Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hunting Down and Killing Bad Bureaucrats

Minor, specific, targeted rant.

99% of bureaucrats give the other 1% a bad name... or something like that. As I've tried to say, there are a good contingent of us pencil pushers out there who are committed to, if not upholding the law, avoiding being captured on camera violating the law [which is, of course, Rule #2]. There are also a lot of bad bureaucrats who are at it for the petty power mongering, the secured pensions, or because they can't be employed somewhere else. Those of us in the 1% who are actually trying to give a damn get pretty frustrated with the other 99% sometimes.

Fortunately, at THE BUREAUCRACY we are proud to say that we are staffed with over 80% of the 1%.... which means that somewhere in Western Pennsylvania there's a bureaucracy with a dearth of good bureaucrats.

My limited reasearch indicates that it is a certain Public Authority X in Pittsburgh.

I got into a conversation with a contractor friend the other day about a job he was doing in the City of Pittsburgh, where he went to get a necessary permit from Authority X to do construction, only to be turned down. Authority X said that Contractor needed to go do Ludicrous Process Y in order to get the permit done. Contractor got his lawyer and politely camped out at Authority X's office demanding to see where in their regulations Ludicrous Process Y was required. Authority X couldn't find anything written down in their Great Big Book of Bureaucratic Rules. Contractor went back down to resume camping and demanded that Authority X provide a written letter confirming that Ludicrous Process Y was not required. Grudgingly, and apparently under threat of lawsuit, they acquiesced.

And I only relay this story because those of you that have paid attention will remember that I've had a similar problem with Authority X before. So I'm a bit...erm, how do you say... angry at them. The stories that I hear from other similarly angry parties lead me to believe that there is a systemic problem going on at Authority X. [Notice that I'm not violating Rule #5, people.]

So, whoever is selected as Mayor (Bob O'Connor, Michael Lamb, Bill Peduto, Louis Kendrick, Les Ludwig, Daniel F. Repovz, Gary W. Henderson, and Joe Weinroth THIS MEANS YOU!), should undertake an Engineering Audit of Authority X to make sure that their rules and regulations are WRITTEN DOWN and ON THE BOOKS. That would be most helpful and appreciative to those who are trying to do construction in your City.

And when you have these regs written down... please provide me a copy so I know what the rules are. I can't STAND it when people violate Rule #1... it makes me all cranky and hungry.

Follow up from Yesterday: So... Jeff Habay's attorney is Jim Ecker, huh? Jim gets a lot of tough clients, it seems.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

State Rep. Habay charged in white powder hoax

Courtesy the AP via the PG:

State Rep. Jeffrey E. Habay of Shaler was charged today for allegedly lying about a white powder he said he received in the mail from a contituent who was critical of him.

Allegheny County authorities charged Habay, 38, with facsimile weapons of mass destruction, falsely incriminating another and fictious reports for claiming in May that he received an envelope in his home that contained a suspicious white powder.

U.S. Postal Service investigators had said the powder was harmless.

In court documents, authorities claim Habay said the package came from George Radich, a constituent who along with four others asked Commonwealth Court to conduct an audit of Habay's political action committee, the Friends of Jeff Habay.

Radich had insisted the powder was not there when he mailed the letter and said he did not try to hide his identity when mailing it. Postal officials said Radich paid for the mailing with a credit card, an unusual thing to do if someone had put the powder in the envelope.

In September, authorities charged Habay with two felonies, alleging that he repeatedly used state workers to conduct campaign work for him on state time.

He was arraigned on theft of services and conflict of interest charges brought by the state attorney general's office.

After the arraignment, Habay said he had no plans to resign and would do everything he could to fight the charges.

The State Ethics Commission ordered Habay, a five-term Republican legislator, to pay nearly $13,000 in restitution and referred the case to state prosecutors, who filed the felony charges.
In the words of Mr. Nelson Muntz:HA HAW!

Nothing like a Wednesday dose of schadenfreude to make the afternoon seem brighter.

Five Minute Rant

To all my Customers:

We seem to have a few misunderstandings regarding my services, which I hope to rectify here. I hope you will take my directives to heart.

Don't call me before business hours start; I'm not here. I'm probably asleep or eating breakfast or commuting to the office. You know very well when we start work; calling 15 minutes early with your pissant complaint isn't going to make me work on it any harder.

Don't call me exactly when business hours start. Unless the rivers are turning to blood, darkness is covering the land, and your first born has died, your attempt to get my attention first thing is not going to work. No one has yet to call me with a emergency that warrants my attention before my first cup of coffee.

Don't call me during lunch. If you're calling me during lunch, you're hoping that I'm at lunch too and you didn't want to talk with me anyway. To foil your nefarious scheme, I take random lunch hours so you may, in fact, find me answering the phone. Be forewarned.

Don't call me five minutes after the close of business. Again, you obviously didn't want to talk to me. Please be courteous and call during lunch instead.

Don't call me two hours after the close of business. Despite what you may think, I have a life outside of THE BUREAUCRACY. I am not on call for your pissant complaints about how your project isn't being sent to the Federal Government for funding that it will ultimately be turned down for. You suck; calling after hours to complain that I'm not enabling your sucking is not going to help your cause.

Don't call me four hours after the close of business; THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE FOR UTILITY COMPANIES. I'm tired of recorded messages left at 9 PM telling me to call back between the hours of 9 AM and 4:30 PM Monday - Friday about a matter of urgency. HEY JERKWAD! WHY DIDN'T YOU CALL ME BETWEEN 9 AM AND 4:30 PM TO BEGIN WITH??? Bastards.

And finally, FOR THE LOVE OF THE BIG GEORGE FOREMAN STOP CALLING ME ON WEEKENDS!! I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I AM A FREE MAN ON WEEKENDS!

There! I've said it. I feel better.

I hope this puts to rest any confusion you may have had.


The Angry, Drunk Bureaucrat

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Development Incentives

The PG is reporting a new plan floated by Mayoral Wannabe Bill Peduto to encourage Green Development through non-tax incentives.

