Sunday, March 27, 2005

City 'at a crossroads'

Long article:
Next mayor to inherit city 'at a crossroads' -

Roads are a minefield of potholes.

Residents deserve better -- especially after paying more in taxes this year. Furthermore, residents deserve better from the elected officials. The first major milestone on the serious pathway to improvement begins at the ballot box. Don't elect career politicians who have made this mess. Don't vote for Diven nor Fontana as both have been big parts of the problem.

I agree: Taxes have gone up, and they (old school politicians) don't do nothing for you. Furthermore, now they can't do anything at all. They are broke. They can't advance and agenda other than that of power containment.

In the past, the politicians could do something for the fat cats. Sure, politicians generally do little for the citizens and voters. Now, without any money left in the public treasury, politicians can't even help the special interest groups as much.

No time like the present. Now is the time to strike back and take back various offices. Let's make gains in the city and region with new people and new purpose in various elections.

And, sad to say, the hard facts of the matter are that there isn't much that the next guys and gals will be able to do for you either. My pledge is to do what I can for the citizens, shun the corporate interests, and pledge self-reliance efforts. We'll need to fix this ourselves. We'll need to engage as volunteers. We'll need to take charge on our own. We'll need to interact like never before.

The next mayor and the next wave of elected officials get to inherit a broken system. The fix isn't with the same old same old.

It is great to read how Andrew Conte of the Trib writes that "conditions are not likely to improve, either. " Sadly, he is on the money. We've been talking about these matters in realistic terms for years. Folks, it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Mayor Murphy's positive spin on his legacy is a joke. Don't even interview the guy. I don't even need to waste the recycled electrons on this blog to talk about the failed policies he and his type have championed. But, sadly, Diven and Fontana are from the same pod. Diven has been a Murphy buddie for years.

The Diven legacy and the Murphy legacy are nearly identical. The abrasive part with enemies in Harrisburgh and elsewhere is dead on identical.

Meanwhile, Fontana sat on County Council and approved TIFs. The TIFs (Tax Incremental Finance) deals are text book Murphy. The moves come right out of Murphy's playbook. Deer Creek Crossing was something I stood up against. Fontana voted for it, and many others. (As did Diven.)

I said, "NO TIFs, period." when I was running for Mayor in 2001! I still have the same resolve in 2005. TIFs hurt us on many dimensions. It's like cocaine. The career politicians are hooked. Perhaps in some remote way, under the care of experts, they'd have some value in theapy. That view isn't our reality.

These TIFs won't expire for years to come. And, I'm only one voice.

Murphy's reform of taxes is his biggest joke. His new tax policy is going to kill Pittsburgh for decades to come. There was no real reform. And, the changes are generating less money and providing more shelters. Wait until we see the results and the failout. That might come in a few months. The schedule is way less than what is to come.

Murphy is proud of the EMS tax -- so people making less than $12,000 have to pay and then get a refund for next year? Same and scorn is what's due.

Pittsburgh is open for business if you discount the tallest office towers, ignore how USAirways, a top employer is going, and all the other woes.

More to come. Good job Andrew Conte!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Full article follows: Next mayor to inherit city 'at a crossroads' By Andrew Conte, TRIBUNE-REVIEW, Sunday, March 27, 2005

Tammie Johnson, 34, parks her green Pontiac Grand Am in a minefield of potholes.

One cavity in front of her house stretches more than 3 feet across and drops at least 3 inches. Another measures 2 feet long. Smaller dimples lie amid a patchwork of cracked macadam, sealed with tar and littered with loose gravel.

Valera Street might be the worst road in the South Hills, said Councilman Jim Motznik, who represents the area. But it's far from alone: Spider veins crack the worn blacktop of many Carrick streets into small chunks.

Residents say they deserve better -- especially after paying more in taxes this year.

"It's bad living in the city," said Lois Burk, 70, who also lives on Valera Street. "Your taxes go up, and they don't do nothing for you."

That's the city Pittsburgh's next mayor will inherit: a place where residents feel they have been taxed to the limit, yet have little to show for it. With the city still on the "razor's edge of insolvency" -- as one state overseer says -- conditions are not likely to improve, either.

Mayor Tom Murphy puts a more positive spin on the legacy of his three terms in office. He said the next mayor will benefit from the work he has done to spur economic development, reduce crime, reuse former industrial sites, create bike trails and reform taxes.

"We were relentlessly focused on economic development and job creation, so that today, Pittsburgh's unemployment rate is generally two points lower than the national average, and our economy is a strong mix of technology, cutting-edge research, banking and financial services, health care and blue chip employers," Murphy wrote in response to questions from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Today, Pittsburgh is open for business and we have a national reputation as an excellent place for companies to locate."

But despite state lawmakers' approval of new and higher taxes for Pittsburgh in November, the city is on pace to end 2005 with a $10 million deficit. It has spent at least $1 million more than it budgeted on overtime each of the past two months.

