently expire every 2 years. The next time you're at the library after your card expires you have to fill out paperwork which librarians then have to enter into the system. The Department of Motor Vehicles learned long ago that less frequent applications means less expense. Shouldn't my library card last as long as my driver's license (especially considering I used my driver's license as proof of my address)?

My second suggestion?
It's not pretty, but cut some of the staff. There were at least 3 staff working at the miniscule South Side library this past Saturday. When I was a high school student, I volunteered at the local library to shelve books. How about the libraries form a partnership with local high schools to get volunteers to take some of these tasks and learn the Dewey Decimal System? It's nice to have trained librarians milling about to answer questions, but mostly they just give me snarky looks while I check out books.

Any other frustrating ways you've seen the library waste money?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Tale Of Two Grocery Stores

Back in February, I was applauding Kuhn's grocery store for moving forward with their construction plans in the Hill District. They are only being asked to spend 15% of the construction costs. Yes, a whopping 85% of the construction costs for this private grocery store will be covered by taxpayers and millionaire hockey arena builders. It should be a no-lose situation for the chain. But as of today, Kuhn's is backing out of its plan, and the Hill District will move onto its 4th decade without a grocery store.

On the other side of the coin, Whole Foods is expanding to the North Hills. They appear to be making money hand-over-fist by consumers willing to pay for organic, fair trade goods. Too bad Whole Foods can only benefit African villages from the outposts of our affluent communities leaving our predominantly African-American communities to rot. A little harsh? Yeah. But this is depressing shit.

Friday, November 13, 2009

It's All About the Schools

The theme of the week is definitely schools.

Taxing schools? Is it legal to tax college tuitions in the city? Is it legal for college tuitions to have a meteoric rise over the past 2 decades? From 1982 to 2007, college tuition rates rose 439% compared to a 147% rise in family income. What's an extra 1% city tax when tuition rates will inevitably rise faster than inflation for the next 25 years as well? My advice to students? Don't waste your breath whining about that measly 1%. Complain about this year's 6% increase in your tuition. Similarly, health insurance costs have risen by 131% over the last 10 years while the median family income has remained flat. Fairness is in the eye of the beholder.

Low GPAs? Pittsburgh has lowered the bar for kids go to CCAC on the Pittsburgh Promise with as little as a 2.0 GPA (C-average). Previously, they required a 2.25 GPA. Let's be honest, if you have significantly higher than a C-average (and you can afford it and have the family support), you're not choosing to go to a community college. Let's see these kids go to community college for a year or two and give them the chance to turn themselves around.

School dropouts? Pittsburgh has a serious problem. In a 2006 study, Rand Corp. estimated that 35 percent of all Pittsburgh students drop out of high school, with the rate nearly 50 percent for black males. Any effort sent addressing this is a good thing. It's easy to point fingers at Pittsburgh's poor city schools on this one, but to put it into perspective, city schools are failing our students across the country. Cleveland and Baltimore are some of the worst with high school graduation rates of 38% and 41% respectively, but even New York City has an abysmal graduation rate of 54%. These numbers make the our 5-year 64% graduation rate almost acceptable.

Lesson learned? You can still mock Cleveland.

Monday, November 9, 2009

August Wilson

People often talk about the legacy of Pittsburgh as its long-dead rich benefactors or its old buildings or its steel or even Andy Warhol. My favorite Pittsburgh legend, though, is August Wilson. Until I moved to Pittsburgh, I had no idea who he was. Though I'd walked by the August Wilson Theater on Broadway, I hadn't given its name a thought. Then, I went to see "Two Trains Running" at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater last year. I learned that August Wilson wrote a fantastic 10-play cycle spanning the entire 21st century, and only finished the last play "Radio Golf" on his deathbed. I learned that these plays were all set in the glory and decline of the Hill District (an area whose history I'd already fallen in love with through the stunning photographs by Teenie Harris.) I learned that they had earned him 2 Pulitzer Prizes, amongst many other awards.

These are seminal plays that should be taught in school alongside "Romeo & Juliet", "The Glass Menagerie", and "The Crucible."

If you missed Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater's production of "Two Trains Running" last year, you have another chance to see it. This week at the August Wilson Center downtown, they are doing a recap of that play. Also playing are "Gem of the Ocean" and "Radio Golf" in a mini-festival with other theater groups. My new lifetime goal is to see all of August Wilson's cycle. Living in Pittsburgh should make that pretty easy.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Buenos Aires Not So Different From Pittsburgh

I've been living, working, and blogging in Buenos Aires for the last month. With that in mind, here are my inevitable comparisons between the cities.

5 Ways Pittsburgh is Like Buenos Aires
  1. Bus Routes - Buenos Aires has over 150 squiggly bus routes. Of course, their bus routes are all run by private companies and don't use public support. Different courses to the same messy result. Additionally, Buenos Aires has countless taxis, subway lines, and commuter and light rail lines. Traffic is still awful.
  2. The Immigration Effect - Buenos Aires had a huge influx of European immigrants (especially Italian, German and Spanish) in the late 1800s. Similarly, Pittsburgh experienced a huge rush of Eastern European and German immigrants during the rise of the steel industry. We have Pierogies and Pennsylvania Macaroni Company. They have great coffee and home-made pastas and amazing ice cream.
  3. Neighborhoods - Like Pittsburgh, Buenos Aires is a city of neighborhoods. There are trendy neighborhoods, under-the-weather neighborhoods, business neighborhoods, and historical neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is incredibly distinct from the other as much as the South Side versus Lawrenceville versus Downtown.
  4. Culture - Buenos Aires is referred to as the "Paris of South America" while Pittsburgh is referred to as the "Paris of Appalachia". Both cities have a grand history of excellent museums and theater, dance and art.
  5. Cost - Buenos Aires is expensive for Argentina, but for Americans it's a great deal. Similarly, Pittsburgh is one of the cheapest high-cultural destinations you can live in. They both had severe market crashes contributing to their undervalue. In Argentina that crash occurred much more recently (in 2001) and they are still struggling to recover from inflation rates and record unemployment.
1 Major Difference
  1. Population - Buenos Aires has a population of over 3 million people, including the metro area, that population swells to 13 million. Pittsburgh is a tiny city comparatively registering in at only 300,000 city residents and 2 million metro residents. The density of shops, restaurants, and buildings is hard to envision. Its population density is 38,862 people/Square mile. Compare that to New York City which falls in at a mere 27,440 people per square mile. Pittsburgh checks in at 5,636 for those curious.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

5 Reasons to Vote Today

1) It's good practice for real elections.

2) You get to wear an "I voted" sticker (just don't stick it to any valuable clothing and certainly don't sue the city if you do.)

3) You can write in whomever you want, so even if you don't like any of the candidates running, that shouldn't stop you.

4) Lots of people in other countries can't vote. It's a valuable right that you should exercise lest it be taken away. After all, it's kind of a joke to spread democracy and condemn dictatorships when you're not practicing it.