For those not in the development know, over the life of a building it is possible to save substantial money in utility costs and employee costs by using more efficient and people friendly Green design upfront. So if you're looking at developing and owning a building over the long haul, Green design can be a good idea. The LEED guidelines from the US Green Building Council, if you're interested, can be found here. Pittsburgh's Green Building Alliance can be found here; Pittsburgh has a pretty good record so far with Green Building.

OK, I've glossed over a bunch of stuff, but one of the major drawback right now to developing Green in Pittsburgh is that so few people actually are able to do it and do it well. A Gold Rated Building is extremely difficult to achieve as the requirements are quite stringent and difficult, from a short term cost perspective, to justify. Typically, unless a building owner/developer is in it for the long term, it does not make economic sense to build green, unless you can charge a premium for it upon resale.

Typically, governments use Tax Credits or other Tax Incentives to lower the barrier to entry for developers. Thus, you end up with Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs), Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZs), Historic Tax Credits, Tax Increment Financing Areas (TIFs), Local Economic Revitalization Tax Abatement (LERTA), and Act 42/77. The City/State/Federal Government(s) lower the initial cost of development in exchange for some other good that otherwise would not have happened, from historic preservation to development in underserved areas.

[Yes, TIFs and the like can be abused, but in the textbook case the government ends up deferring taxes that would not have existed if the project wouldn't have happened. TIFs are far less egregious than outright grants or low interest loans, in my opinion.]

Anyway, Peduto is proposing something slightly different: deferring or adjusting rules in order to facilitate Green Development. The theory is if the City allows developers to bend density regulations in exchange for green development assurances, developers will build green. Short version that the developer will see: more green = more units = more income.

The proposal is conceptually intriguing, but I wonder how it would work with the new PA Uniform Building Code. I also wonder how this will jive with certain fundamental physical limitations, i.e., number of parking spaces, elevator sizes, stair sizes, etc. It seems that the benefit of the increase in density may be offset by those restrictions, making the whole program a wash.

A different concept which could be used is based on the Historic Easement program in which a developer is paid by a private interest to preserve the historic integrity of a building rather than demolish in exchange for the developmental rights. Could there be a formulation where some organization, say, The Heinz Foundations, pays a developer the difference between developing traditionally and developing Green? In exchange, the private interest could have something less tangible, like air-rights, or something equally mundane.

Another idea could be a Green Credit, sold to a tax syndicate to be used as equity on the building.

While I'm not panning Peduto's idea here (there's nothing much to react to yet), I believe that developers are going to look at the short term gains over the long run savings.

In short: Financing is a bitch.

More commentary once more information is available.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Monday Thoughts on Public Finance in Pittsburgh

Today for a record third time this year, I'm at home sick. The weather outside is about as dreary as I feel. So let's spread the pain and discuss something equally dreary: Public Finance.

First, a couple articles/postings that I stumbled upon:

Christopher Briem has an op/ed in the PG about the City's looming pension crisis. Short version: it's underfunded and that's bad.

PG is reporting here that the City is probably going to use the recent upgrade from non-junk bond status to refinance existing debt. Fester has some comments on this... as does the Trib.

And just for perspective, this blast from the past detailing Pittsburgh's, then, increasing fiscal hole.

Now, onto the matters at hand: the fiscal matters discussed above are a traditional Guns vs. Butter dilemma

... only no Butter

... and no Guns

...but there IS a dilemma/tradeoff: should the city put the savings back into paying down its existing debt obligations, into capital improvements, or into its existing pension obligations.

So really, it's Guns vs. Butter vs. ... um... other Guns.

Hard to say what to do really, but there are a couple points that may assist in illuminating the discussion:

(1) Refinancing existing debt is good from a short term, local perspective, but could be disasterous from a long term, bond market perspective. Continual refinancing drives down the City's bond status as the projected payout in interest to the bond holders for an individual bond is significantly less over the long run. The market, in order to correct for and recoup this loss and against any future issuances, raises the rate at which the City can borrow. So in the short run, there are savings, but the ability of the City to undertake future borrowing at a low rate is hampered. Same sort of deal with paying down existing debt.

(2) Interest rates, in the forseeable future, will go up; stocks will go down; bonds will go up.

(3) The Pension funds, now tied, apparently, to aggressive stock portfolios, will be hurt from a slide in the stock market.

(4) The ability of the City to attract new development is hampered by disinvestment in capital projects (roads, bridges, parks, other public works improvements).

(5) Deferred maintenance, as was undertaken during the Flarehty adminstration, can be politically disasterous and financially costly. (Fortunately for Murphy, the outgoing Mayor is immune to the former.) Drive across the 31st Street Bridge and tell me that the City couldn't use a smidge of money for Capital Improvements.

So where does this all leave the City? Dunno, except that both the Pension fund and the Capital improvements will both have to be adressed sooner rather than later, while the pay down of the existing debt can be deferred across many years.

Still investing in Guns may be a good idea... can't invade Syria with Butter... can't even invade Mt. Oliver.

Ny-Quil! Take me Away!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Rule #8

Haven't posted a new rule in a few days, so here goes:

There's a reason; there's ALWAYS a reason.

The "Reason Rule" is one of the most baffling rules to anyone outside of Bureaucracy. If you're not in the Bureaucratic superstructure, you can barely fathom why people would act so irrational when it comes to basic decisions. But there is, of course, a reason.

Bureaucracy acts as the memory of government; there's a reason why we don't do things a certain way... and usually the answer is either (1) Someone sued us, (2) Someone got fined, or (3) Someone went to jail. That's why if you read the fine print of these rules, there are all kinds of caveats that bar the bureaucracy from doing what it is you want it to do. That's why Lifelong Bureaucrats can serve a valuable function by acting as a Canary in the project mineshaft. [Remember Rule #2...Avoid being chased by Mike Wallace at all costs.] It's not that us Bureaucrats are irrational, we're just keeping people out of jail.

Thus, one of the interesting dichotomies between Politics and Government: the desire to do "good" vs. the desire to do what is permitted. To paraphrase RFK:

There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? Politicians dream of things that never were, and ask why not? Bureacrats respond because it contravenes Title I of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 (42 U.S.C.A. § §  5301—5320).