"Whenever you exceed the budget in the first couple of months of the budget year, you have to find the money somewhere else," said John Murray, vice chair of the state-appointed oversight board responsible for approving the city's budget and keeping the city on the path to financial recovery. "Government sometimes forgets that. It's simply a reality."

Meanwhile, the next mayor will find that basic maintenance has turned into a luxury for city departments.

Pittsburgh should be resurfacing 80 miles of streets a year -- and it needs to redo 120 miles of them to catch up with its maintenance needs.

Instead, the city has money to pave just 24 miles this year.

Even then, it can pave only streets in poor neighborhoods because the money comes from a federal anti-poverty program. That leaves out all of Carrick and most of the city's South Hills neighborhoods.

"You notice streets more than anything," said Motznik, who added that he believes the city overall is turning for the better. "A number are falling apart right now. I have to tell (residents) nothing's going to happen in 2005."

The backlog of trees that need to be pruned or cut down seems even more grim. Two years ago, the city forester had a list of 4,000 trees that needed attention.

With a small city staff and no money to hire contractors since then, the list has grown so long that no one bothers keeping track any more, said Mike Gable, deputy director of Public Works.

Tree complaints from residents jumped 15 percent last year to more than 1,000.

The city hopes to get a handle on the problem this spring by paying an estimated $180,000 for contractors to count and categorize every tree.

Other basic services -- from mowing grass to repairing park benches to salting winter roads -- fell off the table last year, according to the mayor's five-year proposed spending plan.

City crews cut park grass half as frequently last year, basically stopped repairing benches and bleachers, and budgeted for fewer winter storms.

Snowplow drivers had to clear streets 25 times in 2003, but the budget office allowed for just 15 winter storms this year. Based on that prognostication, it plans to buy about 60 percent of the salt crews used two years ago.

Graffiti removal also declined last year, suggesting that maybe the problem had finally started disappearing. Crews cleaned up half as many tags as they had the year before.

At the same time, however, city inspectors seemed to find spray paint everywhere. They issued 240 violations last year -- a 300 percent increase over the previous year.

Inspectors continued condemning buildings, too, adding another 300 to a citywide backlog that now includes 1,145 condemned structures.

Yet the city razed only 90 buildings -- a 70 percent decline from the 293 it tore down in 2003.

Even if it increases funding to tear down 500 buildings a year in the future, the backlog is expected to top out at 1,200 this year and will not disappear until 2010 at the earliest.

Judith K. Ginyard, executive director of the Lincoln Larimer Community Development Corp., has put together an inventory of condemned buildings her community wants to have torn down. The list tops 250 buildings and continues to grow.

"It is a great public safety concern to have so many vacant buildings in one neighborhood," she said.

Ginyard faults Murphy for talking about revitalizing the neighborhoods, but doing little to help them. She credits the current administration with developing just five new buildings in Lemington over the past 11 years.

"That's the challenge of the next mayoral administration: to look at these neighborhoods and come up with an economic stimulus plan," Ginyard said.

The city also plans to inventory its network of 675 hillside steps, as unique as its steep topography, to determine which ones can be demolished. It costs Pittsburgh $500,000 a year to clear ice and snow, cut back weeds and make repairs to the staircases.

Murphy wants to tear down those that few people use.

The timing for that couldn't be worse, said Bob Regan, who wrote a book called "The Steps of Pittsburgh" and may be the only person to have hit all 44,645 stairs.

Tourists are just now finding out about Pittsburgh's stairs, he said. Cities such as Cincinnati and San Francisco, which tore out their own hillside staircases, now wish they could have them back.

"These are really historic and unique artifacts," Regan said. "I really think the steps could save Pittsburgh financially with tourism."

Despite all the cutting, Pittsburgh's budget still has $417 million to spend on providing city services this year.

Murphy wanted $100,000 more to pay for "enhancing" the fairways and clubhouse at Schenley Golf Course. That would have come on top of the $117,000 taxpayers shelled out in recent years for three state-of-the-art golf simulators there. The city owns the grounds and equipment, but Carnegie Mellon University operates the course under a lease agreement.

The mayor also proposed spending $200,000 to design a new recreation center for Lincoln Place -- even though the city could not afford to open 10 of its 19 existing recreation centers.

Council rejected those expenditures while eliminating $4.5 million in capital spending for projects it could not afford, such as paving streets, replacing guiderails and repairing bridges.

The city also must spend more than $90 million this year on repaying its debt. It still owes creditors $1.3 billion, including $847 million in principal and $463 million in interest.

Then there are the police and fire departments. Pittsburgh will spend $129 million on public safety this year -- about 30 percent of the total city budget.

Among the costs: overtime to firefighters and police who rack up big bonuses by working long hours. Forty-two of the city's 50 highest-paid employees last year were firefighters. The others were police or paramedics.

Fire Bureau Battalion Chief Michael J. Mullen pulled down the most: $135,893.54.

