Monday, June 29, 2009

Sorry I Shot You

News of the day? In Washington County, "Man, Woman both wounded while trying out their new gun." "Police say the couple simply didn't know how to operate the gun properly"

Is it preposterous of me to suggest that in order to buy a gun, you need to take a class? You need to take a class to operate most dangerous items (cars, motorcycles, anesthesia, scalpels, electricity), but anyone in Pennsylvania can buy a gun without proof of competency?

Unlike Pennsylvania, a lot of states (including Arizona, Tennessee, and Texas) appear to actually have required classes if you wish to carry a concealed firearm. I can't find any classes required for just using a gun. I guess you're more dangerous with a hidden firearm rather than carrying one out in the open???

In Philadelphia, the city has gained the ire of the NRA by passing lots of restrictive gun laws. And the NRA is winning this battle. June 18, the state Supreme Court over-ruled the Philadelphia ban on assault weapons as well as their straw purchase provisions. However, the state Supreme Court upheld Philadelphia's law to report lost or stolen handguns, the same controversial law that Pittsburgh passed last year. You win some; you lose some.

Moral of the story? In Pennsylvania, almost anyone might have a gun. Be aware.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Wheels On The Bus Go Round

Continental Real Estate has been charged with building a hotel and entertainment complex on the North Side.

"At a city planning commission meeting two weeks ago, Barry Ford, Continental's president of development, said "it's inappropriate to ask a project developer to meet with private groups and help resolve their problems."'

During a morning coffee break, local blogger Cara Jette of PghIsACity said:

"It's inappropriate for a project developer to take millions of dollars from the state and then refuse to talk with the local community."

Can't we find some other developer to throw money at? Time's up on Continental and they haven't even started building.

Thank you, Bill Peduto, Natalia Rudiak, and others for jumping on board the North Side bus tour and taking the time to listen to the concerns of the residents. It's nice to know there are some folks in our city government with a shred of humanity.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Stimulus Watch - Pittsburgh Style

When the stimulus money was released nation-wide, there were big promises that all the money spent would be publicized online in the intent to make us feel better about the billions that are being spent. Of course, you only actually feel better if someone actually looks up those websites.

So here we are: Stimulus money in Pittsburgh.

It's broken out into 6 categories, and I'll give an overview of each category.

1. Infrastructure & Economic Development
What's happening? This is by far the biggest piece of the pie. This breaks down into general infrastructure improvements, i.e. bridges and street-paving ($5 Million), Housing Authority money ($27 Million), demolishing vacant buildings ($4 Million), and money for sewer improvements ($17.8 Million).
Total: $53.8 Million
My Opinion: The general infrastructure improvements are clearly the bread and butter of the stimulus package. But general infrastructure improvements only make up 7% of the money here. I have to seriously question the huge allocation for the Housing Authority, especially given its recent pathetic audit performance.

2. Public Safety & Criminal Justice
What's happening? Technology, Equipment, Vehicles, Police Academy for the Pittsburgh Police
Total: $2.1 Million
My Opinion: Sounds to me like we're filling in normal budget shortfalls here, and the project notes are pretty minimal.

3. Energy Efficiency & Natural Resources
What's happening? Updating the City-County building for energy efficiency.
Total: $3.4 Million
My Opinion: I'm a little disappointed in this slice of the pie. This will affect one building in the city, but it will undoubtedly generate jobs and make that one building much better.

4. Workforce Development & Education
What's happening? Summer youth jobs, adult workforce development and adult training
Total: $3 Million
My Opinion: Creating jobs and helping put more people directly to work. I saw lots of signs around town recruiting for the summer youth jobs and they had a standard method for awarding those jobs fairly. This is a great example of stimulus spending.

5. Health & Social Services Safety Net
What's happening? Homelessness Prevention
Total: $6.8 Million
My Opinion: That's a lot of money for a broad description and no project notes. I think this one needs a closer watch. Seems like you could give an awful lot of people houses for $6.8 million. How many homeless people do we have in Pittsburgh?

