Thursday, April 30, 2009

Unconstitutional Dan

I have to follow in the footsteps of the PGH Comet and Nullspace in gloating today.

Property tax re-assessments are a boring subject, yet they speak to the division of class in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Regular re-assessments are critical in a county like Pittsburgh's where especially in the last 10 years you have had some areas skyrocket in value (i.e. South Side) while others have been sinking like an anchor (i.e. Braddock).

Some people think that you shouldn't be "penalized" for the increased the value of your home by being forced to pay more taxes on it. However, I think that's akin to saying that if you get a raise at work for good performance, you shouldn't owe more in income taxes. On the flip side, that's like saying if your salary decreases, you are still required to pay the same taxes. That's just not the way our society works, and it's brutally unfair.

For far too long, we've had people (including myself) benefiting at the expense of the poorer neighborhoods in this city, county and throughout the state. Thanks to the State Supreme Court, at least in Allegheny County, this unconstitutional practice may be coming to an end.

From Chief Justice Castille:

"[T]he Allegheny County scheme, which permits a single base-year assessment to be used indefinitely, has resulted in significant disparities in the ratio of assessed value to current actual value in Allegheny County."

"The disparity is most often to the disadvantage of owners of properties in lower-value neighborhoods where property values often appreciate at a lower rate than in higher-value neighborhoods, if they appreciate at all," the court said.

But what does Dan Onorato have to say? According to the Post-Gazette:
"... Mr. Onorato vowed to end property reassessments in Allegheny County as well since taking office six years ago. He repeated his vow yesterday."
"It would be unfair for me to just roll over and do something that will raise the property taxes of the 1.3 million people in this county," Mr. Onorato said.
My response (again)?
"Let's get something straight. Housing prices (in a normal society) increase. It's perfectly natural and expected that prices will increase. In fact, if housing prices didn't increase we'd be in trouble. HOWEVER, the increased value of an assessed house SHOULD NOT mean increased property tax. When values go up, the county or the city or whomever, SHOULD adjust the mill rate DOWN so that the net result for them is about the same. Is there a law against that in Harrisburg???"
Yes, I just quoted my previous blog entry, but I admit I'm getting tired of spouting the same old argument. Isn't this getting a little old, Dan? Can you please stop wasting county money on defenseless ever-appealed court cases?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Good Day For Mass Transit

So I spend yesterday lambasting Onorato for creating schisms between county and city and today he goes and proves me wrong. Onorato wrote a letter requesting money for transit links between Downtown, Oakland and the airport. In fact the headline for the Post-Gazette article is:

Onorato eyes rail links to airport, Oakland

Of course, I have to look closer.

The "fine print" for this letter breaks down Onorato's requests as such:
$7 Million for downtown mass transit system design
$10.5 Million for commuter rail system design
Total: $17.5 Million

$25 Million for a road in Robinson
$32 Million for a road in Upper St Clair and Scott
$35 Million for the Mansfield Bridge which connects Dravosburg, Glassport and McKeesport.
$12 Million for a flyover ramp in Rankin and Swissvale
$4.5 Million for road improvements in Marshall
$2.5 Million for road construction in Monroeville
$7 Million for traffic improvements in Brackenridge near a steel plant
Total: $118 Million

So $17.5 Million out of a total $135.5 Million (about 13%) of his requests are for mass transit.

I understand that the elephant in the room here is the dreaded North Shore connector which is gobbling up a lot of funding right now.

I also understand that these transit projects will cost ultimately cost billions of dollars but they're only in the design phases right now and there's a limit to how much money you can request for design.

However, I seriously question the short-term vision of our local government who only finds these projects worth pursuing when they are in national favor. Imagine if someone a few years ago had the gumption and follow-through to initiate these studies and if we were ready to go on a spineline between Oakland and Downtown instead of working on a half-assed North Shore connector which no one is truly happy about. What happens in 4 years if Obama is no longer in power and our pathetic local leaders still are (and perhaps Onorato has his governor prize)? Will we then be left with yet more money being spent on highways and interchanges and more transit plans being curtailed and swept under the rug? Will we end up with a new tunnel to the South Side as a booby prize?