"I think the city's at a crossroads," said Bill Lieberman, chairman of the state oversight board. "The next two or three months will determine the kind of city the next mayor inherits. We have to see whether or not the revenues are adequate, whether the city has kept expenditures down, whether the new firefighter contract works. We'll know by the end of June what city the next mayor will inherit."


Mayor Tom Murphy said he sees the legacy of his three terms in office as economic development, the reuse of former industrial sites, the creation of bike trails and tax reform. Murphy provided the following answers in a written response to questions from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Q: The story is about what kind of city the next mayor will inherit. What kind of city does the current administration think that is?

A: First and foremost, the next mayor inherits a safe city. When I became mayor in 1994 we had reached the highest number of homicides in our city's history. Today, Pittsburgh is consistently ranked among the top 10 safest cities in America.

Second, when I took office in January of 1994, Pittsburgh's unemployment rate was seven points above the national average. But we were relentlessly focused on economic development and job creation, so that today, Pittsburgh's unemployment rate is generally two points lower than the national average, and our economy is a strong mix of technology, cutting-edge research, banking and financial services, health care and blue chip employers. Today, Pittsburgh is open for business and we have a national reputation as an excellent place for companies to locate.

Third, the next mayor inherits a city that is recognized as a national leader in the reuse and revitalization of old, abandoned industrial property. Pittsburgh has led the way in the effort to take our polluted riverfront properties that sat vacant for too long, and transform them into vital new opportunities for business locations, housing and retail and recreational amenities.

Fourth, the new mayor will inherit a city that was once rated the worst city in America for bicycling, but that now boasts more than 25 miles of riverfront trails and new park space. Today, you can travel from Squirrel Hill to the North Side without going on a busy road. Not only does this new trail network enhance Pittsburgh's quality of life and help us reclaim our riverfronts for public use, but it has enabled our senior population, some of whom haven't ridden a bike in 50 years, to become active again.

Fifth, the next mayor inherits revitalized neighborhoods, many of which are experiencing a renewed vitality not seen in more than a generation. From East Liberty, with Whole Foods and Home Depot, to the entire new neighborhood rising before our eyes on the South Side Works Site, to new housing in Squirrel Hill with a waiting list to purchase on what was once an old slag dump at Summerset at Frick Park to new artist lofts in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh's neighborhoods are alive again. Where once the largest and poorest public housing community between New York and Chicago (was) ... Allequippa Terrace in the Hill District, now a vibrant, mixed-income community now sits. We have transformed our public housing communities into thriving, livable neighborhoods.

Finally, the next mayor inherits a new, modernized tax structure that reflects the growing city Pittsburgh is today. We spent the past three years engaged in a vital struggle to reform Pittsburgh's outdated financial structure. We have successfully shed a state-mandated tax structure filled with loopholes and inequities where nearly 50 percent of the people and businesses who utilize city services every day paid little or nothing for those services. Today, everyone who works in our city helps to pay for the police, fire and EMS services we provide, and every business contributes toward the city's bottom line.

Q. An overall theme is that Pittsburgh is a place where residents feel they're overtaxed and underserved. Are residents getting their money's worth for the taxes they pay in the city?

A. If by this you mean that residents feel the parking tax is too high, I agree. I urged the Legislature to enable us to reduce the parking tax rate when they approved the Pittsburgh financial package last fall, but to no avail. The next mayor will certainly have to work to reduce the rate, which I believe should be reduced faster than what is currently provided for in the city's five-year plan to ensure that Downtown remains healthy.

However, with regard to the other major taxes in Pittsburgh, the wage tax and the property tax, I have fought to keep them at the lowest levels possible throughout my time as mayor. In fact, I have not allowed the city to raise the wage tax or the city's property tax one cent in my 12 years as mayor. Certainly, the botched assessments by (former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey) has caused many residents to feel as though their taxes went up because of the city, but that was factually not the case. The only government body in the city that has raised taxes in the past 12 years is the (Pittsburgh Public) School District. And certainly, as my A+ Schools Commission made clear, Pittsburghers are paying too much in school taxes.

Q. Basic services such as cutting grass, repairing park benches, salting winter roads and razing buildings dropped off in 2004, according to the city's five-year plan. Does the administration expect those services to be restored this year? Is there money for them?

A. Actually, I disagree with your premise that city services such as cutting grass suffered in 2004. Our city workers did an amazing job last year of doing more with less, and being more efficient in the delivery of city services. But I am confident that the city's five-year plan, which is based primarily on the Act 47 Plan that was approved by both City Council and the oversight board, does provide enough funding to ensure that the city can provide high quality services to our neighborhoods.

Certainly, the city will need a capital budget in the coming years to ensure that we keep up with the basic infrastructure needs of the city such as street paving, and that is provided for beginning in 2006 under the Act 47 and the five-year financial plans. Unfortunately, the (Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority) eliminated the city's capital budget for 2005. The Act 47 plan originally called for a $7 million capital budget for 2005, but the ICA refused to fight for enough funds from the General Assembly to meet the city's basic infrastructure needs this year.

Andrew Conte can be reached at or (412) 765-2312.