Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Area Police Departments get K-9 help

The Ben Roethlisberger Foundation has handed out nearly 100-thousand dollars in grants to bolster local police K-9 programs. The foundation was launched when Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger donated a dog and bulletproof K-9 vest to his hometown police department of Findlay Ohio. The department’s dog was shot and killed in 2006. After making the donation Roethlisberger decided to make similar donations in every city the Steelers visited in the 2007 season. Today he turned his focus closer to home giving grants to Pittsburgh area departments including the city of Pittsburgh, Fox Chapel, Brentwood and Homestead. Homestead police chief Jeff says the grant will allow his department to put a dog back on the street for the first time in nearly a year. Roethlisberger says he hopes to make more grants during the 2008 season.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Freedom Corner to soon become City owned Monument

Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Tonya Payne would like to see the city take over ownership for Freedom Corner in the Hill District. The Monument is currently owned by the Urban Redevolpment Authority. Ms. Payne says she does not forsee any problems in the city acquiring the monument because she is on the board, Senator Jim Ferlo who is on the board has already donated $500 to a trust fund for the monument and the Mayor's chief of staff is on the board as well. After the URA Board approves transition the City council of PIttsburgh would have to approve it, followed by the Mayor.

Pharmacy Automates Prescription Pick-up

A pharmacy in Bethel Park is letting customers pick up their prescriptions similar to the way they pick up cash. Med-Fast pharmacy says it's the first in the region and possibly the country to install an APM, or automated product machine. It allows customers to pick up their prescriptions 24 hours a day, regardless of whether the pharmacy is open. Customers enter their birthdays and a PIN on touch screen, and indicate whether they would like to ask questions of a pharmacist. A local pharmacist is on call 24 hours a day to answer questions. Then the machine dispenses their medications, which are filled manually inside the store before being placed into the machine. The APM cost about $150,000 and has been operating for about two weeks.

Monday, April 28, 2008

New plan for downtown buildings

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation has inked a deal to preserve the outside of a several buildings near the new PNC building downtown while development of the building interiors continues. In a complicated purchase and swap plan involving the city, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and N&P Properties the foundation will develop a few low-rise buildings on the corner of Market St. and Fifth Ave. while at the same time aquiring the right to preserve the façade of another building on that corner in perpetuity. This portion of market street links market square with fifth avenue right where the new park is being built as part of the PNC skyscraper. The buildings will feature retail on the first floor and residential above. PPG has created a special color palate for use on some of the buildings. One is covered with blue and ivory colored terracotta that dates back to 1928. Duquesne light is getting involved with a façade lighting project to highlight the architecture.

New Commissary Approved

U.S. Representative Tim Murphy, Republican from the 18th District, says the Commissary Board voted today to build a new commissary in Pittsburgh on Business Route 60 in Moon Township. There is no construction timetable as yet, but in the meantime, military personnel can continue to use the store at the Charles E. Kelly Support Facility, which is scheduled to remain open for a few more years.

Murphy says there will be a number of contributors to the building, including Allegheny County and the Defense Commissary Agency, so it's important to establish the design and funding so it can be built as soon as possible.

Alcoa Foundation Awards $1.2 million

The Alcoa Foundation has awarded $!.2 million to three Pittsburgh non-profits, bringing its total for the past five years in Allegheny County to $11 million.

$600,000 goes to the August Wilson Center for African American Culture now under construction downtown. The grant will be used for permanent exhibits and for the currently touring exhibit of Teenie Harris photos with an accompanying dance performance--both will wind up at the center's opening in 2009.

The Carnegie Library will put its $400,000 toward improving childrens' sections in several branches and for renovations and new construction on the North Side and in the Hill District.

$200,000 will be used by the Children's Institute to study the feasibility of an "Environmental Pediatric Room" --a "clean room" with reduced toxins and exposures. Autistic children would live there for a few weeks to a few months. Friends and family could go in and out, enjoying the clean air, water and organic food in a beautiful setting. Dr. Scott Faber said the hope is the children would undergo biomedical change in that environment, especially de-toxifying chemicals and heavy metals in their bodies. There could be improvements in the immune system, language and socialization, along with a decrease in repetitive behavior patterns.

Higher Incomes Eligible for Nutrition Assistance

The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition assistance program will have higher income limits beginning May 1st. The federally-funded program limits are upped annually to adjust for inflation, but Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole says this year's increase may be a little higher than normal due to the rapidly rising cost of food and fuel. After May 1st, a family of 4 with an annual gross income of $45,880 or less is eligible. Unborn children are included. Women and children must meet nutritional risk requirements as well, determined by a physician. Cole says the program, in existence in Allegheny County since the 1970's, has a proven success, with heavier newborns and healthier children.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Boy Scouts Lose Some United Way Funding

The United Way's new process for allocating funds to human service agencies serving at-risk youth is an open competition. Eighty-four applications have been narrowed down to fifteen, and ten will probably get funding, according to United Way President Robert Nelkin. The Boy Scouts' Scout Reach program had gotten $140,000 in past years, but it did not make the cut under the new process. Nelkin says the Boy Scouts do wonderful things for youth, but their at-risk program was not as strong as some others in a process looking for the greatest impact and the greatest results. Nelkin says United Way donors seem to appreciate the competitive process so their hard-earned dollars go where the greatest results are achieved for those with the greatest needs.

