Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shuman Receives Full License

After operating on a provisional license from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health for the last 6 months, Shuman Juvenile Detention Facility has now received a full license. The facility's full license was revoked in June when an inspection unveiled concerns about understaffing, overcrowding, insufficient medical records and building management. An August inspection showed that those same problems had not yet been remedied. However, according to Stacy Witalec, spokesperson for the Public Health Department, a December 2 inspection showed a "complete overhaul" of the facility and its staff. Witalec says all of Shuman's problems have been corrected or are planned on being corrected in the near future.

Financial Literacy Course Tested in Pittsburgh

A free online financial literacy course is being tested in Pittsburgh in hopes that it will help local workers better manage their money. The Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board has been piloting the seven-module course with several community groups. The modules cover things like bank accounts, budgets, taxes, wages, and the global economy. Each module has a test at the end to help evaluate the user's progress. Program Monitor Shad Henderson says after the pilot is finished next year, the program will be refined and then expanded to more participants.

Henderson says at first, the Workforce Investment Board just posted a link on its website to other online financial literacy resources. But users found it difficult to navigate, and there was no way to test what they'd learned.

The online software was developed with a grant from the Heinz Endowments, which wanted to learn more about how money management problems might affect worker productivity. Henderson says earlier studies have suggested that workers with money problems tend to spend time on the job addressing them.

Community groups have offered various incentives to volunteers who have been willing to go through the program. But it's also available to anyone who wants to do it. You can access it on the website alison.com.

Network Would Connect Local Latinos

Local Latinos are trying to create a network of "promotores," or community members who would help connect others with with health-related services. The network would target two groups of immigrants: families with children and men who are living apart from their families.

Various groups offer health-related services to Latinos, but their efforts are fragmented. The promotores would serve as a central starting point to help immigrants who may feel isolated and may have limited fluency in English.

Patricia Documet, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, is helping to coordinate the promotores effort. She moved to Pittsburgh from Peru seventeen years ago. Documet says her group applied for a grant last year, but it was rejected at least partly because they were trying to do too much. Their proposal also included a community center for Latinos. She says that's something they would still like to do one day in order to have a place where Latino immigrants could connect with social services and each other.

Allegheny County's Latino population is small, but growing. Latinos made up one percent of the county's population in 2000.

Lowered Rates for Mine Subsidence Insurance

Effective Jan. 1, mine subsidence insurance will become more affordable for Pennsylvania residents. Residential premiums will decrease by 25 percent, while commercial rates will decrease by almost 60 percent. Acting Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger says more than one million Pennsylvania homes sit on top of abandoned mines. He says it is a very real problem.

Hanger says homeowners can purchase mine subsidence insurance for $157 per year for $250,000 of coverage. Business owners are able to get the same amount of coverage for $314 per year.

To apply, property owners can call the Department of Environmental Protection at 800-922-1678 or visit www.pamsi.org. The Web site includes information that tells visitors whether or not an owner's property sits on top of an abandoned mine.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

City Council Overrides Vetoes

Pittsburgh City Council has voted to override two line-item vetoes at their meeting this morning after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl submitted them late yesterday. The two budget items are to have a special lawyer for city legislators and to provide video of council meetings on the Internet. Ravenstahl’s message said these things would've cost more than $120,000 combined.

But City Council President Doug Shields says his submission was too late. The mayor had 10 days to either approve or reject the bills that were submitted to him. Shields says Ravenstahl received the bills on Dec. 19, and then sent the vetoes to council Dec. 29 at 4:32pm, two minutes after the Clerk’s Office closed. Shields says he was surprised by the mayor's last-minute action. Council voted 7 to 1 on each ruling, with Councilman Jim Motznik voting against each override.

Exhibit Documents Women's Movement in Pittsburgh

A new exhibit documents the rarely-told story of Pittsburgh's role in the women's movement. Sociologist Pat Ulbrich compiled the "In Sisterhood" exhibit, which includes a portrait gallery and excerpts of interviews conducted with Pittsburgh women. It will open at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside January 9th.

Ulbrich says scholars who study the women's movement usually focus on New York or Los Angeles, but Pittsburgh made some important contributions. In 1969, Pittsburgh added "sex" to its anti-discrimination ordinance. Soon after, the National Organization for Women sued the Pittsburgh Press over its sex-segregated employment ads, a practice that was common at the time. NOW won, leading to changes in newspapers around the country. Three national leaders of NOW have been from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh also had the first feminist press in the country.

Ulbrich says the women's movement in Pittsburgh was unique because it bridged racial and economic divides that existed in some other cities. Ulbrich says NOW members in Pittsburgh helped make the national organization more inclusive.

MAIN CARNEGIE LIBRARY CUTS HOURS

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is cutting back the number of hours at its main branch in Oakland. Starting Friday, January 2, 2009, the main branch will open one hour later Friday's and Saturday's only. The new hours will be 10:00 am to 5:30 pm on those days.
Spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes says they determined that those were the hours when the Oakland library was least populated. She says the service cutbacks are a result of reduced state funding for 2009 and flat local funding. Nearly 70 percent of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's annual operating budget comes from the Allegheny County Regional Asset District. She says the dependence on the sales tax has made the library more vulnerable in the current economic climate.

Bill Puts Cap on Commercial Truck Idling

Senate Bill 295, also known as the as the Diesel-Powered Motor Vehicle Idling Act, will put a limit on how long commercial trucks can idle at one time. The measure designates that trucks can only idle for five minutes of every hour. State Senator Patrick Browne, the legislation's primary sponsor, says the act is a result of local concerns about the impact of idling on air quality. He says residents in a neighborhood near a truck depot were suffering from poor air quality from unnecessary idling. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and local law enforcement agencies have the power to enforce the law. Those found in violation can be charged with a summary offense and face fines between 150 to 300 dollars. There are a significant number of exceptions to the bill, however. Trucks can idle for longer than five minutes for the purposes of climate control, refrigeration, inspection, and repair. The measure takes effect on February 6, 2009.

UPMC 'CONDITION L'

UPMC is announcing a new initiative to locate missing patients. It's called 'Condition L.' Holly Lorenz, chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services, says staff will be mobilized from across all areas of a facility in a comprehensive effort to rapidly locate a patient. She says that would include doctors, nurses, security, maintenance and housekeeping workers. There would be an announcement made with a description of the missing patient broadcast throughout the facility. She says local police would be notified. This new procedure is being implemented following the recent death of an elderly patient who was missing from Montefiore Hospital. Rose Lee Diggs, who suffered from dementia, was found dead on the hospital's roof earlier this month after wandering away from her room.

Lorenz says "Condition L" will be utilized first at UPMC Presbyterian and then put in place throughout the UPMC system. UPMC wants to have photos taken of patients who are identified as at-risk when they are first admitted to help in the identification process. Those patients would also be given special hospital gowns to make them easier to spot if they leave a unit. Lorenz says UPMC is also evaluating the use of trained search dogs to help locate missing patients.

City Council President Reacts To Budgetary Vetos

City Council President Doug Shields today reacted to the mayor's last-minute veto of two line items in the 2009 budget. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl nixed from the budget an amendment that would provide the Council with its own independent lawyer, and a $56,103 earmark that would make council meetings and other events available on the city's website.

Shields says he was surprised by the vetos, because he spoke with the mayor at a social event beforehand and asked if they "had a budget." Shields says Ravenstahl responded "yes." Shields says the way in which the mayor presented the vetos shows that he is not willing to work cooperatively with the Council.

The amendment to provide the Council with its own lawyer was passed by a preliminary vote by a count of 8-0. At least six votes are needed to override the veto.

1st Ever Audit Of City Council Completed By City Controller

City Controller Michael Lamb released the first ever audit by the city controller of city council. In the audit the controller makes few reccomendations to council. Most notalby Lamb recommends that council rid itself of the practice of pre encumberence. Pre encumberence is when council members designate amounts of money to be used in the future for specific items or services. He said that council currently does not specify what the money is to be used for. Although any money being spent needs to be approved by the council body, eliminating the practice can improve transparency and add money into the general fund balance.

Lamb also recommened that council set a minimum amount of money that can be awarded in community development block grants. Currently council has no set minimum and has awarded grants of only $500. Lamb said the practice is not cost effective and that he would like to see a minimum award of at least $2,500.

The audit of city council was asked for by council president Doug Shields earlier in the year. The audits recommendations have been received well by council according to Lamb. Plans to audit the mayors office are in the works for 2009.

Monday, December 29, 2008

"Green" Resolutions

The Pennsylvania Resources Council wants individuals to spring into the new year by doing "green" tasks in order to make an impact on the environment. There are several activities PRC recommends. PRC Regional Director Dave Mazza says the easiest thing a person can do to make a difference is to recycle at home and at work. Other things topping the list include conserving water with a rain barrel and cleaning up litter, either by participating in a scheduled event or taking a bag on a routine walk to collect trash. For more information, go to http://www.prc.org.

F.A.C.T. Hearing

After filing a lawsuit against Allegheny County on Dec. 18, F.A.C.T. members appeared in front of Judge Judith Olson in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. They argued that the county is not allowed to use surplus money raised from the 10 percent drink tax or the $2 per-day tax on car rentals on anything other than the region’s Port Authority transit system. Allegheny Councilman Chuck McCullough said road and bridge restoration and repair should not count as an earmark.

However, Allegheny County Solicitor Michael Wojcik said the drink tax and car rental tax under Act 44 is "to provide financial support for transit systems." More constricted wording could have clearly marked the money for only the Port Authority to use.

Judge Olson said a decision on whether to place an injunction will be issued as quickly as possible.