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Thursday Mayoral Discussion

I'm going to pause from my Federalist screeds for awhile and offer my opinion on the Pittsburgh Mayoral Race. (Democratic primary only. Sorry Joe.)

There is one mayoral candidate that holds full sway over the race. He has crystallized the issues and he has set himself up as the standard against which the other candidates are to be judged. His opinions are well known and, while many disagree with him, he has shown an ability to push his agenda. He has offered a broad vision for the City of Pittsburgh which the other candidates have reacted against. His specter dominates the other candidates.

He is Tom Murphy. He is the man the other candidates are trying to beat in this election, and here's why:

This campaign season quickly descended into two major themes. The first is the "Whatever we've been doing, we've been doing it wrong and I, the other candidate, can do it better" theme. For example, look at the words that they've chosen: "New Leadership," "Wrong Track," "New Pittsburgh," etc. Major criticisms have been leveled against certain mayoral pet projects and certain policy decisions, some, all or none of which may be warranted, given the situation. All the candidates have chosen to say that the current mayor is wrong in his choices and that, as Mayor, they would have chosen differently. The result is a comical round of shadow boxing, with the shadow determining the course of the fight.

The other theme, a closely related corollary to the first, is summarized as "Hey, I'm 'hip'. I'm 'cool'." (with the implication that the current mayor is neither). The most evident example of this is the out doing of O'Connor's Trolleys by Lamb's Trains. 'Cool' is supposed to be equated with 'progressive' which is supposed to attract 'young people' which is itself supposed to be 'good'. Everyone is trying to be cool, 'cept Peduto who honestly believes himself to be the epitome of coolness in Pittsburgh Politics... which is kinda like being the top kickboxer in Belgium.

But I digress.

'Cool' is supposed to be the antipode to the Murphy policies.

In any event, the formulation is clear:

Tom Murphy was wrong; Tom Murphy was uncool.

Candidate X opposes Tom Murphy; Candidate X is cool.
Candidate X is more opposed to Tom Murphy and more cool than Candidate Y.

Therefore, vote for Candidate X over Candidate Y.
The irony, of course, is that here Murphy has pretty much set the agenda for his potential successors and their campaigns. They are rhetorically chained to opposing his previous string of decisions and the winner will be chained to the political and governmental realities that Murphy created.

Real progress in solving the problems facing Pittsburgh is going to come from neither Anti-Murphy nor reductio ad cool systems of policies. The real pressing problems facing Pittsburgh (population decline, eroding of tax base, continual loss of employment, increase of crime, decrease of educational quality, environmental degradation, etc.) cannot be solved by the Mayor of Pittsburgh alone. A combination of local, regional, state, and national strategies, both public and private, are needed to truly remedy the City of Pittsburgh. The next mayor, whoever that may be, is going to find himself able to control only a small chunk of the strategy and will have to beg, borrow, and steal in order to get what he wants from the other players.

The City has been in trouble for a long time, longer than this mayor or his predecessor or her predecessor can take full responsibility for. I would wager that if Murphy had done exactly the opposite of what he did do, the City would still be in trouble... only different trouble... and the current candidates would still be running against his policies.

Bob O'Connor, Michael Lamb, Bill Peduto, Louis Kendrick, Les Ludwig, Daniel F. Repovz and Gary W. Henderson are all still running for Mayor. Tom Murphy is not.

But in 4 years we'll be hearing the same thing against the new guy...

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Political Philosophy Minute

Federalist Paper #10 is a good read:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government... enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.
Federalist Paper #51 is pretty good too, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," "If men were angels no government would be necessary," "If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure...."

And so on.

These points seem particularly relevant for increasingly evident reasons ...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Few Things No One Talks About

This post is slated to be exceptionally boring, but I just wanted to raise a few issues that have caused some real headaches for mes amies in the Pittsburgh Economic Development arena. These aren't the sensationalized stories about "how much property the City owns" or "how the City is stymying development downtown". These are much more technical concerns about the health of the City and its ability to grow.

(1) Tax Delinquency. Tax a good look at a map of the tax delinquency around the city of Pittsburgh. Certain neighborhoods are approaching 50% property tax delinquency, which is damn scary. Once you hit 50%, the neighborhood is on a near irreversible slide toward decline. If the City cannot collect on the revenues, the City doesn't have the money it needs to operate.

(2) Water & Sewer. This going to be a bigger problem soon. Western PA will have to dump close to $3 BILLION in order to comply with an EPA decree to separate water & sewer lines. PWSA has begun to mandate some of this separation, but at about $10,000/unit, the costs are difficult to subsume in a project budgets. Consequently, a lot of the affordable housing that could get built, doesn't.

(3) Construction Cost vs. Market Prices. Pittsburgh is an inexpensive City to live in, but not to construct in. Prevailing wages, unfortunately bumped up in the short run by the construction of two stadiums, push construction costs up significantly higher than the overall sales prices. The result is that more and more community groups and developers go hat-in-hand looking for development grants in order to get their construction projects done. Unfortunately, City resources are stretches so thin than development grants are few and far between.

(4) Federal Reduction of CDBG Allocations. Big time problem for the City who is scheduled to receive only about $19M in CDBG funds, down from around $20M in 2004 and 2003. To give you perspective, before the fiscal meltdown, URA only received $7.96M of those CDBG dollars. Following the fiscal crisis (or rather, currently), the City has reallocated that money to pay for non-ED uses. The Bush administration will only cut the CDBG allocation further. Less gap financing to the City means fewer projects can get pushed through to development.

(5) High Parking Tax. While this was a hot-button issue awhile back, it has since faded into the background. Still, it remains one of the major deterrents to downtown development.

(6) Asbestos. It is incredibly costly to do an environmentally sound demolition of a building containing asbestos. It's not pretty. We're not even talking about remediation of a building for future occupants; we're talking about actual demolition. While this is a necessary process, there is little if any additional money out there to alleviate those costs
So those are some issues that a few people are talking about; they aren't big, but they are a nuisance.

I'm open to additional insights.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Monday Comentary-ette

Public policy should almost never be based on a single, emotional case.

