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.