Friday, January 30, 2009

Female Non-Profit Executives Narrow Gender Pay Gap

The United Way and the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management today released their latest survey on wages and benefits in the Pittsburgh region. In 2002, female executive directors of non-profits earned about 67 cents for every dollar earned by men. Today’s figure is up about a nickel to 72 cents.

The United Way’s Robert Nelkin says in spite of slow progress, it is good news that women are closing the gap. He thinks the survey will help because the first step in rectifying the inequity is awareness.

However, the recession makes this a very difficult time for non-profits, according to Nelkin, in four areas: increased need because of unemployment and underemployment, fewer donations, less state money for human services because of budget deficits, and difficulty in getting credit when cash is low.

The 2008 survey includes responses from almost 200 non-profits.

City Fight Latest Snowfall

Pittsburgh Public Works Director of Operations Rob Kaczorowski says he has salt trucks out on the city’s main streets and small trucks hitting the side streets in an effort to fight the storm that blew of stronger than expected this morning. He says the city is getting salt deliveries today and is not in danger of running out of materials. He says his drivers are tired but they are holding up and the equipment is also holding up well. Kaczorowski says he has not seen a series of storms this bad in 28 years. He says the temperatures never got above freezing and the mix of rain, ice and snow laid down a series of layers that were hard to remove. He says complaints that streets “have not been touched” are unfounded. He says he even took a ride with a city council member to show him where you could see that salt had been applied but it was not able to remove all of the snow and ice. He says people think streets have not been treated if they do not see bare pavement. He says that simply is not true.

More Pennsylvanians Uninsured

The number of Pennsylvania residents without health insurance has now eclipsed one million, according to a new Insurance Department study. The survey says 8.2% of Pennsylvania residents don't have health care coverage. Insurance Commissioner Joel Ario says 11.6% of adults are uninsured, while just 4.8% of children aren't covered. He says the state's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is the main reason for that disparity, and is urging lawmakers to increase funding for Pennsylvania's public coverage program for adults. Ario says right now more than one hundred thousand people are currently on the waiting list for AdultBasic coverage. “I think if we all stay flexible and try to work out some kind of situation that takes the waiting list, that's going to be up over 250-thousand people by the end of the year, and clears that waiting list or makes a substantial dent in it. That seems to be a necessity to do.” Says Ario. While most state officials are predicting major budget cuts this year, Ario says he's hopeful lawmakers can find a way to boost public insurance funding which Rendell has marked as a priority.

State Rep. Calls for Higher Charity Game Prize Limits

A state senator wants charities in Pennsylvania to have the opportunity to raise more money on “small games of chance.” For the second year in a row Rep. Ron Marsico has introduced a bill to raise the weekly prize limit for charity games from $5,000 to $20,000 while t the same time upping the single game payout from $500 to $1,000. Marsico says as the popularity of the games increase many fire companies, churches and other groups are hitting their prize limits 3 or 4 days into the week and they are being forced to shut down operations. He says with an ever-increasing need to raise larger amounts of money, charities cannot afford to stop fundraising mid week. The bill easily passed the house last year but then Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Gib Armstrong refused to call the bill in his committee. Armstrong retired in December and new committee chair Jake Corman says he will call the bill if it is passed by the house. The measure also allows a single building to play host to games of chance sponsored by more than one charity.

Union Officials Balk at State Layoffs

Labor leaders are taking issue with Governor Rendell's warnings about possible large-scale state employee layoffs. State AFL-CIO president Bill George says laying off state workers makes no sense, since Pennsylvania is expected to receive several billion dollars from the federal stimulus package that's being debated in Congress. But Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo says funding earmarked for construction, infrastructure improvements and other development can't simply be transferred to save those jobs. George doesn't buy that argument, and is vowing to do everything he can to prevent layoffs. Gerode says, “[Rendell] says he's still going to lay off people. Well let me tell you something. We're not going to stand still in this labor movement after we won this election based on the economy-to help people, to create jobs-and have this governor laying people off.” George says AFL-CIO leaders would consider asking the Obama Administration to withhold stimulus money from Pennsylvania, but Ardo says that sort of move would be "wrong on many levels."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Biggest Steeler Fan" Picked

VisitPittsburgh has announced the winner of its biggest Steelers fan contest. The top prize winner is Tina Kunst of Panama City Beach, Florida who wrote about her "Steeler-themed" wedding last May. Kunst wore a full Steeler yellow wedding gown and of course a Steeler garter. Her husband wore a tuxedo with a Steeler tie and the bridesmaids wore black with Steeler yellow jewelry. A giant Steeler helmet was used as the altar. The reception was held in a sports bar with 60 inch widescreen televisions showing a replay of Super Bowl XL (in which the Steelers defeated Seattle). Tina Kunst receives 2 tickets to a future Steeler game, a Steelers jersey and a Super Bowl XL game football. A VisitPittsburgh spokeswoman says they received more than 300 photo submissions and stories from across the U.S. including from Virginia, Florida, New York, Texas, Maryland and California.

