Proposal for Bike Fairness

The latest fad for socially conscious urbanites is cycling.  Complete with bike paths running along existing roadways previously used by autos, trucks and buses with the drivers of autos and trucks paying the lion’s share of taxes to build and maintain them.

Here’s the problem, if bike riders want to have strips of roads taken to be dedicated to bicycle use, they ought to be willing to help pay for their construction and maintenance.  How about an annual assessment for a license medallion for any bike using a dedicated bike path?  Maybe $100 per year?  Bicycles would be registered and have safety inspections to insure brakes and other parts are in good working order. Inspections would cost $20 with half going to the maintenance funds for bike paths.

Next, the City and County should enact mandatory safety classes for cyclists and issue a certificate indicating successful completion. Failure to obtain an operator’s safety certification would result in fines and a prohibition against using the paths for some appropriate period. Bikers would be cited for traffic violations and slapped with fines just as motorists would be. Injuries to pedestrians would lead to serious charges. Cycling while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs would result in a loss of privileges for one year and a second offense a permanent ban.

If bikers want to be treated as equal players in the transportation game, they must be held to account in the same ways as cars and truck drivers, monetarily and in terms of operational safety.

One wonders what will happen to bike path usage once the icy winds blow, the snow flies and the plows push the snow into the paths.  How exciting will biking be from December through March?  Will bike paths along important roadways be eliminated during the winter to help traffic flow?

Cyclists will argue that they pay property and other taxes, some of which are used on City streets entitling them to have dedicated paths.  But residents driving cars and trucks pay those other taxes as well.  And it is no good saying; I have a car and pay gasoline tax. That tax is intended for use on the roads, not bike paths. This is akin to the requirement that the turnpike provide $450 million a year to mass transit, money it is borrowing and raising tolls to repay. It is a terrible policy.

How progressive it is to want to effect a redistribution of public goods to in-vogue groups, especially if it can be done at the expense of out of favor groups, such as CO2 emitters.

Where Will Departmental Consolidation Savings Come From?

organizational chart

Based on the 2014 sunset review of County government by the County Manager, a County Council committee voted to move forward with the recommendation that the Department of Real Estate be absorbed into the Department of Administrative Services.  The former is what became of the independent row office called the Recorder of Deeds, and the thought is that its role would mesh better in the latter, which is almost a “catch all” department that handles multiple functions, including property assessment.

The estimated savings of such a move is $250,000 a year.  To put that in perspective, the large Admin Services Department spends $226,000 on supplies.  In terms of headcount, Admin Services has four times as many employees as Real Estate (226 to 50 full timers).  Based on salaries and fringe benefits, the average employee in Admin Services costs $64,159 and the average employee in Real Estate costs about $10,000 less.  That means if the $250,000 is to be saved by having an employee handle the responsibilities of another it could mean 4 or possibly 5 employees could be let go or not have their positions filled after consolidation.

If they leave personnel costs alone (wages/fringes total $14.5 million for Admin Services, $2.7 million for Real Estate) and the $250,000 is to be saved from non-personnel expenditures, there is a total of close to $2.8 million in those categories (services, supplies, materials, repairs/maintenance, and minor equipment).  That means the savings would amount to about 10% of the total of the non-personnel amount.

A Longer Look at School Employment Growth

blackboard

Last month we wrote about a study that looked back to 1970 to track the change in public school enrollment, teacher employment, and non-teacher employment.  The study found that enrollment grew 8%, teachers grew 53%, and non-teachers grew 130%.

Now comes an article in the Washington Examiner that includes a look back as far as 1950 and that school employment has far outpaced student population.  While the student to teacher ratio was 15.3/1 five years ago, the student to non-teacher staff ratio was 7.8/1.

The article points out that the consolidation in the number of school districts—in 1940 there were 119,000 in 1960 there were 40,000, in 1980 there were 16,000—has placed the control of schools under the doctrine of “scientific management” and best practices.  In Pennsylvania the number of districts fell from 2,546 in 1942 to 500 currently, with much of the consolidation happening between 1962 and 1967.  A handful of states have significantly fewer school districts now than they did in 1992.

Spending per-pupil has gone up, and so has non-teacher employment, but results have not.  The fact that employment has exploded while the number of school districts fell is astonishing and should provide a cautionary lesson to those looking at consolidation of school districts or other local governments to produce big savings or efficiencies.