But in the meantime, I am very excited to see mass-transit plan being seriously considered even if it's local leaders jumping on the bandwagon. I like this bandwagon. I'd just appreciate some serious long-term regional commitment to spending time and effort on improving our transit systems because right now I feel like it could all disappear at the drop of a hat.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Parking Garages Versus Port Authority

Brian O'Neill makes a very important point about parking garages in his latest editorial:
"Suburban commuters, the people most affected by any uptick in parking rates, have no vote in the mayoral election."
He makes that note near the end of his editorial and then he drops it, but somehow I will make a whole blog post out of this one line because I think he's looking at the tip of the iceberg of this thinly-veiled city versus suburb issue. City dwellers love the idea of leasing the parking garages and dealing with the city pension problem with the profits. Why? Because city dwellers DO NOT USE the parking garages. City dwellers take the bus or walk to work. We were just rated the 10th best walking city in part because a whopping 12% of us walk to work, the most in the nation after Boston. Another 18% take public transportation.

So, how about the city sells/leases the parking garages to the county? The county can manage them for the good of the county residents and then the city doesn't have to be responsible for taking care of suburban commuters at the expense of our city pensions.

Of course, the county doesn't want to buy the parking garages. Why would they? The county [read: Dan Onorato] also wants to contribute as little as is necessary for the upkeep and running of Port Authority. The county [read: Dan Onorato] also wants to keep the status quo of unjust property taxes. And the people that live in the county? They tend to think this is all a city problem, and they bemoan us city-dwellers for continuously voting in inept government that they have no control over. Well, suburban commuters, you do not have a mayoral vote, but you do have control over your government. You choose to not live in the city, you reject consolidation between city and county, and you vote for people like Onorato who undermine your cause by furthering the fractions between city and county despite boasting about the 2 municipality functions he's managed to merge.

And how did the city get in such poor shape? It seems to me that for a long time people thought it was easier to leave the city instead of help fix it. They were right. It was easier in the short-term, but now we're all paying for it - whether through higher taxes or parking rates. The big problem is that right now, the only one who's really profiting from it all is private parking garage owners.

How about the city offers to eliminate the dreaded parking garage tax, offers to keep ineptly running the parking garages (with their incumbent city pension issues and nepotism) and instead institutes a low wage tax on those suburban commuters? Is there any concession on the city's part that would make this palatable? County membership on the Parking Authority board? A citizen watchdog board made up of both city and county residents?

Let's work together to solve these issues. Let's all elect officials who will actually work together instead of giving lip service to a joke of a consolidation plan. Let's make Pittsburgh and the region stronger instead of just tearing each other apart.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Militia Effect?

The Lipstick Effect is a well-known phenomenon in the financial world - wherein women can't afford to buy designer purses and shoes during economic downturns and instead get their kicks on cheaper splurges like lipstick. Now, we have the perfect storm of a liberal president and economic downturn resulting in my newly-coined "redneck-militia-joining gun effect." Gun sales are at record levels as these Jimbos can't afford a new Hummer and instead settle for guns guns and more guns in an effort to stick it to the man.

Have a better term for these morons?

Their "logic" is that they must stock-pile now before laws come into place which will prevent them from buying these particular guns or as many as they might need in the event of an apocalypse.

My solution? No more ridiculous grandfathering and laws like allowing you to buy a gun from someone else and adopt their grandfathered license. It'd be too far to simply confiscate these new guns when stricter laws are inevitably put into place, but I recommend a system similar to eminent domain. We reimburse these gun-obsessed freaks for their purchases and then hand the guns over to the police - where they belong.

For the record, I think it's perfectly fine if someone wants to have a gun or two (safe-guarded) in the house for self-defense in the case of emergencies or to go hunting during deer season, but the Poplawski's of the world must be stopped.

To Rendell and Ravenstahl, please do not listen to these wingnuts and continue with your proposed legislation banning assault weapons.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Diaspora in Peru

Congratulations to the Penguins for beating Philly in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Here in Peru, I can't watch the games, but I have found other Pennsylvania hockey fans. A girl from Pittsburgh and a guy from Philly shared a bus with us last week and joined us in a quest to find televised versions of the game. Of course, by from Pittsburgh, she means she went to school at the University of Pittsburgh and currently lives about a 1 1/2 hours northwest of the city. I don't know which actual town because she neglected to mention it. It might be in Ohio for all I know. But the point is that she identifies as from Pittsburgh, advertises it, and supports its teams.