Spokesman Bob DeWitt says the Greater Pittsburgh Council of Boy Scouts will be seeking alternative funding and does not plan to cut services in the Scout Reach program, which serves from 3- to 5000 at-risk youth at any given time. The funding loss is about one-third of the $460,000 a year United Way gives the Boy Scouts.

Kites at the Science Center represent abused children

Kites will take center stage at the Carnegie Science Center this weekend and so will the plight of 5,000 Allegheny County children who are victims of abuse and neglect. Kidsvoice represents those children by pairing lawyers and social workers with the children to get them the services they need. Kidsvoice executive director Scott Hollander says they are using the kite theme because kites represent joy and hope. People coming into the science center this weekend will be able to decorate a kite and hang it in the building. The goal is to make 5-thousand of the kites to represent each child in the system. There will be other kite related activities from crafts to the science behind kite flying. Anyone printing a kite from the science center web site and decorating it will get two dollars off their admission. Hollander says this is not a fund raising event, just an event to build awareness and show support for the kids.. The kites will be taken down Monday and then displayed throughout the county at different times throughout the year to once again build awareness to the issue.

Art All Night Comes Saturday

Volunteers are busy turning an old warehouse in Lawrenceville into a one-day art venue. The annual Lawrenceville Art All Night art show opens Saturday at 6pm and closes Sunday at 2pm. This year the show is in the old Roomful Express furniture warehouse on 57th street just off Butler. Any artists can submit a single work Saturday from 1-4. There is no entry fee, no jury and no censorship. Last year more than 800 works were shown and nearly 8-thousand people came through to see it. The event is free but visitors can make donations. Volunteers

More murals on the way in Alleghney County

The “Lives of Kids Community Mural Project is ready to launch another year of making public art in some of the county’s most needy communities. Last year the project painted murals along the East Busway and in several of the communities the busway touches. This year they hope to expand to the Monvalley, the North Side and a few other locations. Local artists including children and county jail inmates are asked to submit ideas and the best works are paired with community leaders to be painted on walls. Organizer and artists Kyle Holbrook says the murals brighten the communities and makes them more livable. He says it also helps to bring together kids from different neighborhoods as friends rather than enemies. Allegheny County Jail Warden Ramon Rustin says it is also important for the former offenders involved to find work and a connection with the community as they leave are leaving the facility.


The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has delayed a vote on a refinancing plan for Pittsburgh's casino. Casino developer, Don Barden, wanted a decision by May 8th saying the delay could endanger his plans to refinance with Credit Suisse on what had been a $450 million deal. He is now seeking $630 million to meet the rising costs associated with construction delays. Barden told the board that he feels there is a conspiracy behind the delay, but did not elaborate. Gaming board members say they are concerned about the refinancing plan as well as Barden's misgivings about a $3 million commitment to revitalize the Hill District. Last week Barden petitioned the board to eliminate the $3 million investment because he said that was contingent on his receiving the development rights near the new arena. Those development rights belong to the Penguins. The board said it will wait to vote until May 14 on both the refinancing plan and the $3 million commitment.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato want to sit down with Barden to discuss his request to drop the funding for the Hill District. The mayor has said that he wants to know what Barden will do with his $3 million commitment, and wants to ensure that wherever the money goes, it stays in Pittsburgh.

Searching for a Stop to Gun Violence

Shootings like the one at Virginia Tech last year have prompted a new look at gun laws. But in Pennsylvania, proposals for new gun restrictions have encountered heavy resistance from those who say these kinds of measures ignore the root cause of the violence. DUQ's Katherine Fink reports: Listen to the full-length story here.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gay Rights Activist Randall Forrester Dies

Randal Forrester, a leading gay rights and human rights activist in the Pittsburgh area for more than 35 years, has died. Mr. Forrester died yesterday of cancer at age 60. Betty Hill, the executive director of the Persad Center, said that Mr. Forrester was "a legend...arguably the most influential gay rights figure in the Pittsburgh region." At age 24 in 1972, Mr. Forrester co-founded the Persad Center, a counseling center serving the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community. Ms. Hill said at that time, most people still considered homosexuality "a mental illness." She said starting a center that was "gay affirming" that was a safe place to go "that didn't try to change" gays and lesbians ...a center where "they were not told they were bad or sick" was visionary.
Ms. Hill says in the early 1980's when the AIDS crisis hit most of the victims were gay men, unlike today, and Mr. Forrester and Persad were were at the forefront providing education and services. Ms. Hill said Mr. Forrester believed that gay rights, civil rights and human rights were all the same and that he made the whole Pittsburgh community "more sensitive and less discriminating" and he had an extraordinary impact. Mr. Hill said Mr. Forrester had an extraordinary sense of humor and personality and Pittsburgh "needs more leaders like him."