>>>>>FOLLOW UP<<<<<

An Editorial from Ian Duncan-Smith (Conservative MP) in today's New York Times, slightly taken out of context, but still germane:

It has always been appropriate for parliaments to have the power to stop hasty legislation. And this democratic responsibility is even more important in today's electronic age. A dangerous combination of frenzied news coverage and trigger-happy legislators has put many bad laws onto statute books across the world. As the old saying goes, providence moves slowly but the devil always hurries. Bicameral legislatures, powers of filibuster, and the need for supermajorities on issues of vital importance are useful blocks on devilish legislation.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Assessment Solutions

OK, in my last posting, we talked about how the assessment cap is basically illegal. Let's assume, for a moment, that there is a "problem" to be solved and that government action is required to "solve" this "problem". I argue that the problem is not with the assessment, per se, but rather the taxes that are derived from that assessment. So, how do you solve the tax problem, given the uniformity and equity issues involved? Couple ideas:

(1) Reduce the assessment basis from 100% of value. Back in the day, the assessment was about 25% of value and the tax rate was high; today, the county is at 100%, but the rate is low. If the County thinks that the assessments are too high, it can reduce the assessment basis down a few points, covering uniformly all Allegheny County taxpayers. The segmentation of property owners into classes of 1,2,3,4 or 0% property caps does not meet this uniformity requirement and should be abandoned.

(2) Lean on the municipalities to reduce their tax rates. If Allison Park has such a problem with being reassessed too high, let Allison Park reduce their taxes so that they confirm with windfall laws. County intrusion by instituting a cap is unnecessary.

(3) Reassess, reassess, reassess every year. While the citizenry make not like the outcome, it will give them a larger sample set in order to base any appeals.

(4) Assess the assessments. A large problem here is that we don't have a good standard to measure the accuracy of the assessments. Onorato says that the assessments are inaccurate; the assessor's office begs to differ. The County needs an independent verification of not only the accuracy but also the disparities of the assessments.

(5) Leave politics out of the assessments as per Rule #6. The assessments are supposed to be apolitical; taxes are political. If assessments are high, the politicians should reduce tax rates or value bases, not tinker with calculations. Would you let the Federal Highway Administration adjust your car so that you are forced to go 55 mph, or would you prefer they just readjust speed limits?

(6) Hell, put politics back in it and repeal the equitable assessment provisions of the State Constitution. While you're at it, repeal any pesky Civil Rights Laws at the Federal level. If the law is bothering you, get rid of the law.

(7) Burn down the county and start again with the assessments. If this option is chosen, please start either with Mount Oliver or Robinson.

Just some thoughts, I'm open to more. Even ones that don't involve arson. Of course, this is, again, assuming that there is actually a "problem" that must be "solved"... just like the "problem" with Social Security and the "solution" of individual retirement accounts... but, hey, I digress.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Mad Capped Assessments

Perennial local government gadfly Robert Strauss has posted his Tuesday remarks to Allegheny County Council with regards to the 2006 property cap assessment.

While I don't always agree with Dr. Strauss (he's often prone to paranoia in violation of Rule #5), when it comes to the economic mechanics and legality of policy decisions, he's usually dead on. He may not make any political friends, but his warnings are to be taken seriously.

I'll paraphrase his objections to the cap:
(1) It's illegal.
(2) We tried this before, and it was illegal then too. Ici:

In ending the assessment freeze enacted by former county Commissioners Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer in 1996, Wettick decreed that it was illegal for the commissioners to oversee the assessment department, as they had done for many years.

Wettick said that under the Second Class County Assessment law, which governs Allegheny County, the assessment board was responsible for maintaining, revising and equalizing the assessment system -- county government was not.

Weiss and Harlan Stone, the lawyer who brought the lawsuit resulting in Wettick's ruling, believe Roddey would need a change in that state law in order to enact his plan.
The Trib is speculating when the lawsuits will arrive.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

District Deux

In a move that surprised no one; from the PG:

Pittsburgh City Councilman Alan Hertzberg announced today that he will resign effective tomorrow night.

Hertzberg was confirmed by the state Senate Monday to fill a vacancy on Allegheny County court.

He said he wanted to resign as soon as possible so that his council district race could get on the May primary ballot. He also said he wanted to avoid the cost of a special election, which he said could cost $60,000 or more.
This probably means that there will be two elections, one as a by-election for the balance of the term and one for the primary, for the November elections.

Here are the candidates for District 2, if anyone cares:
Paul F. Renne, D
Erin C. Molchany, D
Melissa Rossiter, D
Paul R. Mastandrea, D
Daniel J. Deasy Jr., D (Endorsed)
William S. Urbanic, D
Sam Berninger, R

Some details on these candidates can be found here.

Having lived for some time in this area as a youngin', I can say, without fear of contradiction that the majority of the 2nd Council District can be characterized by three words: "Bat-Shit Insane."

Voici des candidates:
Don't know how Bill Urbanic is allowed to run if he's employed by the City; I thought there were laws against that. Although Dan Deasy seems to have no problem with it either. So there you go. Kudos to the bureaucrats.

Paul Renne is a former CFO of Heinz and your District # 2 excuse to reuse all those Heinz pins from the 2004 Presidential Election without looking like a bitter, bitter Democrat.

What's the difference between Planned Parenthood and CORO? One provides a good reasons why you should be allowed to abort children, the other is Planned Parenthood. Erin C. Molchany is from both. And she's supported by P-Man.

Melissa Rossiter needs to get rid of her Senior Class picture on her website, which itself looks like it was done by Howard Hanna.

Paul R. Mastandrea bills himself as a "legitimate businessman"... and has threatened to break both my legs for writing this.

Sam Berninger is the VP of State Affairs of the Young Conservatives of PA, which, frankly, gives me the heeby-jeebies. [Whoa! There they go again!]
So this concludes the extent of ANY coverage of the 2nd District in ANY media outlet; no need to mention any issues, as there are none...much like running for Student Council in High School.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Activate the Way-Back Machine

From this article:

They say they've seen [Bob O'Connor] challenge Murphy's initiatives without offering any sense that he has a broad agenda of his own, or wonder if he can make tough decisions that risk alienating some people for the greater good. Some council [members] wonder if he's too cozy with the public safety unions, whom a mayor might have to face down at contract time, and they've sensed him waffling on difficult issues like stadium financing.