5) Enjoy the fresh air and walk to your polling place. What else do you have to do?*

Ultimately, I don't care who you vote for. It's so much more valuable to have an informed, active electorate than for my preferred candidate to win. But in case you were curious, I think Kevin Acklin would make a mighty fine mayor of our city.

*Of Note: I am not voting in this election because I'm in Buenos Aires, and it's hard enough to send postcards, let alone absentee ballots from Argentina.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Match Day - Still Time To Donate

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Foundation for putting forth $300,000 in 50% matching funds for Pittsburgh-area non-profits yesterday. They helped raise $900,000 for non-profits like the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Pittsburgh City Theater, and the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. In an email to its fans, the City Theater alone announced that they received nearly $21,000. This onslaught of donations all happened in a frenzied 23 minutes.

On top of that money, the Pittsburgh Foundation also offered to match up to $100,000 in direct donations to the library. As of 6PM yesterday, they had only allocated $77,000 of that money (for a total donation to the library of at least $231,000.) In good news, the donation period isn't over yet. You have until 12PM EST today Thursday October 29 to donate to the library through Pittsburgh Gives.

Unfortunately, the technological backbone hasn't been so strong. Even though the online company was charging a fee of 4.75% per donation (or a whopping $62,000 in one day - about 3 times as much as was donated to the City Theater), they let down the charities and frustrated the folks who were trying to donate. Working with computers, I understand that there are unforeseen circumstances here, but when you are taking so much cream off the top, you better be well-prepared for an overload of visitors.
From the Pittsburgh Gives website, "Credit card donations do incur a 4.75% processing fee by the credit card processor, Network for Good. For example, a gift of $100 will net the charity $95.25."
"Network for Good" has some explaining to do. And they could start explaining by donating some of that fee to the libraries. They have until 12PM today.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Mayors and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Regarding last night's debate:

"While reporters shuttled between the mayor and Mr. Acklin, Mr. Harris, who turned in a solid debate performance, was largely ignored by the media."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On School Population

Everyone talks about the story of Pittsburgh's population. It's halved since 1950. It's in a continual state of decline. This year marked the lowest population drop in a while and may be signs that the city's population is turning around (as Chris Briem reminds us). Similarly, Pittsburgh City Schools just reported the lowest decline in school students in the past 9 years. This parallels the city's smallest population loss in the decade. There was an increase in Kindergarten enrollment for the first time in 4 years. Pittsburgh schools are crediting programs like the Pittsburgh Promise for this slow in decline. It's easy to try to make a parallel between the city's population and the city's school enrollment. However, you'd be far off. While the city has lost barely 7.5% of its population over the past 9 years, the school district has lost a resounding 30% of its population.

Just last year, the Post-Gazette headline was:

City school enrollment falling fast

Contrast that with this week's Post-Gazette headline:

Pittsburgh schools like enrollment trend

Too early to tell? Yes. Have there been flukes in previous years followed by drastic drops? Yes. Can I have a little optimism? Yes.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Open Book Pittsburgh

Over at the City Paper Slag Heap, Chris Potter recently highlighted Open Book Pittsburgh, which I was entirely ignorant of. It seems like a pretty cool site put forth by my favorite City Controller, Michael Lamb, to enlighten us on all sorts of money passing through our local government's hands. My first cursory search was for the big bucks - any city contract over a million dollars.

The latest multi-million dollar contract?

A $3 Million contract for AON RISK SERVICES CENTRAL, INC. to cover risks associated with the G20.

3 Questions

1. Can Pamela's get a piece of that? Or was the city only covering its own behind at the expense of our local businesses?
2. Is this going to get reimbursed? And where will the reimbursement show up in Open Book?
3. What kind of deductible do you have when your insurance premium is $3 Million? I hope it's pretty low.

So, yes, Open Book Pittsburgh is a great concept. But I find that right now, it creates more questions than it answers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Study Highlights Pittsburgh's Lack of Immigrants

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative has released a study stating that Philadelphia was under-counted in the 2000 census. Their goal? To direct more moneys to Philadelphia for the upcoming 2010 census count.
"The report finds that almost all of the cities studied have less money and fewer staffers for this Census than they did in 2000."
And the results of this study? Philadelphia was under-counted by 8,326 residents. Pittsburgh was over-counted by exactly 752 residents. They claim that certain groups are "hard-to-count" including low-income renters, immigrants, African Americans and Hispanics.

Additionally, there are groups of folks that they tend to over-count, typically non-
Hispanic whites with more than one residence.

From the PEW report:
After each Census, the Census Bureau conducts research to determine roughly what percentage of those groups it missed. Using that research, a noted Temple University statistician, Eugene P. Ericksen, found that the 2000 count likely missed an estimated 8,326 Philadelphians, or about 0.5 percent of the city’s population.
So what is the scientific evidence used in this study?

Eugene P. Ericksen, Temple University, at the request of the Philadelphia Research
Initiative calculated the ratio of under-counts/over-counts to true population to be -1.84
percent for non-Hispanic blacks, -3.17 percent for Hispanics and 1.09 percent for non-Hispanic whites. Eugene doesn't appear to actually account for those other "hard-to-count" groups including low-income residents and renters.

Philly 2008 statistics
Total Population: 1,447,395
44.8% Black
11.3% Hispanic
39.0% White non-Hispanic (versus 47.5% total White people)
Total under-count: 8,326 (-0.5%)

Pittsburgh 2008 statistics:
Total Population: 334,563
27.1% Black
1.3% Hispanic
67.6% White
Total over-count: 752 (0.2%)

In Pittsburgh, the census doesn't appear to track the number of non-Hispanic whites versus Hispanics that also identify as white. I assume it's a fairly negligible number.

As a state, then Pennsylvania 2008 statistics:
Total Population: 12,448,279
Black: 10.8% * -1.84% = -24,737
Hispanic: 4.8% * -3.17% = -18,941
White non-Hispanic: 81.4% * 1.09% = 110,448
Total over-count: 66,770 (0.5%)

To put these numbers in perspective, Pennsylvania would have been over-counted by 0.5%, more than twice as much as the city of Pittsburgh which is claimed to be over-counted by 0.2%. Any city with a majority of white residents and a vast minority of Hispanic residents, will show an over-count. Whether you believe our Hispanic residents are systematically under-counted and our white residents are systematically over-counted is a matter of debate. But what this study showcases yet again is our striking lack of Hispanic immigrants. Of the 239 cities in the United States with a population over 100,000 residents, Pittsburgh ranks 232nd in terms of its percentage of Hispanic immigrants. Pittsburgh is not a comparable city to Philadelphia in terms of population or demographics. In my opinion, Pittsburgh was included in their 11 cities list merely to pull more money in the state to Philadelphia. Why doesn't the highly reputable Pew Charitable Trust perform a study on the disparity of Hispanic immigrants to Pittsburgh?

So what is the justification for Pittsburgh's inclusion in the study?