NAACP partners with Duquesne University

Duquesne University has partnered with the NAACP to allow 3rd year law students to work on civil rights complaints that come through the NAACP. The students worked on a variety of cases from someone being denied witness protection because of race to someone being denied accommodations at a hotel because of race. The students took the cases as far as they needed to go. Most cases do not end up in court so it is a way for students to gain actual legal experience before entering the work force.

Conference on Autism

Southminster Presbyterian Church is holding a conference on autism on Saturday April 26th, titled "Toward Religious Inclusivity: Beyond ADA to Full Protection." The keynote speaker is author William Stillman, who has Asperger's syndrome. He says he will talk about his personal experiences in an attempt to break down barriers around people with autism. He says he wants to emphasize the commonalities between people with and without autism, and raise awareness about a recent spike in diagnoses of the disorder.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Out At The Polls

At downtown polling locations, there seemed to be two main issues on voters' minds- the Iraq War and the nation's struggling economy. Democrats and Republicans agreed that the next president has to be able to address those issues successfully. Most say they vote in every election, while others came out because of the historic Democratic race. Polls opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 8 p.m.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sierra Club Takes Earth Day to the Polls

For the first time in roughly 30 years, Pennsylvania's primary elections coincide with Earth Day, and celebrate national coverage. More than 50 volunteers for environmental group the Sierra Club will use the overlap to draw attention to national legislation that could shift $13.5 billion from oil company subsidies to renewable energy support. The Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act passed the national House earlier this year, but awaits Senate approval. Volunteers will be asking voters to sign a petition for Senators Clinton, Obama, Specter, and Casey to pass the bill.
The Sierra Club has not endorsed any candidates in either the primary or general election, and so will not be asking for voters to support any particular candidate. They will pass out information as well as energy-saving light bulbs to raise awareness.

Friday, April 18, 2008

City auto pound up for bid

The city of Pittsburgh has issued a request for bids to privatize the city impound lot. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says the goal is to provider better service at the lot and to open the land along the Allegheny River next to the 31st street bridge to new development. The RFP calls for the new operator to keep the lot open 24 hours a day and to be open for owners to claim their cars from 8-6 week days and 9-5 weekends. The bids must be back May 9. If the bids come back favorable Ravenstahl says a request for proposal for development of the 2-acre parcel could comer early next year. The pound sits next to the environmental services lot and Ravenstahl says he is also looking for a new home for that facility which could open up 10 acres of land for development. The parcel is separated from the river by a set of train tracks. Ravenstahl says he hopes to build a master plan for the river fronts to give direction and assurance as investors eye up new parcels.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lamar agrees to submit billboard for approval

Lamar Advertising has agreed to submit their billboard proposal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and the City Planning Commission. This billboard has caused much controversy within the city in the last two months, and has led too lawsuits against five city council members. The lawsuit against council member Patrick Dowd has been revoked and city solicitor George Specter says after the billboard has been revoked the lawsuit will become "moot." The solicitor also said there is nothing in the agreement that protects the city from liability should Lamar eventually be forced to take the sign down.

National Health Council gathers in Pittsburgh

As the Pennsylvania primary approaches the National Health Council held a small gathering in Pittsburgh in an effort to encourage elected officials to look for solutions to the health care crisis rather than just rhetoric. The council is made up of more than 40 nonprofit organizations all working to promote different health issues from autism to arthritis. Organizers feel by coming together they council will have a stronger voice on capital hill than visits from each individual organization. Dr. Rock Hyman is the director of the UPMC multiple sclerosis center. He says many patients he sees can not get insurance companies to cover the medications and other therapies they need so they windup allowing their illness to progress to the point where they have accidents or other preventable health problems which actually cost insurance companies more in the long run. Other speakers talked of the need to be able to be covered even if they have preexisting conditions or loose their jobs. The council has made stops in other key primary states including Ohio and New Hampshire.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pittsburgh jazz clubs pictures brought to life

A group of Pittsburgh jazz artists, aficionados and historians gathered in the cultural district Tuesday night to search through old photographs taken by Teenie Harris in an effort to identify the people and places in the pictures. All the shots were taken at Pittsburgh jazz clubs dating back to the 1930’s. Musician and composer Nelson Harrison was among those helping to identify the faces. He says this history was almost lost. He says many of those who could have helped write the city’s jazz history have died or are no longer able to help with a project like this. He says only now are people starting to ask the right questions and recording the answers. Harrison says it was helpful to have several people looking at the pictures because their thoughts would job the memories of the others around the table leading to more positive identifications.

National Aviary Introduces Baby Penguin

There's a brand new baby penguin at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. Sidney, an African penguin that was hatched at the Erie Zoo February 21st is making his debut this weekend.
He's named after Penguin hockey star, Sidney Crosby. African penguins are found on the west coast of South Africa. Sidney the penguin came to the Aviary at 3 weeks old. He's been living in quarantine and will not be moved in with the other four African penguins at the Aviary until this Friday, April 18.