"He has to stand for something beyond not being Tom Murphy, and it's not clear to me what that is," said Councilman Sala Udin, who views O'Connor as a shrewd pragmatist lacking in firm ideology to stand on.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Bob O'Connor has a good word for everyone. But does he have what it takes to be mayor of Pittsburgh?", Sunday, April 29, 2001

Interesting reading.

Makes you wonder how much Bobby O has changed in 4 years, if he has at all, and if that's bad or not. Also makes you wonder if being a "good guy" makes you qualified to be Mayor, or not, and if it matters.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Planes, Trains, and Lambs

I've already savaged Michael Lamb's quest for Mayor here, but Mikey keeps churning out ideas, so I have to keep making up witty retorts.

This is a follow-up to Friday's critique of his high speed rail plans; Mikey has more transit/transportation ideas here. You don't have time to read them all, so I will summarize, leaving out all of Lamb's generous, but colorful, expletives.

The Overview:

Transit Funding/Dedicated Funding Source (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: "The absence of a dedicated funding source puts the City and Allegheny County at a competitive disadvantage in the competition for “New Start Funding” from the Federal Transit Administration."
>Proposed Solution: Advocacy for Funding.
>Analysis: The Mayor of Pittsburgh has no power here. Be gone, before someone drops a house on you!

High Speed Rail (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: "Landing [the MagLev] industry in Pittsburgh would mean tens of thousands of jobs and exciting new technology in the areas of precision manufacturing and advanced transportation."
>Proposed Solution: Advocacy for Funding.
>Analysis: "Begging" is a reoccuring campaign theme here.

North Shore Connector (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: Light Rail serves to compliment proposed and existing development, but does not go far enough.
>Proposed Solution: Support for funding.
>Analysis: This will cut into Mike's support for our troops.

Commuter Rail/Hazelwood to Downtown (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: "A transit link from downtown to Oakland has been discussed in Pittsburgh for years. The Oakland area is the third largest center of economic activity in the state of Pennsylvania and linking it to downtown could be a huge benefit to the City."
>Proposed Solution: Mike commits to planning.
>Analysis: Let's all go get liquored up and have a committee. Interesting historical fact: this is actually how the Pittsburgh Public School Board orignally started.

Mon-Fayette Toll Road (Mike's Mostly Against it.)
>Identified Problem: Numerous. "This hugely expensive and controversial proposal would be one of the largest public works projects in Pennsylvania would be financed by taxes on all Pennsylvania residents rather than from tolls collected on the road...devastation of communities like Hazelwood and adverse effects on areas like Nine Mile Run and Duck Hollow." Etc.
>Proposed Solution: Mike supports building to Monroeville, not through Hazelwood.
>Analysis: Michael Lamb vs. Mosites, P.J. Dick, et al. Never mess around with contractors who want jobs and have bulldozers and concrete at their disposal.

Route 28 Reconstruction/Troy Hill (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: "Route 28 in the vicinity of the 31st Street Bridge is a traffic nightmare."
>Proposed Solution: Mike commits to reach goals and to seek funding.
>Analysis: Nothing to see here... move along.

South Side/Quiet Zone (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: "[The Railroad] whistles which are sounded at 10th and 18th Streets railroad street crossings while essential are a nuisance.
>Proposed Solution: Work with FRA and CSX to establish "Quiet Zones".
>Analysis: Quiet Zones don't exist yet; municipalities have little control over the Railroads. ["I think I can... I think I can... I think I can..."]

Traffic Signals (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: Traffic signals are not syncronized.
>Proposed Solution: City should complete its traffic management plan.
>Analysis: City Planning fired the traffic planner as per Act 47. Whoops!

Regional Transportation Planning; Pittsburgh’s Role (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: "Federal law requires that metropolitan regions like Pittsburgh have in place a 'metropolitan planning organization' or 'MPO' which establishes the transportation priorities for the region and determines the allocation of transportation funds, federal and state. "
>Proposed Solution: As Mayor, Mike will be personally involved as an active, participating member of the Commission.
>Analysis: Way to follow the law there Mike.

Water Transportation (Mike's For it.)
>Identified Problem: "We are experiencing a change of focus and an expansion of our use of the rivers."
>Proposed Solution: "We need to find the best means of making this water transportation a welcoming and cost-effective reality."
>Analysis: I long for the day where I can travel from the Southside to Shadyside via Water Taxi. Water transportation will only be efficient once there's a critical mass of stuff to do on the water front.

Mike is trying really hard in all these areas to offer policy items that are practical, fresh, and/or interesting. Unfortunately, so little of what he's proposing is actually within the pervue of the Office of Mayor. Mike might as well promise to bring in Luck Dragons to sing us all lullabyes.

I appretiate the ideas that Mike is trying espouse here, but they are little more than vague promises, with not much in terms of... say... substance.

Out of all the ideas he puts forward, only one (the Traffic coordination) is really within his [potential] power. It would be better if Mike stuck to promising to salt the streets, pave the potholes, and make sure that the 31st Street Bridge doesn't go crashing into the Allegheny. At least those are some reasonable, attainable objectives, as banal as they are. Promising high speed rail is like promising health care for the city's lower-income children.

Wait a sec...

Friday, March 11, 2005

Short Line R.R.

Via the PG, Mikey Lamb announced his support for a Commuter Rail Line to travel from Hazelwood through Oakland to Downtown. If you've ever ridden Amtrak's Capital Limited, you'll know the route through Hazelwood, up through Junction Hollow, past CMU, under Neville Avenue, and along the busway through the strip.

Yes, I am whistfully romantic about rail travel, OK. There's just something very Civilized about it. It may be slow, but you have more leg room than a plane, a better class of people than the buss, and you can enjoy the scenery more than in a car. I long to ride with Hercule Poirot.