6. Tax Credits & Fiscal Assistance
What's happening? NOTHING
Total: $0
My Opinion: Are we wasting potential money here?

What's happening? Clearly a lot.
Total: $69.1 Million
My Opinion: There definitely seems to be a combination of shooting low (tax credits, energy efficiency, general infrastructure), taking advantage of the system (housing authority) and band-aids for bad budgeting (police, sewers). A lot of good will come out of this for Pittsburgh. Plus, I give the city a bit of a break because there wasn't much time for planning on this. There's a clear lack of funding for public transportation options at this point, but I'm going to assume that falls at the county level. I also don't see anything to help out our ailing schools. Of course, not all of the stimulus money has been released yet. I'll keep watching.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Turning on the Firehose

Zoo President and CEO Barbara Baker was surprised to learn that the city of Pittsburgh wants to charge her for water. Additionally, she's under the impression that cities typically pay for water.
"But even when they [the zoos] are private, the cities they are in typically provide water, utilities, parking, security, those type of things to the zoo. Here we just get water," Baker said."
Unfortunately for her, the Post-Gazette writer called around. The nearby Cleveland and Maryland zoos both pay for their own water. After a brief search, I found that Denver, Philly, and Dodge City, Kansas each pony up for their water bill. Baltimore has only been paying for its water for the last 10 years or so, and in that time they've managed to reduce water usage by about 70% through conservation efforts. If I can have a water-saving shower head, so can the elephants.

My advice for Ms Baker? Pay for your water, but stick it to the man by reducing your water usage and adding less to the city coffers. And my advice to the city? Make these institutions pay for their water, but don't just turn the fire hose on them. Make a gradual plan to bring them up to full payment over the next few years - or only cover the first $100,000 giving them an incentive to conserve. Also, the Maryland Zoo is a bit behind on their water bill, so I wouldn't count on our zoo to save the city. For everyone else, if you like the zoo, maybe it's time to consider a donation and/or membership? Maybe if you live outside the city you can donate $1000 over the next 10 years on the stipulation that you can revoke your donation if the city ever gains the ability to tax you?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

East Vs West

Pennsylvania is a funny state. I've heard it described as "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in the middle", a joke I'm sure that Harrisburg (and Alabama) hates. But the fact of the matter is there's a lot of nothing in between the two major Pennsylvania cities, except its capital. So it totally makes sense to have high-speed rail with few stops connecting these cities.

What do we have?

Philadelphia to Harrisburg

Harrisburg to Pittsburgh
  • 311 miles
  • 5+ hours by train
  • Train runs once per day
Why the difference? Historically, Pittsburgh's gotten the shaft?

At this point, Pennsylvania (and Pittsburgh) government has shown so little initiative that Congressman Altmire is instead hopping on board with Ohio's plans to connect Pittsburgh and Cleveland. And I don't blame him. As R2P writer, Jim Russell, has been espousing for years, we need to stop thinking of Cleveland as the enemy and instead build a mega-rust-belt-region to promote all of us. The first step to that collaboration might as well be a frequent and convenient train between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. If Cleveland can eventually have a smooth connection to Chicago via train and we're a hop-skip to Cleveland, you'd better believe that PennDOT and the PA governor would be banging on the door to let in a better train from Harrisburg.

In the meantime, I'd really like to see some local initiative on all public transportation fronts. Let's here Onorato and Ravenstahl step up and say that they will pursue city-wide light rail, regional commuter rail, and inter-city high speed rail. All of these options are vital for the region in terms of generating jobs, attractiveness to immigrants, and general congestion.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Green Is Good"

I've been asked to be a contributor to the Pittsburgh-based environmentally-conscious blog, "Green Is Good." So today, when I read the good news about the future of commuter rail in Pittsburgh, I blogged over there. Check it out.

Friday, June 19, 2009

North Vs South

Here's a story of two amphitheatres.



Which do you support? The one which is now adding to city tax dollars? Or the one which may open next year and will continue costing the city and the community for years to come?

Don't even get me started on the concession riverfront amphitheater that the casino is offering up. Maybe we should encourage people to build something other than amphitheaters in Pittsburgh?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Mass-transit-acre

Bike-PGH has a regular "Car-nage" section in their blog where they discuss the regular car accidents that could have been avoided if everybody switched over to riding bicycles. Welcome to the mass-transit-acre. (It's a play on massacre. If you have a better quip, I'm all ears.)

Last month, I got some slack for posting on Port Authority accidents. Folks said it's just normal wear and tear because we have so many buses roaming the streets. I countered by saying that I don't want your-average-joe driving my bus. I've never managed to kill someone, and if you manage to kill someone while driving, you should not be driving a bus. I don't want to deter folks from taking the bus, but I still have the right to demand high standards for my bus drivers.

So far in June, we have two pedestrian victims:

June 2: A man was in critical condition after surgery because he "was running to catch the bus when he fell and was doubled over as the bus ran over him."

June 14:
An elderly man "started running after the bus and was banging on its side, Ritchie said. He fell beneath the back of the articulated bus — a long vehicle with accordion-like joints — and was run over." This man died.

According to Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie, these tragedies are under investigation.