Erin Estell, bird trainer at the Aviary, says Sidney is a healthy five pounds and is at his cutest now. He still has all of his baby feathers so he looks like a big, fluffy, brown cotton ball. But he is losing the down rapidly. She says in about a year and a half he will grow in all of his adult feathers giving him the tuxedo-looking appearance that penguins are known for.

Even though Sidney is referred to as a "he," Estell says they can't tell the sex of a baby penguin just by looking. She says DNA blood tests are used. But the testing won't be done until the penguin is a bit older. So there's a possibility Sidney is a female. One of the Aviary's other African penguins, Patrick, was named before a DNA test determined it was a female. But they kept the name.

Sidney makes his public debut at the National Aviary on Saturday, April 19, from 11:30 am to 1 pm, and again from 2:30 pm to 4 pm. On that day the Aviary will collect items from visitors to be used for animal enrichment, including: empty cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes, nuts in the shell, garden seeds, fun shaped pasta, and unsweetened dried fruit. More information is available at

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Carnegie International Art Placement

In less than a month visitors will begin walking through the 2008 Carnegie International, taking in the work of 40 artists. For the past few months WDUQ has been pulling back the curtain on how the show comes together. In that time DUQ's Mark Nootbaar has learned as much care goes into placing the works in and around the building as goes into making the art itself.

Listen to the full-length story here.

PA Republicans Want Income Tax Rollback

Republican lawmakers in the State House want to roll back Pennsylvania's personal income tax. They say it's the best way to help working families in light of a possible national recession.
The call for tax cuts is not new from the House Republican Policy Committee, but Chairman Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods says the need is urgent this year.

"As we head into these budget negotiations, we stand in stark contrast to Governor Rendell. We are looking at an economic stimulus tax cut package versus a plan of higher spending, more borrowing."

Turzai says the latest proposal from his caucus would reduce the state's personal income tax to 2003 rates. That's about 2.93 percent, as compared to this year's 3.07 percent.

The panel also wants to enact business tax cuts that would save companies nearly $150 million this year. The total package of cuts is about $450 million dollars.

Governor Rendell introduced his economic stimulus plan with this year's budget. He's calling for about $1.6 billion in new spending through grants, loans and other initiatives to stimulate business development and create jobs.

University of Pittsburgh's Center for Energy

The University Of Pittsburgh officially launched the Center for Energy on Tuesday April 15Th. The Center for Energy is a part of the Swanson School of Engineering, and will be used for researching solutions for the worlds energy problems and as a place of study for students into the field of energy. The center has five areas of research, they are, energy diversification, renewable energy, clean coal technologies, hydrogen, and environmental studies.

Carnegie International: Placement

In less than a month visitors will begin walking through the 2008 Carnegie International, taking in the work of 40 artists. As much care goes into placing the works in and around the building as goes into making the art itself. International artists Thomas Hirschhorn came to Pittsburgh this month from Switzerland to build his work himself. It is an artful and art-filled cave made from cardboard, packing tape, posters and other everyday materials. Hirschhorn says his work is a melding of prehistoric and contemporary art and he is pleased with where it has been placed.

2008 Carnegie International Curator Douglas Fogle is well aware of the new and old and just about every other juxtaposition in the Carnegie complex that could help or hinder an artist’s work. For video artist Doug Aitken the discussion on the placement of his work began in his dining room in California and ended with a site visit. He says the space very much influences his final product.

Sound artist Susan Philipsz says she cannot work on a piece until she sees where it will be installed. That is why site visits and meetings with curators are so important to her.

It is a push and pull with each artist as Fogle tries to meld his vision with theirs. The first piece you will see will be that of Mark Bradford even though the show’s signature piece is by Paul Thek.

Artist Richard Wright’s work is all about the space in which it is created. He paints directly on walls where, in his words- “Architecture does not work.” A room has been created just for his work.

Listen to a longer version of this story.

WDUQ’s Mark Nootbaar will examine a different aspect of the Carnegie International every month through the opening of the show.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Democratic Candidates at Manufacturing Forum

Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton participated in a forum hosted by the Alliance for American Manufacturing. They spoke to nearly a thousand union members from the region about their visions for American industry. They say they both support investment in "green" industry, tax credits for companies on American soil, and a crackdown on trade with China. Sen. Obama stressed his history of public service, working with unemployed steelworkers in Chicago in the mid-1980s. Sen. Clinton emphasized her policy planning for her potential administration.

The candidates were not on stage at the same time, but each brought up Sen. Obama's comments from the weekend concerning "bitter" Pennsylvanians. Obama says it was a poor choice of words, but says he is more "in touch" with the small-town working class than either Clinton or Republican candidate Sen. John McCain. Obama was met with cheers from the crowd. When Clinton expressed her disappointment in the comments, she was booed.

One steelworker says Sen. Obama's speech may have swayed him to switch camps. Another activist says she prefers Sen. Clinton, but wouldn't be upset if Obama won. Pennsylvania's primary election is next Tuesday.

