Officials Want to Study Use of Closed School Buildings—A Time Waster

Pittsburgh has 15 closed school buildings and is about to add seven more to the list. City Council members now want to see studies of how to utilize these buildings. The School District is spending $15 million a year in maintenance and debt service costs on these structures.

Here’s a clue. Forget studies that will drag on and on, require community involvement, endless haggling, searches for funding to convert the buildings, and lobbying for government subsidies for politically correct and acceptable non-profit organizations to occupy the structures. Instead, put the buildings up for sale and hold auctions. Let the private sector decide what the best use is and the true value of the properties.

Large non-profits might choose to bid and should be allowed to, but the District should be aware that some non-profits are exempt from paying property taxes. One of the objectives of selling the properties besides getting out from under the costs of upkeep and the deterioration of unused buildings is to return the property to the tax rolls.

More studies are not the answer. They are time wasters and will be sources of controversy the District does not need.

Resign to Run: How Common?

"A County Council member shall not be a candidate for nomination or election to any elected political office other than that of County Council without having first resigned from County Council"-Allegheny County Home Rule Charter, Article III, Section 6, b.

This provision has attracted a lot of attention in recent weeks in Allegheny County. Two members of County Council, the Council President who has already declared that he is running for County Exec and a Council member who is interested, have criticized the rule. The former stated "I am going to follow the law, but quite frankly I don’t think I should have to" while the latter opined that the "…provision was unfair and may be unconstitutional". Note that the Council President did not say "I think the Home Rule Charter provision is wrongheaded and should be changed" but instead intimated that he just does not want to follow it. It is also worth noting that a question changing requirement was put on the ballot twice in 2003 and rejected both times. A bill passed by Council in 2006 to define what was meant by "candidate" but the Executive vetoed the bill and promised to support a ballot measure which never materialized.

City Council, which does not have a similar requirement, had a brief dalliance with the "resign to run" concept when a member proposed a ballot measure; it was quickly defeated. City Council’s president felt that extending the "resign to run" requirement to only Council members would be "unfair" as it would not apply to the Mayor or Controller.

A look at the Pew Center study referenced in yesterday’s blog shows that three cities they studied have "resign to run" requirements (Dallas, Phoenix, and Philadelphia). Like Allegheny County, voters in Philadelphia rejected overturning the stipulation when it was put on the ballot in 2007. County Council, like Pittsburgh City Council and Philadelphia City Council, are not subject to term limits either. Eight cities do have them, including San Antonio which has a lifetime limit instead of a consecutive one that permits members to run again in the future.

One would hope that a primary tenet of any office holder is the belief they should obey and should want to obey the law. That is how a government of laws and not of men works. If a law is unjust or stupid, work to repeal it but an elected official should never say they don’t think they should have to follow the law. Where does that lead us and what message does it send? Public office is not the place for civil disobedience. This is not some petty, throwback law either, it is a requirement placed on Council by the Charter, solemnly adopted by the voters of the County. If the laws as written cannot be respected by a candidate then they should not be seeking office.

Sizing up City Council

The Pew Charitable Trusts just released a comparative study of city councils in 15 U.S. cities, the focus being Philadelphia where the Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative is based. The study covers a wide range of cities: from New York, with a population of 8.3 million and 51 council members to our own Pittsburgh with 311 thousand and nine council members.

There are multiple opportunities for classification and grouping of the data. There are five cities with no at-large council seats (Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, Chicago, and Pittsburgh) and one with no district seats (Detroit); four cities have a professional manager as their chief executive/administrative officer (Phoenix, San Jose, Dallas, and San Antonio) while the remainder are mayor-council cities; only four have fewer than ten total seats (Pittsburgh, San Diego, Detroit, and Phoenix); likewise only four cities have population-per-seat of less than 50k people (Boston, DC, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh); seven cities have no term limits (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and DC); and all councils represented 1 percent or less of all general fund expenditures.

