Monday, May 29, 2006

Open Letter to Bill Toland

Dear Mr. Toland,

Let me begin by saying that I appreciate the unsolicited attention given to this little corner of the "Blurghosphere" through your column/journal.  Indeed, this little creative endeavor of mine would likely never see any attention from the popular press, if not for your intervention, that is, outside the random searches for words like "nipples" and "gussets," which seem to be bringing a larger than anticipated contingency of my loyal readership, small though it is.  By my reckoning, there are roughly 12 people that read this thing; I know half of them are me, checking for comments, one is obviously you, three are me searching for pages that contain the words "nipples" and "gussets," and three are anonymous readers who only identify themselves through cryptic handles such as "Throdgar the Unmerciful," "Mr. Philo T. Bigglesworth," "Heywood Jablome", and "Tom Murphy."  If not for your efforts, my work here would consist largely of wiping the smutty virtual graffiti off of my virtual message board and learning that 6 + 1 + 3 + 3 = 13.  So, for this I am truly appreciative. 

There are however, two points of contention that I wish to discuss.  It seems that you fellows at the P-G are still adamant about bandying about the word "Drunken" when referring to the title of my little opus here, despite my prior protest.   I did notice that you attempted to include the correct appellation in your recent column, although your efforts did fall short.  Now, while I do no profess to be proficient in English, French, Mandarin, or any other civilized language, or even Welsh, I do profess to be an expert on this blog and I do know for a fact that the title of this monstrosity is The Angry Drunk Bureaucrat. While "Drunken" was previously considered, it was ultimately rejected in favor of "Candy-Assed", which was later changed to "Pansy-Assed", which was later changed to "Doug", which finally became "Drunk."  So, despite you insistence to the contrary, the title is The Angry Drunk Bureaucrat, and will stay that way forever, or at least until I get bored.

Second, I did notice that in you recent Casino Journal, you quoted my thoughts on the recent City Council proceedings in part, as follows:

"Don't you hate it when your bosses have set their opinion based on some non-data driven 'gut feeling,' rather than thorough analysis? Everyone loves the Isle of Capri plan. Loves it in a way that Roger Ebert doesn't love 'North.' And why not? It promises everything: hotels, supermarkets, an arena, a chicken in every pot..."

Those ellipses (ellipii?) are indication of an important omission, one that provided a punchline to an increasingly escalating series of absurdities which culminated in both a reference to a failed (or reneged) Reconstruction Era promise and a pornographic act. 

I assure you, the phrase "mule that gives hummers" was not a light or transient literary construction. 

Now, I recognize that this phrase may be one that offends the good sensibilities of your regular readership, despite the quiet slouching of American society towards Gomorrah, as evidenced by the renewal of The O.C. for another season and the abrupt cancellation of Arrested Development.  Still, the phrase, I believe, was apt in the context, and should have been included. 

Fortunately for both of us, I did not go with my initial inclination which included a phrase that is (1) anatomically impossible, (2) biologically hazardous, and (3) involves Bea Arthur.  Let us both consider ourselves lucky that you didn't have to censor that bit of smut. 

I will, however, choose to ignore these two transgressions if you use the word "omphaloskepsis" in an upcoming print article for, if nothing else, it would prove definitively to me that you believe it is the utmost duty and responsibility of a free press to report the Truth, fairly and accurately, and that you really do think these kinds of jokes are funny. 

I await your omphaloskepsis.


The Angry Drunk Bureaucrat

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Mo-Fo Excessway

And speaking of poor policy and planning decisions, I noticed a series of articles in both the Trib and the P-G on that engineering monstrosity called the Mon-Fayette Expressway. First, the Trib:

The head of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission on Tuesday urged lawmakers to decide whether to build the Mon-Fayette Expressway through Allegheny County or scrap the project.

"What has to occur from today on, if people believe the project should be finished, is the political leadership in the state has to have the courage to fund it," commission CEO Joe Brimmeier said during a forum hosted by the Urban Land Institute at the Rivers Club, Downtown...

That section through Allegheny County is projected to cost $2.4 billion...

Possible sources of additional money includes gasoline taxes, drivers' fees and leasing the highway to a private company.

There is no indication that lawmakers intend to raise taxes or fees. The commission is talking with an Australian company, Macquarie Group, about possibly forming a public-private partnership that could generate the money needed to complete the highway.
And from the P-G:
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman said officials of towns in the path of the Mon-Fayette Expressway need to know whether the project will be built.