New Process for Community Funding

Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess wants to create a new method for using city tax dollars to fund community groups and projects in his district. The Reverend Burgess is partnering with the Poise Foundation, the only African-American Foundation in Pittsburgh, to create the Hope Fund which will provide grants to community groups based on a transparent and competitive applications process. Councilman Burgess told DUQ News that he's establishing the Hope Fund to take the politics, whether real or perceived, out of the process of awarding Council District's 9 discretionary funds. Burgess' predecessor, former Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle is serving a 1 to 2 year prison term for taking $43,000 in kickbacks from friends who received city funds for seemingly meaningless studies.
Burgess says he will introduced legislation in Council to establish the Hope Fund and seed it with $146,000 that's remaining in Council District 9's Neighborhood Needs Account. In addition, the fund would also receive District 9's Community Development Block Development Grants each year.
Burgess says neither he nor his staff will have any say in the awarding of the grants. He says the awards should not be political favors but rather based on the quality of the programs and the strength of the application. Burgess added that key issues for him within his district are crime prevention, economic development and education.

Ban on Lame Duck Sessions Advances

A Pennsylvania House committee has advanced a bill eliminating so-called "lame duck" sessions. Those occur at the end of each two-year legislative session in the weeks following the general election. State Representative Babette Josephs of Philadelphia says some lawmakers commit "mischief" after they've been voted out or decided to retire because they feel less accountable to their constituents. She could not cite specific examples of when that's happened. But she says there's an atmosphere of reform right now in the Capitol, and her bill would be the latest addition to that effort.

Josephs acknowledges that one drawback of her bill would be that it reduces the overall number of working days at the state Capitol. She says she welcomes further discussion on where lawmakers could add days to their schedule. But she also says democracy is a slow process, and sometimes it has to be.

House Bill 1652 would require an amendment to the state Constitution, a process that requires General Assembly approval in two consecutive sessions.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Marriage Protection Act Subject of Local Hearing

A Senate Joint Committee met in Pittsburgh today to discuss the Senate Bill 1250 titled the Marriage Protection Act. The bill would amend Pennsylvania's constitution and define marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Proponents of this bill who spoke at the hearing were David Zubik, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Sharon Cappetto of greater Pittsburgh's Marriage Protection Coalition.

Those speaking in opposition included Pittsburgh City Council members Bruce Kraus and Doug Shields. They say the legislaiton would write discrimination into the commonwealth's constitution.

Amending the Pennsylvania Constitution requires General Assembly approval in two consecutive legislative sessions and then approval by voters.

Pittsburgh Hosts First Summit for Safe Sleep

The summit brings together professionals from the health departments, service agencies, and childcare groups across the country to find ways to cut down on infant deaths. Judy Bannon, founder of Cribs For Kids, the summit's host, says most infant deaths in Allegheny County are caused by the babies not sleeping on their backs, alone in a crib. She says parents bring their infants into bed with them, or leave them to sleep on a couch, and that's when the infants are the most vulnerable to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. She says the organization provides low-income families with cribs, but many death investigations found a crib in the house.
Bannon believes education may be more important than having the crib itself. She says a that passed the Pennsylvania House and is now sitting in Senate Committee would require women to watch a video on unsafe sleep before discharge from the hospital. She says the summit will discuss federal laws to codify deaths from unsafe sleep.

Pitt Prof Testifies to Congress on War Powers Amendment

Jules Lobel is a professor of law and the vice-president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and he's going to tell Congress this afternoon why they need to reign in the president when it comes to war. The War Powers Resolution states that Congress has to approve an act of war that isn't immediate self-defense. Lobel is backing an amendment that will take extra steps to make sure that happens.
The amendment will clarify that the President can only act without Congress in response to a direct attack on U.S. territory, troops, or citizens. The courts will also have the power to uphold Congress instead of standing aside. Lobel points out that the United Nations Security Council plays the role of Congress on the international scene, and the U.S. should not go to war without their approval.
Lobel says the amendment will help to slow down the rush of war, and prevent the executive from acting unilaterally in a "War On Terror." He says if the president feels the need to attack another terrorist group that is a threat to the nation, he needs to take it to Congress first.
Lobel speaks at the "War Powers in the 21st Century: The Constitutional Perspective" hearing before the Committee of Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight.

Lamar Vows to Continue Billboard Construction

Lawyers for Lamar Advertising and five city council members sat for a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing today. The lawyers representing council members Patrick Dowd, Ricky Burgess, Doug Shields, Bruce Kraus and Bill Peduto are appealing the permit issued to build a large billboard downtown, saying it was obtained by circumventing legal protocol.

The sign in question is a 1,200 square foot L.E.D billboard that would be attached to the Grant Street Transportation Center. Patricia McGrail, representing Dowd said that the construction of the sign must be halted under a city code provision that stipulates appeals automatically "stay all actions."

But Lamar lawyers Jonathan and Samuel Kamin disagreed, arguing that only an injunction from the Court of Common Pleas could force them to stop building, saying that power is outside of the Zoning Board's jurisdiction.

The Lamar lawyers have also filed their own lawsuit, accusing city council members of gathering privately to draft their permit appeal in defiance of the Sunshine Law. The Sunshine law mandates that government officials meet in public.