I also met someone last week who's leaving Washington, DC to move to Pittsburgh (leaning towards the lovely Regent Square) to go to grad school. He and his wife were taking a couple months to travel South America in between.

So to Nullspace and Burgh Diaspora who pay more attention than I, these anecdotes are piling up. Not only do Pittsburghers (natives and transplants) like to travel, but they're throwing off your employment and migration statistics.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Life

Last summer, oil prices were sky-rocketing and we were all thinking about downgrading our cars and taking more public transportation.

Last month, we had "Earth Hour" where everybody was supposed to shut off their lights on Sunday night. Let's be honest, none of us is willing to live without electricity. But it is useful to reflect on how many items you have plugged in around your house.

Today, it's Earth Day. What are you doing to celebrate?

As normal, "Politics and Place" is focusing on public transportation and recent train stories in the paper. Will we have commuter rail? Will we have more efficient buses? Maybe Luke-y will announce a new initiative today at his Market Square event?

"Green is Good" proclaims itself the green news of Pittsburgh and is my favorite blog to read for local green news. At the world-wide level, treehugger is the end-all-be-all. Any others?

Lastly, there's the new "Carbon Caps = Hard Hats" agenda being endorsed by US Steel. Yes, US Steel is advertising for carbon caps. Why? Because they (and many others) are starting to realize that taking care of our earth can be friendly to our wallets as well.

If there's one thing I've learned about environmentalism in the last 10 years, it's that it has to be profitable to be accepted by the mainstream public. You will always have hippies out there buying hybrid vehicles and biking to work 5 miles uphill each way, but for the rest of us, there needs to be an incentive to put in the extra effort - from corporations to families. For too long the incentives at the federal level have been for buying a bigger house or having more kids or buying a gas-guzzling vehicle. With Obama at the helm of the nation, the incentives appear to be drifting towards train travel and energy-efficient windows.

Personally, I've given up driving a car this month. Not because I'm sacrificing but because I'm in Peru and it's easier (and a lot cheaper) to not have a car. It's been oddly very liberating walking or taking public transportation everywhere I need to go, but that's because the cities of Peru make it stupid simple. There are cabs everywhere, frequent buses, and most of the shopping and nightlife is centered in a small area. Maybe because they've never had government incentives for sprawl? Can we turn back time in the USA? Can we progress towards a country of train-travel and central business districts and responsible utilities usage? And will Peru ever adopt serious emissions standards so their plentiful taxis aren't choking me to death? Today is the day to dream about it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

4 Reasons to Vote for Ravenstahl and 1 Reason Not To

I have a confession. I voted for Lukey last election. I didn't think DeSantis was the person for the job and I'm still not convinced he was. He was different from the status quo, but different isn't always better. I also didn't watch last night's debate - though I hope it's available on youtube sometime in the future, and my excuse for this one is that I'm in Peru. As an aside, I also wrote this post while sitting on a bus in Peru, so please pardon the lack of supporting links.

So why would I consider voting for Ravenstahl again?

1) Publicity. Pittsburgh suffers nationally because of a lack of publicity. Lots of mid-sized cities share this plight. But Ravenstahl seems to appeal with some sort of national boy-wonder charisma - getting lots of media attention with his stunts. Is there anyone else running for mayor who has the ability to launch us onto the national stage? When's the last time a former president fund-raised for a Pittsburgh mayor? Of course, if he were running against John Fetterman he'd be dead in the water on this count. Maybe after John fixes Braddock, he can move on to Pittsburgh?

2) Grand Ideas. Ravenstahl has lots of grand ideas. He says things off-the-cuff like windmills and redd-up, government transparency and sweeping crime-fighting programs. It's good to have these grand ideas. However, our incumbent has failed on follow-through on most of these items, as many will state and I assume brought to light in last night's debate.

3.) Pittsburgh Promise. One particular idea that seems to have been successfully accomplished during Luke's tenure is the Pittsburgh Promise. While it's funding is currently shaky, it is there and it has already assisted hundreds of Pittsburgh high school students with their college education. This is a very worthy goal.

4.) 311. I admit it. I'm lazy. I hate looking up phone numbers and scrolling through lists of archaic city departments. It's so much easier to call 311 and tell them my problem. Unfortunately, as it stands 311 is a one-way system and needs to be improved upon. If a problem is not resolved to your satisfaction, there needs to be potential for feedback. Currently that is not happeneing and there are lots of 311 calls repeated wasting the time ofo ur citizens and city workers and ultimately our tax dollars.

