Saturday, March 31, 2007
Friday, March 30, 2007
Slow on the uptake
Sam at AntiRust has been questioning, for quite some time, exactly where all the people who are going to turn Downtown into a residential neighborhood are moving from. This is relevant given that some developers are receiving subsidies or tax breaks of one form or another to build high-end condos. If these buildings are not drawing new residents into the region, then all we are doing is spending tax dollars to shift people around from one neighborhood to another, with no net gain for the city.
Drawing from local media accounts, Sam concluded recently that this may in fact be the case (I discussed this some time ago), and today I find further evidence in the Pittsburgh Business Times (subscription required), and it comes from none other than Eve Picker, one of the best-known local condo developers:
Eve Picker, head of no wall productions and a developer of several loft projects Downtown, said that while sales of some properties may be sluggish, especially in unproved residential markets like Downtown, she expects them to pick up soon.
"Pittsburghers are not known for being quick on the uptake," Picker said. "There will be a small number of people who are pioneers ... and the others will be less brave. You have to reach the tipping point."
Note that she said "Pittsburghers are not known for being quick on the uptake", not "People from Texas" or even "People from Cranberry." Perhaps she meant Pittsburgh in the broadest sense. Perhaps she meant the entire 10-county metropolitan region. Maybe people from Fayette and Greene counties are going to flock to buy $300,000 condos in the Golden Triangle.
Of course, there may be state funds involved in some of these projects as well. So if I'm an elected official in Fayette or Greene counties, I wouldn't be too happy that my residents' state tax dollars are being used to reduce my local tax base. Not to mention that people in Fayette and Greene counties might think there are better uses of state funds than underwriting condos with granite countertops.
That's assuming that Picker meant to include the entire metropolitan region, that she was using Pittsburgh in the universal sense. Which I doubt. But I will say this: I'm one Pittsburgher who isn't very quick on the uptake, because I just can't understand why any of this is a good idea.
The road to ruin
Our friends at the Tube City Almanac doubt that the Mon-Fayette Expressway is going to do much good for the Mon Valley:
In fact, I have a strong feeling that all the Mo-Fo will do is move people further out into mostly-rural places like Union Township and Nottingham Township. Suddenly you'll be able to work in the Golden Triangle and live in Gastonville, just as I-279 made it practical to live in Wexford or Cranberry.
But as far as I can tell, I-279 hasn't helped Pittsburgh's North Side at all --- and I don't think the Mo-Fo is going to provide much benefit to the communities it passes through.
I couldn't agree more. I've previously blogged on this issue here, here , here and here.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Now that's dedication
Theresa Colaizzi says she's pulling out of the race for a City Council seat because she wants to finish the job she started on the school board...unless:
If Mr. Shields wins the controller's race, he would have to resign his council seat, and a special election to replace him would ensue. If that happens, Ms. Colaizzi said, "then I'm back in the game."
It seems to me it's not that she's so dedicated to being on the school board but that she doesn't want to run against an incumbent. Frankly, I think it's ridiculous that a person can run for two offices simultaneously, as Doug Shields is doing, and as many others have done before him. For one thing, it's wasteful: If Shields wins the controller race, then the city is going to have to hold a special election to replace him. Plus, voters are left casting what is more or less a provisional ballot; they don't really know if the person for whom they are voting is even going to be available to take office.
In 2005, Bill Peduto ran for mayor and for re-election in his City Council district. Once I criticized Peduto on a blog for failing to visit enough neighborhoods during that mayoral campaign, and one of his supporters responded that this time would be different because this time he didn't also have to defend a City Council seat.
Well, then, what was the point of running for mayor last time? Just to get some city-wide name recognition? I realize that Peduto might have lost the mayor's race anyway, and then have been out of local politics if he had not kept his council seat. But had he run a more aggressive campaign then (and I'll say that his last run for mayor seemed more energetic than his recent, aborted bid) he might have been in a better position now.
True, he had no way of knowing that there would be another mayoral election in just two short years. But that's the thing about politics: You never know.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Assuming that Bill Peduto is being sincere in dropping out of the Democratic primary because he doesn't like the negative tone of the campaign, then I have three words for him: Boo-friggin-who.
You don't get into politics these days unless you are willing to get your knuckles bloody now and then. Lamentable, perhaps, but that's the way it is. Just ask President Kerry. Besides, Peduto is running against an incumbent. Any time an incumbent runs for re-election the race is a referendum on their performance in office. (I realize Luke Ravenstahl isn't technical running for re-election, but the principal holds.) And I never heard Peduto issue a call for all those bloggers who were supporting him so vociferously to stop their daily attacks on the mayor.
Don't get me wrong--I was pretty convinced that Peduto was in for a thumping come the primary, but I was still holding out hope for an upset. Even if Peduto gets into the general election as an independent, I don't see much chance, absent a complete meltdown by the mayor over the summer, for Peduto to prevail.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Quote for St. Patrick's Day*
Friday, March 16, 2007
An unfortunate legacy
The late Mayor Bob O'Connor's short time in office likely will be remembered for its sad ending as much as for anything else. But after reading this story yesterday, it occurs to me that we may need to remember O'Connor's brief tenure for Dennis Regan.
Luke Ravenstahl may have showed a lack of judgment--and fortitude--in keeping Regan on after O'Connor died, and in nominating him for public safety director, but it was O'Connor who unleashed Regan on the city in the first place. Perhaps, if O'Connor had not became ill, he would have held Regan in check. Or perhaps with a more powerful mayor to protect him, Regan might have wreaked even more havoc.
