A Pittsburgh-Wilkinsburg School Merger?


The City of Pittsburgh and the Borough of Wilkinsburg have collaborated on several municipal services, so could the school districts of the two municipalities follow suit?  It seems to be that the possibility of Pittsburgh absorbing Wilkinsburg’s middle and high school students is getting a positive reception, according to a recent article.  That’s different from the reaction Wilkinsburg received from other nearby districts.

If a deal between Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg comes to fruition, it would be the second school district in Allegheny County (the other being Duquesne) to send its non-elementary students to another school district.  About 30% of Wilkinsburg students attend a charter school, at a per-pupil cost of just over $15,000 based on a May 2015 article.

If Wilkinsburg students went to Pittsburgh Public Schools they would do so on a tuition basis, but it is not clear how much that tuition would be compared to the amount being spent per-pupil for charters.


What Impact do Civilianization and Residency Have on Police Staffing?

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It could be a result of mass retirements, the lure of suburban departments and pay levels, and perhaps the decision to end retiree health care benefits for those hired after 2005, but the angst over police staffing levels in the City of Pittsburgh (here and here) is getting alot of attention.

Here is some data on staffing levels.  First, the Controller’s annual financial report full time equivalent employees by program/function shows that in 2004, total police department staffing (sworn and administrative positions) was 1,130.  With a population of 334,563, the staffing ratio per 10,000 people was 33.7.  In 2014 the total was 1,091 and with population standing at 305,704 the ratio was 35.6.

Second, the 2004 Act 47 plan noted “Pittsburgh has approximately 900 sworn officers patrolling a city with a population of 334,563.  That amounts to 26.9 sworn officers per 10,000 city residents, above the national average for large municipalities of 22 sworn officers per 10,000 residents.”  If the staffing number for sworn officers listed in the news article today 838 and the population count from the 2010 Census is used then the ratio of sworn officers is 27.4.  It would take the separation of 200 sworn personnel with no replacements to bring Pittsburgh’s level below the 2004 national average.

Staffing might also be impacted by two policy issues that are still unresolved as of today:

1. Turning “back office” functions over to civilian employees–The Chief of Police mentioned that the department is moving police from administrative positions on to street patrol and characterized it as “…robbing Peter to pay Paul”.  Why would this be referred to this way when the Act 47 team recommended “placing civilian employees in positions held by sworn employees so the latter can be reassigned to patrol and more traditional police activities”?  At one point there was even talk about having retired officers take over administrative functions.

2. Permitting Pittsburgh police to reside outside of City limits–There is still the issue of allowing police officers who work for the City to live outside the City.  This might make the job more attractive to prospective personnel or allow the City to retain current employees.  Some of the larger municipalities in Allegheny County do require their police officers to live within the municipality, but the majority of others specify a specific geographic area (miles or travel time from the municipality where the officer works) or have no requirement at all.

Lodging App Meets Hotel Tax

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A recent article brings to light a potential change in tax policy for those that use AirBnB or similar platforms that offer short term rental agreements through electronic means.  This change could involve extending the County’s 7% hotel occupancy tax to short term rentals that occur in people’s homes and don’t fit the traditional mold of a hotel, motel, or bed and breakfast.  Up to this point the tax has not been applied to those renting out space in their home.

But according to the solicitor for the County Treasurer’s office, which is responsible for collecting the tax, “…AirBnB rentals absolutely are taxable”.  Across the state Philadelphia altered its hotel tax policy on July 1st of this year in response to rentals that may occur during a visit from the pope in two months.

So what would extending the hotel tax to AirBnB rentals in Allegheny County mean in the short- and long-term?  Immediately it would mean that those renting out rooms or space for a duration of less than 30 days that they would owe 7% of their income derived from such activity to the County.  This means that someone renting a room for $100 would pocket $93 unless they raise their asking price to maintain the $100 before tax amount.  It is unclear if the renter would have to withhold the tax or if the electronic platforms would withhold the tax.  AirBnB has agreements in thirteen localities to act as the collector of the tax. 