When asked about the recent controversy surrounding the gifts Lamar's executive Jim Vlasach gave Urban Redevelopment President Pat Ford, Samuel Kamin called it irrelevant.

Lawyers on both sides have until next Tuesday evening to file any further motions and requests with the board. The board will make a ruling on Thursday.

Hill Residents to Hear About New Save-A-Lot

Discount grocery chain Save-A-Lot is looking to move into the Hill District, but they want to make sure the community is behind the idea first. Councilwoman Tonya Payne is hosting a "Community Dialogue" meeting in her district this Saturday, April 10.
Some residents say they want a store with more services, like a pharmacy. Payne says even though Save-A-Lot might not have those services, they could help bring in more investors. Before the meeting, there will be a bus tour to a Save-A-Lot in Wilkinsburg. Payne hopes that will show Hill residents that the store will meet their needs, along with bringing in more jobs and possibly African-American ownership. As of this morning, more than 25 are registered for the trip. Payne says Save-A-Lot is the only option for the Hill. Giant Eagle doesn't want to create competition with stores already near-by in Oakland and the North Side. Save-A-Lot is looking at 2 different locations, both on Centre Avenue.
The One Hill Coalition is still negotiating with the city and the Penguins for a Community Benefits Agreement, which they want to include a grocery store. Payne says she is still working with One Hill on the C.B.A., but this is a separate matter.
The bus leaves at 8:30 a.m. from the New Light Temple Baptist Church at 2546 Centre Avenue. The meeting will start there at 11:00 a.m.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

City Adminstrators Weigh In at Act 47 Hearing

A hearing in front of the Act 47 oversight committee on whether Pittsburgh is ready to drop its financially distressed label drew varying responses from city administrators. Mayor Luke Ravehnstahl and Finance Director Scott Kunka expressed optimism, saying that through sacrafice and smart planning Pittsburgh had managed to amass over $70 million in savings. Ravenstahl shied away from the perception that he was asking for Act 47 to be lifted, rather he said he wanted the oversight committee to advise him and city officials on what path they needed to take to have the act removed.

City Council President Doug Shields spoke out in favor of having the act recinded, but he recognized that the city is not out of the woods yet. He said he believed the city has done all it can to gain firmer financial footing, and now places the onus on state legislators to help guide Pittsburgh and other urban centers out of their crippling deficits--a problem he calls "endemic."

Indeed, though most speakers testified that Pittsburgh had made economic strides,they also acknowledged that the legacy of debt from healthcare costs, pensions and worker compensation--$1.12 billion, including interest, is a burden the city cannot readily escape.

Both City Councilman William Peduto and City Controller Michael Lamb asked that Pittsburgh remain under Act 47, saying that more fiscal downturns are only years away. However, they also called for a new, refreshed plan, with clear directions that could guide the city out of debt. The last plan was drafted in 2004.

Study Finds Guardsmen Bear Heavy a Burden in War

A report by Veterans for America concludes that National Guardsmen are bearing a disproportionate burden in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report finds many of them encounter heavy combat, and that almost half of Guardsmen return with mental health problems. The organization also finds that Guardsmen face a greater chance of developing mental health problems with each additional deployment. More Guardsmen from Pennsylvania are expected to be deployed in February of 2009.

Student Aid Stretched

Aid for many Pennsylvania students may drop this year because of a tough financial market, according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania. The organization held a rally at the state Capitol today. President Don Francis says struggling financial markets combined with a drop in federal money have led to less funding for students. He says that may force some students to make difficult choices. Students from Waynesburg and Chatham universities were among those who attended today's rally. Governor Ed Rendell has proposed a three percent increase for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. Francis says PHEAA needs at least a 10 percent increase in order to maintain its current level of student grants.

Board of Elections Meets

The Allegheny County Board of Elections met today to discuss the upcoming primary election. Some speakers like Forest Hills Councilman Marty O' Malley questioned the integrity of the county's voting machines. The county purchased the machines from a company called Electronic Systems and Software, or ES&S. O'Malley says ES&S released a statement claiming the voting machines were susceptible to hacking. ES&S can modify the machines to correct the problem but with only two weeks left before the primary, there would not be enough time to re-certify the voting machines after modification. Board members said that they want to hear from ES&S on this issue and want any problems to be fixed by the November election.

Wecht gets a mistrial

The jury in the federal fraud trial of former Allegheny county coroner Cyril Wecht has been dismissed. DUQ’s Mark Nootbaar has more on the judge’s declaration of a mis trial.