From the PEW report:
The 10 cities examined for this report besides Philadelphia include the five with larger populations—Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix—
plus five chosen on the basis of their similarity to Philadelphia and their experience in dealing with the Census—Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh. No consideration was given to fiscal condition or population growth.
Philadelphia is the 6th largest city in the country. If they had chosen the top 10 in terms of population (actual peers of Philadelphia), would Philadelphia have been dead-last? San Antonio, ranked 7th in population, has a Hispanic population of 61%. Dallas, San Diego, and San Jose round out the top 10. It's pretty obvious why the trust left them out of the running. Why else is Pittsburgh included in this study but to make Philadelphia look better and affect state funding of census studies? I'm only surprised they didn't include Cincinnati in the list - a city which ties Pittsburgh with its meager Hispanic population yet has a higher overall population. My serious question to pose is: Why are immigrants skipping over cities like Pittsburgh (1.3% Hispanic) and Cincinnati (1.3%) in favor of fellow rust belt cities like Rochester (12.8%) and Buffalo (7.5%) and Cleveland (7.3%)?

*Note: The city over-count/under-count numbers are based on the 2000 census, whereas my state numbers are based on 2008 estimates. There are more Hispanic residents in Pennsylvania in 2008 than in 2000 which would result in an even higher over-count back in 2000, but those numbers are harder to parse.

Friday, October 9, 2009

5 Valuable Posts About Library Closings

It seems like every blogger worth his keyboard has something valuable to say about libraries.
  1. PGH Comet - No books for you
  2. Brian O'Neill (Post-Gazette) - A Great City, Failing at its Libraries
  3. Pittsblog - Let the Libraries Close
  4. Me (Pgh is a City) - Does RAD work here?
  5. And the response: Carnegie Library Blog - Sustaining our Future
Of course, the commentary on these blogs is just as interesting as the posts themselves.
As J.K. RowledUP says:
"Isn’t a branch more important that a Marketing Department? And should’t a failed CEO work for 1$"

But just like the closing of South Side Hospital and the taxing of non-profit arts groups, public outcry can change the future. Let your voice be heard. Complain to your politicians. Stop this injustice.

Note: Yes, I know. Brian O'Neill isn't a blogger. It may even offend him to be in the same list as bloggers, but it's my blog, so I can put him in whatever list I want.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Does RAD Work Here?

If the city has any extra money, now is the time to spend it. The city of Pittsburgh only puts forth $40,000 per year for the libraries, relying instead of kind benefactors, RAD tax dollars, and the state. Yesterday, Mayor Ravenstahl was quick to point out that before the Regional Asset District (RAD) was created, the city put forth millions of dollars per year for the libraries. The problem here is that county and city residents contribute to RAD dollars, and the city can not control how RAD spends its money. The city can only control how it spends its money. We've given away our library system to RAD, and RAD is keeping it. Now, 4 libraries are closing in February.

From their web page: The mission of RAD is to support and finance regional assets in the areas of libraries, parks and recreation, cultural, sports and civic facilities and programs.

First in the mission statement, they list libraries, and the Carnegie libraries will receive $17.6 Million this year. Another $8.1 Million is devoted to the county libraries. The other big receiver from RAD dollars is the regional parks. The parks are budgeted to receive $24.3 Million. Their allocation has increased 19% over the last five years. The Carnegie library budget was flat over the last year.

Over the last 14 years (since RAD's inception), here's a brief run-down of spending totals:
Libraries: $331 Million
Parks: $287 Million
Stadiums: $220 Million

The Carnegie Library system has decided that communities like Beechview, Carrick, and Hazelwood are dispensable. These libraries, that have not been renovated like the lovely Oakland and Squirrel Hill libraries, do not draw people from outside their neighborhoods. South Side library was another library on the chopping block. This heavily-frequented (yet not renovated) library just celebrated its 100th birthday. It was spared the chopping block.

I'm asking myself this question: Is it more important to have more libraries serving the vast majority of city residents or better libraries that could drive Barnes and Noble out of business? We know what the Carnegie library system chose. Personally, I'd prefer consistent minor improvements to existing libraries rather than closing less popular libraries and building fancy new buildings. But it's too late for that. The city of Pittsburgh is too many steps removed from the actual funding and managing of its libraries, and the most disadvantaged residents will suffer for it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

One of these Taxes Is Not Like the Other

"These tax increases, if they come to fruition, would be very bad news for Pennsylvania," contended Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative group.

Democratic Tax Proposals
  • Cigars and Chewing Tobacco
  • Increase in Tax on proposed table games at Casinos
  • Marcellus Shale Drilling tax
Republican Tax Proposals
  • Non-profit arts groups
  • Small games of chance (i.e. Fire Department Bingo)

I can only imagine that the "conservative group" is siding with the Democrats. Or they have some serious explaining to do as to why they are siding with tobacco, casino, and gas companies instead of non-profit charity organizations.

If the tax on chewing tobacco is too high, maybe some people will quit that cancer-causing habit. If the tax on table games is too high, the casinos won't open table games. If the tax on drilling for gas is too high, ROFL.

But, if the tax on bingo is too high, volunteer fire departments will not be able to afford a new truck. And if the tax on the zoo and theater is too high, school programs will be cut, jobs will be lost, and we will all suffer for a lack of arts in our lives.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cool Summer = Less Murders

There has long been a supposed correlation between hot summer weather and violence. In the summer, kids are out of school and restless. The hot weather exacerbates that. This summer the weather was cooler, and the murder rate has dropped significantly. The city is on track for a 40% decrease in the murder rate this year over last. 3/4 of the way through the year, we have 34 homicides as opposed to a total of 72 last year. Boston has also seen the effects of bad weather with a drop in shootings.

This is great news for an incumbent in an election year even as the Post-Gazette is publishing that Ravenstahl's administration let the ball drop on a sweeping crime-reduction plan. I wrote about the PIRC plan last year when it was announced. I had high hopes that the violence in my nearby neighborhoods would be reduced.

"Press conference, photo-op, no follow-through," said Mr. [Franco Dok] Harris. "We talk a lot, and we don't seem to do much."

Let's make PIRC (Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime) more than a photo-op for the mayor.
This good news will be a short reprieve if Climate Change experts are right. In the long-term, Pittsburgh is expected to have colder winters and hotter summers, which means we better deal with the potential for violence now.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Life in a SurvivaBall

Walking downtown yesterday morning, my first thought was: "it's amazing how easy it is to completely shut down a city." Congratulations to the security planners for such a thorough job. Now, please never do it again. It's unnatural walking around downtown Pittsburgh at noontime while the streets are speckled with walkers and way more bikes than cars. Police outnumber ordinary citizens. But at least we know how Pittsburgh will look in the Apocalypse after we run out of oil. Maybe that's the best protest demonstration pulled off?

So far, most of the protesters heeded the call to stay away from the center of the action, displaying their banners and masks far from the center of the action - permitted or not. 500 people in Lawrenceville insisted on protesting without a permit and ended up being dispersed by tear gas. There are just a few pockets of peaceful protest occurring downtown.