"You've created a ribbon that's a dead zone through the middle of Braddock," Mr. Fetterman said. "Otherwise, you're causing more hardship than we already have [and] we have to develop alternate plans. You need to establish a jumping-off point."
As you can guess from my above, snarky comments, I have some ideas on this matter, primary of which is to scrap the whole damned plan. I'm not interested in creating a "Cranberry South" that will detract much needed revenue and resources from communities that need them more. I do not believe that the State and Local Governments should be active participants in facilitating sprawl or unsustainable development.

But hey, that's me.

Still, being a Bureaucrat (or at least that's the claim in the title of this 'blog), I can understand a simple principle here, namely Rule #18: "Money is not created equal": PennDOT, the Locals, the State, all of them are going to lose this money if they don't spend it, and they can't just spend it on anything. A $2.4 Billion investment in Beanie-Babies is right out, as is doubling down on Red 18. No, PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission need to spend this money on the Mon-Fayette, else they get $0, nothing, nada.

That, however, is not the best reason to build this thing. Just because it's an expressway doesn't mean that you have to build an expressway... even if the plans were on display (in a disused lavatory in a locked filing cabinet, in the basement, where the lights had gone out and a big sign had been posted saying "Beware of the Leopard".) PennDOT may have to give this project up, but here are some suggestions/alternative, none of which are very original:

(1) OK, the primary reason, or so I've been told, that the Mon-Fayette has to be built is that so many of the old, disused mill sites could be more readily used if they had better access to transportation, i.e., tractor trailers are necessary to access any light industrial sites that could be developed. That's a fair assessment, and it could have been much more useful in, say, 1970... however, that does not preclude an expansion or reengineering of existing roads and highways to better accommodate these transportation and shipping needs. I don't quite understand why highways are the only solution to this problem. Something tells me that a four land "West Braddock Grand Boulevard" would go over much better than a four lane expressway.

(2) Alright, you'll lose the tolls. Fine. Take the hit, but you won't have to do so much massive engineering. There, I've slashed your costs.

(3) Seriously guys, shit or get off the pot.

(4) If your big concern is the flow of commuters from the Steel Valley to Downtown Pittsburgh, you could always regulate the flow by installing some sort of Light Rail or mass transportation system along the existing CSX lines... although, I suppose that that would pose problems of its own... but it beats the hell out of the North Shore Connector!

(5) Dicking around doesn't help anyone, least of all the rust belt towns along the Mon.

So, at this late hour, those are my thoughts. If you are up this late to read them, shame on you.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Philosopher Kings

Much has been written on slots in Pittsburgh (some particularly insightful analysis being done over yonder) which was why it was nice to see the bureaucrats (well, a bureaucrat, anyway) finally officially weigh in with their thoughts. From the P-G:

The City of Pittsburgh's planning director gave high marks to a proposal for a slots casino at Station Square at a special City Council meeting today.

The proposal by Harrah's Entertainment and Forest City Enterprises beat out two rivals in terms of location, site plan, socioeconomic impact and experience of the proposed casino operator, said Planning Director Pat Ford.

A proposal by Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. to build a Hill District casino rated best in terms of accessibility and traffic impact, he said. Don Barden's Majestic Star on the North Shore did not rate best in any category analyzed.

"It is not the intent of our analysis to make a recommendation to the mayor or City Council," said Mr. Ford. "All we did was evaluate the numbers that [casino applicants] gave us."
A couple important points there:
(1) City Planning is not making a recommendations;
(2) Analysis was done;
(3) Analysis was not done using independently verifiable data, i.e., data was pulled from the casino players themselves.

It is quite possible, even probable that the data itself is skewed to make the proposals better than they really are. Such is the nature of the game.

What struck me about the article, however, was the following:
Nonetheless, council members, most of whom have endorsed the Isle of Capri plan, blistered Mr. Ford with tough questions and comments.

"Personally, I think [the Station Square] location is the worst location, and you guys rated it the best," said Councilman Jim Motznik...

Councilwoman Tonya Payne questioned Mr. Ford's contention that the Isle of Capri's proposed casino would be too close to residential areas.
Now, let it not be said that I think that the casino proposal is a good idea. If it were up to me (it's not, obviously), I would have bought the slots license and sold it to, say, North Versailles and let them have the untold, and heretofore, uncalculated social costs. Unfortunately, however, we are stuck with the reality of a casino in Pittsburgh, and the ultimate choice will have to come down to the least worst of the options at hand.