We will never know. But regardless, we should be glad that Regan can longer do any harm, even though we may not yet know the full extent of the damage.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Both the Trib and the PG are reporting that state and local officials have reached a deal to keep the Penguins in town. The state will contribute $7.5 million annually toward construction of a new arena (remember, Ed Rendell wants to raise the state sales tax) and Don Barden will contribute $7.5 million per year from casino revenues. The casino money doesn't come from the bottom of Barden's heart. The state required licensees to demonstrate that they would return something to their communities. (The state funds apparently will come via casino revenues as well.)
That's $15 million every year that could have gone toward fixing roads. Or funding public transit. Or repairing the region's crumbling water and sewage systems. Things that would have actually made this place more livable. Not to mention that the new arena will be owned by the Sports and Exhibition Authority, so no property taxes will be collected, but all revenues will go to the Penguins.
So perhaps now we can put away all our talk about how much Mario has done for the Penguins, and for Pittsburgh. Because he's been paid back. And we're all getting stuck with the tab.
Thursday, March 08, 2007
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
My offer still stands
While most bloggers have taken leave of their senses over the prospect that the city's hockey team might skip town, Mike Madison continues to offer the cold light of reason:
Do the Penguins generate money for the region (does the team generate revenue that comes from outside Western PA that adds to the money that is already here)? No. Does the team provide jobs for young people? No. Are the Penguins a major draw for young professionals who might choose to move elsewhere? For the number who fill the Igloo night in and night out, maybe; for most, no again. And even for those drawn to stay by the Pens and by nothing else, why, again, should you feed at the public trough?
Also, can someone explain to me how the city's supposedly progressive candidate for mayor is in favor of writing the Penguins a check, and how he can cite Tom Murphy as an example for Luke Ravenstahl to follow? (link)
Mr. Peduto, who has been a passionate hockey fan since growing up in Scott down the block from former Penguins player Lowell MacDonald, seized on the latest development yesterday, blaming Mr. Ravenstahl for taking a back seat to Gov. Ed Rendell and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato throughout the talks.
He contrasted what he characterized as a subsidiary role by the mayor with the leading one played by former Mayor Tom Murphy in the negotiations that produced PNC Park and Heinz Field.
I guess that in Pittsburgh, "progressive" is a relative term.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
A private matter
My friend and former co-worker Bill Steigerwald extolls the virtues of highway privatization in his column in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll take Bill's word for it that highway privatization has worked as well as its advocates claim. I'll add that philosophically, I have no problem with privatization of government services, and I definitely think it's option we should consider.
I do, however, think it is wrong to believe that privatization is a panacea for all the problems that state, local and the federal governments face. Let's consider, for a moment, the logic behind privatization: Private firms are better able than governments to deliver public services because free market competition forces companies that want to survive and prosper to provide goods and services with maximum efficiency at the lowest cost. Government, on the other hand, faces no competition, and while elected officials are answerable to the public, the bureaucrats who administer government services are not, and they are often protected by work rules over which elected officials have limited control.
Now, let's look at the some of the flaws in that logic. First of all, private enterprises, like governments, are composed of human beings who make mistakes, who fail, and who do bad things deliberately. History of full of companies that have made disastrous mistakes. It's why companies go bankrupt. It's why they fail.
The problem is that the consequences of those mistakes can be deferred for years. Enron, for example, was playing games with its books long before anyone noticed. Even after business school students and a few enterprise reporters began to spot the cracks in the energy giant's foundations, Enron's failures continued to escape widespread public attention until the company was on the verge of collapse.
Second, the free market system doesn't really reward companies for providing excellent goods and services; it rewards them for being profitable. Companies can increase profits in any number of ways without improving customer satisfaction. They can produce cheap products. They can cut back on safety measures. They can employ off-the-books workers and not pay taxes on them. In some cases, these practices can catch up to them. But again, it may take years, and in the meantime, people may be hurt or die.
There's a dangerous corollary to the aforementioned idea: Companies can stay in business for years without being profitable as long as they can appear to be profitable. Enron is again a good example, but there are plenty of others. (If you want an example close to home, think Phar-Mor.) People invested in Enron, and continued to do business with the company, long after they should have, because on paper the company appeared to be thriving.
Third, social conditions that have hobbled governments in providing quality services are still going to exist no matter who provides them. I'm thinking here of education. The president can talk all he wants about the "soft bigotry of low expectations", but the bottom line is that academic achievement correlates strongly with family income: Students from wealthier families perform better in school than those from poor families. This doesn't mean poor people are stupid; it does mean that children of affluent families come to school with several advantages over their low-income peers. Some public and private schools have overcome the disadvantages posed by poverty, but those disadvantages are real and will not go away just because you give people vouchers for their kids to attend private schools. (And I happen to be in favor of school vouchers for low-income families.)
Finally, there is no guarantee that privatization will increase accountability. It may even dilute it. What you are doing by outsourcing services to private companies is adding another layer of bureaucracy between the constituents who receive those services, and the elected officials who are ultimately accountable to those constituents. And that extra layer is one that is not subject to many of the laws that require government business to be conducted in the public eye.
None of this is to say that we should not bother outsourcing government functions, and selling some government assets, to private concerns. But we have to consider that we might be trading one set of problems for another.