IRS Says It's Time To Get Ready For Tax Season

With tax season almost here the IRS is offering advice and tips for tax payers. The IRS recommends that tax payers get to work now in organizing all of their tax information. That means making sure you have receipts for all charitable donations made as well as making sure you don't misplace your W-2 form.

There are some new tax breaks and tax credits in place. For example, first time home buyers can qualify for up to $7,500 in tax credits and if you make any home improvements on your house in 2009 you can receive tax credits as well.

The IRS recommends checking their website at IRS.gov for additional information or questions.

Drink Tax Fight Goes On

Starting in January the Allegheny County tax on poured drinks will drop from 10% to 7% but that does not satisfy Kevin Joyce. Joyce manages the Carlton Restaurant in Pittsburgh and is a member of the Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation (FACT) board. He says he wants to see that tax rolled back to at least 3%. His group has been fighting against the tax since its inception. FACT is currently involved in an appeal to overturn a court ruling that prevented a question that would the drink tax to 0.5% from appearing on the November ballot. A hearing in that appeal is expected in late January with the goal of placing it on the May ballot. Today the group argues before a judge that the county must spend the funds on Port Authority operations and not on other transportation projects as is specified by the 2009 budget. Joyce says in 2008 the county will collect $44-46 million. That is $17-20 million more than needed for the Port Authority. Joyce says the county could roll the tax back to 3% and still meet PAT’s needs. However, he says had it not been for the efforts of FACT the tax would still by at 10%. Fact has also filed a lawsuit claiming that the county’s plans to use drink tax money to fund other transportation projects is illegal.
Joyce says the 10% tax has had a big impact on his sales. He says since January food sales have been up $42,000. That would usually result in $12-13 thousand in additional liquor sales. Instead, he says, liquor sales dropped by $100,000. He thinks the damage has been done and the lowering of the tax will not be enough to change the mind set that it is too expensive to drink in a bar or restaurant in Allegheny county.
Joyce says his patrons see the drink tax in a separate line of their bill so they will see a price reduction in January but for bars that do not present itemized checks they will have to decide what to do with their pricing. He says he thinks many will lower their prices but he says many bars have seen prices increase and sales drop so they may need to leave the prices where they are. He feels restaurants and bars are hurting with the tough economy and lawmakers need to understand how much worse the tax has made it. FACT plans to be active in upcoming county council elections in an effort to “change the face of county government.”

PA Law Looks for Trends in Child Deaths

A new law aimed at keeping kids alive is awaiting implementation. PA Act 87 goes into effect the first full week of January requiring the State Department of Health to review all child deaths in the state using a network of local multi-agency, multidisciplinary teams. Bill sponsor PA Senator Lisa Baker says most other states already have similar protocols in place and have had good success in finding trends that may have other wise gone unnoticed. On the local level that could be finding unsafe street corners that have caused several deaths over time that need new traffic controls. On a statewide level the system could pick up on a string of suicides or accidental deaths from a risky activity that teens are trying. Those deaths could be addressed through special programs. The work will be done in conjunction with the American Academy of Pediatricians.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Flight 93 Familes Turn to Washington

Relatives of those who died aboard United Airlines Flight 93 want the Bush Administration to seize the land needed for a memorial where the plane crashed. The Families of Flight 93 sent a letter two weeks ago asking President George W. Bush to empower the Secretary of the Interior to take the land needed to finish the permanent memorial site. Svonavec Inc. owns the land that includes the impact zone. The company has been unwilling to sell. The families offered $750-thousand for the land but were rebuffed. Families of Flight 93 Vice President Patrick White says Svonavec asked for $10-million but the company disputes that. Company Treasurer Mike Svonavec says the Park Service has not done enough to negotiate a deal and he is just looking for a fair price. An independent assessment of the land is to be completed a week from Monday. The land in question is an abandon strip mine. White says ground must be broken early next year in time for a memorial to be built for the 10th anniversary of the crash in 2011.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Latino Newspaper Launches in January

A new publication for Pittsburgh Latinos will launch soon. La Jornada Latina is already published in Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Detroit. Newspapers in each city have 15-20% local content as well as other national and international stories.

Brian Wiles is co-owner of TSJ News, which publishes La Jornada Latina. He says they're aware that Pittsburgh has a relatively small Latino population. But he says it's growing. And he thinks the newspaper can help Latinos who are here connect with each other--through churches, businesses and other organizations. He has visited Pittsburgh several times in recent weeks to talk with local Latino leaders.

Pittsburgh's newspaper will be published monthly beginning January 23rd. Wiles says he anticipates it will become bi-weekly in a year. It will be free and distributed at around 150 sites throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. Wiles says about 90% of the newspaper will be in Spanish, and 10% in English.

Contractors in Pa Must Register Soon

People who work on your house will have to be registered with the state starting in July thanks to a newly signed state law. The measure sponsored by state Senator Mike Stack would force plumbers, painters, electricians, carpenters and just about anyone signing contracts with home owners to register with the state. There is a $50 fee that must be paid every two years. Anyone doing less than $5,000 in work a year is exempt. The goal of the law is to ensure home owners that their contractors have the needed insurance and to give them peace of mind that they can be found if they do not finish the job. Stack says all of the registrants will be listed on a state maintained website where they must also include any criminal cases or licenses suspensions against them in any state. Any contract for more than signed by an unregistered contractor would be null if there is a dispute. The law also sets up a new criminal offense called “ home improvement fraud.”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Pitt Opens Its Doors for Christmas Dinner

More than 700 people enjoyed a Christmas dinner at the University of Pittsburgh today courtesy of the Salvation Army. It's the third year Pitt has hosted the dinner for needy families, and the number of people served has more than doubled during that time. Pitt spokesman Steve Zupcic says he thinks it's a reflection of a greater need--he says he saw more people this year who were dressed better than you might expect of people who are struggling financially. But he says more people are also being served at Pitt because some hotels that once served Christmas dinner have stopped doing so.

The meal included turkey, ham, stuffing, corn, salads and desserts--including an ample helping of gingerbread supplied by one Pitt employee. About 100 Pitt workers volunteered, including Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

Zupcic says universities often address social problems through research and scholarship. But he says he thinks employees were grateful for the opportunity to help their neighbors in a more immediate way.

New Law Targets Scrap Metal Theft

A law that took effect December 9th could help curtail scrap metal theft. State Representative Eddie Day Pashinski, a primary sponsor of the bill, said such thefts cost taxpayers, as well as cities and other municipalities. Under the new law, when a scrap processor or recycling facility receives certain restricted materials, such as beer kegs, manhole lids, or any other scrap material valued at more than $100, the business must collect information from the seller. This includes a copy of the person's driver's license, signatures of the buyer and seller, a license plate number of the seller, the date and time of the transaction, and a description of the material. Representative Pashinski said this gives police a better chance to fight theft.

Invasive Pest Leads to Public Safety Hazard

Pennsylvania municipalities need to start thinking about how they're going to manage their dying ash trees. That's according to Sven-Erik Spichiger, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture. The emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle native to Asia, has killed tens of millions of ash trees in North America. It was found in Michigan in 2002. In 2007, the beetle was discovered in western Pennsylvania.

Spichiger says since the beetle was found in Cranberry two summers ago, trees have been dying quickly. During a visit this past summer, he says he saw rows of large ash trees that had no leaves. After Dutch Elm Disease wiped out that type of tree, Spichiger says many municipalities bought large numbers of ash trees to plant along streets. Now, those trees are dying and creating a public safety hazard.

Spichiger says there are few effective ways of keeping the pest under control. He says homeowners can buy pesticides to save individual trees, but they have to be applied every year and they're quite expensive. Spichiger says the Ag Department's focus has been on trying to control the beetle's spread. A firewood quarantine remains in Pennsylvania counties where the emerald ash borer has been found: Allegheny, Butler, Beaver and Mercer. Lawrence County is also included in the quarantine since it's surrounded by the other counties. That means if you go camping in some other county, you should wait to buy firewood until you get there.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Red Kettle Campaign Short of Goal

The Salvation Army's Red Kettle Campaign in western Pennsylvania has not yet met its $2,445,000 goal. As of the beginning of this week, Major James LaBossiere says the campaign had about $475,000 to go. Donations are down in some areas like Dubois, Ellwood City, Johnstown, Meadville, Mckeesport and Homestead. And the need is greater in some areas as well. In Carnegie, for instance, an additional 158 families requested help this year. Donations stay in the areas where they're given.

The campaign fell about $80,000 short last year before an anonymous donor stepped forward to make up the difference.

Allegheny County Not Ready For Gambling Addiction

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh say there are not enough gambling addiction counselors to serve the potential increase in clients when the slots casino opens in Pittsburgh. In an effort to help, the Pitt Department of continuing education will begin to offer training for counselors. Department Director Tracy Soska says he had hoped to be able to benchmark the level of gambling addiction in the region before the casino opened but was never able to find the funding. A portion of the money raised through the sale of the casino licenses was set aside to help social service providers create and grown gambling addiction treatment and prevention programs.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Audit Released On State Program Designed To Bring Laptops In Front Of Students

The classroom for the future program was designed to put laptop computers in front of every public school student in the commonwealth, but Auditor General Jack Wagner's audit of the program found poor management and a lack of transparency contributing to that goal never being reached. Wagner's audit found that over 50 school district either were denied funding or never applied. Wagner's audit also found that the department of education only had incomplete verifications of equipment purchases and security over equipment, insufficient monitoring of program results and continued planning, and inconsistent grant awards. Wagner advised against stopping to program and recommends among other things that the department of education produce quarterly reports for the general assembly in an attempt to increase the efficiency of management.

