First Appointment to Revamped PAT Board

Under Act 72 of 2013, the size of the Port Authority (PAT) board of directors is to increase and the appointment power to the board is to shift from nine appointed by one official to eleven appointed by six officials. Readers can get details here.

It was announced recently that the first appointment to the new board has been made by the Senate Minority Leader. Per the statute, the term of this appointee is to be a four year term with opportunity to be reappointed twice. Other appointments will have shorter first terms so as to stagger times of reappointment going forward.

While much has been written and discussed about the diminished power of the office of County Executive vis-à-vis the makeup of the board-dropping from nine appointments to six, with four of those being "free" selections and two being drawn from lists submitted by community groups-it is worth mentioning the position of the County’s legislative body, the fifteen member County Council, as it relates to the PAT board.

Prior to Act 72, the Council confirmed appointments and was guaranteed one seat on the board. Earlier versions of the Act would have given appointments to the Council, but that was omitted during the legislative process. Now Council will only confirm the two Executive appointments drawn from lists. There is nothing that prevents any of the appointing officials from choosing a Council member to serve on the board. They are all County residents (required of all appointees with the exception of the Governor’s choice) and would seem to meet the background requirements of having experience in finance, transportation, or economic development as a prerequisite for serving on the board. It could even be possible that now or in the future more than one member of Council could end up on the board.

County Goes with “Plan 1”

By this Friday the 13 County Council district seats must be reapportioned to adjust for population changes in the County between the 2000 and 2010 Census. Those seats will remain intact until the next Census in 2020.

As we wrote in a previous blog there were really two competing plans-one largely drawn up by Council and staff and one drawn up by a County citizen-and the former plan in the one on the agenda for Council’s March 6th meeting.

Under that plan four Council districts-6 (a south hills based district), 10 (a City based district that includes Wilkinsburg), 11 (a City based district with Mt Oliver, Homestead, and Munhall), and 13 (a wholly City based district)-would remain intact. All other districts would have some degree of shifting to balance the size of population within the district.

Going forward, the only remaining reapportionment issue is the proposal to allow for the City of Pittsburgh to be included in a maximum of six Council districts, altering the standard of dividing a municipality "into as few County Council districts as possible". That would not come into play in the current redistricting, but would become code language for future redistricting plans.

County Council Gets Ready to Redistrict

Much attention has been given to the judicial decision to toss the proposed state legislative redistricting plan of late, but it is important to note that local jurisdictions who have district based representation (as opposed to at large) must also reapportion their seats. In the region, this applies to Pittsburgh City Council, the Pittsburgh School District, and Allegheny County Council.

County Council has the redistricting issue on its agenda for tomorrow night. Council has 15 seats: two are at large seats, so no redistricting is involved there. It is the remaining 13 that have to be redrawn to accommodate for population change. The County’s administrative code states that the districts should be "compact and contiguous territories as nearly equal in population as practicable" and "unless absolutely necessary, no city, borough, township, or ward shall be divided in forming council districts…a municipality shall be divided into as few County Council districts as possible".

There are two competing plans on the agenda-one is the product of the work of a County resident (referred to herein as Plan #2). A separate bill would seek to change the code language to try and expand the influence of the City of Pittsburgh by allowing the City to "be divided into no more than six (6) County Council Districts" but would have City representation as of the 2010 census spread into four districts (this is true of Plans 1 and 2).

For illustration purposes, this blog will examine the proposed plans for District 1, currently a northwestern based district that encompasses municipalities along the Ohio River.

Current Makeup (16 municipalities)-Aleppo, Avalon, Bellevue, Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Coraopolis, Crescent, Edgeworth, Emsworth, Kilbuck, Leet, Leetsdale, Moon, Ross, Sewickley, West View

Plan #1 (13 municipalities, 9 remain in district, 4 new)-Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Coraopolis, Edgeworth, Emsworth, Findlay, Glen Osbourne, Haysville, Kilbuck, Moon, North Fayette, Ross, West View

Plan #2 (18 municipalities, 14 remain in district, 4 new)-Avalon, Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Coraopolis, Crescent, Edgeworth, Emsworth, Glenfield, Glen Osbourne, Haysville, Kilbuck, Leet, Leetsdale, Moon, Ohio, Ross, Sewickley, and West View

District 13 is the only district currently that is solely comprised of City neighborhoods. Both Plan #1 and Plan #2 would add at least one non-City municipality to the District.

