Another shakedown & the Huffaker Watch

Another shakedown & the Huffaker Watch

No, no, no; 800,000 times no.

As expected, the Allegheny County Regional Asset District (RAD) board has

proposed a preliminary budget that transfers even more taxpayer dollars to benefit Pittsburgh’s wealthy barons of sport.

Now, there’s little doubt that the board will adopt the budget, as is, in November. But that doesn’t mean the tax-paying public shouldn’t question the dubious move.

You may recall that the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority (SEA) — which owns the playgrounds of the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins on behalf of the public — asked the RAD board for a continuing annual appropriation of $1.16 million a year to help augment funds that pay for capital improvements and repairs to not only Heinz Field, PNC Park and PPG Paints Arena but also to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The latter is the fully taxpayer-funded facility that regularly slashes its rental fee to host events that, by proxy, taxpayers have no business underwriting.

And this, for Steelers and Pirates franchises that, thanks to a system of hilarious off-setting “credits,” pay no rent on facilities mostly funded by the public.

While the RAD board did not agree to that $1.16 million figure, it did authorize an additional $800,000 for 2019 with the full expectation that it will become an annual line item. It rationalized this latest spate of corporate wealthfare four ways to Sunday.

To wit:

Not all of the additional money will go to the sports facilities, was one.

Because some of the money used to go to paying off the debt of the long-gone Civic Arena, it’s A-OK to now use it for the field, park and arena, was another.

And, yes, yes, yes, this new money is on top of the $13.4 million in RAD dollars that annually go to pay off the construction of Heinz Field and PNC Park – but, hey, only 7.5 percent of all RAD dollars generated from the 1 percent piggyback sales tax goes toward those facilities.

After all, too, went another rationalization, money that goes to the SEA represents a wee fraction of RAD’s forthcoming budget.

But that’s a lot of noise. The real issue remains that the city’s sports teams, already mammothly subsidized by the public, then given sweetheart lease terms and handed rights to develop publicly owned acreage, deserve not one cent more of taxpayer money.

For it is not merely economically indefensible – it’s also morally wrong.

The Allegheny County Port Authority, the agency that rides herd over the county’s mass-transit operations, has hired a “chief development officer.” And it is one pricey hire: David Huffaker will be paid $175,000 a year.

That’s about as overpriced as are the authority’s oversized and out-of-whack costs to provide bus service, as the Allegheny Institute documented in May (in Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 18).

But there’s an even larger issue here: Huffaker comes to the Port Authority after 14 years at Sound Transit in Seattle. He started his career there in finance and most recently served as that agency’s deputy director for operations support services. And Sound Transit is a mass-transit agency that has been an absolute mess.

As one critic put it in 2015, commenting on that agency’s light-rail efforts:

“So, how can a transportation project taxpayers have spent so much money on offer so few actual benefits? To put it simply, bad planning based on a false assumption of the benefits of light-rail.”

A year later, the Washington Policy Center hit Sound Transit (which operates light-rail and bus service in three central-Puget Sound counties) for bogus planning, primarily for inflating ridership projections on rail projects whose estimated costs were wildly lowballed.

No, this is not to ascribe blame to Huffaker personally for all the foibles and failures of Sound Transit (a misnomer if ever there was one). But he has come to Pittsburgh after a long tenure in a climate that hardly was the epitome of sound planning and prudent development and squandered millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars.

Port Authority CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman, in announcing Huffaker’s hiring, said the position “is critical for the region’s success as David and his team will be responsible for determining where our routes – and our agency – will go in the future.

“This position directly supports the foundation of our mission: to deliver outstanding transportation services that connect people to life.”

One can only hope that the unsound practices of Sound Transit haven’t followed Huffaker to Pittsburgh and that he can slay eerily similar unsound practices that have dogged public transit in Greater Pittsburgh for more than half a century.

Again, one can hope. But it’s difficult to be hopeful.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).