Long-term, positives and negatives could occur from this change.  A positive for those groups that partake of the tax revenue is that there would likely be more revenue from what amounts to an expansion of the activity subject to the tax.  A possible negative could be that higher prices might dissuade some from utilizing this emerging technology.  And this goes without speaking to determining whether those offering rentals through an electronic app or platform have to comply with zoning, health, and building codes which are set at the municipal level in the County.  And that is not just a cost of compliance to the people offering space up for consideration, but the municipalities that will have to police the presence of such rentals if they are commercial in nature.

Changes to the Promise Program


It appears we can add another promise not kept to the earlier ones made by the Pittsburgh Promise with changes announced this week.  The maximum scholarship amount will be reduced from $40 k to $30 k and there are lower maximum percentages of how much can be awarded for students who enroll after kindergarten.

Starting in 2017 a student who enrolls in kindergarten all the way through graduation will earn $30k so long as attendance and academic metrics are met.  The leadership of the Promise said the changes were made to extend the life of the program through 2028 instead of 2022, where it would have wrapped up absent the changes.

So folks considering enrolling in or staying in Pittsburgh Public or a few Pittsburgh charter schools will have to determine if the $10k change dissuades them or not.

This is of a piece with the failure to improve academic performance and attract more students into the colossal education failure known as Pittsburgh Public Schools.


Is County Residency Requirement Being Skirted?

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Last July we released a report on residency requirements for public sector employees for the County’s largest municipalities and found a mixture of requirements for police and non-uniformed personnel with some required to live within the municipality, some within a certain distance of the municipality, or no requirements at all.  Recall that the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh police are still at odds over a change to a state law that dealt with residency requirements for police.

Is Allegheny County facing a test of its residency requirement?  With a few exceptions, if you are employed by the County government you must reside within the borders of Allegheny County.  One does not have to live in the County to apply for employment, but there is a period of a year to establish residency after hiring.  A change was made for staffing needs at the jail for those that provide medical care, and a County Council motion is going to ask the administration to review compliance with the residency requirement.

To be certain it is a big task with the size of the County’s employee headcount.  While the County’s policy has never risen to the level of debate that the Pittsburgh police or even Pittsburgh school teachers have, it will be interesting to see what the County’s reaction will be if it is found that more than just a few employees are found to be in violation.

Will School Building Plan Be Beneficial?


Three years ago, in May of 2012, the Pittsburgh Public School District had 23 unused school buildings in their inventory and was spending $15 million on maintenance and debt service.  It appears that their remaining inventory of twelve school buildings may be taken in one fell swoop by the City’s Urban Redevelopment Authority with the help of $8 million in state funding through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

The twelve schools are listed on the District’s “Asset Maximization Plan for Closed Schools” and it notes that the goal is to “…maximize the value of these properties”.  While that might mean getting the asking price (four of the buildings listed in the inventory have posted asking prices, a combined $1.075 million) or more but the District’s 2011 policy on sales wanted to look at community and enrollment impact as well. It is not clear if the board or its agent dropped the price of school buildings as they remained available.

Four of the buildings might be torn down under the URA plan.  Our 2012 Brief recommended that if the buildings could not be sold for a positive price then they should be torn down–now it appears that might happen in some cases.  As we noted in a 2011 blog, from 2000-2009 as enrollment fell the number of school buildings fell from 100 to 71 and about 2 million square feet less space than it had at the beginning of the decade.  There will be a smaller district when these available school buildings get moved.