My favorite protest so far?
SurvivaBall guys. Their "gated community for one" is intended to mock selfish methods of dealing with Climate Change and oil shortages, calling out Exxon and Halliburton. They walk around in their big expensive bubbles making fools of themselves. What better way to protest than by making people laugh?

A close second?
The Steelers heads of state battling against poverty.

One day down, and some say the worst is behind us in terms of protests. The self-proclaimed anarchists got out of hand yesterday. 66 folks were arrested. Many windows were broken. But insurance claims will cover the damages at PNC bank and Boston Market. At Pamela's diner, supposedly protesters returned with money to cover the damages. Before you get too critical of the protesters, remember the damage results from the Super Bowl. The damage wrecked on the city to draw attention to the fact that we won a football game. As opposed to damage which draws attention to issues like Climate Change and the situation in Darfur.

And maybe if we as Pittsburgh'ers spend 2 days thinking about these issues and learning the names of our world's leaders instead of the Steelers, then maybe we'll learn something from the G20. If the G20 was anywhere else, how much would we care whether the US, UK and France were taking a stand against Iran? Or whether the developed countries are considering stopping subsidies for fossil fuels in developed countries or Tibet's or Ethiopia's status?

It's quiet out there downtown. Maybe it's a good day to stop and talk to some of those protesters and learn about their causes. And if all else fails, save up your money and buy a SurvivaBall for the next Apocalypse.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Transparency in Lobbying

Who says that we don't have transparency in government?

In Pennsylvania, once again, it's shown to be all too clear who controls the purse-strings of the state. The corporations. It's only fitting that the G20 will be based in Pittsburgh this week.

Latest moronic poor budget patch?

Adding sales tax to your ballet, opera, musical, play, zoo, and museum tickets.
At first glance, this doesn't seem so bad. Then, you realize who the state is leaving in exempt status - movie theaters and sporting events.

So our Pennsylvania tax dollars are subsidizing AMC Loews Theaters and Regal Entertainment Group - companies that make hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Our tax dollars are subsidizing the Heinz family and the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Flyers (yet again). Yet the state house wants to take away this subsidy for the City Theater, for Bricolage, for Quantum Theater, for the Carnegie Museums, for the Pittsburgh Zoo, for all these arts companies barely staying afloat and enriching our lives in un-measurable ways. Ridiculous.

Perhaps next, we'll have a fee on withdrawing library books? And exempt the sales tax for Barnes and Noble?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Registering for the Pittsburgh Party

Welcome to the Democratic governor's race, Mr. Hoeffel.

I'm currently registered to vote as an Independent. I'm not a huge fan of either the Republican or Democratic parties, though I do have a tendency to vote Democrat.

The longer I live in Pittsburgh, the more politically handicapped I feel by not being registered as a Democrat. I happened to be out of the country when Hillary and Barack were competing in the National Democratic primary. Similarly, I skipped town when the recent Pittsburgh Democratic mayoral primary took place. But I figure I may actually be in town one of these years for the Democratic primary. Especially if there's a decent Democrat running against Dan Onorato.

Anyone out there not registered as a Democrat? Are there any drawbacks to registering as a Democrat? Any reason I shouldn't fill out this form?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cool Off

The G20 is 2 days.

It will be crazy, and it will suck if you need to go downtown for those 2 days, but it is only 2 days.

Our kids will not become total college rejects because they miss school for 2 days. If you're boss is making you take mandatory 2 days of vacation during the summit, you probably already knew it was time to look for a new job.

Heck. When we won the Super Bowl, there were 2 effective days off - the Monday after the game and parade day. Do I have to mention that 350,000 folks slammed downtown to celebrate the Steeler's winning for a weekday parade? And we're only expecting around 50,000 protesters.

To those that say they regret the G20 being hosted in Pittsburgh, that's only natural. Grooms always have a moment of regret the week before they take the plunge. Olympic host cities have times when they regret the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on new stadiums that will never be full again. But ultimately, it is a privilege. The spotlight focuses on our fair city for a bit, and then it's over.

After all is said and done, we can compare windows smashed and couches burned to the post Super Bowl celebrations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I will stay if...

There's a party in Pittsburgh this week, and it aims to find out what people actually want out of Pittsburgh (and why they're here in the first place.) This is a refreshing take over the we-need-to-attract-lots-of-young-people college-brain-drain nonsense.

In honor of the party:
I will stay if...
Pittsburgh continues to have great random parties.
Pittsburgh gets a hostel.
Pittsburgh schools keep improving.
Pittsburgh becomes a bike-friendly city.

Ultimately, I think Pittsburgh is on a positive course. Lots of mistakes could derail it, including not fixing the pension crisis and giving up on any of the great progress started from biking to schools to green building.

For more details, see here, here, and here.

So why do you stay in Pittsburgh? (Or what could make you move to the city?)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

2 Steps to Sanitizing the South Side

Perhaps as fallout from the upcoming G20, there is some renewed interest in sanitizing the South Side.

2 Cleanliness Culprits in the South Side

1. Public Urination. From what I hear of friends that live on the South Side, this is a pervasive problem. Many solutions have been tried in the past - a mostly vacant port-a-potty sitting over at 18th Street being the most salient reminder. Ideas have been thrown out of giving bar-owners subsidies for opening their bathrooms to the public. Councilor Bruce Kraus wants to take the direct approach. Fine the guys $500. If that's enforced, it might actually work. Of course, we'll also have Kraus to blame if there's a sharp rise in Urinary Tract Infections amongst college-aged men in Pittsburgh. Final vote is on Tuesday.

2. Dangerous Building Conditions. City building inspectors ordered the artist colony known as the Brew House (the former Duquesne Brewery at 21st Street and Mary Street) to vacate the unfit premises by September 19. As it turns out open wiring and lots of flammable materials (also known as art) make for a dangerous combination. Personally, I'd recommend they start with the state of college apartment rentals. The folks at the Brew House are choosing to be there. The college students are clearly morons who will end up pissing on their open wiring when they're kicked off the streets, causing a much more volatile situation. As for the Brew House residents and their building, I wouldn't be surprised if they end up in Garfield, and the lovely building gets turned into condos.

For the South Side, these changes are inevitable. They are the "living room" and ATM of the city. When houses cost over $300,000, you have to expect anger and indignation when someone pisses on your lawn or smelly artists move in next door. Happily, Pittsburgh still has the pleasure of containing many other pre-gentrified neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and Polish Hill. And when those are cleaned up, we'll still have plenty of more neighborhoods to follow.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Recent Signs of Union Death

Is Union approval becoming the kiss of death in Pittsburgh and beyond?

Currently, city police, fire, and municipal unions are opposing Harrisburg pension legislation. They are clearly the most affected by any changes in the management of the system. I think we're choosing between a rock (Pittsburgh) and a hard place (Harrisburg). Yet the powers-that-be in Harrisburg (minus Senator Orie) are all in favor of pushing Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and any other problematic pension system towards the hard place as quickly as possible. For a more in-depth look at the city's pension problems, check out nullspace writer Chris Briem's iPension.