The study found that Pittsburgh is quite frugal on spending attributable to council functions: $225k per council seat, $6.52 per resident. Los Angeles, DC, and Detroit exceeded or approached $1.5 million on the first measure, and DC tallied a staggering $32.41 on the per resident measure, more than twice that of the next closest city (Detroit at $14.53).

An interesting measure to examine with the Pew data is the ratio of employees on each city council to elected council member. Pittsburgh is shown to have 33 "council employees" including the 9 elected members. That means there are 24 non-elected staff members, or 2.6 staffers per 1 council member. This was second lowest in the 15 city sample with Dallas at 1.4/1.

The average for the group is 6.7/1. Here’s where the shocking numbers come in: San Diego at 10.6/1, New York at 11.2/1, and DC again topping the list at 14.2/1. The nation’s capital city has 13 elected council members and 185 staffers. Keep in mind that U.S. House members, with districts that approach 700k people, are allowed to hire 18 staff members and up to 4 part-timers. How has the situation in DC’s city council been able to exist?

Authority Figures

Not long ago Allegheny County was discussing dissolution of some of its related authorities, like the Airport Authority and the Port Authority, in order to exert greater control over their operations by bringing them into the County’s organizational chart. Now a member of City Council, noting how the City’s authorities straddle two worlds in which they are supposed to be independent but also seem to be subject to the demands of the City, wants to explore dissolution.

Authorities are quasi-governmental agencies: they can’t tax, but they can issue debt and assess user fees and set rates for the services they provide; their board members are appointed, not elected, and the appointments are made by elected officials; they are supposed to be independent and free from political interference, but that is not often what happens.

As we wrote in a Brief earlier this year the municipality that created the authority can dissolve it as long as there is a clear assignment of any outstanding debt. That’s why the City Councilman wants to start with the Parking Authority: it carries around $100 million in debt, an amount that would have been erased under a long-term lease as proposed by the Mayor.

But there would be a better place to start: the City’s Stadium Authority. It was created to own and operate Three Rivers Stadium. The Authority even admitted years ago that its place in the governing landscape would cease once Three Rivers was demolished. Would anyone be surprised that the Authority is still around, conducting business as a land development agent for the City, almost ten years after the stadium was demolished?

Council’s Last Minute Pension Funding Plan Raises Many Questions

As the proverbial clock moved close to midnight on December 31st Pittsburgh City Council finalized a plan it believed would be sufficient to avoid a state takeover of the City’s underfunded pensions. Instead of a long term lease of assets that would have produced a lump sum of upfront cash for the pensions, the Council’s plan promises to dedicate thirty years of parking tax revenues along with what the City already pays in as its minimum obligation to the pension system.

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Happy Days are Here Again

So, after an exhausting week in which City Council tried a variety of methods and went to the wire to beat the deadline of a possible state takeover of its pensions, citing the disastrous by-products of having the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System (PMRS) administer pensions and compelling higher payments under Act 44, noting that the state would do horrible things if it became the controlling entity of the underfunded pension system, what did City Council begin deliberating on today?

Giving its blessing to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to pursue up to $14.3 million in public money from the state’s Budget Office under the Redevelopment Capital Assistance Budget.

That’s right-the same cold and heartless state that was ready to wrest control of the pensions is now being asked to pony up some money for redevelopment projects, all in the name of removing blight.

There’s $2.1 million for the Symphony, $0.500 million for an Amalgamated Transit Union project, $4.5 million for a parking garage, $2.1 million for residential development in the Strip District, and $5 million for rehabilitation of the Goodwill building in the South Side.

Its not the first time the City (or any other municipality in the state) has petitioned for money from the RACP, but less than a week after the rollercoaster ride aimed at throwing any possible revenue source at the wall to avoid a state takeover? What’s the message here?

Could an Alternative Bid Method Be Used?

City Council will now have the $452 million offer from JP Morgan/LAZ Parking in front of them and have to consider the short-term and long-term impacts and the foreseeable and the unforeseeable consequences of the lease proposal. They have to think of what the proposed rate increases will do to the City’s business community in particular.