PA DOT Plans 2009 in Dist. 11

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has laid out plans for more than $300 million in road and bridge improvements in Allegheny County in 2009. That is about equal to the amount spent in 2008. Work to improve the Parkway East will continue. For the next two years that work will focus on the section of highway from Monroeville to the Turnpike. The good news is that there will not be any full closures and usually two lanes will be flowing during peak hours.
Work on the Parkway North will also continue in 2009. This time the cones and barrels will move further north with the work focusing on the area between Mc Knight Road and the 279-79 merge.
Northbound RT 28 in Etna will be closed all summer as Penn Dot works on that interchange. Crews will also be resurfacing RT 28 all the way out to the Butler County line.
To the west of the city work around the missing ramps project continues. Although the ramps are open to traffic there is still work to be done on 279 and 79. Work on the west end circle will also continue.
Penn Dot Spokesperson Jim Struzi says much of the work elsewhere in the county will focus on bridges including the ongoing rehabilitation of the McKees Rocks Bridge. He says the focus on “structurally deficient bridges” will continue. Struzi says the biggest problem is that many of the bridges in the region are old and as Penn Dot fixes deficient bridges other bridges are placed on that list.
Struzi says if the federal government comes up with a stimulus plan that includes infrastructure funding, like is being requested by several governors, Penn Dot is ready with a long list of projects. He says every year there are projects that go unfunded.
Struzi reminds everyone to drive safely in repair zones.

PA Budget Fight Could be Tough But Nice

When the PA State Legislature begins its new session in January the budget is sure to be among the top priorities. All estimates show the state is facing a 2-3 billion dollar short fall in the coming year. State Representative Mike Turzai of Bradfordwoods is the Republican House Whip. He says everything needs to be on the table if they are to balance the budget. He says spending and borrowing have been out of control in recent years. Noting that in the past 6 years, the budget has increased by 40-percent or 9 billion dollars. In the same time period the rate of inflation has equaled only 19.5 percent. He says the state has also pushed its annual debt service to more than one billion dollars a year. He says the economic downturn has exacerbated the problem but it was already going to be a bad year.
Turzai says he hopes revenue projections in 2009 will not be overly optimistic. He says this year's projections were out of line and that has made the monthly revenue shortfalls look worse than they should. He says the state's budget crisis is less a product of a slowing economy and more an issue of over spending in the past.
Turzai says he thinks there are several places to begin the search for spending cuts. He says he would start at the Department of community and economic development and the department of labor and industry. He says there are also a number of quazi state agencies that have not had their budgets scrutinized in years.
Turzai says this does not have to be an ugly fight. He says several lawmakers have spoken to him saying they are behind him on budget cutting efforts because they know sacrifices need to be made.

Cell Phones Can Be Used as Crime Deterrent

A pair of Pittsburghers have come up with a way use a cell phone to help people stay safe in potentially threatening social situations. Cell phone users who sign up for the free My Mobile Witness service can take a picture, upload it to a secure server and then, if anything ever happens to them, police will have access to the photo. Former FBI agent and My Mobile Witness consultant Ron Knight says this should be seen as a deterrent to crime not a substitute to 911 or cautious behavior. Among the scenarios imagined by the developers… A young lady who goes to a bar with her friends and decides to leave with a young man to get a bite to eat. She can take his picture using her cell phone, upload it to the server and if the date starts to become dangerous she can tell the young man that she has sent his picture to the site, no one can delete it and police have access to it, so you are no longer anonymous. Knight says a simple statement like that will stop many crimes in their tracks. Knight says he thinks people are so used to taking and sending pictures in social situations that they will not feel awkward using the service. The developers say it can also be used if you find yourself alone and you think someone is following you. Knight says the service is not just for bars or dark alleys. He says hikers have told him they will take pictures of trail heads before they leave for the day and realtors have started to use the service when meeting clients in empty houses. He says it is also a good idea when you let someone take the car you are trying to sell for a test drive. The pictures, or text, sent to the sight are erased after 60 days. The service is free but users must sign up at mymobilrwitness.com

Shareholders Vote to Merge PNC and National City

Shareholders for Pittsburgh based PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. and National City Bank out of Cleveland, voted in favor of PNC's purchase of National City for $5.6 billion. PNC is the first bank to take advantage of the government's $700 billion bailout program to make an acquisition. It is buying National City for $2.23 a share-- an amount that has drawn criticism from some Ohio lawmakers as being below market value. The deal also allows PNC to take advantage of $725 million in tax breaks. The merger will make PNC the fifth largest deposit holder in the country and PNC Chairman James Rohr says the bank be will be the number one market-share holder in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky.

Monday, December 22, 2008

PA Population Grows Slowly

The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Pennsylvania State Data Center show Pennsylvania’s population continues to grow but at a comparatively slow rate. Since the 2000 census it is estimated that the state’s population has grown by 1.4% (167,227) while at the same time to nation has grown by 8% (22,635,122). Contributing to the states slow growth rate is a net domestic out migration and a small spread between the death rate and the birth rate in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania ranks 2nd in the nation in death rate and 47th in birth rate. Data Center Director Sue Copella says the numbers show the out migration rate is starting to shrink and could turn around in the next decade. Contributing to the growth is a net in migration from other countries.

Mayview State Hospital Closure

The state is continuing to work to secure jobs for some of the remaining employees at Mayview State Hospital, which is slated to close December 31. Department of Public Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman announced in August of 2007, that the hospital would be closed to transition to more community-based services for people living with mental illness. Most of the residents have been moved to group homes, public housing or with family. But Stacy Witalec, a spokesperson for the department, says between 30 to 40 patients will remain on the grounds possibly until the end of February or March. They will be in a long-term structured residence that will be staffed and fully-owned and operated by an outside provider. She says the state was still working to finalize the provider.

State Senator John Pippy of Moon Township is the co-chair of the Mayview Land Reuse Task Force. Their job is to find the best use of the more than 300 acres that the hospital sits on in Allegheny County. He says it's going to take some time to make sure that it's consistent with what the municipalities want to see done in the area.
He would like to see proceeds of the sale of the land go to a special fund to offset transitional costs and mental health needs of the patients and their families.

Senator Pippy says some of the land is environmentally sensitive with stream beds and steep slopes. He believes there will be a list of recommendations that talk about minimizing the environmental impact and protecting some of the resources while still allowing for a top quality mixed use development.

The Mayview Land Reuse Task Force has been meeting over the past few months. Senator Pippy says their next meeting is January 14th at Mayview. He says the website MayviewLandReuseTaskforce.com has information that's been compiled from the sessions and notices of future meetings. He says it's updated regularly.

Army Corps Of Engineers Looking Into Fish Kill

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking into a recent fish kill along the Youghiogheny river. The kill was the result of a the lowering of the water level on the Youghiogheny lake. Crews were removing pieces of steel re bar that had been left from the demolition and replacement of the old Route 40 bridge. The re bar only recently became visible and posed a hazard to boaters. The fish were killed because they gathered near the water intake system once the water level on the lake had been lowered. The corps of engineers is looking into the incident and is preparing guidelines that will aid in preventing fish kills in the future.

Goose Hunting In Beaver County Park

In Bradys Run Park, Beaver County, hunters are getting the chance to shoot some geese. Over seven days lucky hunters will be able to hunt the geese from one of five blinds in the park from 6 a.m. to noon. The days when hunting will be allowed are Dec. 22ND, 24Th, 27Th, 29Th and 31st, and then Jan. 2ND and 3rd. The park will be closed during the times of the hunt and will be monitored by the sheriff. The county is hoping the hunters can lower the population of the geese who have filled the parks lake with bacteria and left their droppings all over paths and playgrounds. Through part of the first day 10 geese have been bagged by hunters.

Friday, December 19, 2008

More Bonus Controversy

Pennsylvania's Public School Employees' Retirement System awarded 21 staff members with bonuses ranging from $9,700 to $106,223 dollars totaling $854,000 in bonuses. State Senator Jane Orie is calling for the bonuses to be returned because the pension being looked managed by the staff receiving the bonuses lost millions of dollars this year. The staff members are claiming that the bonuses are justified in their contract and that they performed well this year by outperforming their peers nationally.

Pennsylvania Loses Jobs In November

Pennsylvania lost 26,000 jobs in November resulting in its largest one month decline since January of 1996. With the loss of 26,000 jobs unemployment rose by 22,000. The biggest loss of jobs came in 3 supersectors for the state : trade, transportation and utilities, professional and business services, and manufacturing. Jobs did rise in one sector: education and health services by a total of 2,400 jobs.

Even with all the news of job loss Pennsylvania is still under the national average for unemployment. At 6.7 percent nationally Pennyslvania's unemployment rate is at 6.1 percent.

Human Relations Commission A Possibility For Allegheny County

Allegheny County Councilwoman Amanda Green is the lead sponsor of a bill that would provide discrimination protection to gays and lesbians in Allegheny County. Currently only the city of Pittsburgh has language to protect sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual expression. Green's bill is currently in committee and has multiple council members who have signed on as sponsors to the bill. Also included in the bill is the creation of a Human Relations Commission that would hear and rule on complaints regarding discrimination in housing, employment and other areas. Green says the biggest hurdle facing the bill is finding a source of funding for the commission. Green says she is dedicated to providing discrimination protection to all people.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lawsuit filed against Allegheny County Council

The people of F.A.C.T. (Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation) have filed a lawsuit against the Allegheny County Chief Executive and Council about how surplus drink tax dollars can be used. Kevin Joyce, F.A.C.T. member and owner of The Carlton Restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh, says the drink tax and car rental tax revenue is strictly raised for the Port Authority. The tax surplus is estimated to be between $17 and $20 million by the end of the calendar year, which the county council decided to transfer to a general county fund at a recent meeting.

The general fund could use the money to improve county roads and transportation. However, Joyce says it is a loose link to say the drink tax money is fixing a road where a Port Authority bus travels.