That being said: don't you hate it when your bosses have set their opinion based on some non-data driven "gut feeling," rather than thorough analysis? Everyone loves the Isle of Capri plan. Loves it in a way that Roger Ebert doesn't love North. And why not? It promises everything: hotels, supermarkets, an arena, a chicken in every pot, and a mule that gives hummers.

I might be wrong on that last one, but the damned plan just cries out for you to love it in a way that may only be legal in parts of the Netherlands. But that's just a feeling, not logic.

Is there some objective criteria that Councilpersons Motznik, Payne, et al are looking at that Mr. Ford was unaware of? I'm just curious, as it seem, out of context that it is, to be a rather foolish and "truthy" assertion that the Isle of Capri plan is better than Harrah's. I mean, far be it for me to question the guy who's full time job is to work on City Planning matters... but then again, I don't have the Aristotelian practical wisdom endowed as a result of holding elected public office either. It seems rather silly, therefore, to request the advice of a so-called "expert" after one has made up his/her own mind.

Now, I could be totally off base here and these remarks could have been made totally out of context (I have not been able to sit down to watch the rebroadcast of the meeting on City Cable, sadly enough). Still, I don't think I'd trust many elected officials to find their own assess, let alone think broadly and deeply about great urban and public policy matters.

But, then again, we're the ones that keep electing these yahoos...

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Flotsam and Jetsam

A couple things that are floating around in my alcohol, paperwork addled brain. Enjoy.

Saw this horrible, round glowing thing in the sky this afternoon. It looked like a ball of incandescent gas, a giant nuclear furnace where hydrogen was converted into helium at temperatures of millions of degrees. No clue what it was.

Ralph Piatt's Millcraft Industries was selected as developer for the Fifth/Forbes corridor by the mayor. I suppose third times the charm... or fourth... or whatever. I'm sure that in his 130 or so days in office, he's been able to make an informed, well planned, non-political decision. Maybe it's even this decision.

OK, so I was generally wrong in my predictions for election day. I called the easy ones (Casey, Knoll, Petrone), but blew the big ones (Stevenson, Preston, Incumbency retention). The way I look at it, I was 3/6... which is .500. If I played for the Pirates, I would be batting 4th.

I'd like to send out a big ol' danke schon to the Germans. They know why.

Rule #9 says "There's a reason, there's ALWAYS a reason." The problem a lot of bad bureaucrats have is that they don't understand the reason, and instead fixate themselves on procedure and policy rather than the underlying reason. With that in mind: Ms. X, you do not need Form 2346-D when Forms 6987-F and 92501 will do just as well!

OK, that's what I've shaken out. I think I'll go try to figure out how to put umlauts over the O's in hypertext.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Election Day 'N'at (pt. Deux)

OK, I did my public duty today and cast my vote for the people that offend me least; that, in and of itself, was no big deal. What bothered me was how I voted today: with them new fangled e-lectronic votin' devices. I was not impressed.

Now, I'm no luddite... actually, it would be very difficult for me to be a luddite and have a 'blog, wouldn't it? I mean, I suppose that I could type these crazy ideas and random thoughts down on a typewriter, send them to a printer, have the printer make about a hundred or so copies, and have them laying around somewhere for people to casually pick up and throw away. But the TribPM kinda has that market covered, so I'd probably just end up writing obscene messages on the inside of men's room stalls.

Well, I'd write more obscene messages. That is to say, I'd write more messages, not more obscene messages, although I suppose I could do both, as I'd have time and an incredibly filthy mind...

Where was I? Ah! The voting.

I didn't like it. It didn't seem real. Those old clunky, 1950s machines made you feel like you were voting. There was a satisfying *click* every time you checked off a name, and a reasurring whir when you finally registered your vote. The new machines have none of that... not even a curtain to shield you from nebby poll workers.

I understood the old machines. I knew that every lever I clicked advanced a gear somewhere in the blasted thing. It was simple, it was something that I could break into and figure out, not a black box filled with a mashup of software. Problems in the machines were problems with gears and levers, not hidden within massive amounts of code.

The whole thing lacked a finality to it; even my ATM gives me cash or a receipt at the end. This gave me blinky, flashy lights. I have enough things that go blinky and flashy, that I don't need another one. It was too much, yet strangely, not enough.

It's only been one day, and I miss those old machines.

