Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On Blogging

When I first moved to Pittsburgh in 2006, I knew almost no one that lived here. I read all the news I could about my new city, and what I learned made me excited, angry, and enthusiastic. In 2007, I started blogging. By nature, blogging is a great outlet for frustration. It also ended up introducing me to many great Pittsburghers through Podcamp and Blogfest.

But nowadays, when I'm angry or excited, I'm more likely to turn to twitter, or to rant it out over a beer with a friend on the South Side.

I will continue to blog here once in a while, and I will leave the blog up indefinitely. This isn't my joyous return to regular blogging. Instead, it's my public admission that I do not blog regularly anymore.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Blog for Equality Redux

Last year, I participated in "Blog for Equality Day" on this blog. While I have been blogging less regularly this year, equality is still near and dear to my heart.

Once again, the Pennsylvania State House is wasting time and taxpayer money on ridiculous pet projects. The state of Pennsylvania has repeatedly voted against re-defining marriage as between one man and one woman in a special constitutional amendment, but repeatedly our pathetic sniveling hypocritical house members keep leading the charge against equality.

House Bill 1434
is the latest iteration and was introduced on May 3, 2011 by Representative Darryl Metcalfe, a Republican from Butler county. He is also responsible for House Bill 934 which would require everyone to show a government-issued ID to vote and House Bill 2479, an Arizona-style immigration law, because Butler County and Pittsburgh are simply overrun by immigrants. If you live in Butler, please vote this clown out of office, so he is forced to stop merely pandering to his conservative constituents instead of fixing our broken legislature and economy.

Honestly, this bill has a long ways to go before it can do any damage. There are 3 steps to amending the state Constitution:
1) Pass the bill in House and Senate in year 1.
2) Publish it in newspapers around the state, then pass the bill in House and Senate in year 2.
3) Finally, there would be a statewide referendum.

The likelihood of all that happening is slim to none as cooler heads will prevail. But that doesn't mean that it's not a hateful joke of a bill. Read more outraged opinions here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

2011 Primaries - Allgheny County Controller Edition

There are 3 varied and qualified Democratic candidates running for the illustrious position of Allegheny County Controller. The incumbent (Mark Patrick Flaherty) has tossed his hat into the County Executive position leaving the job of Controller up for grabs.

Valerie McDonald Roberts - She has a long history of public office in Allegheny County from Pittsburgh School Board President to City Council member to her current position as Recorder of Deeds. This woman is a spitfire who is hell bent on equal rights for women and minorities in public office. Hearing her speak is a pleasure. Infusing more of that passion into County government could only be a boon for us all as Pennsylvania lags behind the rest of the country's not-so-great gender wage gap. Let's see an audit on that!

Chelsa Wagner - This motivated woman is currently serving Pittsburgh in Harrisburg as a State Representative. You could say that auditing runs in her blood; she's the niece of State Auditor General Jack Wagner. I can't blame her for wanting to get the hell out of Harrisburg in spite of a potential pay cut. She's the youngest candidate by 20 years and would certainly shake things up in the county.

George Matta - George is running based on his years of experience as Controller and Mayor of the city of Duquesne. Though if you ask me, it's a stretch to call Duquesne a city with its population of 7,332. Additionally, Duquesne has seen better days. Its only high school closed down in 2007. It was designated a financially distresses municipality by the state back in 1991 - a status that's never been rescinded. And lastly, 35% of its residents live below the poverty line. Maybe he should be running for mayor of Pittsburgh with all that experience. For the past 10 years, George has been the Allegheny County Clerk of Courts.

Historically, the position of Controller has been a stepping stone for running for Allegheny County Executive. Honestly, I have nothing against any of these candidates, so at this point, I'm going with my gut. Valerie and a representative of Chelsa both attended the South Side Slopes "Meet the Candidates" meeting. George was absent. Valerie showed her passion and dedication through strong words and by virtue of showing up. She won my vote.

Friday, April 15, 2011

2011 Primaries - Allegheny County Executive Edition

Just like death and taxes, elections are an inevitable life event. In Pittsburgh, primaries will be held on May 17. As a registered Democrat, I will attempt to share my opinions and some facts about the Democratic candidates for office.

This is a special year for the county. Why? After his drubbing in the state governor's race, Dan Onorato, our beloved County Executive, has decided against running for the esteemed office.