Port of Pittsburgh Vies for Stimulus Money

The Port of Pittsburgh knows exactly how it would spend federal dollars if its approved for government stimulus funds next year. The top priority is the Lower Monongahela Improvement Project for Locks and Dams 2, 3 and 4. Port Commission director James McCarville says the locks are over one hundred years old and are sorely in need of repairs and retrofitting. The project was supposed to have been completed in 2004 and without government funds improvements may not be finished until 2022. McCarville says the locks and dams are an essential part of the regional economy, moving over 20 million tons of commerce down the river every year. The Port of Pittsburgh is working with a Congressional delegation to make sure its bid for $580 million dollars for all of its improvement projects is noted when the money is allotted.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Zoo Moves Elephant To New Conservation Center

The Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium moved their first animal into the new International Conservation Center in Somerset County. "Jackson" the zoo's African Bull Elephant was moved by a large 18-wheel truck that was reinforced to allow for an elephant to be moved in it. The center expects for more animals to begin arriving at the facility, most notably, two more elephants that will be brought in from Philadelphia that the center hopes to be able to breed. The center also will bring in other animals that are endangered or in need of conservation.

Port Authority Set To Receive Money From County

Now that a contract has been reached between the Port Authority and its employee's Allegheny County will release 27.5 million dollars in funds it had been with holding. The money will enable the Port Authority to continue receiving matching state funds and allows the Authority to operate through the fiscal year which ends in June of 2009. PAT CEO Steve Bland said the money is crucial to the day to day operations of the Authority but for it to last into the future they need to become more efficient and effective in their business operations.

Pitt Researchers Use Horseradish Enzyme to Biodegrade Carbon Nanotubes

University of Pittsburgh researchers have developed the first natural, nontoxic method for biodegrading carbon nanotubes, which are being used in more and more consumer products but can be dangerous to living things in ways not fully understood.

Pitt professors Alexander Star and Valerian Kagan were looking for a way to get rid of carbon nanotubes if they’re spilled when they discovered that a naturally-occurring enzyme-- horseradish peroxidase—will biodegrade nanotubes. So it would be possible to develop a kit to clean up spills in the environment, lab or factory.

The potential of carbon nanotubes is immeasurable because they are small and light but very strong; they are also chemical sensors and conduct electricity. But they are known to cause severe lung inflammation and could be toxic in other ways.

Professor Kagan says more research is needed and is being done, often in combination with European scientists, and fortunately, such work is now well funded. So Kagan recommends being aware and careful but not paranoid about the possible toxicity of nanomaterials.

Pennsylvania Clean Indoor Air Act Underway

In Allegheny County just under 400 bars have received exemptions from the Pennsylvania Clean Indoor Air Act. The bars receiving exemptions all meet the requirements for the first type of exemption under state law. Meaning, the bars receiving the exemption do not have more than a 20% gross sale of food. The 2ND exemption for bars have yet to be awarded completely. Even with the application deadline of mid September the 45 day application process is taking longer than expected. The 2ND exemption requires bars to have separate enclosed areas for the restaurant and bar. For the second exemption Allegheny County served as a pilot program for the conduction of inspections to certify the proper requirements needed for exemption. The state is now applying the process used in Allegheny County to exemption requests across the state.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Red Kettle Campaign On Track.

The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign in Allegheny County stands at 60% of its goal. The Army has a goal in the county of $760,000. As of Monday a total of $457,000 had been raise. Salvation Army Major James Labossiere says that is not unusual with a little less than a week to go before Christmas. He says as the volume of shoppers increases and the holiday mood starts to kick in giving goes up. Those two factors make the last weekend the most important days of the campaign. Labossiere says there is still a need for bell ringers throughout the county. He says with out the volunteers there is not way to even bring in the cash. In the past several years the Salvation Army has also run virtual kettle campaigns on the Internet. Labossiere says this year you can set up a “personal kettle” and ask your friends to donate. Those funds will then stay in your neighborhood.

Utility Shutoffs Soar in Pennsylvania

A report released by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) says utility shutoffs in Pennsylvania have soared since a 2004 law was passed, giving utility companies more authority to stop service to nonpaying customers. The law was passed in order to increase bill collections. However, PUC spokesperson Jennifer Kocher said the gas industry has seen improved bill collections, but the electric industry has not. Also, while there are record numbers in utility shutoffs in Pennsylvania, Kocher said there are also record numbers in utility re-connections.

Kocher said the passed law is partially to blame for the rise in shutoffs, but the United States financial crisis has also been involved in customers not being able to pay their bills. She said utility companies are required to tell their customers about community-based and utility-based programs to assist in paying bills and maintaining service, if a customer is facing a termination notice.

To see a full report, go to http://www.puc.state.pa.us/General/publications_reports/pdf/06-07_PUC_Ann_Rpt.pdf.

Jail Suicide Review

After an apparent suicide on Saturday, the warden of the Allegheny County Jail said he did not expect changes in policy or implement disciplinary measures against employees because of the death. Warden Ramon Rustin said everyone did what they were supposed to do. Dr. Shiva Lal Acharya, who was found hanged in his cell, was not on suicide watch because he did not have any suicidal symptoms, Rustin said. However, he was in a special needs cell, where he was still closely watched. Rustin said there is a difference between sectioned in a special needs cell and being suicidal. Suicidal inmates are more closely watched than those with special needs.

Rustin said he expects to see reports by the medical examiner's office and the county police shortly. He said if problems are shown in either report, they will further evaluate current policies and employee behavior.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Penguins Give Name to New Arena


Mario Lemieux, co-owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins, today announced the "Consol Energy Center" will be the team's new home starting in 2010 until at least 2030. The franchise struck a deal with the major energy conglomerate for naming rights to the arena for the next 21 years. President of the Penguins David Morehouse says there are a lot of similarities between the energy company and the energetic young hockey team. The name will be featured on the outer facade of the arena as well as various places inside. The details of the deal for the naming rights are undisclosed.

Port Authority Board Approves Collective Bargaining Agreement

The Port Authority Board of Directors voted this morning to ratify the 4-year collective bargaining agreement which was accepted on December 7th by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, representing 2300 workers.

Before the vote, CEO Steve Bland told the board that there will be cash savings because employee contributions to health care more than offset wage increases, and the agreement reduces by $92 million the long-term benefits expenses that have been building up since PAT’s inception 50 years ago:

Bland commended union leaders for their work at the negotiating table and in communicating with members. He says the 95% yes vote by union members is higher than he's never seen, even though workers accepted concessions. Bland says the agreement shows employees want PAT to be sustainable.

After the meeting adjourned, Bland discussed some issues that will be coming up in the near future: improving operating efficiency and making service more effective for customers; new fare structure and collection projects—he's hoping for a monetary commitment from the county in the next month or so.

Bland expects the county drink tax money withheld by County Executive Dan Onorato to be released in the next week or so, and he says future fares must rise to keep pace with inflation.

County Office Bldg. Closed due to Chemical Leak

Workers in the Allegheny County Office Building Downtown have been given the day off as HAZMAT crews “air out” the building. A worker noticed a strong smell of chemicals in the subbasement around 6:30 this morning and then noticed a barrel holding chloroform and methanol was leaking. County Medical Examiner Karl Williams says the chemicals are used in the crime lab and a contractor had placed them in the barrel for disposal. Williams says a small amount of moisture was noticed at the base of the barrel Friday and the contractor was called to remove it. Williams says the leaking barrel was placed inside another container this morning and workers were sent home as a precaution. Williams says the chemicals pose no long-term health risks and will dissipate quickly. As a mater of routine, workers in the County Crime Lab use the chemicals as solvents and collect them for later disposal. Williams says the barrel should not have leaked if just those two chemicals were combined. He says the contents will be tested before being disposed of later today.

Electoral Votes To Be Cast

On Monday December 15Th, 21 Pennsylvanians will cast electoral ballots for Barack Obama. In Presidential Election years on the 1st Monday after the 2nd Wednesday electoral votes are cast across the country. The votes will be certified and sent to a joint session of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate where the votes will be confirmed. Pennsylvania's electoral votes will be cast in the state's House of Representatives chamber.

Duquesne Light Offers Gift Certificates

For the second year, Duquesne Light is offering gift certificates on their website, www.duquesnelight.com, or by calling 412-393-7100. Last year, according to spokesperson Joseph Vallarian, many people bought them for elderly relatives or others who could use help paying their bills.

Customers can help neighbors they don’t even know by including donations to the Dollar Energy Fund with their monthly payments.

Vallarian says Duquesne Light matches whatever their customers give to the Dollary Energy Fund, a separate organization assisting people whose service is in danger of termination.

Advocates Call For Investigation at Pa Prisons

Advocates for prisoners want the FBI to investigate allegations of abuse inside state Department of Corrections facilities. The Human Rights Coalition and Fight for Lifers West say they have more than 100 pages worth of reports from prisoners.

Bret Grote with the Human Rights Coalition says they want the FBI to focus on allegations from one inmate in particular: Michael Edwards. Grote says prison guards at the State Correctional Institution-Fayette placed photographs of lynchings inside Edwards' solitary confinement cell in retaliation for a lawsuit he was preparing. Grote says several prisoners have alleged that solitary confinement is used to punish inmates who try to expose wrongdoings in the corrections system.

Grote acknowledges that questions about inmate credibility can make this type of advocacy difficult. But he says the documentation his group has collected over the last 15 months suggests a pattern of human rights violations.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ceremony For Fallen FBI Agent Held

FBI special agent Sam Hicks was fatally shot while authorities were conducting a drug bust in November. Today Oakland's St. Paul Cathedral was the site of a ceremony honoring the agent. Family, friends and colleagues spoke about the impact Sam Hicks had on their lives. Kevin Pearson met his best friend while they were both in college and says his life would be very different if had never become friends with Agent Hicks. FBI Director Robert Mueller spoke about the special agent saying one word could describe him, the best. Special agent Sam Hicks leaves behind his wife Brooke and their 2 year old son Noah. Hicks was 33.