Steeler Fans Attend Rally Downtown

Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh today held a "Cage the Cards" rally between Ross and Grant streets. Hundreds of Steelers fans gathered between the County Courthouse and the City County Building to cheer their team to victory in the super bowl. Area high school marching bands and cheerleaders were present to encourage the crowd and County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke "SteelerStahl" helped to lead chants and let fans know that there will be a victory parade if the Steelers win their 6Th super bowl. Money and non perishable foods were also collected in order to benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Fans also had the chance to throw eggs at a person in a cardinal suit and many fans had signs declaring the supremacy of the Steelers over the rest of the NFL.

Carnegie Mellon to Co-Host International "Game Jam"

The Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University will host the region's would-be video game designers tomorrow in an effort to spontaneously create a new video game. The event, called a "game jam" in the technology world, will be the first of its kind to link together simultaneous game jams from 50 different countries in 14 different time zones. Tracy Brown, coordinator of the event at Carnegie Mellon, says different rules and constraints will be imposed for each time zone that is participating, making the final product of each game jam quite different. However, streaming video feeds will allow crafters in different areas to discuss ideas and tie together various game designs. At the ETC, about 60 designers will be divided into teams that will complete various aspects of the game, such as art, coding, and sound editing. Brown says the theme of the event has been kept confidential for the sake of creative spontaneity. No experience is necessary to be part of the jam, which is scheduled to begin at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow and conclude at the same time on February 1.

Specter Urged to Vote YES on Stimulus

Several think tanks, advocacy groups and unions are calling on US Senator Arlen Specter to vote yes on the economic stimulus package when it comes up for a vote in the Senate. Among the organizations is the Keystone Research Center. Mark Price is a labor economist with the Center, which focuses on creating an “equitable Pennsylvania economy.” He says the state fared well in the first months of the recession but it is starting to feel the pinch. He says the state looks to be shedding 14,000 jobs a month. He says the stimulus package passed by the House will do a good job of creating much-needed jobs. Price says if past recessions can serve as a model, unemployment will continue to grow even after the recession is over. He says at best the unemployment rate will peak in 2010. If the recession is deeper than those seen in 1990 and 2001 the peak may not come until 2011. Price says it is important to combat unemployment early in the recession to lower numbers in out years.

Union Membership On the Rise

More Pennsylvanians are joining unions and establishing new ones according to a new report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2007 15.1% of Pennsylvania workers were unionized and in 2008 the number rose to 15.4% or 847,000 up from 830,000. The state's numbers reflect a national trend which saw membership jump by 428,000 to 16.1 million nationwide.

Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council says the numbers indicate that people are worried about their ability to make ends meet. He says workers are unionizing so that they have a voice where they work and can access greater job security and better health care and pension benefits. The report shows that government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than private sector employees and that workers in education, training and library jobs had the highest rate of unionization at 38.7%.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Carbon Sequestration Bill Introduced in Harrisburg

State Rep. Greg Vitali of Delaware County has introduced a bill he says will help “green up” the state when it comes to power production. The bill builds upon current law calling for 18.5% of all power sold in the state to be generated by renewable sources by 2021. This measure ups that to 20% by 2026 and requires at least 3% to come from solar. The bill then ventures into new territory by requiring at least 3% of the power sold in Pennsylvania be generated by coal-fired plants with carbon sequestration technology. To make sure there is a place for all that carbon, the bill calls on the state to build and run a carbon sequestration system. Vitali says when the state first issued its Alternative Energy Portfolio it was a national leader and by venturing into carbon sequestration it will once again find itself on the cutting edge. He says there is not enough incentive for a private business to run what will be a very expensive sequestration system but he thinks it is imperative that the state takes the lead. The Representative says it will take a lot of work and education to drum up the support he needs to pass the bill but he says it is well worth the effort.

3 Charged in Stolen Ticket Scheme

State agents have charged 3 Pittsburgh area residents with stealing tickets for popular shows at the Benedum Center and then reselling them via the internet. Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett says that 50 year old Vaughn Davis of the New Homestead section of Pittsburgh worked at the theater taking credit card orders over the telephone. Corbett says Davis would intercept the tickets to popular shows like "The Lion King" and his fiancee 47 year old Madge Hayes, also of New Homestead, would resell them through Craigslist and other online sites. 38 year old Patrick Conderato of Munhall then allegedly delivered the tickets and would split the money with Davis and Hayes. The investigation began last February when someone who bought tickets from Davis was refused entry to a show because the tickets had been reported missing by the original buyer.
Corbett says a raid of Hayes' and Davis' home turned up 25 unused tickets worth more than $1,700 plus handwritten notes with names, addresses and credit card numbers.
Pittsburgh Cultural Trust spokeswoman Veronica Corpuz says the Trust has reviewed its policies and practices to make sure this does not happen again. She says they feel this was a very rare incident impacting just a few of the more than 1 million tickets sold each year. Corpuz urged patrons to purchase tickets through the Trust at their website, hotline or box office rather than using a third party seller.

