County to Fine Tune its Instrumentalities?

County Council has a motion before it that, if approved, would allow for a feasibility study of privatizing, absorbing into County government, or leaving untouched its largest related authorities (PAT, SEA, Airport, and ALCOSAN). Presumably the intent of the legislation is to determine the best way to carry out the functions performed by these special purpose authorities. Sort of like the way the County is to examine its own internal operation every four years through a sunset review report, a report that has not been undertaken since 2003.

If the motion is to pass, one would think there would have to be a pretty quick undertaking of the study: later this week there is another resolution pending that would allow ALCOSAN to extend its corporate life (as of now under its articles of incorporation it is scheduled to expire in 2039 at the ripe old age of 93) and it is a safe bet that the other three authorities-as well as some inside County government-will make arguments as to why those entities should stay outside of the County organizational chart.

Proponents of the study should know how stubbornly hard it will be to change the status quo of the authority structure, considering that the County’s largest municipality still has a Stadium Authority that owns no stadium and possibly soon a Parking Authority that owns no parking assets.

Lease Components Coalescing?

Here is a summary of the recommendations of an advisory task force on the proposed parking lease:

  • The prospective lease holder would not be constrained by rate caps, but would be guided by "market factors, industry standards, and regional inflation"
  • A 50 year lease term
  • The Parking Authority would continue to exist, but it might or might not be able to build new garages
  • Authority employees would get jobs with the lessee, the Authority, the City and would not lose existing pay and benefits

Since all of these recommendations are non-binding, it is anyone’s guess as to what would make it into an eventual executed lease. It is encouraging that the task force did not advocate for rate caps-perhaps it was because it was not their place to say, perhaps they realize that maybe the parking market forces can work to allocate the resource of parking, or perhaps they did not want to keep that condition going forward in the lease, realizing that the more conditions up front will lessen the take from the lease.

The recommendations do raise the important question about the Parking Authority’s place in the equation after a successful lease deal. For one, will they have any role other than managing the lease? Will they own other properties that will continue to operate as parking facilities? Or will they simply be monitoring the terms of the lease?

There is nothing in existing Commonwealth law that would prohibit the City from creating a new Parking Authority should the present one be dissolved (part of the up front lump sum is supposed to pay off the Authority’s debt) and likely some type of clause would have to be added to the lease that prohibited publicly owned parking. And if there are extensive and numerous lease details it is possible that the function could be moved to the City government proper.

Lastly, there has to be a realization that if Authority employees land jobs with the lessee and pay and benefits remain intact that rates will rise in order for the lessee to achieve an adequate return.

So Much for Authority Independence

Municipal authorities were purportedly created in part to do things regular governments cannot do and to assume certain financial and operational functions. In Pittsburgh, we have the water and sewer authority, the parking authority, the housing authority, the redevelopment authority, etc. These authorities are governed by a board that is appointed by the Mayor and approved by the City Council. Within the state’s statutes governing the authority and the authority’s own charter and by-laws, the board presumably has the responsibility and freedom to make the big decisions for the authority.

Generally speaking the board is supposedly independent of political pressures. Of course, board members who continually run afoul of the Mayor’s wishes could be asked to resign or not be re-appointed. Certainly, the City Council should not be stepping into manage the affairs of any authority. That is a prescription for turmoil.

Now comes Councilman Shields saying, "The [Urban Redevelopment Authority] can’t even breathe a breath without the consent and authorization of this body"-referring to Council. He went on to say that he would do unimaginable things to the URA if it did not comply with the prevailing wage bill Council is getting ready to pass.

So, in Pittsburgh, what is it? Are authorities independent or are they lackeys of City Council? Apparently, a new era of Council hegemony just dawned in Pittsburgh.