Judges Appoint New Westmoreland County Commissioner

Judges chose Marine Corps veteran Chuck Anderson from a field of 22 Republican applicants to serve the remaining three years in the term of Republican Kim Ward, who was elected to the state senate. The two other commissioners are Democrats.

The 66-year-old Greensburg resident says he made the decision when he retired from the military to devote his time to the community, working with Rotary and the Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE, at St. Vincent. Anderson says he's facing a steep learning curve in this, his first foray into politics, but the work he's done at SCORE in helping businesses create jobs is in line with what he sees as the county's big need: jobs, especially with the announcement of SONY's departure.

Anderson says he hopes to help the county government fulfill its role of establishing an environment where business can thrive.

City says Primary Roads are Good

As of 6:00 Friday morning Pittsburgh Public Works Director Guy Costa says crews working overnight were able to treaty all of the city’s main routes and are now working on the secondary and school routes. He says there are still some slick spots but those will go away as more traffic hits the streets and the sun comes up to heat the roads. He says the secondary streets that have not been treated are of course slick and he recommends that people be careful this morning and leave extra time to get to where they need to be. He says with the temperatures right around freezing they were able to use rock salt rather than other chemicals. Costa says they continue to tweak the new plowing priority system but it is “working fine.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hill House honors Elsie Hillman

The Kaufmann Center will be undergoing a major $3 million state-of-the-art renovation as part of a Hill House Capital and Endowment Campaign. With the renovations comes a new name: The Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium at Kaufmann Center. Elsie Hillman, a co-founder of the Hill House Association, has been deeply involved for the last 45 years. "She has been near and dear to the Hill House, every step of the way," said Hill House President Evan Frazier.

The improved site includes seating for 550 (from a 350-person capacity), a conference center with up-to-date technology, a full-service kitchen, and an outdoor amphitheater attracting national artists, performances, and corporate annual meetings to the Hill District community. Hill House President Evan Frazier said the new facility will host Hill District speaker series, jazz festivals, and African American Film Festivals.

"Impossible" Chain Reaction Started by Pitt Researchers

University of Pittsburgh researchers working with the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) have been able to do something no other scientists have been able to do, create a chain reaction on a solid surface. Chain reactions in gasses and liquids happen all the time but it has long been thought that a reaction cannot happen on a surface because the energy needed to keep the reaction alive is absorbed into the surface. In this case the researchers lined up a series of sulfur-based molecules, hit one with a single electron and started a chain reaction that made ten jumps down the line. Researcher Kenneth Jordan says this could potentially be used as a new way to store information in a very small space, help to miniaturize the computer industry and make a big impact on nanotechnology research. He says the electron does not travel down the line of molecules. He says, instead, it looks like the change in the first molecule forces the one next to it to change and so on down the line. He says right now, two major questions need to be answered are. Why did the chain reaction stop and what other compounds may react the same way as the one used in this project. He says researchers at Pitt and, now that the information has been published, at other institutions will undoubtedly be looking into those questions. The study was published in the December 12th edition of Science.

Equity Key For Regional Economic Growth

On Thursday December 11Th, the University of Pittsburgh and Sustainable Pittsburgh hosted their fifth annual regional equitable development summit. At the summit University of California at Davis associate professor of community and regional development Chris Benner delivered the keynote address on his research that suggests inequity hampers economic growth because the full development and utilization of a region's most valuable asses-its people- is constrained. Benner said that racial equity and inclusion are fundamental components of building prosperous and sustainable regions.

Benner said that inequity imposes a high cost on regional businesses, government and communities which serves to stifle progress. As part of his recommendations Benner suggests that regions need to focus job growth efforts on specific industries, look at programs that can increase demand for African American workers and realize that there are barriers to employment even for people who are already employed.

Commissioner Hopefuls Make Their Case

Twenty-three candidates for Westmoreland County commissioner have just a few minutes each to make their case to a panel of judges today. The candidates are vying to replace Republican Kim Ward, who was elected to the state Senate. The county's eleven Common Pleas judges will appoint a new commissioner. Last month, the county's Republican committee interviewed the candidates and recommended four of them. Committee vice-chairwoman Elaine Gowaty says the judges can choose whomever they want; the goal was for the committee to have a say. Whoever is chosen will be in the minority. The other two Westmoreland County commissioners are Democrats. The judges are expected to make a decision by Monday.

DEP is Testing Air at Three Area Schools following USA Today Report

A recent report in the USA Today found poor air quality at a long list of schools nationwide including 6 in Pennsylvania. Two of them are in Allegheny County (Montessori Children’s School and Highlands High school) and one is in Beaver County (Midland Elementary-Middle School). The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says it has set up air quality monitors at all of the schools. A spokesperson for the DEP says it is unclear how long those monitors will stay in place but they will be in place at least 6 months. While the newspaper did not contact the state, officials from the Midland school district spoke to the DEP after being contacted by reporters from the USA Today. The DEP responded by placing an air monitor at Midland Elementary-Middle School November 24th. So far the equipment has not found dangerous levels of any chemicals. The DEP feels its monitoring equipment will be more accurate and provide a longer view of the air quality rather than a “snapshot.” In its initial evaluation of the newspaper’s methodology, the DEP found an instance where outdated Toxic Release Inventory data was used, consequently inflating the level of pollution estimated to be around the schools. The Department also concurred with the EPA’s assessment that the modeling tool used by USA Today was inappropriate for this kind of analysis.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gormley Speaks About Appointment

The interim leader of Duquesne University's law school says his top priority will be a smooth transition as students finish their fall exams and then he will "take a big breath" to prepare for a new semester. Ken Gormley says he was called by university President Charles Dougherty this morning and asked if he would serve as Interim Dean. He was not given an explanation for the firing of Don Guter, who told colleagues he was given 24 hours to quit or be removed. When asked about tensions between Guter and Dougherty, Gormley said he preferred to focus on the future.

Law school professor Nancy Perkins says the firing came as a surprise. She says many people believed Guter would leave, but they assumed it would happen in the spring, at the end of the academic year. She says there's been a lot of tension between the law school and the administration, but she doesn't think that's uncommon. She says Guter accomplished some good things at the school, including some administrative improvements. Perkins also says she believes the school might go through a rough patch, but believes it has a lot of strengths and that students won't suffer.

Duquesne Dismisses Law Dean.

Duquesne University this morning removed Law School Dean Don Guter from his leadership position. A release from the university only says he will be replaced by Professor Ken Gormley on an interim basis and will be allowed to remain on the faculty. A University spokeswoman said the university does not comment on personnel issues. Guter, the former Judge Advocate General for the U.S. Navy, has not been available for comment. Law School Professor Bruce Ledewitz says the news “came out of the blue” and he called it “an outrage.” Ledewitz says to dismiss a dean in the middle of a term usually means there is something wrong with his leadership but he says he feels that is far from the truth. He points to the school’s improving bar passage rates and says the morale at the school is the highest it has been in years. Ledewitz says President Charles Dougherty must have know this would have a negative impact on the school going forward. Ledewitz says the school was going through the process of evaluating the dean for reappointment and he is saddened that Guter will never know how the staff, students and alumni feel about his leadership. Ledewitz says the dean shared a letter with him from the president’s office giving him 24 hours to resign or be removed.

Dowd Seeks Further Explanation of $51 Million Allocations

Pittsburgh City Councilman Patrick Dowd today called City Controller Michael Lamb to the table to explain a disbursement of $51 million in the proposed 2009 city budget. The money, as described in the budget, would be put into a “restricted fund in the nature of an irrevocable trust” to reduce outstanding city debt. Dowd questioned how allocating money to an account would necessarily eliminate the city’s bond obligations. He likened the situation to a mortgage. Dowd says that a person putting money into a savings account does not make the mortgage obligations disappear, but that the only way to fulfill mortgage obligations is to pay them. The councilman says that the Mayor and ICA intend to allocate the funds to a debt service repayment account in order to claim they have a balanced Five-Year Financial Forecast for the city. His concern is that the debt will not actually be paid.

Dowd’s motion to withhold a tentative vote during the budget hearing, and proposed amendment to the budget bill during the Finance and Law Committee meeting failed to pass each by votes of 5-2. The proposed 2009 Capital Budget passed a preliminary vote also by a count of 5-2.

Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess later offered bill 2008-0962 which would require an amended Act 47 Financial Recovery Plan for the city be submitted to council by March 25, 2009. He says the plan needs to be reconsidered in light of the current financial crisis. Burgess says the revised plan will offer the forum for the debt repayment account to be discussed.

The budget will go up for final approval next week.

PA has "Smoking" Slot Machine Numbers Today

Today is the first day casinos across the state can ask the PA Department of Revenue for information comparing the activity at their smoking and non-smoking slot machines. 90 days ago a state law went into effect forcing casinos to allow smoking at just 25% of their machines. Meadows Casino spokesperson Dave Latorre says they will ask for the numbers because it is good business to have all the information at their disposal. He says it is unclear how long it will take to go through the statistics and he would not speculate what the numbers will show. Latorre says any statement now would be based on anecdotal information and he does not want to start down that path. He says this is too important of an issue to do that. If the report from the state shows the smoking machines are out performing the non-smoking machines then a casino can petition to be allowed to increase the number of machines in smoking areas. Marketers admit factors such as machine placement could have as big of an impact on use as a machine’s smoking status.