They, like the Mayor and other City officials, are probably surprised at how high the final bid came in and that it was well above the $300 million the Mayor said was needed to retire the Parking Authority’s debt and get the pension funds to 50% funded under the terms of Act 44 of 2009. Much of the debate will be centered around what to do with the overage.

Realizing the balancing act that had to be made to satisfy parkers, pensioners, City residents, City businesses, etc. perhaps the City should have employed a different bidding method: set the price to lease the parking system for the $300 million amount, but have the firms specify what would happen to parking rates under their proposal. Then the City could have selected the firm with the lowest impact on rates would have won the bid. The City’s debt and pension issues would have been satisfied and the impact on parking rates would have been less severe.

The discussion on how to soften the blow of rates and how to resist the numerous demands on how to spend the "extra" money will be quite interesting.

Pittsburgh’s Financial Watchdogs Lose Their Bark

Pittsburgh City Council recently enacted a prevailing wage bill and is now considering a living wage bill.  Both measures will almost certainly increase City spending either directly, by raising the wage rates of its employees, or indirectly, as contractors push the costs back to the City through higher bids.  The question that cries out for an answer is; where are the Act 47 coordinator and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (the oversight board)? Why are they silent about these legislative efforts?

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Councilman Pushes Job Killing Wage Bill

Councilman Burgess-along with his allies in the campaign for "living wage" bill-are still pushing hard for the legislation. In a comment filled with irony, the Councilman said at a hearing that it is unfair for "government to profit from the misery of the people who work for us."

Perhaps it has never dawned on the Councilman that the "miserable" City workers (if there are such folks) could always look for other employment that pays better. And perhaps the Councilman might consider the pain and misery his bill would cause already hard pressed City taxpayers who would have to reach deeper into their pockets to pay these "miserable" workers. Or maybe the City would have to layoff some workers or enter into fewer service contracts in order to save money to pay the higher wages of those workers fortunate to keep their jobs and other benefits. How miserable would the laid off workers be?

There is no free lunch Councilman. Where will you find the additional revenues or budget cuts to fund the living wage? In a City that is struggling to find money to meet its already enormous personnel legacy costs, plans to increase spending even more without any idea of where the money will come from are the last thing the City needs.

We ask again: Where are the oversight board and Act 47 coordinators? They should make it clear that this bill is a non-starter as far as they are concerned. The whole episode points to the lack of seriousness of City government and its overseers in solving the City’s problems.

The Competing Interests in the Parking Lease Plan

Modern urban politics is not at all exempt from the old axiom that "you can’t please all of the people all of the time". This is playing out in the discussion over leasing the garages, lots, and meters owned by the Parking Authority to a successful bidder in return for a lump sum that will then be handed over to the City to shore up pensions.

  • The head of the Downtown Partnership is worried that there will be "a private operator coming in and doing whatever the heck they want" (that would be true if the City and the Authority were just selling the garages and lots and allowing for the buyer to develop the property as they see fit);
  • a Council member wants the Authority to retain the right to lease the garages but then be able to build new ones if it so pleases (since 2001 the Authority has built garages and lots that account for 30% of its total Downtown inventory: close to 50% of spaces were built prior to 1960);
  • the Controller wants meters to not be included in the lease because "we would be better off dealing with a local entity than we would with Goldman Sachs".
  • the finance director has intimated that the more conditions placed on the lessee-"the more that you take up front, you’re going to get less on the back end"-will harm the deal, even though that individual, wearing his hat as chair of the Parking Authority board, said that no one at the Authority would lose their job over a potential lease deal.

Even the Mayor noted in January of 2009 the balancing act when he said "I’ve got to protect pensioners, I’ve got to protect city taxpayers…And of course I’d like to protect parkers, too, but not at the expense of city taxpayers and pensioners."

Which interest will win the day? It remains to be seen.