Now get off my damned lawn.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Election Day 'N'at

By the time you read this post, it will already be primary election day in the City of Pittsburgh and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Unlike the last primary election, this isn't where the real action is in the big races. For the real action*, you need to wait until November.

'Cept in some of the races, where there's at least nominal competition.

I'm keeping a particular look out for the following races:

(1) Casey vs. Pennacchio vs. Sandals (U.S. Senate - Democrat). Conceivably, Casey should trounce his opponents, but Pennacchio had some good vibes there for awhile and his campagin staff has a terminal case of TB ("true-believer"). It will be interesting if this is isn't a blow out.

(2) Knoll vs. McDonald-Roberts vs. Hall vs. Stlip (Lt. Governor - Democrat). Another blogger who no longer posts was convinced that Knoll was being "thrown under the bus". She doesn't seem to be under the bus here, but she doesn't seem to actually be driving it either.

(3) Preston vs. Gainey vs. Anderson (PA House 24 - Democrat). Preston has been hustling to get out the vote against the guy that could have conceivably beat him last time, if it were not for some registration "irregularities." Could this be the end of Joe Preston?

(4) Petrone vs. Crossey vs. Cindric vs. Galovich vs. Liberatore (PA House 27 - Democrat). If Petrone doesn't win this in a plurality, he's wasted his umpteen years in the House.

(5) Harris vs. Stevenson vs. Hackett (PA House 42 - Republican). Stevenson will probably win this one, despite the flap over the pay raise. If he doesn't, it'll be a huge upset.

Here's my blanket prediction: despite the pay raise fiasco, on the whole the incumbents will prevail. It's sad, but my pessimism is getting the better of me.

That's all I got. The ADB won't tell you who to vote for, partially because it is a violation of my public office, but mostly because he only believes in benevolent dictatorships (at least until all lawmakers become philosophers).

But that really only goes for American Idol...
*You know: man-on-dog action.


The Executive Director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, Keith Kinard, announced his resignation today effective June 12. Mr. Kinard was a Public Servant of HACP for 11 years; this was his 5th year as executive director. The announcement comes 132 days into the O'Connor administration and will be the first powerful Authority vacancy that the new mayor will get to appoint.

If rumors are to be believed, it was expected that Mr. Kinard was to be replaced by the new administration at its earliest opportunity, as there had been some indications of conflict. The soon-to-be former Executive Director, however, beat them to the punch by leaving of his own volition.

It is unclear at this time who will succeed to top post at HACP, but whoever is appointed will give a fairly clear indication as to the direction in which the mayor's office wishes the Authority to proceed. In the early years of the Murphy administration under Stanley Lowe, the Authority pursued a strategy of devolving housing to privately run developers, with mixed success. In the later years, Mr. Kinard seemed to refocus the Authority's mission on its core competencies and enforcement of existing housing regulations.

I am not aware of any specific comments by the Mayor on the subject of public housing, so, at best, his priorities in this area remain a mystery to me.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The NSA Has Already Read this Post

Dear NSA,

By now nearly everyone in the good ol' US of A has heard about your new secret database of phone calls from tens of millions of Americans. By now, I'm sure that you've also heard that about 65% of Americans are "OK" with the program. Actually, now that we know about this program, I'm sure that you know about what we've said about the program, and I'm sure that you know that we know that you know what we've said. Anyway, now that the whole secret program isn't all that "secret" anymore, I guess we can talk about it a bit.

Listen: I'm not one of those lilly-livered liberals that's going to tell you that this whole program is a violation of the 4th Amendment, or that it's "un-American," or that it's a violation of the Telecommunications Act. I'm not going to whip out some Ben Franklin quote that goes "those that would trade liberty for security deserve neither." I wouldn't stoop to saying such things.

I'm going to tell you that I think this is a really good idea, and I hope that with my support you will do me a few little favors in exchange for my continued support:

(1) Can you please tell me who keeps calling me at work and hanging up. It's become a real nuisance recently, as whoever keeps calling makes it through my 10 second voicemail message and then hangs up, using up space in my voice mailbox. This usually happens 5-6 times a day. As I'm an employee of the government (I'm in the book), I can only assume that this person is attempting, via nefarious means, to somehow undermine the local government by preventing me from undertaking my vital duties, and is therefore a terrorist. You might want to look into that.