On Labor Day, Biden led a union rally in favor of Arlen Specter. Elsewhere, President Obama was giving a speech at a union party in Cincinnati, rallying the union in support of health care reform. The union members cheered for Obama and Biden both. But what are the odds of Specter or Health Insurance reform will pass the vote? All I'm saying is I wouldn't necessarily want to win union favor in the upcoming mayoral election.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Free Antibiotics

Giant Eagle has announced that it will be offering free antibiotics this Fall.

Which is a great slap in the face for anyone without health insurance.*

Why? Because you need a prescription to get your free serving of antibiotics. Getting a prescription costs a doctor's appointment which is way more than the previous cheap cost of $4 per generic antibiotic.

But I can just hear the anti-health-care propagandists now: "Why are people complaining about the cost of health care??? You can get free prescriptions! Down with socialist ideals!"

Giant Eagle's ploy is about giving folks a $4 coupon to shop in their store. It does not make antibiotics more accessible to those without health insurance. (Of course, I doubt whether they should be too accessible given the wide range of microorganisms developing resistance to antibiotics.) It makes good business sense, but it does not make health care more accessible for most of us.

*Note: I do have health insurance. I'm not one of "those people" dragging down our society by not having health insurance I can't afford.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

News Briefs Besides the G20

Hard to see through all the "news" about the G20 to what's actually going on around here.

So, what is going on around here?
  • 2 Violent robberies in the South Side on Sunday. Does this have anything to do with moving the police station up the hill? I sure hope not. But while I don't want to get robbed on the South Side walking back from the bar, in some ways, I'd rather there were robberies down on the South Side or over in Squirrel Hill instead of Garfield and Allentown. Maybe then the people that donate to political campaigns will insist on making all public safety a priority in this city.

  • "Still no state budget, Rendell talks taxes" [and pension takeovers]. Unlike the Mayor, I'm very torn on this issue. I think that Pittsburgh has clearly gotten itself in a pickle with pensions, but I don't trust the state to do any better. After all, we've been in Act 47 for over 5 years and we're worse than when we started in terms of pensions. As I see it, that's akin to putting someone in jail, telling them when to eat, sleep, and shit, then complaining about the results. How about the state takes off the handcuffs and gives Pittsburgh a chance to start again?

  • Faith trumps bureaucracy. Yet again, faith-based groups are showing that through hard work and determination, they can clean up neighborhoods and keep folks out of jail. Just imagine if they could strengthen their numbers by involving all the protesters from Planned Parenthood.

  • Pittsburgh Public Schools are solidly in the running for a big chunk of change from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Throwing more money at a problem never hurt, right? And they went through some pretty intensive hoops to get this money, so maybe it'll produce better teachers and improve college-readiness of Pittsburgh students as intended. If not, at least we'll all feel better knowing our latest Windows upgrade went to a good cause.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Go Away, Creeps

Dear Creepy Planned Parenthood Saturday Morning Protesters,

Quit it. You creep me out. Don't you have anything better to do with your time?

Seriously, Planned Parenthood may allow abortions, but it also gives all women access to reasonable gynecological care and birth control. It prevents way more abortions than it performs. And if women can't get access to birth control, they will get pregnant. Because people have sex, and no matter how many 10 foot tall signs of dead fetuses you hold up (4 this morning), people are going to have sex. And no matter how many signs of dead fetuses you hold up, people are going to have abortions. It's just a matter of how emotionally scarred they are by the process. The only thing you're going to prevent is normal people (like me) who just want reasonable women's health care, but don't want to walk through your gauntlet.

Instead of supporting the underlying causes of Planned Parenthood and giving women another option, you would prefer that women are prevented from receiving any care. You would rather scar women than treat them.

According to Planned Parenthood's website: "82 percent of our clients receive services to prevent unintended pregnancy." That's 4 out of 5 women that are walking through the doors of Planned Parenthood. They're trying to prevent getting pregnant, and you're trying to shame them and deter them from walking through the door. Let's be honest, you're probably causing more abortions by stopping these women from getting birth control. Because they may not be willing to risk your ire for some pills, but they sure as hell aren't going to turn back when they're in a critical situation, pregnant with a baby they can't bear.

So quit it.

And if you agree with me, donate some money to your local Planned Parenthood. Maybe you could pledge-a-picketer, so that every time someone is standing out there waiting to harass someone who probably just wants birth control, you'll know that they're supporting Planned Parenthood.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Port Authority Plans

Port Authority is finished with another round of their system revamping. Overall, I'm pleased if personally a bit disappointed. Check out the final draft plans as well as my thoughts over at "Green Is Good".

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It's Up To US

From the excellent Post-Gazette columnist Brian O'Neill:

"The switch from President George Bush to President Barack Obama has been universally seen as dramatic, but this much hasn't changed: The American economy is still based on filling our cars with imported gasoline so we can drive to the mall to buy Asian goods so foreigners can loan us back the dollars to finance two wars on the other side of the world while we sink further in debt."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

2 State Bills You Should Be Paying Attention To

The Pennsylvania State House may not be able to pass a budget, but they can sure screw over the residents of Allegheny County. Yesterday, 2 very important bills passed some of their final tests.

1.) The Property Re-Assessment Bill. The State Supreme Court ordered a re-assessment of Allegheny County. Dan Onorato with the support of lots of other sniveling counties in the state, have pushed the state house and senate to put this court-ordered re-assessment on hold for 18 months. The Senate could have their final vote on this one as early as tomorrow. Then it's in the hands of Rendell.
Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said he had serious doubts about the bill, which has already passed the House, but voted for it yesterday "to keep the process moving.'' He said it may be unconstitutional for the Legislature to tell counties to ignore court orders on reassessment.
Yes, we are moving forward by not moving anywhere for the next 18 months. Is that enough time for Mr Onorato to get elected governor and think of a smarmy way out of this sticky mess?

2.) The Pension Bill - which also determines Pittsburgh's parking taxes. Here the state wants to take over the city's pension funding as well as any other city or municipality facing less than 50% funded. Pittsburgh's pensions are funded at an abysmal 28%. In theory, it sounds like a great idea to out-source this responsibility because clearly Pittsburgh has been failing at it in an unprecedented manner. But at the same time, is the State really any more responsible with their money? And why the micro-managing? Why does this bill include over-arching wording about the parking tax? It should be either a pension bill or a parking tax bill. Luckily, after the Senate votes on this one, it will be lobbed back to the House.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dread Lord Zober Goes To Church

As you all know, awesome Pittsburgh blogger, Pittgirl unveiled herself yesterday, shedding the cloak of anonymity and putting her job at risk to continue the noble effort of blogging with snark. You can find her at That's Church. The backlash she was most afraid of "Lukey" and his puppetmaster, the "Dread Lord Zober."