So, anyway. Mike's looking at this as an alternative to the Mon-Fayette, which fantabulous, although I have a couple of questions:

(1) Where's the money coming from?
(2) What are the equity issues involved here? Is Mikey proposing bypassing the Hill? Why couldn't this fancy commuter rail service Homewood or East Liberty or Braddock, instead of the less desireable busway? Are the predominantly poorer, blacker neighborhoods of Pittsburgh always going to have bus service while the whiter, more affluent suburbs have Light Rail?
(3) Where's the money coming from?
(4) Is this really Mikey's job to be proposing such a project? Isn't this a non-starter as a MFX alternative if the Turnpike Commission has its heart set on dropping $8 gagillion dollars on a toll road?
(5) Where's the money coming from?
(6) Why stop service at the strip and not take it all the way to Gateway Center? Why are we adding in a 3rd mode of unintegrated mass transit? Would it be a better long term investment to just extend the T?
(7) Where's the money coming from?
(8) No pooftas!
(9) Where's the money coming from?
(10) Would you want PAT to manage this? Really?

Part of me suspects that this is an attempt by Lamb to undercut O'Connor's support in Hazelwood, which is dead set against the MFX. The other part of me surmises that Lamb is trying to one up O'Connor's grand Trolley Line.

Next week, expect Bill Peduto to endorse water taxis, Louis Kendrick to endorse hover cars, Les Ludwig to endorse giant catapults, Daniel F. Repovz and Gary W. Henderson to jointly endorse "rocket pants," and Joe Weinroth to endorse walking really, really fast.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Des Pensées Bureaucratiques

In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal presents his philosophy through brief ideas and staccatto jottings. The experience of reading this work is much like the experience that Plato ascribes to his cave-dwelling man who comes back into the cave after experiencing the Truth. Truth, in both Plato's and Pascal's formulation, can only be experienced in instantaneous insights -- overwhelming moments of clarity, if you will -- that subside almost as quickly as they appeared. And while Plato, Pascal, Zarathustra, et al. have been kind enough to descend from the cave from time to time in order to bring the Truth with them, we, the troglodytes that we are, seem even stupider after having been exposed to these ideas.

Anyway, with that preface out of the way, some of my thoughts for the day:

The First: The #1 Problem with Public service is the Public.
The Second: When the boss's, boss's, boss's, boss comes looking for you, it can only mean trouble.
The Third: Nothing good can come out of a closed door Board meeting.

Back to the cave. Come Robin!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Rule #6

After a long day of...well... unmitigated crap:

Rule #6: "Politics is the enemy of good government."

So many of those we willingly elect to office, we would not willingly hire as employees. That is the great tragedy of American bureaucracy.


Today's lead story in the New York Times: Data Is Lacking on Iran's Arms, U.S. Panel Says.

The invasion is set for just after midterm elections.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

As I Lay Dying

When the seasons change, I get a cold, a nasty, lingering cold that sits in my sinuses for weeks on ends. By the end of the second day, I'm disoriented, confused, and incoherrent. [All of which makes me a viable candidate for Mayor of Pittsburgh.]

Anyway, today at THE BUREAUCRACY, between delusional ramblings that Aliens are stealing my luggage, I got to thinking about all the things that are going on in Pittsburgh and if anyone actually sat down and took notice.

This is not waxing romantically, by the way; this is a legitimate Economic Development question:

Has anyone actually taken stock of the Economic Development tools that the City of Pittsburgh has at its disposal?


Catalyst Connection has some ideas. So does The Carnegie Library. They both seem to be lacking, however, in a way that I can't quite put my finger on.

For example: No mention of The Community Design Center of Pittsburgh or The Community Technical Assistance Center. No funders are listed either. Nor tradesmen.

Maybe this is just typical of the fractousness of the region. I mean, if you can't get the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Builder's Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh to work together, how can you expect Blawnox and Mt. Lebanon to do it?

I'm going to chalk this up to the NyQuil, but what kinds of community and economic development tools are out there and what exactly are they doing?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Property Assessment Monday

Just a couple of thoughts I had during my commute into work this morning as I muddled my way through traffic.

[Ed.note: The spell-checker has decided to stop working. We appollogize for any mispeelings.]

First, it seems that there are some distinct classes in an ideal reassessment:
(1) Those that saw their values change because of change to the unit.
(2) Those that saw their values change because of change to the community.
(3) Those that saw their values change because of change to the general economy.

So, if any of these are in the positived direction, it's a net win to the homeowner, i.e, the value of their house increases. (Exception is #3 if we're talking about adjustment because of inflation.) If any of these changes are in the negative direction, it's a net loss.

Second, assessment should equal sales price (projected). Assessment can only equal sales price if there has been a transaction. Therefore, the county needs to make certain projections based on comparable sales. This, we'll admit, is hard.

OK, one could argue that the comparables used do not match the value of the assessed unit, which is a legitimate complaint. A yearly assessment is probably the best way to do it; the assessors need to make sure that they are up to date on the latest values and shifts in market trends.

Third, a high assessment is good if you are looking at the value of your house, your share of equity in the house, and your ability to sell the house. It is bad if you are only concerned with taxes. [We will all agree that no one likes to pay taxes.] Well, why is the proposed Onorato cap on the assessment and not on the municipal taxes? Aren't people really complaining that the increased value is leading to the increased taxes? To satisfy those concerns, shouldn't there be an anti-windfall provision so that municipalities are forced to readjust their milliage rates?

Oh... there is. 5%

In effect, Onorato is artificially depressing the projected value in order to keep taxes low, but not giving a truly assessed value. This is a boon to the higher income brackets who's 4% cap will be a greater amount than a lower income 4% cap, but who will still be able to sell their property at the higher "market" rate.

Fourth point and I'll let you go. One of the objects of traditional Bricks & Mortar Economic Development is to increase the overall value of a community. Pittsburgh builds 50 new houses in Garfield, the value of Garfield increases, the surrounding assessment increases, tax revenue increases, and the City has more money to do other stuff with.

Capping the amount an assessment can increase in a given year artificially depresses the projected benefits of bricks & mortar economic development, stifiling the ability of the City to increase its tax revenues.