As an especially informed voter this year, I had the pleasure of listening to the canned speeches of 2 of Dan's potential successors. Unfortunately, they both seem about the same to me - going on and on about their grand plan to subvert the court's fair decision to re-assess property in Allegheny County and praising themselves and the county for avoiding property tax increases over the past 10 years while back-handedly calling our unfair tax paying residents suckers under their breath.

Both of the candidates seem to be riding the coattails of Dan Onorato's successful avoidance of property tax reassessments, their untarnished names, and pretty much nothing else, but they both showed up to my neighborhood association to campaign and give their spiel, so I have to give them credit where credit is due.

Mark Patrick Flaherty - Allegheny County Controller. Lives in Mt Lebanon with his wife and 1 daughter. Wants to study Marcellus Shale drilling further and then profit from it. Will go along with the court's wishes (against his wishes) to reassess property and attempt to insure it is done in a transparent easy-to-appeal manner. Wants light rail to the airport and all suburbs, doesn't think that the drink tax was the right solution for funding Port Authority, but says: "we have to go back to the drawing board and find a solution, because the town cannot function without public transit."

Rich Fitzgerald - Allegheny County Council President. Lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife and 8 children. Wants responsible taxed Marcellus Shale Drilling. He "opposes any effort to implement the court ordered tax reassessments." No mention of Port Authority on his election issues page.

Of these 2 candidates, I'm leaning toward Mr Flaherty. His highlighting of Port Authority on his campaign website and his willingness to follow the court's orders endear him to me.

On the Republican side, Raja, the Mt Lebanon commissioner, appears to be the favorite, which should shape up for a competitive election come the fall. Raja's running against the scoundrel we all love to hate, County Councilor Chuck McCullough.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

All Hail Lenzner

On March 27, Port Authority of Allegheny County will cut routes, frequencies, buses, and drivers from their payroll in an effort to survive.

Private bus company Lenzner Coach Lines is taking up the slack for one route. They are paying Port Authority for the ability to offer reduced service. There will be no free senior and student rides. There will be no discounted disability service. There will only be 4 roundtrips per week day with no weekend trips. You will have to reserve an entire month's worth of trips to step on the bus. If Port Authority offered that service for the bargain-basement price of $3.25 each way, there would be riots in the street. But Lenzner will be charging $5.00 each way and make a profit. Yes, Port Authority, people would rather pay higher fares than not take the bus.

Of course, the Port Authority brought in only $93 Million in operating revenue (i.e. fares) in 2010. They had $397 Million in expenses. Employee wages and salaries alone accounted for $143 Million. Yes, current fares don't even cover current employee wages. That doesn't include employee benefits (like the costly pension system) which were an additional $126 Million in 2010. These are astounding numbers which actually tell you that fares mean very little in the grand scheme of things.

The state helped out significantly by dropping $184 Million in the bucket last year. The county offered a relatively piddling $27 Million on top of that. With the cost of pensions continuing to explode (a $13 Million increase just last year), reading these numbers seems pretty bleak. Port Authority is not sustainable even if it could triple its fares and not lose any riders. State government led by Governor Corbett would rather just shut their eyes, plug their ears, and ignore the problem.

It's easy to blame Port Authority's runaway expenses. But if you think Port Authority's expenses are ridiculous, keep this in mind:
PennDOT alone has a budget of $3.8 Billion, which is completely independent from the Turnpike budget, and the thousands of Pennsylvania county municipality road budgets.

So in short, Port Authority needs to make these cuts. There is no knight in shining armor stepping in to pony up 10% more in funding every year just to cover increased pension obligations. And in 10 years, I won't be too surprised to learn that Lenzner is operating more and more of our bus lines and light rail. We've brought this on ourselves by blaming Port Authority and shutting our eyes. I just feel bad for Grandma.

My advice to Lenzner? Don't start offering any of those pesky pensions.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The City That Banned Gas Drilling

Anecdotal impressions of Pittsburgh may be changing, and we have City Council to thank for that.

I was in Buffalo, New York over the weekend where most people I talked to hadn't been to Pittsburgh yet and didn't seem to have many impressions of this city 3 1/2 hours South.

Yet shopping in a local fashion store, I heard something new to me. "You're the city that banned gas drilling." Well, yeah, back in November, the city of Pittsburgh did ban gas drilling within the city limits, dismissed as a token effort by most around these parts. But up in Buffalo, one business proprietor says that inspired other cities to realize they could do the same thing. Buffalo enacted their ban last month after Pittsburgh paved the way.