Property Tax Increase Enters through the County’s Front Door

After years of extolling the fact that the property tax rate in Allegheny County had remained unchanged from 4.69 mills, the County Executive-elect has put his support behind a proposed 1 mill County tax increase for the 2012 budget year. At the same time, unless something has changed, he remains fully in opposition to a reassessment ordered by the PA Supreme Court and at one point made it clear he was willing to go to jail rather than send out assessment notices.

The opposition was based on the belief that governing bodies-the implication, sometimes clear, sometimes not, was that it was school districts-would take in more tax revenue than permitted without having to take a clear and public vote to increase millage rates. As we pointed out numerous times nearly all of the County’s school districts and a very sizeable portion of the County’s municipalities had indeed raised their millage rates during the time period in which the County felt having a base year was the way to manage the reassessment system. No need to wait for a backdoor increase when a front door one can be enacted.

Now the County is faced with a $50 million deficit that the Executive and many members of Council feel cannot be closed without a tax increase. According to the County’s Home Rule Charter (Article VII, Section 4c) "any ordinance changing the real estate tax rates shall require an affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of the seated members". That plain language-codified in the County’s administrative code at 5-809.2-means it will take 10 members of 15 to enact the change. With 11 of the 15 members sharing the same political affiliation with each other and with the Executive-elect it is a good chance the threshold can be met and attained.

So here is the short tax record in recent years for Allegheny County, perhaps the one that might get more attention if the string of consecutive years without a property tax increase is ended: two new levies (one on alcohol, one on car rentals) begin in 2008; the County begins collecting gaming host fees by virtue of the law that awarded a license to the Rivers Casino in 2010; and now the proposed millage rate increase set to begin in 2012 if enacted. Yet the County does not have enough money to cover its spending needs.

Sunset Review: Time for a Change?

As we wrote last year and earlier this year in a series of Briefs the County dropped the ball on its sunset review of departments. The Home Rule Charter calls for departments to be "evaluated every four years, and be eliminated unless specifically renewed" (emphasis added) and charges the County Manager with the review and vests Council with the power to continue, reorganize, or eliminate departments. Council can follow the recommendations of the Manager, but they are not bound by them.

A funny thing happened between the time of the Charter and the creation of the administrative code that spells out the specific sunset review procedures. Section 5-1201.05 B spells out Council’s role once the review is in their hands. "Upon receipt of the County Manager’s recommendation, County Council may adopt an ordinance or resolution on or before October 15 to either (1) continue the existence of the affected department for another four years; (2) to abolish the department, or; (3) Reorganize the department subject to evaluation and review" (emphasis added).

The most recent review-which was published seven years after the first, well past the mandatory four year cycle-came on December 31, 2010. By the code language, Council would have had ten months to take action. They did not have to, since the section says "may" and not "shall" but silence on the matter should not convey continued existence since that is at odds with the Charter language that there ought to be a specific renewal. That is different from renewing by not taking action, or using the budget process as a tacit blessing for a department to continue.

By all indications Council has not taken any action. A search of legislation on Council’s portion of the County website does not turn up anything related to sunset review in 2011 and the latest action recorded was as of December 6 of last year, some three weeks before the review was published on the Manager’s page.

One of two things has to happen: either Council has to amend the administrative code language to change "may" to "shall" so that present and future Councils take an up-or-down vote on sunset reviews or they need to propose an ordinance to strip the sunset review out of the Charter and the code so that is no longer required. The halfway method of delayed reviews and no follow-up makes a sham of the sunset review.

The Business of Redistricting

This week Allegheny County Council begins discussion on how to redraw the boundaries of the 13 district based seats to reflect the new Census count that puts the County’s population at 1.223 million. This is the second time in Council’s history that a reapportionment has occurred: the old commissioner system that gaveway in 2000had three elected officials that served at large.