(2) On April 21, 2006 my SO and I ordered a green pepper and sausage pizza from the local pizza delivery place (you know the one). When it arrived, we received, not green pepper and sausage, but green pepper and pepperoni. We called the manager of the store back to complain, but he insisted that we ordered green pepper and pepperoni. We demanded our money back, but he refused. Now, I'm assuming that you have record of this call, so if you could please call them up and help us get our money back, that would also be appreciated. Also, I think the owner, Mr. Papadapolous, is a terrorist.

(3) Speaking of my SO, yesterday she called me at work and, I must admit, I was a little distracted. This tends to happen to me when I'm busy doing my patriotic duty for the county and performing vital duties in the pursuit of Freedom. Anyway, I sort of missed what she said about halfway through and I kinda zoned out there for awhile. Point being: later in the evening, she asked what I thought about XXXX. I replied with a standard non-committal shrug, and she quickly caught on that I hadn't remembered the previous conversation from earlier in the day at all. I slept that night on the couch. So, in order to prevent further occurrences like this, I'd like to be able to call you guys up for some key talking points when this happens again. Besides, I think that the couch is harboring terrorists.

Well, I hope that we're in agreement: I'll extol the benefits of a Government with constitutionally protected rights against unreasonable searches and seizures spying on its own citizens, and you provide me with some key information to make my life a slight bit easier.

I think it's a fair trade.


The Angry Drunk Bureaucrat

P.S. Did you know that Chris was going to be out on Idol? Couldn't you have done anything to prevent it? If only you had connected the dots, this national tragedy wouldn't have happened.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Zero Sum Games & Community Development

Back awhile ago I talked about retail and zero sum games, summarized as such: if resources abound, competition is not a problem; if resources are scarce, competition is a problem. I suppose if resources aren't scarce, there's really no such thing as competition in that case, but that's besides the point.

Anyway, Mike Madison has a post up today on business zero sum games, basically arguing that there are ways that both parties can actually benefit.

Or as the President said, we can "make the pie higher"... er... something like that.

Funny that the same thing cannot be necessarily said for community development. Community, as opposed to Economic, Development deals directly with people, not necessarily infrastructure. From Wikipedia:

Community development practitioners are involved in organizing meetings and conducting searches within a community to identify problems, locate resources, analyse local power structures and human needs, and investigate other concerns that comprise the community's character. These practitioners, sometimes called social activists, use social resources to get the economic and political leverage that a community uses to meet their needs. Often, the social resources within the community are found to be adequate to meet these needs if individuals work collectively through techniques like cooperation and volunteerism.
The big question, however, is whether this facilitation can result in substantial change without external resources, e.g., money. Resources have to come from somewhere: in the community, from institutions, from government; growth and substantial change does not just *happen* out of thin air. Community Involvement needs an impetus to get started and resources to sustain it. So, in a region where resources are scarce (i.e., social workers are occupied, funds are diverted to infrastructure, workers move to other resources, etc.) is there inter-group competition that is hindering the growth of communities?

Groups can be entreprenuerial and innovative to some extent, but in the end, communities in an economically shrinking region are competiting for scarce resources, not necessarily considering the possibilities of cooperation, except to further their own ends. "Give" today and you may not be around to reap the benefits tomorrow .

And with Lord-only-knows-how-many communities in SWPA, that's a whole lot of competition... and fewer and fewer resources.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fun with Google Trends

The fun loving, Wonka-esque dudes and dudettes over at Google have unleashed a new tool called "Google Trends", where you can search the relative number of searches for terms or news articles. It's kinda cool and I've been playing around with it for a while tonight.

So here's a little game, match the search term to the resulting trend graph:

Image Hosted by

Image Hosted by

Image Hosted by

Image Hosted by

Image Hosted by

(B) John Kerry
(C) Downing Street Memo
(D) Tsunami
(E) Stephen Colbert

Have fun!

(Answers in comments)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Move along...

Nothing to see here folks. Move along.

There are five lights.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Next Window Please

The Pittsburgh Business Times has this story on The Process.

A 16-year-old transportation company relocates from East Liberty to Uptown to occupy the better part of a city block, rips down a row of decrepit buildings and erects a sleek $2 million two-story facility employing 82 people and counting.

Transportation Solutions Inc.'s move into a blighted neighborhood is the sort of small business tale any city would love to cite as a triumph.

But look beneath the surface, and it's apparent the journey was anything but smooth. Transportation Solutions president Dwight Mayo saw progress clogged as the company smacked into conflicting directives from the city and Allegheny County when it came to the property's sewer and water systems, volleying between the two entities, mired in red tape and picking up permit after permit after permit...