Now that's a legacy we can be proud of.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Allegheny River Week

It's 55 degrees in February, and Spring is in the air in Pittsburgh. The final stage of the Great Allegheny Passage has received funding for its last segment along the Monongahela river and will be finished by January 2012. It's only natural that the-powers-that-be should move along to the amenities along the Allegheny River.

Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan

This $350,000 study paid for by the city of Pittsburgh and the URA outlines how to improve and capitalize on this under-utilized riverfront. The ambitious 20-year plan involves property from the Strip District all the way through Lawrenceville. Features like a commuter rail, circulator trolley, and a bike-walk green boulevard make this plan exciting. But forcing the wholesale distributors that are the heart and soul of the Strip district move up to 62nd Street definitely makes me cringe.

Active Allegheny

Not to be out-done, the Allegheny County also published its $300,000 study this week with the goal of making county residents more active and safe. Highlights of this study include the areas with the most pedestrian and bicycle accidents. Penn Ave which parallels the Allegheny River features prominently in the study with that thoroughfare ranking top on the list of priorities for infrastructure improvements and tops in terms of accidents. Hopefully, the city and the county can work together to accomplish some of their shared goals in less than 20 years!

Biking Bonus
Port Authority announced a timeline for equipping its entire bus fleet with bicycle racks thanks to a grant the authority received last year
. By July, you won't have to fret about whether the next bus arriving will have a bike rack. Though with a 200% increase in Pittsburgh bike ridership in the last decade, you may have to worry about whether the bike rack is already filled.

Happy Biking!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

PLCB Compromise Proposal

We get it. Lots of workers are going to lose their jobs if the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) is abolished and there are lots of arguments for the state control of liquor.

But what about wine?
Only 3 other states (New Hampshire, Utah, and Wyoming) control the sale of wine (as opposed to the 18 states that control liquor). In New Hampshire, you can buy wine at grocery stores, but the state is wholesaler of wine. If the state were to sell wine licenses, they would still make a windfall profit as many entrepreneurs entered this new market. The state liquor stores could continue to sell wine and not waste the time and effort that they've spent on forging relationships with wineries.

In terms of annual profits, liquor sales account for more than 60% of the annual retail sales income which would maintain a steady supply of dough to the state coffers. The 6% State and Local sales tax would still bring $112 Million dollars to the state's coffers. And the 18% State Liquor tax would still bring $271 Million to the state's coffers.

So how about we exercise some bi-partisanship and compromise on this issue? Let's keep union jobs, expand options for entrepreneurs, make a windfall of profit, and maintain a fat revenue stream while still excessively monitoring the sale of liquor.

And maybe while we're at it, we can get a refund on the pathetic, malfunctioning waste of millions of dollars that are the wine kiosks? For those keeping track at home, the wine kiosks are back in action after over a month of being out of service.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Social Media & The Super Bowl

Every year, there is a media circus surrounding the Super Bowl along with inane bets by mayors and Governors of the involved teams. There is also always a viable economic benefit for restaurants, hotels, and stores in the host town as well as the home teams cities.

This year, however, social media has extended the reach of Super Bowl fever.

Ways for the lay-person to get involved!

1) Help out local Boys & Girls Clubs and get a sneak peek of the Coke ad airing during the Super Bowl. If 10,000 people cheer on Pittsburgh through Coke's site, then the soda magnate will donate $25,000 in addition to $1 per each "cheer".

2) If you donate to Penn Future, you are joining the EnviroBowl 2011 helping to improve Pittsburgh's air quality. That's a little more important than the Bud Bowl of past years.

3) If the Pittsburgh Steelers win the Super Bowl, head on over to the Carnegie Museum of Art to see Boating on the Yerres by Gustave Caillebotte which will be temporarily loaned by the Milwaukee Museum of Art.

4) And before the Super Bowl on Sunday night, why not stop by WYEP's annual Alternative Souper Bowl to enjoy some local music and help out a local homeless shelter by donating non-perishable goods?

If we as a city are going to spend so much time and effort cheering on a football team, we might as well do some good while we're at it and show off our philanthropic side.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pro-Choice and Pro-Safety

I make no secret on this blog or in real life that I am pro-choice. I despise the weekly protests at Planned Parenthood downtown which mostly serve to deter women without health insurance from getting birth control and reasonable gynecological services.