"In some cases, the investigation shows that our drivers did something that wasn't by the book. When that happens, they're cited or something is done internally," he said.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Moving Smart Forward

Pittsburgh already has smart cars zipping through the streets, but next year, we'll have smart cards, too. Seems like the money came through after all.

Still a lot of implementation details to be worked out, so voice your opinion on how you want them implemented now. You know I did.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Too Close For Comfort

Yesterday, I headed over to visit the Mattress Factory (one of my favorite museums in Pittsburgh). I skipped their fabulous annual Urban Garden Party to attend their free Sunday Community Garden Party. Unfortunately, as I was arriving a 22-year old Wilkinsburg man was on his way to the hospital after being shot around the corner from the museum. He died at Allegheny General Hospital at 3:08pm. Respectfully, the museum closed its doors, and I walked past cop cars to get back in my car and head home.

I've questioned whether to publicize this sad event or to let it pass. I don't want to deter folks from appreciating the thought-provoking exhibits and fun parties that the Mattress Factory specializes in. However, it's important to realize that the North Side is a dichotomy. The lovely houses of the Mexican War Streets intermingle with the gang violence of Allegheny City. If we don't force ourselves to look at the problems, we will never deal with them. The most unfortunate of these monthly tragedies are when the victims are innocent, like 12-year-old Jolesa Barber.

These dichotomies are found throughout Pittsburgh, so I don't mean to single out the North Side. The Waterfront development contrasts with Homestead's problems. On the South Side we deal with the dichotomy of drunken college students and senior citizens, but at least both sides tend to steer clear of guns. East Liberty is being splintered into East Side which has even spawned a documentary, "East of Liberty." But appropriately, filmmaker Chris Ivey is moving onto the North Side.

And if you think that people on the North Side don't care, you need to watch this video:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pride & Penguins

Today was the Pride Fest parade in downtown Pittsburgh - it garnered 5,000 folks - a respectable 30% increase over last year's attendance.

How many multiples of 5,000 will show up for the Penguins parade tomorrow? If the shenanigans on Carson St the past two nights are any indication, I think downtown will be pretty damned crowded.

Personally, I feel I should support the rights of my gay friends as much as I support the Penguins.

So: Go Pride!

Friday, June 12, 2009

To the Underdog

As if anyone didn't know, tonight, the Penguins face Detroit for the Stanley Cup. As was shown in the Super Bowl, being a more successful city (in terms of population, jobs, etc.) doesn't translate to higher odds of winning sports championships. (Of course, baseball is its own beast.) When Pittsburgh was facing Phoenix for the Super Bowl, there were a lot of city comparisons and inevitably Pittsburgh came out on the bottom. Now, the tables are turned, and Pittsburgh is the top dog with Detroit's economy making Pittsburgh look like the best city in the world. It's all relative. And you have to wonder how much officials are worried about the cost of victory parades.

I will be rooting for the Pens tonight. As a transplant, I took longer to come around to rooting for the Pens than the Steelers, but here I am with a plastic penguin sitting on my front porch. However, I'm not rooting against Detroit. They've had too much shit hit the fan, and they have a great hockey team. (Plus, my brother is a die-hard Red Wings fan.) And if there are any Red Wings fans around tonight, try not to give them too hard a time.

All that said: GO PENS!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Act 47 = Higher Taxes?

The most important thing going on in the city of Pittsburgh right now is the Act 47 plan which will determine how we fare financially for the next 5 years.

Of course, it's also the thing the city has the least control over.

Kinda frustrating.

State overseers give us a 300 page book detailing all the things we can and can not do. City Council has until June 30 to approve it. If council doesn't approve it, they need the approval of the state overseers to change it.

But the main problem (as I've ranted previously) is that many of these guidelines involve changes to state law, and the state lawmakers have repeatedly spoken against any new taxes:

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said there will "need to be some adjustments to the Act 47 plan," but that legislative approval for such changes "will be a difficult challenge."

"I don't think it's rhetoric, I think it's a proposal legislators should be vetting," said Sen. Sean Logan, D-Plum. "We need to take another look at the city's finances." Logan said the city must demonstrate it has shed as much fat from its budget as possible before it can make a compelling case for additional tax money.

"If he thinks taxes are the first option, he's delusional, in this economy," said state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless. "If you think other legislators across the state are going to agree to raise the city of Pittsburgh's occupational tax to $145, you're out of touch."

And what happened last time?

"The suburbs don't want to carry the burden for what's happened in the past in the city of Pittsburgh," said Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline.

That sentiment pushed state lawmakers in 2004 to strip the first five-year recovery plan of provisions that would have taxed city nonprofits and pegged the EMS -- then known as the occupation tax -- at $145, said Councilman Bill Peduto, the council finance committee chairman.