Zober and Ravenstahl were in a forgiving mood yesterday. "In the interest of moving Pittsburgh forward, Dread Lord Zober and I have decided to let bygones be bygones and let this one slide. And that's church," Ravenstahl said in a statement.

Of course, it would have been interesting to see the public backlash if she had received the ire of the current mayor. Would the city's love of Pittgirl (i.e. Your Majesty) override their contentment with the status-quo-democratic-mayor? Clearly, Mayor Ravenstahl didn't want to find out. Or maybe he just has a sense of humor. If so, thanks to Ginny for unveiling that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fitting Tribute

In his will, George Sodini bequeathed $225,000 to University of Pittsburgh. They said "no" to the money.

It's unfortunate because this would have been a great opportunity for the University of Pittsburgh to counteract the negativity wrecked on this region by this pathetic shell of a man. How about using the money to help fund women's programs at the university? Perhaps self-defense classes? Rape counseling? Hiring a new professor of Women's studies? More funding for women's athletics? Of course, I am not recommending that anything be named in his honor. But maybe he would roll over in his grave knowing that his money will be benefiting generations of young women that he attempted to undermine.

However, I do respect the University of Pittsburgh for this stance. It is not easy to turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars. And if the money can end up in the hands of the victim's families, that will also be a worthwhile place for it.

Think Small

Why did Pittsburgh win the iPhone App "space race" when Boston announced their app over a month ago? Is it because we have a younger mayor? No. It's because we're small. Less bureaucracy means more flexibility.

Instead of being born in an official policy brainstorming session, the city iPhone App was one of Councilman Peduto's many ideas. When Councilman Peduto saw a need for a city iPhone App, he did not go through the proper channels. He did not contract a company. He just started a conversation with a local start-up company who saw some opportunity for synergy. YinzCam wrote a simple, easy-to-use app, and now you can download it. End of story. David always beats Goliath.

Another example of smart small local companies is Deep Local. This start-up is working with Port Authority to create and test Route Shout, which allows you to make use of phone-texting to find out when the next bus is coming.

Obviously, we're not going to be able to build a new light-rail line using these methods. But little quality of life improvements can add up to make a big difference in our city. Any other examples I've missed? Can Pittsburgh become the city where new, innovative ideas are given a chance without needing to jump through hoops and fill out paperwork in triplicate? Can we be the city that attracts entrepreneurs that are sick of the status quo. "Every journey begins with a single step." And we've taken the first small step.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Carnegie's Legacy

After Andrew Carnegie funded his first United States library in Braddock, he went on to fund 1,689 other libraries across the nation. While he may have favored the Pittsburgh region, Carnegie's generosity covered the globe from here to Fiji.

In addition to 19 libraries, Carnegie also built spectacular museums in Pittsburgh. However, he did not invest the money to sustain these great cultural institutions forever. He wanted the city to fund their day-to-day responsibilities. Today, RAD (that pesky extra 1% sales tax in Allegheny County) funds 70% of Carnegie library operations. The rest is funded by state and federal government alongside generous modern-day donors.

Maybe Carnegie's greatest legacy to Pittsburgh is not the buildings he left behind, but the responsibility to continue paying for those buildings and maintaining them. There are few Natural History museums, library systems, or arts institutions that can rival ours. In spite of population loss and economic downturn, our citizens have continued to pay for these places through sales tax and donations. None of us would dare let Mr Carnegie down.

Once again, the Carnegie libraries are facing financial issues. Do they close libraries, cancel or limit services, or find new ways of making money? Time will tell, but I'm pretty sure our community will manage to step up and lend a hand to those who depend on the library:
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will inspire in the citizens of our region respect and responsibility for life-long learning, citizenship, and civic participation.
Let's all do our part to help them follow through on their vision.

Yesterday, on a blazingly hot day in Pittsburgh, I visited the air-conditioned Carnegie Museum of Art. I ooh-ed and aah-ed at the artwork of Van Gogh, Teenie Harris, and Kara Walker. Thanks to Carnegie for starting this vision and thanks to Pittsburgh for continuing to follow through.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Dear Kevin Acklin,

Please publicly renounce your campaign supporters who are disputing Harris's petition signers. I am one of those signers (a valid one as far as I know). I signed his petition because I want more choices, more voices, and more ideas in this election. When I was asked to sign the petition, I confirmed that I was a voter in the city of Pittsburgh.

In entering this Fall's mayoral election, you are fighting an uphill battle. Your supporters would be much better serving your campaign in phone banks and knocking door-to-door. Instead they spent a pathetic number of hours scrutinizing the competition by analyzing the 3,270 people who are happy to see another name on the ballot.


Monday, August 10, 2009

The Bike Lobby in Motion

Over the weekend, the Rivers Casino re-opened the North Shore trail section their year-long construction was blockading. They also erected signs which said that bikers were not allowed to ride their bike on the trail past the casino, and instead had to dismount and walk their bikes, a rule that was actively being enforced on the trail. This immediately caused an uproar amongst the biking community. But a funny thing happened. Mayor Ravenstahl and County Executive Onorato both jumped on board the bikers side. As of this afternoon, the crisis is over. The signs will be changed to say: "Proceed with Caution."

The casino spokesman whined: You didn't have to go to the media. You should have just called us.

The city of bikers rolled their eyes collectively: You didn't have to put up the signs.

As a side note, some fresh bike lanes were painted in the Strip District this weekend.
Are things changing in this city? And do we need to be wary of the power of bikers? And most importantly, is there anyway this new faction can be motivated to bring about change in the city beyond their two wheels?

Friday, August 7, 2009

What Does Social Media Mean to Me?

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I'm a relative Pittsburgh newbie. As of last Fall, I had already been blogging for almost a year in relative seclusion - going for months at a time without a comment. Then I read in the City Paper about Podcamp Pittsburgh - a free event showcasing social media from Twitter to blogs to any other way you can get your voice out there over the web. In 2 short days, I met lots of people, learned some tricks of the blogging trade, and became an avid Twitter user. Today, most people I know in Pittsburgh are from relationships that started that fateful weekend.

So to me, you could say Social Media means friends. It has also resulted in more visibility and feedback on my blog, and more reason for me to keep blogging and bugging you all. Last year, while I was at PodCamp, one of the well-to-do venture capitalists said (paraphrasing) "You need to blog about something interesting. You can't just be another city politics blog and expect to be successful." I think he has a thing or two to learn about success. Social media redefines success. Here success is counted in re-tweets, blog comments, and personal interaction. Or at least that's what I make of it.

This October is PodCamp 4, or my second PodCamp. I hope to see lots of familiar and new faces there. I hope to find more inspiration to keep blogging. I hope to finally try a 649. Have you registered yet?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Yinzer Dogs at Large

I was about 8 when the leash laws came to Haverhill, Massachusetts. We could no longer let our Beagle mutt roam the streets at will. Instead, she had to stay fenced in our backyard. After decades of leash laws, dog owners are now starting to demand some leeway. Back in Haverhill, they are trying (and failing) to establish dog parks.