64% off PA 11th Graders Fail Science Test

The Pennsylvania Department of Education says two thirds of the state’s 11th graders failed a new standardized science test. The state began requiring the test in 2008 for 4th, 8th and 11th graders along with math, reading and writing tests. The report released this week shows 81.5% of 4th graders scored at grade level, 52.7% of 8th graders cleared the bar and 35.7% of 11th graders performed at grade level. The majority of 11th graders scored below grade level in 85% of the state’s school districts. Department spokesperson Michael Race says those 11th graders are now seniors and may well be getting a diploma that says they are equipped to meet the demands of the post high school world and that may not be true. Race says this puts the state at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy that is putting more of a premium on science-based skills every day. It is not unusual for high schools to score lower on standardized tests than younger students but Race says this is a much bigger drop than is seen in other subjects. He defends the test saying he thinks it is valid and says it shows there is a need for state administered graduation proficiency tests for all high school diploma candidates. The PA Education Department has been pushing for such tests for some time now but has been met by resistance at the local level.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

United Way Focuses on Seniors

The United Way of Allegheny County has handed out its second round of competitive grants. These grants were all focused on helping to keep seniors healthy and safe as they age. Local United Way President Robert Nelkin says there is a large number of seniors in the area and many of them need our help to make sure they stay healthy and in their homes if they choose. 31 agencies applied for the grants. Just five grants totaling $714,625 were awarded ranging from a quarter million dollars for the age well program to $80,000 for the east Liberty Family Health Care Center. Nelkin says all of the winning agencies had to prove they could get results and the United Way will track the programs to make sure they are performing. The first round of competitive grants was awarded by the united way in June. Those were focused on helping the county’s at risk youth. Nelkin says the next round will focus on financial stability. In the past the United Way has awarded grants to agencies it has dealt with in the past but the board wanted to make sure it was getting the biggest bang for its dollars. Other agencies receiving grants include; Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, Northern Area Companies/Northern Area Multi-service center, and Vintage.

Westmoreland Sony Plant to Close

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has confirmed that the Sony plant in Westmorland County will be among those closed in the coming months. The plant’s 650 employees make flat panel televisions. Demand for those products has been weak in the faltering economy and the technology has started to move away from the type of screen made at the Mount Pleasant facility. Sony says it is trimming about 4% of its worldwide workforce. The governor says the closing is not immediate and workers will be eligible for state subsidized job training. Sony is expected to shutter the facility over then next 15 months. The company shifted about 800 jobs from the Mount Pleasant plant to a facility in Mexico last year and closed a glass making facility and warehouse in Hempfield in 2006. That move killed about 350 local jobs. Rendell says he already has two companies that may be interested in the Sony campus. One is said to be a renewable energy company.

New Program to encourage improvements

A new Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) is designed to help afflicted areas in making improvements to increase property values and improve areas in economic development.

"This program is to enable communities to purchase abandoned or foreclosed properties to either rehabilitate or build new houses," says Allegheny County Councilman Mike Finnerty. "They could demolish the residence." Allegheny County will receive $5.5 Million of the $3.92 Billion that were made available nationwide for this program.

Dowd Wants to Follow the Money

Pittsburgh city councilman Pat Dowd says he is concerned about $37.7 million that was moved from one account to another in the tentative 5-year budget plan. He says the funds were shifted some time between the preliminary 5-year budget plan published in September and the one published and approved by the ICA October 20th. The ICA reduced the fund balance from 10% to 5% and disbursed $37.7 million into restricted funds. At the same time debt service over the same five years was reduced by $51 million. Dowd says he thinks it is a great idea to pay down debit but he wants to see exactly how it is being done. He says if bonds are being paid off early or refinanced he wants to know which bonds, how much money and what are the administrative costs associated with the plan. Dowd says he has been asking the city finance department, the mayor’s office and the ICA for an explanation for more than a month and a half and all he has been told is that council does not vote on the 5-year plan. Dowd says he is not sure if that is true or not but he does feel he should be entitled to a better accounting of the found transfers. One note in the budget says the funds were placed a “something in the nature of an irrevocable fund.” He says there is no such accounting term. It is either irrevocable or it is not. Dowd successfully delayed the “tentative budget vote” to have been taken Monday and the council will take that vote Wednesday morning. Council is also scheduled to take a preliminary vote later that same day and a final vote next week. Dowd says if he does not get an answer before Wednesday morning he will introduce an amendment to the budget demanding an explanation of the fund transfers within 30 days. He says he does not want to prevent the budget for being in place by the end of the year but he feels he needs a better accounting than he is getting.

The mayor’s office and the finance department have not responded to requests for interviews.

CMU Wage Freeze

Due to an ailing economy, Carnegie Mellon University has decided to freeze employee wages during the next fiscal year. That year starts on July 1, 2009, and runs through June 30, 2010, says University spokesperson Ken Walters. The pay freeze affects more than 4,700 employees. Walters does not know how much money it would save the University, but the effort is done in part of the stock market decline, which has shrunk the University endowment. Walters says Carnegie Mellon, like many other institutions, will be keeping a close eye on the financial crisis in the next fiscal year, hoping things will improve. He says pay increases will resume as soon as it is reasonable to do so.

Missing Ramp not Missing Any More

Motorists driving from the airport to I-79 north no longer have to get off the highway. The last of the two so-called missing ramps connecting I-79 and the parkway west was opened to traffic this morning. The other “missing” ramp connecting southbound I-79 to the outbound Parkway West opened in late November. Penn DOT District Executive Dan Cessna says "Both ramps serve as vital transportation conduits that will benefit our region for many years to come." In the past drivers had to get off the highway and onto RT 60 to make the connection. The changes are expected to cut drive times fro that trip by 45%. At the same time it will take pressure off the heavily congested section of state highway by reducing traffic by about 20%. In addition to the ramp installation, extensive work is being done to Route 22/30 to add an additional lane in both directions. That portion of the $67.5 million project will continue into next year. The new curved bridge is equipped with an automated anti icing system that will spray de-icing material on the road automatically when dangerous weather conditions exist.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Pittsburgh City Council Seeks Financial Advice

In light of the current financial crisis and amidst growing concerns about unfunded pension, Pittsburgh City Council turned to experts for advice. Five financial experts today testified at a hearing this afternoon outlining the the financial crisis on the whole and its ramifications for city finances. Chief Economist of the Bank of New York Mellon Corporation Richard Hoey says although it was projected that the United States might end up in a recession following an economic boom in the 90's, the countries are feeling the effects of a recession worldwide. Vice President and chief economist for the PNC Financial Services Group Stuart Hoffman says Pittsburgh will really feel the effects of this recession in 2009 as he predicts a drop in interest rates. The financial experts also offered advice on possible local solutions to the financial crisis. Ron Bloom, special assistant to the president of the United Steelworkers Association (USWA) says part of the fix locally could involve public investment in infrastructure such as bridge construction and repair. Though the situation looks bleak for now, several experts did offer hope that the recession might begin to decline as early as June, 2009.

Council Votes For New Lawyer

The Pittsburgh city council voted today to hire a lawyer for its exclusive use but that person’s pay will come out of the city legal department’s budget. All but councilman Jim Motznik felt the council needed a lawyer at their disposal to answer questions about drafting legislation and taking stances on certain issues. Several members complained that the 14 lawyer staff of the legal department was so over worked that it often took too long to get answers to their pressing needs. Motznik argued that the post could not be reasonably filled for the $66,000 budgeted and felt the post was not needed in general. Councilman Bill Peduto and Doug Shields argued that the position should be put under the council’s budget to eliminate any possible conflict of interest. The concern was that the ultimate boss of that lawyer would be a mayoral appointee. Had the position been added to the council’s budget it would have needed approval from the oversight board because it would have grown that line item by more than 5 percent over what the board had approved. The salary would not have been enough to trip that trigger if it would be added elsewhere in the budget. Councilmember Bruce Krauss says the council will work diligently to make sure the new employee will not feel pressure from the legal department but still have access to the assets and advice of that department. He says he will also join Peduto and Shields in an effort to move the position into the Council’s budget in the next year. The post is called for by the home rule charter and its need became apparent to several council members when it went against the mayor’s office over approval of an electronic billboard.

Attempt to End City COLA Dies

A proposal by Pittsburgh city councilman Ricky Burgess to amend the 2009 budget to eliminate the cost of living pay increase the council members will get in January died during city council budget hearing Monday when no member would second his motion. Burgess says while some council members may think that the combined cost of $12,690 dollars for the 9 members may not seem like much in the larger budget, it is a lot of money for many who live in the city. He says that is nearly half of the median income in the city of Pittsburgh and more than many people in his district make all year. Burgess says as the nation faces tough times and budget cuts are being made at the state and federal level, the city must follow suit and tighten its belt where it can. Burgess says he will continue to work to have the budget changed but without so much as a second, it is unlikely that he will be able to make any changes before the preliminary vote is taken Wednesday. Burgess says he will also look into ways that he can return his cost of living increase.

City Council Hearing on WiMAX

City Council held a meeting this morning on the possible future in Pittsburgh of 4th generation WiMAX technology, which was initiated recently in Baltimore and will soon be operational in Portland, Oregon. Clearwire, with 46 pre-WiMAX markets, recently merged with a division of Sprint to build a national WiMAX network.

Speakers noted that one challenge of new technological opportunities is how to assure that all residents can share the benefits, regardless of income level. Clearwire representative John Bunce says his company usually doesn't ask for public subsidies but frequently makes arrangements to discount services to the municipality and to low-income residents in exchange for access to public locations to hang their equipment.

Bunce says Clearwire has more spectrum than AT&T or Verizon; WiMAX has a much higher radius than WiFi, is slower than Fios but faster than DSL. He doubts Pittsburgh could get WiMAX as early as 2009.