But being pro-choice does not mean that I want a free-for-all for abortion clinics. It means I want no woman to be forced to use unsafe practices to make her choice. It means I want an end to shoddy back-door clinics. But here in Pennsylvania, state health officials overlooked this task for the last 15 years. 15 years!!! Luckily, here in Pittsburgh, when inspections resumed in 2010, no grave dangers were discovered. Unfortunately, for women in Philadelphia, that was not the case. Two women are dead, and hundreds of babies were aborted in ghastly ways.

Shame on a former pro-choice governor for neglecting safety at the expense of choice. Shame on Pennsylvania's state health officials for sitting idly by at the expense of our women and children. Shame on the reactionary politics for only resuming inspections after the Philadelphia clinic owner was brought to trial. Shame on the residents of Pennsylvania for not demanding better service from our state officials. Shame on us all if this happens again.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Onorato's Last Stand On Property Tax

Dan Onorato is in his final year of office as Allegheny County Executive. He has stated that 1 of his top 3 goals in this final year is to stop court-ordered property tax reassessment. Gas drilling on airport land and increasing flight traffic round out the list. Securing funding for Port Authority didn't make the cut.

Allegheny County Council President is also begging the state to hold off on property tax reassessment.

Mr. Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill, proposed a resolution that urges the Legislature to adopt a statewide moratorium on court-ordered reassessments and calls on new Gov. Tom Corbett, a Shaler homeowner, to support it.

So what are their arguments against reassessing?

1. Other counties don't have to reassess regularly, so why should Allegheny County? The State Supreme Court has come down in favor of regular reassessments as being the only fair method to calculate property tax. It's only a matter of time until fairness becomes the standard across the state. Why fight a losing battle? Why aren't our Legislators standing up and insisting that instead of a moratorium, the state forces regular reassessments for ALL counties? Then we wouldn't have to worry about unscrupulous folks fleeing the county for lower taxes, and we would be complying with the law.

2. Property re-assessments simply generate a windfall for local governments as property values overall tend to increase over time. Another bullshit argument. County Council member/scofflaw Chuck McCullough has introduced legislation to "soften the blow" of Property Tax reassessments by generating a "bill of rights" for property owners which would prevent egregious assessment appeals and phase in any tax increases. I say take it a step further and force municipalities to lower their millage rates to keep the total revenue stream consistent over time. It's very simple math.

3. And the most ridiculous?

As Mr. Onorato did last week, Mr. Fitzgerald said he doubted that a reassessment would bring tax relief to homeowners in struggling communities. If property values go down in a neighborhood, he said, a school district may have to raise millage to compensate.

Perhaps it's true that some struggling communities like Wilkinsburg and McKeesport wouldn't significantly benefit from a reassessment. But they also wouldn't be harmed! And more often you have struggling neighborhoods or corridors within a municipality, especially the city of Pittsburgh where the poorer neighborhoods of Homewood and Allentown (amongst many others) would clearly benefit over those more affluent neighborhoods such as the South Side and Squirrel Hill.

Why all this anger about property reassessments?

Because people who live in expensive houses in this county are being systematically under-taxed. Find me one house in Allegheny County that costs more than $200,000 and is being assessed for anywhere near its value, and I will be shocked. Yet every single house on the City of Pittsburgh chopping block is being sold at significantly less than its assessed value (often about 10% of its assessed value). All of these houses are in "struggling" neighborhoods. As a matter of disclosure, I am in the former group; though my house cost significantly less than $200,000, it has a street value of significantly more than my assessed value.

So why do I care?

Because the success of the city relies on the success of all its neighborhoods. As long as the status quo remains, then our poorer neighborhoods will continue their everlasting decline and the schism between the haves and the have-nots will only increase in the city creating more and more friction and violence. Let's put a halt to widening the schism based on unfair practices. Let's vote for people who stand up for equal rights even when their pocketbooks are on the line.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Years Resolutions

While most of us make New Year's resolutions to lose weight or save money, some folks in our community decide to run for office.

Of note:
All of the odd-numbered Pittsburgh City Council seats are up for grabs this year, so expect to see more announcements soon.

And if you're fed up with the way things are going? Maybe your New Year's Resolution should be to run for office, too. If so, check out the "How to Run for Public Office" workshop on Saturday February 5. Or next year, check out Coro's annual 12-week course called "Running for Public Office."