In Pittsburgh, we are lucky to have some dog parks already in place in Frick Park, Hartwood Acres, North Park, and South Park amongst others. But dog-owners want some place where they can go after work, some place that's convenient. And folks in the city don't tend to have spacious fenced in backyards. In the South Side, dog-owners recently took over Armstrong Park at 12th Street, which generated a great hullabaloo amongst area residents and was cracked down upon with fines and signs galore. This generated such a ruckus that Councilor Bruce Kraus has now admirably involved himself in the issue, and plans have been drawn up to create an official dog park in the South Side. Save the hospital, build dog parks, crack down on al fresco dining, what can't this man do in the South Side?

The catch? This convenient, well-landscaped, multi-zone dog park is going to cost the city $200,000 which it doesn't have. On the other hand, some community activists over in Lawrenceville are building their own dog park with minimal landscaping and minimal cost. Which do you think will be built first? And where will the next renegade dog park pop up in the city?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Look Twice

Look twice, save a life.

That's the motorcycle awareness motto, but it's my new motto for bicyclists. Pittsburgh has a ton of bicyclists around especially in the college student neighborhood of Oakland. Yesterday the driver of a white Ford pickup truck didn't look twice. Today Mr. Ruihui Lin is dead.

Look twice, save a life. Try it.

And as a city, let's get serious about bike safety. Some bike lanes in East Liberty are fine and dandy, but let's put some on Forbes Ave or Fifth Ave. Those are seriously treacherous routes that are crucial for the college student biking community.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

3 Ways for PWSA to Make Money

Pgh Comet and nullspace have already sunk their teeth into the Iron City / PWSA debacle enough, so why am I writing about it? Because I pay my exorbitant water bill and I'm pissed that yet again, the PWSA is considering raising rates.

I have some cost-cutting recommendations for the Water Authority.

1) Actually charge for water use. (We're looking at you, Pittsburgh Zoo. How are those new sharks getting along?)

2) Once you charge for water use, actually demand payment. (We're looking at you, Iron City.)

3) Make your bills quarterly. You will save postage, paper, accounting, check-cashing time, etc. This is standard practice in other cities. Plus, people feel better about being ripped off when it's only 4 times per year.

As a side note, I commend your cheap-as-chips, minimalist website. Who needs fancy graphics and design? Just a waste of taxpayer money.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spray On

Am I the only one who can't wait for one of these new-fangled city spray parks to open up in my area? Currently, there is one in Troy Hill, with construction under way for a Beechview park. I think I can walk to the one planned for Beltzhoover. Adults can use them, right? I'm also proud to see the city investing money in some disadvantaged areas. They may not be re-opening any closed public pools, but they are replacing them with something fun and refreshing. Instead of cutting back on amenities, this is an example of a smart budgeting compromise where the city spends a lot less money than a traditional pool, but the neighborhoods still benefit.

Added bonus: Suburban Moms venturing into Troy Hill for the first time - and enjoying it. Now if only we can get Shady Side Moms to head there...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Welcome to the Race

Yesterday, Franco Dok Harris officially announced that he is running for Mayor.

If elected mayor, he promised to say "yes" to enhancing economic opportunities, fighting crime, investing in education and fixing the city's infrastructure.

Is he also going to say "yes" to higher taxes? I know it's early, but I'm really curious as to where this money is going to come from. I want someone to say "yes" to implementing Controller Michael Lamb's audit recommendations. Let's use the money we have smartly instead of making lots of new grand plans.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Squeaky Wheel Gets Lower Taxes

What is it with this state and unfair taxes? Pennsylvania, at the state and county level, continuously finds way to tax its poor unjustly in spite of State Supreme Court rulings to the contrary.

1) The state income tax is not progressive. Everybody (unless you make less than a measly $6,500) gets charged the same 3.07% or if Governor Rendell has his way 3.57%. How about we increase the income tax to 3.57% only if you are making more than $100,000 per year? $200,000? Can't we take a page out of Obama's playbook? Of course, no legislature wants to bite the hand that feeds them donations.

2) To avoid raising property taxes (where you theoretically pay more if you have a more expensive house), the state is attempting to allow counties to raise their sales tax, which is a patently regressive tax, affecting the poor more than the wealthy.

3) Where they have to rely on property taxes, they do so in a patently unjust manner, freezing property values and punishing those who live in depressed neighborhoods.

And why do we put up with it? Because the people who have the time to complain are not the people working minimum wage jobs trying to put food on the table. Some people might say charging progressive taxes is against the state Constitution which says: "All taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of subjects ...," But I say, what's one more bent rule?

Friday, July 24, 2009

They're Back!

You've got to give it to Northside United. They're stubborn, yet they can also adjust their tactics. They started with angry gatherings at planned meetings regarding Continental's North Shore developments, followed by a bus tour of the North Side where they invited politicians to see the blight of the neighborhood first-hand. After multiple arrests from last weeks shenanigans at the Del Monte headquarters (a Continental Real Estate property), they've moved on to the Mayor's office. Next stop, the governor's house in Harrisburg? The White House? I admire their determination in this issue. They've said "Enough is enough." And at this point, no one can doubt they mean it.

Mayor Ravenstahl, can you do us a favor and listen to their cause? After being involved in the landmark Hill District Community Benefits Agreement, it'd be a shame to throw all that goodwill out the window. You want to be viewed as a brokerer of deals, not a stomper of human rights, right?

And if you don't, they could sure make a mess of things when Obama and friends come to town for the G20 in September. That'll make a bigger impression than potholes.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Priorities in the Face of G20

My street is on the paving list for this summer, but unless some hotshot is blindly following their GPS on the way to the South Side for a Primanti Brother's sandwich photo-op, no one of any political importance is going to drive down it this September. Does that mean my street is going to get pushed to the bottom of the paving heap? Should it?
"Mr. Ravenstahl said the city will plant trees throughout Downtown, and Public Works Director Guy Costa said sections of streets including 10th Street, Oliver Avenue, William Penn Place, Sixth Avenue, Forbes Avenue and Market Street will be repaved. Railroad underpasses on Penn and Liberty avenues will also be cleaned."
If these items were on a priority list already, I'm all for them. But let's try not to "reddup" Downtown at the expense of everybody who actually lives in the city. I understand that people want to get gussied-up and show off our fair city to the G20 officials that are stopping by. But Pittsburgh was picked for the G20 for its positives and its negatives, for its tumultuous history. Nobody expects to see an immaculate Disney World. Get an army of volunteers to clean up litter and paint over graffiti if you want, but leave the Department of Public Works to do their job. It's far more positive to stick to a sensible, fair plan of paving streets, fixing potholes, and painting sign posts, than to allow line-jumping for a one-weekend event. And it serves the residents of the city the most.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Falling in Love

When I first moved to Pittsburgh, I loved all its shiny amenities. I loved the view of its skyline from Mt Washington. I loved the old steel mills re-purposed as shopping malls and night club destinations. I loved the churches re-purposed as restaurants and music venues. Within weeks, I was a rabid Steelers fan.