"Pittsburgh is not the best place to do business," O'Connor admitted during an interview this week. "That's slowing down development. I don't know if you can put a dollar value on it, but it hurts us in terms of being pro-business."

The mayor, a former restaurateur who took office in January, said the problems are city-wide, and he's developing an ongoing strategy to make the city more business-friendly. O'Connor already announced the elimination and/or phasing out of certain taxes levied at business. He expects to unveil the next crucial component, aimed at unraveling red tape, in early summer.

Working since February with city and county departments -- including the PWSA and health management, planning and human resources departments -- O'Connor said his plan cuts the steps and stages it takes to obtain permits in half and pares a cumbersome process that can take six months or more to less than two.

Color-coded diagrams, still in draft stages, unfurled on O'Connor's desk, carving the current trek of roughly 15 steps to build or renovate a facility to seven. He said the materials will be added to the city's official Web site,, under the heading "Permits Plus" so business owners, developers and contractors know what to expect. There also will be a component for tracking the progress of individual projects.
So, the story got me to thinkin' (which I do every now and again), can I count the 15 steps?

Here's a go from my limited knowledge:
(1) Building Permit...
(2) OK, you need a Zoning Permit first...
(3) Well, you need permission from the Zoning Board of Adjustment first...
(4) Unless it's in a historic district, in which case you need a certificate of appropriateness...
(5) And if you're changing the zoning, you need Planning Commission approval...
(6) But if you need to replace sewage lines, you need the OK of PWSA...
(7) And the Allegheny County Health Department if the lines are bad...
(8) And a demolition permit from the Bureau of Building Inspection, if that's what you're doing...
(9) And another permit from the Health Department if there's asbestos...
(10) Um... Public Arts Commission, I suppose...
(11) Oh, and if you're getting money from the URA, you need their approval...
(12) And City Council approval if you're buying URA or City land...
(13) And the Equal Opportunity Commission...
(14) And the fire, electrical, alarm, curb cut, and plumbing permits...
(15) And now that the buildings are built, I think you may need abatements from the City/County/School District/State for any special tax programs...
(16) And now you need to go back and get all the approvals that you previously missed...
(17) I suppose at this point, you'd be stupid not to get an actual Occupancy Permit...
(18) And now you need a stiff drink.

All these steps are part of the Full Bureaucratic Employment Act of 1947, as amended (U.S.C. Title 5, sec. 306). I may have overcounted, but you get the point.

I say, save time and get yourself a blasting permit. I have three.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Meanwhile... Back in the 9th Council District

Things don't look too good for Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle. The Trib broke the story awhile earlier, and now it looks like a pile on. Saw it all over the news recently, and the P-G is really trying to make up for not picking up the story first. I hear that they have Mark Belko and Rich Lord chained to an oar.

Last night I even saw KDKA's footage of the Councilwoman making "a break for it"; this was tabloid journalism at its finest, adding much needed shots of cars "swerving" into oncoming traffic at the blistering speed of 5 mph.

Anyway, you might remember (I know that Luke does) that the Councilwoman was, how shall we say, "tweaked" for her purchase of near random books with taxpayer money while the city was going through cutbacks.

On June 22, the day that more than 250 city workers went to City Council to lobby against the deep spending cuts in the city's Act 47 plan, Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle went to Oakland and put a half-dozen books on the city's tab. Among the titles were "On the Down Low," "I Am the Central Park Jogger" and, for $27.99, Bill Clinton's "My Life."

Those were just some of the dozens of books Carlisle has charged the past 20 months, using $2,400 in taxpayer funds. Others include cookbooks, romance novels and self-help books....

On June 29, council approved the Act 47 recovery plan by a 5-4 vote over the forceful complaints of city workers facing job, health care and pension cuts in the plan. Carlisle joined Len Bodack, Jim Motznik and Luke Ravenstahl in voting against it...

Two days after Christmas in 2002, Carlisle went to the Pitt bookstore in Oakland and bought more than a dozen novels and other books, including "At Home with Carolyne Roehm" (a $60 entertaining guide) and "I May Be Wrong But I Doubt It," by former professional basketball player Charles Barkley.

Carlisle rang up $2,397 in similar book purchases through this summer, going to the store at least 13 times. She said she gave many books to constituents to promote reading and support African-American authors...
So, there's the hint at a history of questionable actions and judgment or, more seriously, impropriety there. That doesn't bode well for her.