So not only do surrounding homeowners lose the benefits of a positive revaluation, but the City misses out on real income. A quick back of the envelope calculation is showing that with a 4% cap in place [assuming that assessments changes are fairly evenly distributed, but with only a 25% declining rate] the taxing bodies lose out on about 10-20% of the original revenue over and above they would have received if they were only stuck with the 5% anti-windfall provision.

Simply put:
Old Total Value: $24,370,701.20
Old Total Revenue: $716,742.32

New Total Value: $31,581,581.32 (Random, evenly distributed change, 75% of properties showing increased value)
New Total Revenue: $928,814.31
5% Anti-Winfall Revenue: $745,412.02

4% Capped Total Value: $22,140,331.54
4% Capped Total Revenue: $651,147.15

Net loss in this example to the taxing bodies: $65,595.17 over old assessment.

Just some thoughts.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Victim #3

I'm hoping that more candidates enter Pittsburgh's Mayoral Race as I've effectively run out of people to mock. I'm hoping that this series will inspire more people to open themselves up to public ridicule, that is, without having to run on the Constitution Party Ticket. If Les Ludwig and/or Joe Weinroth set up campaign sites, I will also thoroughly mock them... I mean their sites.

The previous victims are found here and here. But now Victim #3 :

Michael Lamb

By the looks of his photo, Michael Lamb seems to be angling for the semi-influential block of voters with heads shaped vaguely like buckets. Not nearly as creepy as good Bobby O's "Dirty Shop Teacher" photo, but still unsettling. Makes you wonder what the rejected photos look like; I'm guessing they made him look more like Gumby.

And look, Mike's left a little note for us. I've decided to write back to him, as is common courtesy:

Dear Mikey,

I'm a smarmy blogger and welcome to my online mocking of your webpage. Please indulge me as I pick at the little foibles of your site and the inanity of your political ideals by comparing them to various bodily excrements and 80s sci-fi movies.

I am looking forward to this opportunity to add nothing to this conversation with you and to share my thoughts and visions about the future of hard-core man on goat porn. This web site is a central point for inane commentary on nothing in particular.

Please visit my website as I continue to ramble mindlessly. In addition, thank you for opening yourself up to public scorn and ridicule. If it weren't for people like you, I wouldn't have anything in particular to write about.

Hugs and Squishy Kisses,

The Angry Drunk Bureaucrat

P.S. If you are finished with the hairdryer, could you please pop it in the mail?
I hope Mike writes me back. We've grown so distant as of late.

Michael Lamb, 42, is an attorney admitted to practice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; very few lawyers actually admit to practicing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He has received his JD from the University of Pittsburgh, his MPM from Carnegie Mellon, his BA from Penn State, his TQM from DED, POS, QED, LMNOP. Etc.

Mikey is currently the Prothonotary of Allegheny County.

In the words of Harry S Truman: "What the Hell is a Prothonotary?"

Well, according to, a prothonotary is one of a college of 12 ecclesiastics charged with the registry of important pontifical proceedings. Why Pittsburgh is the repository for Papal documents is beyond me, but if His Holiness is involved, it's got to be OK. We should give Il Papa a call about the City of Pittsburgh budget crisis. I hear his accountants are infallible.

Mike also enjoys long walks on the beach, real strawberries on ice cream, sad songs at midnight, filing things under the letter "Q," and photos that make him look dopey.

His turnoffs include people that leave the toilet seat up, wicker, and Bob O'Connor.

[It's at this point, that "O" is going to go for more Bourbon. This page is painful.]
[Deep Breath]

If you've never had Maker's Mark Bourbon, you must try it some time. It's both Oaky and Smooth... and it'll help you get through Mike Lamb's News Page.

The Left Side of the Page are various news items/editorials. I'm going to ignore them as I... I... I really don't care enough to read them all, especially having read the Right side of the page..

The Right Side of the Page are the Press Releases.

Ugh. [Big Gulp of Bourbon] Here goes a brief overview:

Strong Showing for Lamb
Mikey explains that by losing by nearly 2:1 to Bobby O in the endorsement race, he's actually won. Now, the City of Pittsburgh can move forward, not backwards, and not slouch in the corner, pretending to be interested in the CD collection so that someone might try and strike up a conversation with us.

Lamb Plan for Pittsburgh: First Address City Finances
Platitude, Pandering, Pandering, Crap, Crap, Cliches, More Crap, Meaningless Jargon, Idea 1 (outsource tax collection), Uninformed Idea, Non-Solution, Uninformed Idea, Meaningless Cliche, half-assed pledge, Idea 2 (City-County COG... an idea that may be unworkable), Crap, Crap, Filler, Filler, Filler.

OK, two real ideas out of 625 words, not bad... unfortunately only one of those is unique to Mikey (tax outsourcing). Although, I must say, I don't trust either the County or the Commonwealth anymore than I would trust the City. Just because they can hide their mess doesn't mean that they are in any better shape.

Most of the other "Ideas" he has are things that the city is doing anyway, albeit slowly.

Moving on...

"Where's the Beef, Bob?"
Mikey turns to a senior citizen and asks him "What's your problem?".

Lamb Blasts O'Connor for Ducking Responsibility
Mikey tells said senior citizen to step outside if he has a problem.

Michael Lamb: Let's Give Voters a Clear Choice
Mikey shoves a broken bottle in senior citizen's face and shouts "Stitch that Bobby!"

Geez, I will gladly vote for Mikey for the position of "Angry, Fightin' Bureaucrat." I want to party with this cowboy, but I have a feeling that he's the kind of mayor that would hork in the back seat of your Geo Metro after a long night of Bureaucratic debauchery (prepared in triplicate). Dude is evidently pissed about something and if he had as much Bourbon as I've had, we could both go requisition, say, Du Bois.

Pizzburgh Bureaucratz 4 Life (as per USC 42 Chapter 68(I) § 5122 (2), biatches)!

On that note, Mikey likes drinking... and Irish Bands. Awesome.

He also likes long walks at 10 AM on Saturdays and 11 AM on Sundays.


Wha? Did someone say Prothonotary?


BIG let down after the bureaucratic rave that was the EVENTS PAGE.