After 10 days of deliberations the jury told the judge it was deadlock on the 41 counts against Cyril Wecht. The prosecution immediately asked for a retrial and the judge quickly set a new trial date of May 27th. Visibly agitated defense lawyer Jerry Mc Devitt says that was an utter disgrace. He says it was “the most bizarre ending to one of the most unfair trials in Pittsburgh. Mc Devitt says to not even take a moment to poll the jury or reflect on the trial before asking for a retrial and then for the judge to have a date ready that quickly history wreaks of orchestration. He says the decision seems to be politically motivated and vindictive, aimed at making sure his client “does not have a single day of rest.” The defense has until April 18th to file motions to have the case dismissed. Mc Devitt says several motions will be filed. Wecht is accused of misusing county assets to further his private business, improperly billing clients and trading unclaimed bodies for lab space at a local college.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Steelworkers Host a Forum Against Colombian Free Trade

President Bush sent a proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia to Congress today. The United Steelworkers (USW) forum used Mexico as an example it's possible negative consequences. Benedicto Martinez, leader of 2 Mexican labor unions, says because of his country's agreement with the U.S., there is no leverage for collective action anymore. USW counselor Dan Kovalik says Americans lost jobs right along with the Mexicans, and this agreement would be no different. Kovalik says the only ones to benefit would be the paramilitary groups perpetrating the violence against unionists. Without any more incentives, Kovalik says there will be no reason for the Colombian president to crack down on the killings.
Most Colombian goods already enjoy a duty-free journey into the U.S., and the proposed agreement would return the benefits. Bush says it will help revitalize American agriculture and further national security interests in South America. He urged Congress to act quickly, but they have 90 business days to vote.

Affordable Housing Initiatives Get More Support

Affordable housing projects like one at the YMCA in the Hill District are getting more support. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh is funding the construction or renovation of about 600 units. The YMCA on Centre Avenue will use its funding to add 20 new units for homeless and low-income men. The Y will also add common areas like a computer lab, food kitchen and meeting rooms for social work programs. And, for the first time, the housing units will have air conditioning.

Other projects receiving funding include affordable housing initiatives in Ebensburg, Braddock, the East Hills, East Liberty, New Brighton, Clairton, the North Side, and Lawrenceville.

UPMC gets state money for autism network

Pennsylvania has sent $250,000 to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to help establish the "Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network Site." UPMC will host one of 15 Autism Speaks sites in the nation. The site will include two clinics, one for birth to 7 and another for 8-15 year-olds. Pitt Professor Nancy Minshew says the program approaches autism for the stand point that it is a neurological disorder with medical complications. Many other programs see it as just a behavior issue. She says as the clinics open later this year they will not only treat patients but also gather data about symptoms and treatments and eventually post their results on web sites where parents of autistic children can find it. Minshew says the state grant represents a third of the start up funding for the effort. The rest comes from UPMC and from Autism Speaks. She says it was important to have the promise of the state grant in hand when Pittsburgh was being considered as a site because it showed there was a high level of commitment to the project. More funding is being sought.

Changing Innovations

No Examination of Pittsburgh's past, present and future would be complete without a mention of the innovative spirit of the individuals and organizations that have called Pittsburgh home. DUQ's Mark Nootbaar reports.

Listen to the full-length story here.

Voting For the Disabled in Allegheny County

After last fall's election, the Americans with Disabilities Act-approved voting machines had a lukewarm reception by the area's disabled. Karen Simpson of the county's Elections Office says they've made some improvements this year.
The machines are meant to help the disabled vote independently, but they can ask for assistance. Geometric-shaped buttons help the blind, listening to options in headphones, make their selections. If they're having trouble, an assistant can listen in on a 'Y' line and guide the voter. The machine can be taken out of its casing and set on a low table or on the lap of a manually disabled voter. Sticks held in the mouth are also available.
Outreach efforts in disabled communities like the Three Rivers Center for Living have helped the county make the changes, according to Simpson. She says there are still seven locations that are not accessible, but they do have the ADA-approved machines.

Friday, April 4, 2008

31st Annual Conference on Black History in Pennsylvania

Mary Frances Berry was in Pittsburgh today to address the 31st Annual Conference on Black History in Pennsylvania at Pitt put on by the State Historical and Museum Commission. Ms. Berry served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1980 to 2004 and is now a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Very mindful that she was speaking on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination, Mary Frances Berry emphasized the need for protest, not just voting, to bring about policy change and improve the political and economic situation of African Americans.

Originally appointed to the Civil Rights Commission by President Jimmy Carter, Berry was fired by President Ronald Reagan for criticizing his policies, but she sued and won reinstatement.

Power Lines Hearing Ends Early

A hearing on Allegheny Energy's power line proposal ended yesterday. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission had allowed up to another week to hear testimony. Holly Ackerman, Director of Transmission Projects for Allegheny Energy, says schedules for these types of hearings are just estimates. She says the witnesses who testified reiterated what was already on the public record. Next month, attorneys will submit written arguments. The PUC is expected to rule on the proposal this summer.

Many residents of Washington and Greene counties oppose the project. They say it's unnecessary, would damage the environment and their property values, and would only serve to benefit power-hungry northern Virginia. Allegheny Energy contends that the lines would serve growing parts of Washington County, and that reliability could be an issue there as soon as next year.

If the PUC rules against the proposal, Allegheny Energy could appeal to the federal government. Much of Pennsylvania has been designated a National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mayor and County Chief Executive Support City-County Merger

A study seventeen months in the making is recommending that Pittsburgh and Allegheny County merge in order to increase efficiency and sustain the region economically. Both Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato say the report clearly shows that merging is essential for regional growth and prosperity in the future.