You might also remember that Ms. Carlisle was subsequently the chief supporter of ending the Act 47 oversight, much to the delight of the Fire Fighter's Union. One may wonder how that will play in her bid for re-election in 2007. A cynic may even go so far to say that she used that vote to opportunistically grandstand.

But, I'm one to give people the benefit of the doubt. I'm going to point to Rule #5 over on the right there and... let's say... Rule # 16. I don't believe that Ms. Carlisle was acting with malicious or devious intent that would constitute an illegal act. Further, the action was so obviously transparent that it would almost have to be legal; only really, really dumb person would try to pull this off if it was illegal. Still, the problem here isn't if what the Councilwoman did (directing funds to a researcher with questioned credentials who happened to be living with her mother for a study with seemingly commonsense findings that she subsequently refused to release) was illegal, but rather that it appears to be illegal.

I'm also going to go out on a limb here and say that what the Councilwoman did was not illegal... but it sure seems that way. "Perception is reality," the saying goes, and it will be up to her constituents to decide whether or not they believe that her actions warrant removal from office.

Her campaign for re-election will culminate a year from now. Two large questions spring to mind: (1) will the Mayor and the Powers-That-Be support a candidate that is proving to be political poison and (2) is there anyone else is Council District 9 that can be a reasonable challenger to both the incumbent and Rule #16.

I'm not optimistic.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Founding Fathers, pt 2

The following question was presented to me this evening:

If you had the power to unilaterally change the Constitution of the United States in terms of Governmental or Political process, what would you choose to do?

Here are some of my answers (I reserve the right not to explain my reasoning) in no particular order:
  • Public financing of political campaigns;
  • Representation of minor parties in the House via a "first past the post" method;
  • "Prime Minister's Question Time";
  • Eliminate the natural born citizenship requirement for President;
  • Modify the 22nd Amendment to prohibit more than two consecutive terms;
  • Let the States choose how they wish to select their own Senators;
  • Run off elections for President if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote;
  • Week long elections/Election day federal holiday;
  • Eliminate the electoral college or actually make them a deliberative body;
  • Voting paper trail;
  • Prohibit campaign contributions to any candidate in excess of $50.
OK, so those are some of my ideas. Anyone else?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Zoning Exceptions

I want to write for a little bit about the recent change by City Planning to revise the existing hillside zoning designation.

But first, I want to recognize that I'm really late on this topic... like a year late. I hadn't given it much thought until recently, when I saw a proposed zoning map for a neighborhood of which I am familiar. The proposed zoning had effectively reduced the developable land in the neighborhood by, I would estimate, about 25%. It was a lot.

Not to say this change would be a bad thing; the Map Pittsburgh program is trying to both reassert the traditional character of the various neighborhood and to establish the de facto zoning of the neighborhoods as the de jure zonings. Basically, the areas that they have designated as "Hillside" were never built upon anyway, so this is no great loss. Basically, the new designations would enshrine what was already in place.

If you suffer from insomnia sometime, you may want to read through the zoning code, and learn just how large the interior sideyard setback has to be for a single family dwelling in an R1A-H zone*. While you're there, you can also read about the Hillside District. It's... thrilling.

I will sum it up for you in four words: you can't build anything.

OK, maybe that's too simple... the more complicated answer is that a person's ability to develop in a Hillside District is extremely limited and is only permitted by special exceptions to the rules. You can build a house in this zone, but you need to jump through a ridiculous number of bureaucratic hoops to the point that you wish that you'd never brought up the idea in the first place. It is a cost and time intensive process... which was, of course, the point.

This got me thinking about a few things:

(1) The change in the zoning classifications from non-Hillside to Hillside in the various neighborhoods effectively reduces the developable sites within the City of Pittsburgh. About 10% of the City is "Hillside", ergo, only 90% of the City can be built upon even before you start to factor in floodplains, brownfields, parks, cemeteries, etc. There is intrinsic value lost to the City in terms of potential development revenue.

(2) While the Supreme Court has upheld the right of Cities to enforce zoning (cf. Euclid v. Ambler, 272 U.S. 365 [1926]), this change does affect the value of these properties individually. For example, under the old zoning, I could, conceivably, tear down an existing house and build a larger house; under the Hillside designation, however, I can no longer build anything new. The value of the land has been stripped away.