We wrote about the firstreapportionment in a Brief back in 2002. Hopefully the "Special Committee on Reapportionment", comprised of five Democrats and two Republicans, does not go down the road that was traveled nearly ten years ago as described in that Brief.

Based on the 2000 Census the typical district would contain 98,589 people. With slight variation the approved districts ranged from 97k to just over 100k. The new Census count would put the population count at 94,013 per district. The key consideration that the Committee has to make is on how to avoid dividing municipalities into separate districts. Currently the City of Pittsburgh touches four of the 13 districts: nearly all of the 10th (Wilkinsburg is the only non-city municipality in that district), parts of the 11th and 12th, and all of the 13th. The County’s administrative code has the key language: "unless absolutely necessary, no city, borough, township, or ward should be divided in forming councilmanic districts…A municipality shall be divided into as few County Council districts as possible". The City still represents about 1/4th of the County’s total population as it did in the 2000 Census. It could be possible that the City’s influence spreads to three districts this time around instead of the current four. The original 2002 plan referenced in the Brief wanted to have the City touch 6 of the 13 districts.

This will be the first meeting of this special committee, so there is no set schedule yet for public hearings or input as of yet.

If Walls Could Talk About Trial Dates

Is it remotely possible that setting a new trial date for the long and frequently delayed trial of Chuck McCullough might involve just a tiny element of political calculation? And how about the timing of the new trial date announcement just days before the primary voting? The new trial date is set for the week after the November election. If he wins the Republican primary for Chief Executive, the Democrat candidate will have a huge political hammer with which to pummel Mr. McCullough.

What a position for Republicans voters to be in. If they believe the man is innocent and choose him in the primary, they will be setting him up for a Democrat drubbing in the general election, where Democrat voters are far less likely to give him the benefit of any doubt. If Republicans view him as probably guilty and chose the other gentleman and he loses in the fall and Mr. McCullough is vindicated at trial, how can they not feel manipulated?

Of course, the Executive candidate could have prevented the dilemma by not running or asking for an earlier trial date prior to the primary to be vindicated. So, in a sense there is a lot of blame to go around. But, that does not make all of the judge-granted postponements and the new trial date appear any less odd. An interesting little dance to be sure.

Advice for County Council Candidates

In a recent news story two candidates for County Council outlined what they plan to do when they take a seat on Council. Here’s a clue for them if they are serious about addressing County problems–read the Allegheny Institute’s report; Candidate’s Guide to Crucial Issues Facing Allegheny County.

On candidate is concerned about crowding on PAT buses and the implied lack of capacity on key routes. As a Council member exactly what would she do? Solving PAT’s financial crisis will almost exclusively depend on actions taken by the state, such as eliminating the right to strike for transit workers, possibly forcing PAT into a bankruptcy and requiring outsourcing of bus service. The County could allocate more funds as a stop gap, but what other functions or programs would the candidate suggest cutting? The County is cash strapped and the financial picture is getting worse. Empty rhetoric about being concerned over bus crowding tells us nothing about the candidate’s understanding, or lack of understanding, of the genesis of Port Authority’s problems.

The candidate went on to say that all decisions and votes taken would be based on what is in the long term best interests of the County. Who can be opposed to that? But it is empty rhetoric as well. How will the candidate decide what is in the in the best interests of the County? What factors will the candidate consider and how will they be weighted? In short, what philosophy of government does the candidate hold and what do they value? There is no way for the candidate to decide what they believe will be in the best interest of the County that does not reflect their belief system. Voters have a right to know what that is.

Meanwhile, the other candidate reveals a complete lack of understanding of the County’s functions by saying he wants to put more County police on the streets and he wants more focus on early childhood education. The County does not police the street; that is a municipal function. County police are primarily an investigation unit. Moreover, education is solely a school system function. Besides both of these functions, if they were county functions, would require more spending to boost their roles. Where would the money come from? The candidate also wants to give tax credits to businesses to entice them to the County. How about cutting taxes for all businesses to make the business climate friendlier? Giving credits is fraught with possibilities of favoritism and misuse.