Bicycles Taking Over?

bicycle

The County Exec has unilaterally appropriated bridge lanes for biker use (can he do that legally one wonders). The Mayor has hired a bicycle director. All very strange behavior but of a piece with the progressive mentality that reigns in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh politics. Schools can be dreadful, murder rates and crime at scary levels but government seems bent on the transformation of travel in the City.  Closing bridge lanes to autos will make traffic problems worse. And one must wonder what happens when the icy weather comes and riding bikes through the City is not attractive even to the most avid cyclist. Will the lanes be reopened to autos?

 

But there might be a bright side. If enough commuters opt to get to work on bikes, perhaps the talk of needing more money for mass transit expansion will subside for a while until the love affair with bicycles cools to a distant memory.

 

Would it not be nice to see the City’s real problems of financial stability, crime, education of the young get so much attention? The poor schools drive away families with school age kids. Bicycle lanes and bicycle directors will not bring them back. No city will thrive without families. It will always be searching for some gimmick to attract the twenty somethings. And then watch them leave when they have school age kids. Unless of course they are very well to do and can send their kids to private schools. And that outcome should be anathema to progressives who claim they are so concerned about income distribution.  Are they really concerned or just playing politics?

The Mayor Compares the Burgh to DC

pgh boosters

Making an appearance on Meet the Press, the Mayor of Pittsburgh is reported to have drawn a stark contrast between the Pittsburgh government to that in D.C. saying that in D.C., “lawmakers too often forget about getting the job done.”  Presumably, the Mayor was implying that Pittsburgh’s government works efficiently and expeditiously to get things done.  Has he has forgotten the last few years when contentiousness was rampant in Pittsburgh’s government?

But more to the point, Pittsburgh has a Mayor and City Council, all of whom are lifelong Democrats whose collective and individual political philosophies run the gamut from A to B.   The Federal government in Washington, D. C., on the other hand, has what the Mayor apparently views as an “unfortunate” problem of having a bicameral legislature, one house of which is controlled by non-Democrats. He might consider too that not all political jurisdictions are basically one party control. This is especially true of the United States as a whole where there are very large differences in governing philosophy—think Texas and Massachusetts. Or the Mayor might want to think closer to home about the government in Harrisburg, nominally under the control of Republicans, both houses and the Governor’s mansion.  Yet very little substantive that the majority of Republicans wants gets done.

How can that be? Because they do not have an ideologically compatible majority and are opposed by the Democrats, except when the Democrats get something they want such as huge increases in mass transit funding and billions more for highway maintenance—a great boon to construction workers.

Government of the people can be messy where political differences are large among the voters.

Pension Distress Scores for Large Cities

piggy bank

In early 2009, we released a full-length report on the status and characteristics of public pension plans in Pennsylvania’s ten largest cities (ranked by population).  Later that year, the state enacted Act 44, which made some reforms to municipal pension plans and gave distress scores to municipal pension plans based on the funded ratio (assets/liabilities).

Three years of distress scores have been handed out by the Public Employee Retirement Commission since then, with cities mostly staying in the same level of distress, with notable exceptions.

  • Pittsburgh, which was ranked as “severely distressed” in 2010 when its funded ratio was 34%, climbed to the ranks of “moderately distressed” in 2012 and stayed there in 2014 (62%, then 58%).
  • Scranton has remained “severely distressed” in all three rankings, but its funded ratio has fallen from 47% to 23%.
  • Allentown and Reading have both fallen 11 percentage points from where they stood in 2010 (and Allentown has fallen from “minimally distressed” to “moderately distressed”).

East Allegheny Teachers on Strike

blackboard

In a post Labor Day effort to show that unions are still in charge of government operations in Pennsylvania, the East Allegheny teachers are on the picket line.  Here is a clear case of a special interest that has been given power by the state government to disrupt a constitutionally ordered system of education for the benefit of Pennsylvanians using that power to see if it can once again get blood out of a turnip.  James Madison is spinning in his grave as his admonition against government taking the side of one competing faction against another has been so nakedly violated. In this case it is teacher unions being given power over taxpayers.