(3) Still, the value to the community to leaving this land vacant may be a powerful incentive. I'm not referring to the "beauty of Pittsburgh's vistas," "maintaining a green backdrop," or any crap like that, but instead the real (and economically costly) factors of drainage and soil erosion. The costs of these negative externalities are not necessarily borne by the property owners, but rather those that are down stream or down the hill. It could be socially beneficial to prohibit the potential destruction of private property by restricting the use of other property.

(4) Back to pont #1: Allegheny County and surrounding municipalities are not so constrained by the City's reluctance to build on hillsides. They can build all they want, increasing their building stock and attracting people and businesses from the City... at least in theory.

(5) OK, there is some value in the "beauty of Pittsburgh's vistas," "maintaining a green backdrop," and any crap like that... I'm just not a very sentimental guy. I'm sure we can figure out a way to measure that value.

The point is this: the designation of all these areas as "Hillside" will restrict the City of Pittsburgh to its own benefit and to its own detriment. The question is whether the loss of developable area and economic growth is less than or equal to the value retained through preventing erosion and maintaining picturesque-ness.

And I think I made that last word up.

*The Answer is Five Feet

Municipal Bondage

Hidden on the second page of the local section of the Post-Gazette was this article about the apparent $25 Million surplus in the City of Pittsburgh coffers. Of course, there was some accounting shuffling, apparently recording revenues prior to them being received, but good news, I suppose.

The balance of the article, however, was taken up on the plan floated to refinance the existing municipal bond obligations.

The city of Pittsburgh should scrap an emerging plan to refinance debt and borrow more money, acting Controller Tony Pokora said yesterday.

"Any new debt adds to the burden," which now eats up nearly one-quarter of the budget, he said upon the release of the city's annual audit...

Meanwhile, pension and employee benefits costs are rising, and debt payments remain around $100 million a year.

The city's debt is $789 million, or $2,359 per resident.

Mayor Bob O'Connor's plan to refinance debt and net the city $50 million for repairs is a bad move, said Mr. Pokora.

"With the debt structure we're in now, before we issue new debt, we should get some state help," Mr. Pokora said. The refinancing plan would push up debt payments in later years, he said, postponing a dip in debt set for early next decade.

Mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar said the administration plans to stretch the $50 million over three years, "for repairs and capital work that have been neglected." He said J.P. Morgan Securities and PNC Bank are expected to be the lenders.

Henry Sciortino, executive director of the state-picked Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, said the city can afford to borrow $50 million for two years of repairs and improvements, if it continues to cut costs.

Failing to fix roads, bridges and walls would "push costs that are only going to escalate off into the future," he said.
I'm trying to find a good (read: "free") site that will give the City of Pittsburgh's Current municipal Bond Rating. Closest I can find is this old thing, which gives the City an enthusiastic "not quite junk" anymore rating. So, in light of the inability of me to actually find a good site, suffice it to say that I can't back up the following statement with "proof": the City of Pittsburgh's bond rating is not in the toilet as some may suppose. Rather, it is hovering over the toilet like a soused fraternity jock after a hard St. Patrick's Day, crying that, as God as it's witness, it will never drink like that again.

Please, soak up that metaphor.

While you are doing that, please consider the following:

(1) What is the Net Present Value of the repairs, new hires, and improvements that the Mayor is planning to undertake, and how does this compare to the Net Present Value of the series of payments that the City will have to undertake over the next [mumble mumble] years to pay off the refinanced debt obligation?

(2) What is the expected cost of not doing repairs, new hires, and improvements over the next two years?

(3) How much of the refinancing will be eaten up by municipal bond insurance, financing fees, etc.?

(4) Is this a wise move to make now, with the current tenuous bond rating, or should we wait until we show some marked improvements?

(5) Where exactly are we going to get the revenue stream necessary to make these payments? New taxes? Reductions in municipal services? Unexpected growth? The Powerball?

(6) How are bond agencies going to look at us as a credit risk if we keep paying off our debts through refinancing (and thereby losing money for those that purchased the bonds?

(7) Are these callable bonds?

(8) Did I read the following correctly: "The refinancing plan would push up debt payments in later years... postponing a dip in debt set for early next decade." Doesn't that mean that there's going to be some significant acceleration or balloon payments in the years to come, making our debt burden even more unbearable in 2020? Isn't this what Murphy was criticized for doing?

(9) Has Paul Leger started drinking the Kool-Aid already?

Now, I'm off to get all fraternity jocked up; public finance does that to me.