Why I won't vote for Luke (again)

1.) Superficiality. Luke favors the superficial rather than the down-and-dirty. He'd rather pay millions for security cameras or buy $250,000 of trashcans to install on streets littered with relics of old trashcans than deal with major issues the city faces like PWSA bonds, the pension crisis and crime. Instead, we get witty press releases and manicured joint statements with Dan-the-tax-man. Voting for Luke is like voting for the football captain as the home-coming king back in high school.

Carmen Robinson, one of his adversaries, skewers the mayor on his stance on crime. A former police officer and current lawyer, she's someone who knows a thing or two about crime. She thinks security cameras are a waste of money and wants more better-armed beat cops walking our streets. Sounds good to me. Thanks to the Comet for his solid interview of Carmen.

Councilor Patrick Dowd, the mayor's other adversary in the up-coming election, wants to deal with the pension crisis and the PWSA. I could go on about him and why I like ideas, but I've already done that.

Councilor Bill Peduto has grand ideas that are well-researched like commuter rails and energy efficient street lights, but he's decided to stay out of the ring this time around.

I want a mayor and council who work together to create a stronger Pittsburgh. I don't want a mayor who looks good, but fights with council, says rash un-researched ideas, refuses to compromise, refuses to admit his mistakes and certainly doesn't learn from them all the while profiting from his status as mayor while Pittsburgh stays on the same path.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bright Lights, Big City

So the North Shore casino is looking for jumbotrons? And the city has an obnoxious legal battle with Lamar over electronic billboards?

I know I'm not the only one to think that some zoning compromise could come out of this if the right people sat down at a table together. Otherwise, the city is just asking for trouble (from Lamar) if it approves the jumbotrons on the North Shore.

Personally, it all sounds rather garish to me, but we are talking about a casino - a casino which stands to save taxpayers loads of money on property taxes if we're to believe Rendell and the Meadows hype.

According to the Rivers Casino website:

"Whether you prefer the exciting atmosphere of our gaming floor or the tranquil surroundings along our riverfront esplanade, our facility will be a premier destination for residents and visitors alike."

Their rendering of the casino is clearly of the tranquil side. They forgot to mention the light and noise pollution of traffic arriving at all hours and flashing electronic billboards. Who is that designed to appeal to? The greedy business owners who can't get enough?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Pittsburgh Cooling

Since November, US Steel and their contemporaries have been idling workers and plants around the region. Then, at the beginning of April, US Steel announced that they were putting the brakes on remodeling their Clairton coke plant. Bad news for area construction jobs and just as importantly bad news for the environment.

While it's widely acknowledged that Pittsburgh has drastically improved its air quality since the 50s, we still struggle with bad air quality reports. In 2006, 2007, and 2008, Pittsburgh ranked at the bottom of cities, especially for short-term particle pollution. The improvements at Clairton (one of the worst offenders in the area) were intended to take a big bite out of our low ranking.

However, there is a bright side in all this idling. Without these plants running, and thousands of workers driving to them every day, Pittsburgh's air quality is improving. So, get outside. Walk to the unemployment office or your free classes at CCAC and breathe a little easier today. You may not be employed but at least you'll live longer.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Taxing Time

According to the Post-Gazette, federal tax returns filed by internet are processed in one day instead of 4 weeks. Talk about efficient. You can file your state taxes by internet or even by phone (if your return is easy). Yet, here in Pittsburgh, the city is in the taxes stone age. We can submit questions to mayoral debates by youtube and coming soon, we'll be watching city council meetings on the web, but to file our taxes and make estimated payments, we're limited to paper filing. Personally, I filed my state and federal taxes a month ago (before I left for Peru) and I got nearly instant notification that my returns were processed. I'm still waiting for a potential response from the city of Pittsburgh. I mailed the check and many forms and crossed my fingers.