Let's see, I volunteered Bob O'Connor to place a yard sign at his house. I hope that wasn't a conflict of interest.

If you're interested in more information...

I'm not


I tried to donate a pint of B- at this page, but it didn't let me. Ungrateful bitches.

I also tried to send a Czech, but Vaclav wouldn't fit in the envelope.

Final scores:
(1) Eye Roll: Strong Showing for Lamb
Mikey, Denile ain't just a River in Egypt.
(2) Yeah...and...: Lamb Plan for Pittsburgh: First Address City Finances
Good try, but a lot of ideas that don't go anywhere, like this little gem:
In addition, large tracts of land where public housing communities once stood lie vacant and unused. This property must become productive once more, and Lamb pledged that his administration will make that happen.
(3) Buzzword:
Well, I didn't knock Billy-boy for his overuse of "Leadership," and I only gave a minor slap on the wrist to Bobby for his trite cliches. Mikey's punishment is to FIX THE MAIN PICTURE SO HE DOESN'T LOOK SO DAMNED GOOFY!!!


Nice balance between text and the word "LAMB"... but why is there is a big black spot in the middle of the "A"? Is that the vortex to some parallel dimension where giant hair and flashing webpages cause little children to cry? Can we use it to hunt down and kill Sarah Connor?

Michael Lamb is a goofy looking, but pissed off prothonotary....whatever a prothonotary is.

ADB Endorsed Candidate for Mayor

No, not for Pittsburgh...for Las Vegas.

Via Mayor endorses gin to fourth graders

This is what made the British Empire great.

I prefer Gin & Tonic to Gin Martinis, but he's spot on when it comes to Bombay Saphire. Truly, Mayor Goodman is a mayor that has the guts to tell it like it is and stand up for what he believes in.

Everyone should believe in something; I believe I'll have a drink.

Off for some "Mayoral Time" of my own.

Property Tax Reassessments

OK, I'm fashionably late to the party as ever, but just my two cents as to Onorato's reassessment plan.

First, read this article from CMU's Finance Professor and Murphy gadfly Bob Strauss.

I want to focus, specifically on this quote:

A comparison of the assessed value (A) prior to its sale, with the price of the property (S) that sold within a period provides evidence on how accurate the initial assessment was, and can be summarized across properties that transacted through the use of various statistical measures of relative dispersion. If the resulting ratio, A/S, is constant across many properties in an assessing area, then assessment quality is thought to be high, and if A/S is quite variable, then assessment quality is thought to be low.
Bob goes on to say that a dispersion ratio of 15% between the sales price of properties and price of the properties is generally held to be the target for a "good" assessment. Allegheny County was at 29.5% in 2002.

Now, read this, specifically the lines that say:
The county considers assessments to be acceptable if they average 90 percent of actual sales prices across the county. For 2002, the figure was 94 percent.
OK...there is room for statistical shenanigans as we're looking at "average across the county." I can't tell you whether housing prices are normally distributed, but I would wager the answer is no. Notice that the 2004 "dispersion ratio" (i.e., a measure of the variability of the assessment accuracy) of 29.5% seems to contradict the 2004 "assessment ratio" (i.e., a measure of overall accuracy of the assessments) of 94%. Again, I'll wager that housing prices are not normally distributed.

The results of the study quoted in the PG showed that
15 wards were, on average, below 80 percent of the actual sale prices. That means assessments for those properties, which averaged as low as 64 percent in the 6th Ward -- Strip District, Polish Hill and Lawrenceville -- were substantially too low and owners likely are paying less than they should in property taxes.

In the other 17 wards and Mount Oliver, assessments were above 80 percent of the sales price. In the 12th Ward -- Lincoln, Lemington and Larimer -- sales averaged 104 percent of the county's assessed values, which means residents there probably will pay more than they should in taxes.
OK, what does this all mean?

I would argue, perhaps nothing. Having not seen the numbers, or the actual calculations involved, we should not be so quick to assume that the assessments are definitely out of whack. There is no evidence in the PG article that these assessments are varying wildly, just that they are over all higher or lower than the average of the surrounding area, which would mean that they are locally consistent. Clearly more research needs to be done, I need to get my hands on the calculations, or, perhaps, assessments need to be done more often.

The cynic in me believes that Onorato is forcing a 4% cap in the assessment increase in order to further certain political ambitions, or at least preserve and grow his political capital.

Anyway, Fester has a looong post on why assessments may increase and some of the political motivations to keep them low. I would argue that additionally, Onorato wants to keep his donors (i.e., the wealthy) happy with low property tax rates.

Pending further review, however, the immediate need to cap assessments this year might not just be short sighted, it may also be an illusion.

UPDATE My hyptertext skillz suck a little less ass, thanks to Fester.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Streetcar Named Campaign

Big Bobby O' has unveiled a plan to build a street car line from Downtown to Oakland.

Oy, where do we begin:

(1) OK, cool. Pittsburgh does suffer from the disconnectedness between Downtown and Oakland. Conceivably, if we could quickly and efficiently link these two neighborhoods together, we could combine the power of Pennsylvania's #2 and #3 commercial areas and expand the development of both neighborhoods into the Hill. From an Economic Development perspective, urban nodal development supported by efficient transportation infrastructure is a smart way to go.

(2) But why doesn't Bob just propose going to Mars instead? That's just about as likely. Observe:

(a) City is strapped for cash;
(b) Port Authority is strapped for cash (you'd think this would be PAT's job);
(c) As Peduto does note in the article, the State is more concerned with the Mon-Fayette than Light Rail;
(d) No real funding source has been identified;
(e) Having not seen the plans, are we proposing adding additional traffic to the already congested Fifth-Forbes Cooridor to Oakland?
(f) What exactly is the point of this trolley? Commuting? Tourism? Short trips?
Furrow has some additional reading all over his website about Public Transportation in Pittsburgh; it's good to brush up on the technical bits.

From a political standpoint, however, this is a non-starter with Mayor Bob. It's a fairly reasonable attempt to portray Bob as a "visionary" for the City of Pittsburgh, instead of a Party Hack. Unfortunately, it is not so much a viable plan as it is a White Elephant.

Can we propose water taxis now?