Ravenstahl says that despite the incremental gains Pittsburgh has made over the years, he has come to realize that drastic, bold change is now necessary. Onorato also came out in favor of the merger, which would eliminate both his and the mayor's positions in a new, combined government. They both mentioned that on the historic 250th anniversary of the region, it was time to re-imagine Pittsburgh as a bigger, stronger community. Intially the merger would not get rid of Allegheny County's 129 other municipalities.

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg says that anyone who looks at the numbers can see that a merger is vital to the regions survival. He summarized the report's three recommendations as follows:

1. The county chief executive and mayor should further intensify existing efforts to achieve higher levels of efficiency through functional cooperation.

2. The city and county should enter in to a formal "cooperation compact" to ensure continued sharing of services and to make sure those efforts remain a long-term priority.

3. At the earliest appropriate time, put the question of the merger before the voters.

Onorato and Ravenstahl stressed that a combined government and re-calibrated population would boost Pittsburgh's profile on a national level, making it an economic development destination and eligible for more federal dollars.

Questions about the legal process of changing the county and city governments remain, including what role Harrisburg, the county and the city would have in making the merger a reality. There are also economic concerns, such as how the legacy costs associated with Pittburgh city workers and retirees would be covered in a joint government.

Ravenstahl pledged to start lobbying lawmakers in Harrisburg for support of the merger by the end of the month. He says he hopes to have a referendum for the merger on the ballot by 2009.

The complete report can be viewed here:

State Senate Hearing On Mental Hospital Closing

Pennsylvania is downsizing it's mental illness institutions, and Mayview State Hospital in Bridgeville is next. Today, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee heard from the Department of Public Welfare, county agencies, and community leaders about the anticipated impact.
DPW Secretary Estelle Richman testified that community-based care is more effective than institutional, and there will be many new support services in place to take care of patients in group homes, public housing, and other living arrangements. She pointed to Harrisburg and Philadelphia closings that she says were handled successfully as models for this one. They are able to track those leaving the system and make sure they get the care they need, but a problem lies in treating the mentally ill who would have otherwise entered Mayview.

Patricia Valentine of Allegheny county's Office of Behavioral Health says they're coming up with a "Single Point Accountability" system, where patients will have one person to contact for any need they may have in the system. Valentine says that's how new patients will enter the system as well, and they're trying to educate communities more on how to seek help.
Mark Fatla of the Northside Leadership Council testified to the dangers of a poor replacement system- mentally ill with nowhere else to go as homeless or "churned through" the criminal justice system. He supports the transfer plans and conversations between neighbors and new community service housing.
Mayview serves 225 patients from Allegheny, Lawrence, Green, Beaver, and Washington counties.

Local Researchers Work on First Heart Pump for Children

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh researchers are working on the first heart pump specifically designed for young children. Researchers are working on both external and implantable devices for children. Surgeon Peter Wearden says the challenge for designing these types of devices is that they have to allow for lower blood flow without letting the blood clot.

Wearden says the new machines will be an improvement over those in use now that are designed for adults. He says the current machines are designed to be used on children for about two weeks. The new devices will be fine for up to six months. Wearden says the dream is to one day design a pump that can be used indefinitely, so that patients won't ever need a transplant.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sports Heroes Part of Pittsburgh 250

Yesterday’s sports heroes will star in the Federated Investors Parade of Champions on June 20th, 21st and 22nd as part of Pittsburgh’s 250 Celebration. Tickets, which go on sale Monday, April 7th through Ticketmaster, will include admission to and benefit the John Heinz History Center and Sports Museum. Smallman Street will shut down to make way for tents and outdoor activities. Athletes will sign autographs and championship trophies will be on display.

More than 30 athletes have accepted invitations, and the list grows daily. The oldest so far is from the 1930s Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro League.

Lawmakers Discuss the Future of Mayview

A hearing tomorrow will focus on what will become of Mayview State Hospital. The mental health facility is expected to close later this year. State Senator Jim Ferlo of Highland Park says he understands that closing Mayview is expected to save money--but he wants to make sure that money will still be used on mental health services. Ferlo says he recalls people who were victimized when other state hospitals closed in the 1970s, and he wants to make sure that doesn't happen again. He's introduced a bill that would require those funds to be put into a new Mental Health Community Services Account rather than deposited into the general fund. A similar bill has already been introduced in the House.

Ferlo says a working group is currently looking at future uses for the Mayview site in Bridgeville. Part of it could be used for parkland.

Tomorrow's hearing of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee will begin at 10 AM in Pittsburgh City Council Chambers.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

City Council approves 6 month moratorium on billboards

Pittsburgh City Council voted to approve a 6 month moratorium on the erection and/or approval of all billboards, advertising signs, electronic, LED or signs in general in all zoning districts. Council wants the opportunity to create and implement a policy that will be effective city wide. All nine council members voted in favor of the moratorium. Members of council wanted to make sure that there is a sound policy to use in the future, and not have signs replaced or approved without their knowledge, or against the law.