Pittsburgh Project Names New Executive Director

The Pittsburgh Project, a community development organization on the city's North Side, today announced that Elizabeth Rosemeyer will now be the group's Executive Director. Rosemeyer, a former a attorney, has been the Project's Associate Executive Director since January. She will be only the second executive director in the 24-year history of the Project succeeding Saleem Ghubril who recently accepted a new position at the Pittsburgh Promise. Rosemeyer says she will rely on her hard-working staff to continue with the current the Project's current initiatives. Currently the Project is involved in youth development, community outreach, urban farming, and homeowners service programs.

More Retirement Plan Choices May Lead to More Risk

Workers who don't know much about investing make inconsistent choices in their retirement plans, according to a University of Pittsburgh professor. Jeff Inman says in a recent experiment, less knowledgeable investors shifted their allocations in stocks, bonds and money market funds when they were offered more options.

Investors were asked to create a theoretical portfolio for a 401(k) retirement plan. Under one scenario, investors were offered three investment options: a stock fund, a bond fund and a money market fund. Under a second scenario, they were offered a total of 21 investments. Investors were also asked to rate themselves "high-knowledge" or "low-knowledge." Inman says high-knowledge investors split their savings roughly the same in both scenarios. Low-knowledge investors roughly matched their high-knowledge counterparts in the second scenario: both put about 60% of their savings in stocks. But when offered fewer choices, the low-knowledge investors put much more of their money into bonds.

Inman says regardless of what you think the ideal investment portfolio should look like, asset allocation is a basic skill. So he says it's a concern that low-knowledge investors would change their allocations so dramatically just based on the number of choices they had. Inman says employers may want to consider helping workers make well-informed choices, perhaps by providing a financial adviser. Inman says it's more important than ever for workers to know how these kinds of investments work, since employers are moving away from traditional pension plans and toward 401(k)-type plans that give employees more responsibility in saving for retirement.

Council Member Wants To Get To Work On New 5 Year Recovery Plan

City Councilman Ricky Burgess plans to introduce legislation Tuesday December 9Th that will mandate council to create a new 5 year Act 47 plan by March 25Th 2009. Rev. Burgess wants this action to be taken so council can get to work on what he feels is a critical issue as soon as possible. He is willing to work through the holidays if he must. Rev. Burgess wants to fund the city's pension requirements by funneling $10 million in expected gaming revenue away from the city's operating costs. He has not mentioned this to any members of council but feels they will understand the urgency of this matter after the city lost $124 million from its pension investments.

Penguins and SEA to Update Community on Arena Project

The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Sports & Exhibition Authority will conduct a community update meeting on the new arena project Tuesday, December 9th from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the main hall of the Epiphany Church.

Penguin senior consultant Ron Porter says anyone with an interest in the project is welcome to attend this quarterly progress report, held in accordance with the Community Benefits Agreement. Information will be presented about minority participation and what will be happening in the next few months.

The community will be asked to present any concerns they might have--a prior issue was trucks tracking mud through the community, which Porter says residents are pleased is being mitigated as much as possible.

Light snacks will be served--those planning to attend are asked to call 412-642-1969 or email rporter@pittsburghpenguins.com.

Friday, December 5, 2008

City Council President Favors Pay Raise

City Council President Doug Shields does not agree with Councilman Ricky Burgess's idea to rescind Council's scheduled pay raise. Shields says the Council members not only deserve a raise, but are in need of one. Shields said that two members of Council qualify for assistance from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP is a federally-funded, state-administered program that helps families pay energy costs. Shields says he does not doubt the sincerity of Rev. Burgess, but feels he is wrong on this issue.

Council Member Does Not Want Pay Raise

City Councilman Ricky Burgess plans to introduce legislation Monday that would rescind the pay raise that council members are scheduled to receive next year. Burgess says in this time of economic uncertainty, the council should try to be as fiscally responsible as possible. He says everyone will need to sacrifice and that council should lead by example. Burgess said he has not spoken with any council members about the issue, but hopes they will support his efforts.

Speakers Address Future of Libraries

The future of libraries will be addressed by two nationally known speakers tomorrow at the Greentree Radisson in a program sponsored by the Allegheny County Library Association.

Michael Stephens, a professor at Dominican University in Illinois, says the library of the future will be very flexible, with the same space perhaps serving as a reading area at one point of the day, a place later where students prepare an audiovisual presentation, and then maybe an art space in the evening.

Futurist Thomas Frey from the DaVinci Institute in Colorado says just as the addition of computers have brought a new population of users into libraries today, additions such as podcast and video studios will do the same in the future, with visitors evolving from information consumers into information producers.

Frey says libraries of the future will be tourist destinations, as Seattle's already is.

Critics: COLA Giveback a Sham

More state lawmakers are pledging to return the cost of living raise they received December 1st to help the state's budget crisis. But others are critical of those public proclamations.

Republican State Representative Daryl Metcalfe says many of the new Democratic House leaders are hypocritical for calling on members to give back their raises, while the leaders will still be getting large salary increases for being elected to the new caucus posts.

"I think they're trying to pull the wool over the taxpayers' eyes. I think they're trying to make the taxpayers think that they're looking out for them because they're willing to give back a few thousand dollars."

Metcalfe says even if lawmakers return the net amount of the cost of living increase - they still get credit on their pensions for the higher salary.

GOP State Senator John Eichelberger says if lawmakers are serious about saving state money, they should stop using those funds for what he says are campaign purposes.

"The taxpayers provide through the caucus newsletters to all the constituents, television show programs on community access and public service announcements."

Eichelberger has refused those perks and others including a state car, per diem payments. He estimates that over four years he will save the state $500,000.
However, Eichelberger's Senate Republican leader earlier this week announced he would return the cost of living increase.

Stock Market Plunge Hits Pittsburgh Pension Fund

The stock market decline has put a dent in the City of Pittsburgh's pension fund. At its quarterly meeting, the city's Pension Trust Fund Board revealed that the already troubled pension fund bell from $385 million at the beginning of the year to $261 million at the end of November.
The fund has about 29% of what it should have to cover what is ultimately due to current workers and retirees. The board agreed to increase payments from the city's annual budget by 6 to 8 million dollars a year. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says the city's five year fiscal plan already called for annual 5% increases in payments to the pension fund and this decision will instead boost those contributions by 10 to 15%. Ravenstahl says the city is taking steps but ultimately needs help from the state. He sent a letter to the administration and the legislature outlining his pension reform plan which was just approved by the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities. That reform plan calls for changing the state aid pension formula; preventing overtime from counting toward pension calculations; and, allowing for the consolidation of pension plans.
Ravenstahl says the city is doing what it can control but officials are "keeping their fingers crossed" and "holding their breath" hoping that the economic downturn ends as quickly as possible.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

City Funds Trap-Neuter-Release Program

A pilot program on the North Side is trapping, neutering and returning feral cats to the wild. City Councilwoman Darlene Harris says it's better than capturing the cats and euthanizing them. That's often the alternative, because feral cats generally aren't suitable as pets. She also says the program is expected to reduce the city's feral cat population over time. Harris' office is giving $2,000 of Neighborhood Needs funds to the group Animal Care and Welfare, whose volunteers are operating the trap-neuter-release program. So far, 23 cats in Spring Hill have been trapped, fixed, de-wormed, de-fleaed, and given rabies shots before being returned to the wild.

Harris says trap-neuter-release will likely become the standard citywide next year. She believes it will save money.

Other groups like the Animal Rescue League, Humane Society of Western Pennsylvania, and Animal Friends have teamed up on the Three Rivers Feral Project, which has operated trap-neuter-release programs in Hazelwood and other neighborhoods.

Harris says it's good to have several groups working on the effort because the city has a lot of feral cats. Animal Control picked up about a thousand cats in the first ten months of this year; only 30 of them were claimed. Often, local residents will feed and monitor colonies of feral cats. Harris says she was surprised to hear how many colonies there were.

Harris says feral cats have become a bigger problem in recent years. She says the city used to spay and neuter more of them, but funding was cut when Pittsburgh was declared financially distressed under Pennsylvania's Act 47 in late 2003.

Pitt Study: County Revenue Sharing Not Working

New research findings at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) show that Allegheny County's tax revenue sharing program, implemented by Act 77 in 1993, is not working properly. On average, Act 77 provides $34 million dollars to the county's 128 municipalities each year. The original intent of the policy was to distribute more funds to the poorer communities. David Miller associate professor at GSPIA says instead the program is rewarding more to affluent communities because of their growing tax base, than to poorer communities. He suggests that the county re-think the formula used to determine how much money a municipality receives. Revenue sharing dollars play a major role in financially troubled communities, making up about 11 percent of their budgets.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

City Historic Review Commission Holds Hearing On Controversial Bill

The Historic Review Commission today tabled a bill by City Councilman Ricky Burgess that would amend the city code by changing language regarding "Religious Properties." Councilman Burgess is in the process of amending his legislation with the help of the city law department but says he drafted this bill as a result of city councils dealing with the Salvation Army over its plans for its historically designated Malta Temple.

The Salvation Army did not wish to seek historic designation because they wanted to tear the building down and rebuild on their property to allow for a building that better served their needs. The Mexican War Streets Society was responsible for the buildings nomination. The Salvation Army was unable to garner enough support from City Council regarding their plans so Rev. Burgess stepped in. His legislation would allow for only the owner(s) to nominate a building for designation and would allow for owners of an historically designated building to possibly tear the building down if needed or wanted.

The bill has been tabled as a result of councilman Burgess announcing that he is not prepared with a final draft of the legislation because he and his staff are working with the city law department to adjust and amend his bill so that it does not have any unwanted consequences.