More Hotel Taxes for the County

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Visit Pittsburgh and the hotel owners will be pitching a proposed increase in the hotel occupancy tax to the Legislature and then to the County for approval. The claim by the VisitPittsburgh promotion people is that more money is needed to attract conventions and other large events to the Pittsburgh.
How interesting. Less than 20 years ago we were told that the increased hotel tax for Allegheny County passed by the Legislature would help build a magnificent new convention center which would magically and massively boost the number of visitors to the City. Hotels would need to be built to accommodate the influx and no public money would be necessary for the construction. Now we have a bunch of new hotels but apparently the number of visitors has not materialized as hoped.
The VisitPittsburgh group wants to empire build by creating a Sports Commission to attract athletic events, including perhaps the Super Bowl. Let’s see. Pittsburgh has major league baseball, football, hockey, (soccer sometimes), along with college football, baseball and basketball. How many sporting events can one community handle?
As usual the proponents look to other cities and say Pittsburgh is not doing enough and the combined sales and hotel tax here is lower than 15 other areas. Perhaps an examination of which cities are higher in combined tax is in order. Will we find they are no better at hosting sporting and other visitor related events than Pittsburgh? The data will tell us.

Analyzing School Tax Rate Changes


For the 2015-16 fiscal year 23 school districts have increased their property tax rates over what they levied in 2014-15 (for purposes of this analysis, we focus on 41 school districts in Allegheny County, omitting Pittsburgh Public Schools since they budget on a calendar year basis and Clairton which has a split rate that taxes land and buildings at separate millage rates).  That’s about the same as the change from 2013-14 to 2014-15 when 22 school districts boosted rates.  Since 2013-14–that’s when adjusted millage rates went into effect to comply with the County’s reassessment–17 districts have increased taxes in back to back years.

The biggest increase is in Brentwood (1.36 mills) and the Carlynton School District is raising taxes nearly a mill (0.98).

Twelve districts have not increased property tax rates above what they set in 2013-14 on reassessed values.

Two districts (East Allegheny and West Allegheny) passed 2015-16 rates that were lower than last year’s millage rates.

PENNDOT’s Act 89 Estimates Hold True in PAT Budget

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The board of the Port Authority approved operating and capital budgets for the 2015-16 fiscal year and, based on a 2014 Policy Brief that examined the estimated amounts the Authority could expect to receive under Act 89 transportation funding, the estimates are holding fairly true.  The Authority expects to receive $221.5 million from the state for operating support, and $108.1 million for capital needs.  That is close to the $223 million and $110 million that was projected for those spending categories.

On the operating side, the $221.5 million in state money will combine with $30 million from the County (drink and car rental taxes) and $3 million from RAD to provide $254 million in operating grants for the Authority.  That’s $10 million more than the Authority received in the fiscal year that ended yesterday.

On the expenditure side the total expense is expected to increase $12 million over FY2015 with wages rising $5 million and pension and benefits rising $7 million.  This is the final year of a four year contract and there is a 2% wage increase effective today and another 2.25% effective February of 2016.

What Will Next Pgh Teacher Contract Contain?

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Just like that, a five year contract between the Pittsburgh Public School District and its teachers’ union has expired (other pacts also are up).  When we wrote about the announcement of the contract in 2010, the district had a different superintendent, the union had a different president, and the district had an offer from a foundation to introduce pay for performance for teachers.

How does the district look now, five years later?  Based on budget documents, general fund expenditures have risen 6% (from $525.4 to $556.7 million), enrollment has fallen 9% (official membership down from 27,922 to 25,504). That boosted per-pupil spending from $18,816 to $21,827 based on the district’s numbers.

Test scores (described in the 2015 budget under “student performance in reading, math, science, and writing 2008-2014) test scores for these subjects remained fairly flat.  On science test proficiency (students scoring proficient or higher), the percentage was 46% in 2010, 45% in 2014.  Reading and math proficiency also fell, while writing improved (52.7% to 56.9%).

Even if the next teachers’ contract does not incorporate pay for performance, the concept will likely still be a part of the district’s pay structure as bonuses were just handed out to principals at the beginning of May.  Principals are not involved in collective bargaining and their pay for performance agreement came about by extending a limited program in 2007 to all principals.