Such dramatic tax increases failed then, and they're likely to fail this time, he said. City Council has scheduled the first of two public meetings about the recovery plan for 1:30 p.m. today. A vote on it could happen by the end of June.

So, if just like last time, the state refuses to give the city the ability to raise taxes on parking, commuters, and non-profits, who does that leave paying the taxes?

City residents. Welcome to Taxburgh. The question we need to ask Harrisburg: Are the commuters really that much more hard up than the residents of the city? And are they really only getting $52 in benefit from working in the city? I understand the sentiment to punish the people who made the mistakes to get the city into this mess, but a lot of those people now live in the suburbs. And a lot of city residents (including myself) only moved to Pittsburgh in the last few years. So give us a break.

And where's the mayor? On vacation. I'm glad I'm not an elected councilor right now. That's because unless a miracle happens in Harrisburg (or we can sell off the parking garages), the plan calls for default tax increases in the city over the next 5 years. And you can bet after 5 years of taxes, we'll have a whole new set of councilors.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Breaking News: Duplication in City Services

Yet another audit has emerged by my favorite controller, Michael Lamb. He says that there's waste in the Housing Authority and the city would save money by such measures as:

"The authority could use the city's computer backbone, purchase utilities jointly with the city and county, better collaborate with the city on public works and senior and youth services, and join the city's recycling program."

Seriously, the housing authority doesn't participate in the city's recycling program??? What novel ideas.

Why do I feel like every time Mr Lamb does an audit, he says a lot of the same things? Do all the authorities think they're unique? That it's okay for them to waste taxpayer money? These are basic tenets and every single authority in the city should be merging these basics. The city needs one tech support team, one billing department, and one account with utility companies.

There have been a lot of audits over the past year and I'd really like to start to see some results. I have a feeling that if all these audits were promptly responded to that the Act 47 problems would diminish.

Monday, June 8, 2009

This is Consolidation?

This past week, County Executive Onorato announced the appointment of a sustainability manager for Allegheny county.

If this man is actually serious about city-county consolidation, couldn't he have worked with Mayor Ravenstahl to perhaps create a partner for the city sustainability coordinator, Lindsay Baxter, instead of attempting to re-invent the wheel at the county level? In a time of contraction of jobs and supposed efforts to reduce duplication between the city and county, our illustrious leaders are showing that they have no desire to change going forward.

As a kicker (as the PGH Comet noted), the Allegheny county position is also being paid almost double the salary of the city coordinator - $85,000 starting salary versus $45,000.


Pittsburgh - 2 for being ahead of the curve and more economically minded.
County - 0 for duplicating services and wasting taxpayer money. Dan, next time, look before you jump on the bandwagon.

When the green stimulus funds were announced and given directly to cities and counties, Dan Onorato said: "That allows us to be creative." A little too creative if you ask me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bus Changes Coming

Did you head downtown yesterday to voice your concerns about and enthusiasm for the upcoming Port Authority changes? Neither did I. But you still have at least one more chance to let your voice be heard - Monday night in Oakland.

Among the proposed changes:

1.) Eliminating some of the 15,000 stops. Currently, the bus stops are way too clustered. The new plan: "On some routes, the proposed changes call for stops a quarter-mile apart -- a 15-minute walk at a moderate pace." (I know they're accounting for Pittsburgh-level fitness and terrain here but a "moderate" pace makes you walk a 20-minute mile - or about 5 minutes for a quarter mile - a very reasonable time to be expected to walk for public transportation.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Silver Lined Economic Clouds

Right now, at the state level, serious debates are occurring over funding for everything from entrepreneurial initiatives to arts programs to museums to public television. Almost daily, I get an email imploring me to contact my state representative and fight for money to save all of these valuable state donations.

Back in March, I read in the Post-Gazette that the Fort Pitt Museum was on the chopping block. They reported that the state spends $500,000 per year to run the museum. This month, many organizations have stepped up to say they can run the museum for half as much state funding, thus saving tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Why wasn't this done years ago? That's a serious question for which I would like someone to be accountable. But clearly, it took an economic crisis for us to rethink how our taxpayer money is spent. Maybe we need one of these crises every few years because our legislators can't be bothered to keep themselves in check.

I hope over the next month, as the state budget process unfolds, we find more of these public-private partnerships to save the state money and run our facilities more efficiently. (I'm sure someone can come up with an idea for the state liquor stores.) Making decisions which will save us money now and in the future will only help the city and state. It's just a shame that it takes a downturn for us to make some smart decisions.