Again, the major issues facing the County and how to deal with them are described in the Institute’s candidate’s guide referred to above. Too bad the candidates are reduced to rhetoric and irrelevant positions-not a good sign for the County.

Standing PAT

The County’s first Special Committee on Public Transportation convened a few minutes after 5 PM on Tuesday and before adjourning a few minutes before 6 PM raised questions regarding Act 44, the current labor agreement for the PAT union, and some of the differences between PAT and the much larger SEPTA system in Philadelphia and much of the southeast region of the state.

One of the six Council members in attendance asked about legacy costs at SEPTA; another asked about how funding under Act 44 has affected SEPTA; a PAT staff member offered to research the matter further.

A quick look back at the 2006 Task Force appointed by Governor Rendell points out the differences, and our research has highlighted those differences in publications since the time of the Task Force’s report. To wit:

  • SEPTA had "starting bus driver and mechanic rates below U.S. transit industry average" while PAT had "operator wage rats historically higher than industry and statewide average; highest in the U.S. when accounting for cost of living"
  • SEPTA demonstrated a "limited pursuit of Federal New Starts program and other expansion projects evident from investment of only one (1) percent of capital dollars for expansion; PAT was characterized as having "aggressive pursuit of new starts and other expansion projects despite significant operating deficits for existing services and shortfall in local subsidies".
  • At the time SEPTA "contracts out 2 fixed route bus services in outer suburbs" while PAT "collective bargaining agreements are silent on contracting out fixed route services".

What was evident five years ago as the Task Force toured the state must come back around and be front and center in Council’s chambers.

Whose Bluff is Council Calling?

At last night’s County Council meeting a resolution to amend the 2011 County budget was proposed and sent to committee for further discussion. There is nothing too unique about the fact that Council wants to make an budget amendment, as the Home Rule Charter sets out the requirements for doing so (a 2/3rd vote and the approval of the Executive, and the amendment cannot unbalance the budget) but the subject and the timing of the proposal are quite peculiar.

The County’s 2011 budget (its fiscal year is the calendar year) approved $27.6 million for the Port Authority: that amount shows up under "miscellaneous agencies" in the operating budget. It constituted the County’s local match under Act 44, a 15% requirement that was based on what PAT was to receive from the state for its 2010-11 budget (PAT’s fiscal year is July-June).

Because the state money was predicated upon the ill-fated I-80 tolling plan, PAT’s state allocation for this coming fiscal year was reduced. According to the resolution, Council was told "in November 2010 the Authority’s state funding derived from Act 44 was reduced by an additional $6.8 million for FY2011-12", bringing PAT’s state allocation to $150.3 million. On December 6th Council approved their 2011 budget with the $27.6 million for PAT intact. Based on the state funding the County match would be 18%.

Now, three months after passing its budget, Council proposes reopening the issue and revising its match to $22.5 million, making it 15% of the amount they knew about before they adopted the budget. What’s changed? For one thing, there is a pitched battle over the bailout money funneled through SPC: the transit union is advocating for all the money to be spent now to avoid any of the planned service cuts and layoffs at the end of March, while the PAT management wants to spread the money over 18 months as per the sentiment expressed by the SPC. In addition, the PAT board is set to decide in about a week on allowing a private company to operate service PAT wants to abandon in the North Hills. This measure is too opposed by the transit union and its allies.

So who is Council trying to bluff in this latest standoff? Do they want PAT to capitulate on the bailout money and the competitive service offer in order to keep the $5 million? Do they want the state to intervene and come through with more money for PAT? In either case, Council is playing a losing game as they are trying to bluff with a weak hand, not realizing that the other players likely know it is a bluff. And what does Council plan on doing with the rescinded $5 million if the amendment is successful? Hold it in escrow until PAT and/or the state meets their demands? Maybe the state will react by lowering the top rates at which the drink and car rental taxes are levied. That will create a standoff no one wants to see.