East Allegheny has a large deficit in part because of the extraordinarily generous pension and health care benefits it has granted in the past; legacy costs that have, as Reverend Wright would say, come home to roost.  The district is relatively hard pressed economically and is not in a position to continually raise millage rates without further damage to the economy and real estate values.

Here we have the classic problem posed by government unions. And we see examples of the outcome all over the country where local governments are financially distressed because they have for too long made bargains with workers they cannot keep but cannot get away from.

One would hope that the East Allegheny teachers who are supposed to care about the children would recognize the frail financial position of the community and go back to work. Or better yet, those who think they are worth so much more should apply for a job in a better paying, economically stronger district, or find a better paying job with great benefits and summers off in the private sector. Of course that will not happen because the union mentality is so deeply ingrained it is second nature and cannot even be questioned by its adherents. It is not a permanently sustainable position. Eventually, the behavior destroys its host.

Mr. Smith Goes to Harrisburg

blackboard

Mt. Lebanon’s state senator in Harrisburg has written an op-ed bemoaning the awful state of education funding in Pennsylvania, decrying the lack of equitability of state funds per student, unpredictable funding year to year and complaining that hard working families are having to foot more of the bill for education because the state is short changing school funding.

All in all a very serious charge that the typical uninformed taxpayer and parent will nod and say “that is right.”

 

That is sad because the senator is wrong on every point. The state’s education funding is based on the very criteria he recommends. Poorer districts get more per pupil than wealthier districts.  For example Duquesne gets virtually all its funding of $18,300 per student from the state (78 percent). Mr. Smith’s home district of Mt. Lebanon gets only 18 percent from the state, with the local taxpayers footing the bill for the rest of the funding.

 

Schools rarely see state cuts in basic education funding from year to year. Funding is certainly not highly volatile as suggested by Senator Smith.  Special federal funds can go away as we have seen with the stimulus funds. That is not the state’s fault.

 

If the state is to substantially raise education funding where will the money come from? Mr. Smith surely does not want to increase taxes on hard working families. So, it will be corporations and businesses—this in a state with one if the worst business tax climates in the country. Shale gas producers are the golden egg laying goose and the tax and spenders will no doubt be going after them.

 

The signal sent will be chilling to this still very young industry.  The long term impact on Shale as well as other industries witnessing such a money grab is almost certain to further burnish the state’s image as unfriendly to business and we can watch the slow pace of long term growth get even slower—fewer good jobs, less income, and declining tax revenue gains.

 

Who will pay to keep funding levels up for instruction when weak revenue meets huge pension payment requirements? Is Mr. Smith doing anything to help alleviate that taxpayer nightmare? Pretending it doesn’t exist is not an answer.

 

No. It is always spend and tax and spend some more. Perhaps Mr. Smith would like to explain how Pittsburgh Public School spending is hurtling past $20, 000 per student per year while overall academic performance is abysmal and attendance unspeakably bad.

 

How does that represent the thorough and efficient education system the Pennsylvania Constitution requires?  The problem is that the educrats and unions run the schools, and with the union’s right to strike, are able to coexist with expensive mediocrity.

 

 

 

Scranton Case Shows Short Memories

www.alleghenyinstitute.org_images__Bankruptcy

Alarm bells are going off in Scranton, PA (the only second class A city in the Commonwealth).  The Auditor General predicts the City’s pension funds will be broke in several years, and unable to pay out benefits for more than two and a half years.  There are tax hikes, as well as a planned sale of a sewer authority, of course, and planned concessions on the part of workers.  Such is to be expected for a pension system with an aggregate 16% funded ratio.  The Auditor General wants to see a statewide solution, and a City Council member lamented that the state is “…doing nothing for municipalities except telling us how bad it is”.

Presumably there are no statewide problems relating to the state’s own pensions, but do we not recall the efforts of Act 44 of 2009?  Philadelphia got an additional point on its sales tax, Pittsburgh got to hold steady its parking tax instead of reducing it downward, and levels of distress with appropriate remedies were all established.  As a 2010 Policy Brief pointed out, pension benefits are guaranteed and there is no pain-free way of solving the build-up of liabilities.  Unions will resist change, the state won’t pass language to amend the PA Constitutional language, so what is left?  Bankruptcy, which is where Scranton could be headed according to the Auditor General.

A wake-up call?  That’s what the Councilman said it was, but our work goes back many years showing the issues with local pensions and what could be done to reform them.