Pitt Holds Line on Pay

The University of Pittsburgh Compensation Committee has decided to freeze the salaries of the University’s top officers. The move came after Chancellor Mark Nordenberg recommended that the committee hold the line on pay raises in light of the faltering economy. The committee praised the work of the Chancellor and the senior executives saying they deserved substantial pay raises based on performance and peer pay levels but noted the need to keep an eye on expenditures. When the University’s board first approved an operating budget in August it included a salary increase pool of 4%. Those increases are usually tied to performance and are not awarded until later in the year when the administrator’s performance can be reviewed. Committee Chair Ralph Cappy says “It may seem incongruous that the University has just moved through what may be the best year in its history, yet … officers receive no salary increase. However the committee understands we are moving through tough times…”

August Wilson Center offers Fellows Program

The August Wilson Center, for the first time, is offering a Fellows Program for passionate artists of African descent. Shay Wafer, vice president of programs, said the program is designed for artists who work in media arts, music composition and performance, performance-based arts and visual arts. Interested applicants choose a self-identified project to work on over a one-year period, which the Wilson Center will provide each fellow with stipend and support both administratively and creatively. Wafer said it’s a bright future for Pittsburgh artists, to give the option of staying instead of going elsewhere to study.

Wafer said there are two information sessions being held for those who want to find out more and how to apply. The first session is on Thurs, Dec. 4, 5:30pm, at Gallery 209/9, located at 209 Ninth St., Downtown. The other session is on Sat, Dec. 6, 12pm, at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, located at 5941 Penn Avenue, East Liberty. Also, Wafer can be contacted at swafer@AugustWilsonCenter.org for more information.

Grable Foundation Pledges $5 Million to Pittsburgh Promise

The Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship program for public school graduates, will receive 5 million dollars over the next five years from the Grable Foundation, and maybe more thereafter. Since UPMC's major commitment last year, the Buhl Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments have also pledged millions.

Grable Foundation Executive Director Greg Behr says the gift is a vote of confidence in the superintendent, the school board, and the students.

Behr hopes others will step forward to support the Pittsburgh Promise.

CMU Showcases Virtual Technology

The hottest ticket at Carnegie Mellon University today is for the Building Virtual Worlds show. Every year, a select group of Master's students at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center presents cutting-edge projects.

If you’ve ever had to wait in a long line at a restaurant or amusement park, you might be interested in what one student team has created. It’s called Get in Line, and it uses interactive games to keep people occupied and entertained while they wait. Participants use their cell phones to call in to a 1-800 number. Then they use the buttons on their phones to play a variety of games. People waiting in the same line could play against each other. Or people in two different lines could form teams.

The project holds appeal for businesses because they can intersperse marketing messages in or between the games. Even though this is just a school project, potential clients are already taking notice. Team members say after they recover from the Building Virtual Worlds show, they will work on developing a potential business.

The Building Virtual Worlds course was founded by the late Randy Pausch, a CMU Computer Science professor whose "Last Lecture" became wildly popular on the Internet. Pausch died in July of pancreatic cancer.

Lawyers ask for Charges Against Wecht to be Dismissed

Attorneys for former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht filed a motion today to have the remaining federal counts against their client discharged. Atty. Jerry McDevitt argued the U.S Attorney’s office does not have what it needs to prove its case. He also argued that much of the evidence that would be shown to the new jury was the product of faulty and overly broad search warrants. McDevitt says the fact that the government has dropped all but 14 of the original 84 counts proves their case is weak. The US Attorney’s office is expected to file a response in two weeks. When making his filing today McDevitt walked Judge Sean McLaughlin through the entire history of the case including the declaration of a mistrial. McLaughlin was assigned the case after it was taken away from Judge Arthur Schwab.

In the meantime the U.S Attorney's Office is expected to ask Friday for a change in venue. McDevitt would have two weeks to respond to that filing. He says it is interesting the prosecution would ask for a change in venue contending they could not get a fair trial in Pittsburgh when they originally painted Cyril Wecht as a great villain who stole from the people of Allegheny County to make himself rich.

McDevitt says if this case is not heard until after the Obama administration takes office, which will most likely result in U.S. Attorney for the Western District of PA Mary Beth Buchanan leaving the office, he thinks the next person in that office will probably want to review the case and will most likely decide to stop pursuing prosecution. However, he says he does not want to win that way. He says he would rather get an acquittal.

Chronic Wasting Disease Testing in PA Deer

Although Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has never been found in the state's deer and elk population, the Pennsylvania Game Commission believes it is important to test these animals for the brain degenerative disease. Testing begins this week, during the state's deer hunting season. The disease has been found in animals across 14 states, including West Virginia and New York. Game Commission spokesperson Jerry Feaser says there is currently no cure for the disease, and there is no practical way to test living animals. Also, Feaser says it is not transmissible to humans. The testing is done in attempts to contain the disease, rather than letting it run wild. The Game Commission has conducted tests on almost 19,000 hunter-killed deer and elk in Pennsylvania over the past six years. This year's testing plans to test approximately 4,000 deer heads for CWD. Feaser says test results are to come out in early 2009. If anybody sees a sickly-looking deer with CWD symptoms, such as lowered ears, uncoordinated movement, excessive drooling and weight loss, Feaser suggests calling the Game Commission's South Western Regional Office at (724) 238-9523 to file a report.

Open Records Fees Killed

Pennsylvania agencies will not charge for labor expenses when people start making public records requests in the new year. The Governor had initially said there would be a fee for finding the file and redacting any non-public information. That brought the ire of the head of the state's new Office of Open Records, who said the charges would open the door to abuse and corruption. Other free records advocates complained the fees could push the price of the documents beyond what most people could afford. Governor Ed Rendell's spokesman Chuck Ardo says the state will now monitor those costs and determine exactly what they are. The state's new open records law goes into effect January 1st.

Some PA Leaders say Borrowing May Help Budget Woes

As state revenues continue to tumble some lawmakers are starting to look at short and long-term borrowing to help keep the state afloat. The latest numbers from the Department of Revenue show income about $93 million below expectations for November. That puts the state about $658 million behind for the fiscal year. Republican Senate Pro Tem and Lieutenant Governor Joe Scarnati says he's willing to consider alternatives to increasing taxes so he is “willing to take a look" at new borrowing. State Treasurer Robin Wiessmann says with proper planning, the state could do short-term borrowing to balance the books. Wiessmann also advocates borrowing for larger projects to create jobs that will help pull the state out of recession. On the House side, Democratic Majority Appropriations Chair Dwight Evans also supports what he calls investment borrowing.

US Steel Idles Plants

Due to a shrinking economy and slow demand Pittsburgh based US Steel says it will idle two steel making plants in Illinois and Michigan and an iron ore mining and pelletizing facility in Minnesota. Approximately 35-hundred workers will be affected. The facilities will be idled not Shutdown meaning a skeleton crew will keep the furnaces and other equipment hot so they can be put back into service at short notice. The company says those facilities will be brought back on line if demand increases. Until then, any additional work will be sent to the Mon Valley Works in Braddock, and facilities in Alabama and Ontario. At this time there are no plans to recall any workers that had been previously laid off at the three remaining plants. US Steel CEO John Surma says “We believe that our difficult decision to temporarily consolidate our production is a necessary response to current market conditions.”

Early Lessons in Financial Education

The financial crisis has for many people been a tough lesson in economics. Most Pennsylvania high school students aren't required to learn much about personal finance. So will history repeat itself once Generation Y starts purchasing homes and using credit cards? DUQ's Katherine Fink reports.

Listen to the full-length story here.

This story originally aired on WDUQ December 3, 2008.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Straw Purchase Bill Passed in City Council, Denang Officially Made Sister City

Pittsburgh City Council today passed the hotly debated Straw Purchasing Bill (Bill 2008-831) by a margin of 6-1. Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, the only dissenting vote, says he is worried about the legality of the bill and finds it hypocritical that council could worry so much about the legality of prior bills, and not consider the legitimacy of Bill 831. Councilwoman Tonya Payne justified her vote by saying that if there is any action that can be taken to save lives, it must be taken. The legislation now goes to the desk of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl where in ten days he must sign, veto, or allow the bill to pass into law unsigned. He says he will consult with his legal department before he makes his decision.

Also at the meeting the City of Pittsburgh officially gained a new sibling: the sister city of Denang in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Dignitaries from Vietnam were on hand to sign the official sister city agreement and accept gifts from the mayor and city council. The new partnership aims at expanding networking capabilities between the two cities and boosting economic development.

PGH Controller: Inspection Bureau Needs to Prioritize

The Pittsburgh City Controller’s office says the Bureau of Building Inspection needs to implement a new system to prioritize the way complaints are handled. Controller Michael Lamb’s audit found 16%, or a little more than 5,000 complaints from 2006 and 2007 remained unresolved. He says many of them are “serious complaints such as those involving fire prevention and unsafe building conditions.” Lamb says right now which complaint is handled seems to have more to do with geography than importance. Lamb says the bureau also needs to look at ways to use more technology for its permit issuance function including the use of an on line application form for smaller projects including home improvements. Lamb says with a few changes the bureau should be able to deal with its workload using its current staffing level.

Parole Ban Lifted

Governor Rendell has lifted a ban on paroling violent prisoners from Pennsylvania prisons. The move comes following a new report on this system saying the system is sound but could use a few revisions. Rendell imposed the moratorium in September, after parolee killed a Philadelphia police officer. The report from the head of Temple University's Criminal Justice Department recommended using several measures to identify those prisoners most likely to commit violent crimes upon release from prison. The report also recommends 90 days of close supervision for all parolees and new training for parole officers. The system denies parole to about 50 percent of violent offenders.