18 Months later, I knew more about Pittsburgh. It was winter and even though Pittsburgh gets very little snow, the snow it gets completely debilitates the the poorly maintained, ridiculously planned roads. I was beginning to see the chinks in Pittsburgh's armor. But I had also discovered Penn Avenue's Unblurred, dozens of quaint neighborhoods, shopping in the Strip District, and I was in better shape than ever from the built-in stair-masters surrounding my street. I started watching hockey and was crushed when the Penguins were trampled by the Redwings.

Fast-forward another 18 months to today. This year, I've cheered on the Steelers to the Super Bowl and the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. I've also watched rain pour into my 100-year-old fixer-upper, entered dozens of battles of the will with the city's 311 line (often winning), saw the true awful state of the city's pension, and have made some good friends. I'm only finally starting to live in the city. And I'm finally starting to cheer for the Pirates. I've learned their history as a mega-team, and I've accepted that they're bad now. My 13-year-old brother-in-law who lives in Alaska (and is visiting for 3 weeks) has taught me the wonder of buying cheap tickets and sitting in the stands, enjoying a summer day. Every time they win, it's a small victory, just like when I call 311 to fix a street light, and it actually gets fixed. Do I wish that Pittsburgh was more like the Red Sox with loads of money and talent? Of course, I do. But have I grown to love poor old Pittsburgh with its incredible history and transient population? Yup, I have.

Last night, only 11,741 people showed up to cheer the Pirates on to their latest small victory. Tickets start at less than $9. Buy a ticket. And remind yourself why you love this city. Anyone can be a bandwagon fan and root for the Steelers, it takes someone who loves the city to root for the Pirates - or a 13 year-old kid.

Monday, July 20, 2009

PennDOT Hates Drivers

I understand that road construction is a complicated beast which is exorbitantly expensive and can take many years. But when you have millions of dollars lined up, and a plan in place, why does PennDOT repeatedly and obnoxiously step in the way, slow things down, and make the lives of Pittsburgh residents miserable?

Instead of looking into commuter rail options on Rte 28 years ago, PennDOT is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on adjusting the lanes. PennDOT is currently negatively impacting retail and everyone on East Carson Street to add turning lanes. The city was ready to go ahead with rehabilitating a decrepit McArdle bridge, but:

...it has taken longer than anticipated to get PennDOT to review and certify the plan.

Maybe they were too busy designing signs to spend stimulus money on? No delays there.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Playing Dress-Up

When an international summit is dropped on your plate with a notice of less than 6 months, you don't have time to rebuild your city. Instead, you drape it in canvas. Or at least that's what you do when the public eyesore is interrupting a spectacular view.

My only question is why did we wait so long? Why is it OK to buy a building, plan to transform it into a hotel/condominiums but in the meantime leave a vacant mess awaiting a wrecking ball that is smeared with graffiti? If you buy a building, you're responsible for it. If the Reddup crew can fine me for not weeding my property (they haven't, by the way), then major developers should be fined until they clean up eyesores around town.

If we act like a city that could get picked for an international summit location all the time, when it happens, we won't hear a chorus of: "Why Pittsburgh?"

Thursday, July 9, 2009

2 More Ways the LCB Is Wasting Your Money

Attempting to be more "customer friendly", the hated Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is unveiling more ways to waste taxpayer money. (As if giving away lucrative customer service contracts based on nepotism wasn't enough.)

1) Mechanized wine "kiosks". In a day and age when cigarette machines have been declared illegal in more states than not, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control board is patting itself on the back for being the first state to introduce wine kiosks. Oh, they say, you just swipe your license in to prove your 21, and breathe to prove your not drunk. Except without an actual person selling you things (or some pretty state-of-the-art-expensive cameras), there's no way to prove that the person swiping is the same as the person breathing is the same as the person buying. For decades college students have found ways around underage drinking laws. Now, the state wants to hand them the biggest loophole ever. I'll admit I originally thought wine kiosks were a great idea, but now I realize that it was just I'd been living in Pennsylvania too long.

2) Boutique wine stores.
"That has been done for decades in small groceries in Italy and is now being duplicated in states such as California and New York, said Mr. Stapleton and Joe Conti, a former state senator who is LCB chief executive officer."
Back up. No, states have not run boutique liquor stores in Italy, nor do they run them in California or New York. The reason that boutique stores thrive is because of the creativity and devotion of their owners who travel the world looking for special wines and cultivate relationships with small vineyards. Instead, we have stores like Palate Partners that are attempting to give customers the boutique experience while being repeatedly slapped in the face by the liquor control board. If I want a boutique store, I'll go to a state that doesn't shackle wine-lovers.

If the PLCB really wants to please customers, it should give us rock-bottom prices or a wider variety of wines. Or how about letting normal stores sell wine??? Why can you buy a six-pack at a bar but not a bottle of wine?

Monday, July 6, 2009

6 More Years of Monopoly?

Within 6 years, Verizon cable will be available throughout the city, according to a tentative new contract with the city. While I'm happy to see a schedule has been planned for the roll-out, I'm pretty disappointed in the timeline. Because of my hill-top perch, I'm guessing my street will be a pretty low priority for Verizon, though I'll probably fare better than the Hill District.

Of course, in 6 years, I won't have wired internet or cable anyways. Wireless options have been growing by leaps and bounds and will make cable as we know it just as obsolete as landline telephones. Cricket will probably beat Verizon in becoming a viable internet option for me. Or maybe the downtown wide wireless internet access can creep up the hill? Either way, I'm just waiting for the day when I can call up Comcast and tell them I'm canceling service because their customer service is abominable.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Compromising Positions

I'm all for compromise. I understand that oftentimes at the political level it's the only way to get things done and some change is often better than none.

In fact, I back laws to support civil unions for gay couples instead of gay marriage because the important thing to me is the result not the nomenclature. I understood that in order to pass a smoking ban at the state level, there would need to be stupid exceptions involving casinos and mom-and-pop bars.

But everybody draws the line somewhere.

And I draw it here:
If you're passing a non-discrimination bill, you shouldn't let anyone discriminate. Either it's right or it's wrong. Yet Allegheny County council just passed a bill that said you can't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity EXCEPT if you're a charitable, fraternal, or religious organization. What??? If you're a blood-sucking corporation, you better not discriminate but if you're a "charitable" organization, you can?

And as Sarah Rose, an attorney with the ACLU says:
"the problem with the current version of the bill is that it gives certain religious organizations an advantage over other groups, thereby violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."Luckily for the religious organizations in Allegheny county, the courts take a long time to sort these things out, so they'll be able to discriminate ad nauseum for the next decade or so.

So here's a shout-out to the Pittsburgh city council who managed to pass an anti-discrimination bill back in 1990 without resorting to illegal compromises. I implore you to do the same in regards to smoking.