With all the talk about efficiency and modernization in this city, how about an online filing of city taxes? I know all the information makes its way into a computer eventually (or should). Let's cut out the middle man who has to type it all in. The federal government has realized the cost savings of electronic filing and we should, too. "... e-filing also helps to hold down government costs. It costs the IRS $2.80 to process a paper return vs. 35 cents to process an electronic return." That ends up to being less than the cost of the stamp you'd use to mail in your return. Assuming the costs are similar and our more than 300,000 residents file taxes each year, then that works out to a potential yearly savings of $735,000 (300,000 times $2.45) . Even if only half of city residents file taxes, I could write the software for a lot less than that and give it away for free. I'm waiting for the day that consulting job pops up on the city of Pittsburgh's website, but I won't be holding my breath.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's About Time

Today, Vermont joined the ranks of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa to pass laws legalizing gay marriage in their states.

Now is the time for Allegheny County to get off their butts and pass their pending law making it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the county. This legislation has been pending in County Council since November. In March, State Representative Frankel re-introduced a state-wide bill to prevent discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered people. It'd be pretty sad if this passes while the Allegheny County ordinance languishes. This is not an issue that will just go away. You know the tide is turning when Iowa jumps on board.

Of course, I see this as yet one more reason to live in the city of Pittsburgh, a city which passed their anti-discrimination ordinance before I moved here. In addition, just last year the city created the domestic partnership registry, a benefit for both heterosexual and homosexual couples in the city.

So, what did the big tomato say to the little tomato falling behind? Ketchup! That's a metaphor that citizens of Allegheny County should understand.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tread Lightly

Does Michael Lamb want to put the Pittsburgh Promise up for sale? He wants to ask the state assembly to tax non-profits in the city of Pittsburgh. (Why hasn't anyone done this before?) However, this is clearly a fine line to walk. UPMC is to Pittsburgh is like China is to the USA. We're indebted to them and vice-versa, but ultimately at this point, they hold a lot of the cards.

Over the next 10 years, UPMC, the region's uber-employer, has promised to donate a ton of money to the Pittsburgh Promise, but from the beginning they have been threatening to withhold their generous contributions if Pittsburgh pursues taxing non-profits. However, UPMC theoretically has the ability to pull its money out for any reason - the bad economy, sinking profits, a bad night's sleep. US Steel's recent pausing of work on the Clairton coke plant is as harsh a reminder as any that corporations often break promises. Taxes are a lot more reliable. And theoretically, there's nothing stopping the city redirecting tax money towards the Pittsburgh Promise. Of course, as long as Ravenstahl is in office, I expect any extra money to be diverted towards trash cans.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Less Waste in a Bad Economy?

After recent glowing reviews from the New York Times to Cleveland, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appears to be picking up the happy Pittsburgh glow.

Latest breaking news? We ranked 14th least wasteful city. Of course, this ranking is out of 25 cities, which puts us (barely) in the bottom half of cities, or 12th most wasteful city. To put that into perspective, Detroit comes in at number 13.

Clearly, we'll never beat New York City in terms of public transportation usage, but there are a few things we should improve on to crack the top ten.

1) More library usage. We have a great resource in the Carnegie libraries and some of them rival Barnes & Noble for atmosphere, yet somehow Pittsburgh ranked 18th in library usage. Save some money, and visit your local library the next time you want something to read or watch. If you do this, and you realize, you're saving oodles of cash while feeling better about the environment, take Brian O'Neill's advice and give a little back to your library.

2) Less driving. We ranked 25th out of 25 in terms of driving instead of walking when you're going less than 2 miles. Spring has arrived, so get out of your car and put your walking shoes on. If you start walking more, you might even find you look better in a bathing suit this summer.

3) More energy efficient light bulbs. As a city, we came in at a fairly respectable number 15 in this category, but it's a joke to switch over to LED street lights, while we don't even change the lights in our home. Manufacturers are practically giving these bulbs away now. With their new styles and wattage options, there's no excuse for you to not have energy efficient light bulbs in every room of your house. Here in Peru, every light bulb is energy efficient. They're not doing it to save the environment. They're doing it save money. So stop whining about your electric bill and change your bulbs. I literally cut my electric bill in half last year when I switched out most of my bulbs.

Kudos to the Post-Gazette for a positive headline. Try it again the next time unemployment rates re-surface. At 6.5% for February, Allegheny County is well under the state unemployment rate (7.5%) and the national rate (8.1%). The 7-county region falls in at 6.9%. Yet the latest headline for the Post-Gazette regarding unemployment? "Local jobless rate increases at fastest pace since '80s"

In summary, don't get too happy about our environmental progress, and keep those jobless rates in perspective.