No-Name Calling Week Underway

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. That's the basic principle behind No-Name Calling Week, a national movement created by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The week focuses on starting dialogue among elementary and middle schoolers about the abuse and effects of name-calling and bullying. Participating teachers utilize exercises and projects from GLSEN's website to motivate students to start talking about the issue. GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard says one of the biggest projects of the week is a creative expression contest. She says the real goal of the week is to stop name-calling in elementary and middle schools before it becomes a larger issue in high schools. The week began on Monday, January 26th and runs through Friday, January 30th.

PRHI Sends Health Care Recommendations to Obama Administration

President Obama’s transition team gave the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative and two dozen similar groups around the country ten days to survey area health care providers and consumers about what reforms the new administration should undertake.

According to stakeholders, paying for prevention and good outcomes rather than volume will improve quality, and people should be encouraged to enter health care careers where there are shortages.

Electronic health records are crucial as well, according to respondents. President and CEO Karen Wolk Feinstein says everyone wants universal coverage, but it would mean a huge investment in a system that is 40% waste. She says everyone should get the care they need, but only the care they need according to best practices--and not redundant tests.

Fortunately, because of the federally qualified community health care clinics in the area, Feinstein says she’s never heard of anyone in the Pittsburgh region who absolutely couldn’t get health care, while other regions may not be so lucky.

A summary of the report is online, along with the full report.

Altmire to Vote 'Yes' on Obama Stimulus Plan

The proposed economic stimulus plan has a total of $825 billion in aid--$550 billion on new projects and $275 billion on tax cuts and the House vote on the bill is set for today. Local Congressman Jason Altmire (D-4th) is very much in favor of the plan. Last year he voted against the corporate bailout plan because he "didn't want to reward those people who got us into this mess in the first place." He supports this current stimulus plan because it includes an accountability mechanism which allows the government to track every dollar. Altmire also says the plan works because it involves improving sectors that need improvement anyway--modernization of schools, road and bridge repair, lock and dam repair, general infrastructure repairs, and Veteran's Affairs hospitals. He also says 95 percent of Western Pennsylvanians will see tax breaks. The congressman says despite the fact that President Obama has spoken with Republicans about the plan several times, he's not sure they will support the bill. Regardless, he says, the bill must be and will be passed.

Benedum Ticket Scam Alleged

A trio of Pittsburghers has been accused by state authorities of running a ticket selling scam out of the Benedum Center Box Office. Vaughn Davis (54), Madge Hayes (47) and Patrick Conderato (38) are charged with theft and computer crimes. The three allegedly stole tickets and resold them on various Internet sites. They also allegedly used customer credit card numbers to purchase additional tickets that they later resold. The investigation began after a customer was denied entrance to a show because the tickets he had purchased online had been reported missing by the original buyer.

Turzai Says No to New Shale Tax

Governor Rendell is floating the idea of new targeted taxes to help close the state's projected $2.3 billion budget gap including a tax on Marcellus Shale gas extractions. State Rep. Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods says that is a bad idea, “Here's an opportunity for a growth of an industry in Pennsylvania that benefits middle class families throughout the state. And he wants to stop its growth by taxing it? It makes no sense.” Rendell says he will not raise income taxes but wants to maintain services.

Republicans Tell Rendell to Cut, Not Tax.

Governor Rendell is preparing to deliver his annual budget address next week, but a group of House Republicans is dismissing the administration's plan for filling a $2.3 billion deficit. A group of conservative lawmakers led by Butler County Republican Daryl Metcalfe argue that excessive spending, and not the bad economy, created Pennsylvania's budget gap and Minority Whip Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods say, “The problem over the past six years is that he's [Rendell] been out of control. He's increased spending in the general fund alone by almost 40 percent, when the rate of inflation was less than 20 percent. And he's borrowed $6 billion that we're going to have to pay back to the tune of 10 billion.” Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo disagrees with that assessment, saying the state is spending money on necessary programs. “If these folks want to see us throw seniors out of nursing homes, they're entitled to that opinion. We happen to disagree.” Says Ardo. Rendell says he's against a broad-based tax, but is open to targeted levies. Turzai and Metcalfe say they'll oppose all tax increases.

Region Sees Delays and Cancellations

A mix of ice, snow and rain over night has prompted hundreds of delays and cancellations throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. Many schools that called a two-hour delay over night reevaluated in the morning and canceled classes all together. Pittsburgh Public Works Director Guy Costa says when the snow and ice turned to rain it began to was some of the salt off the streets forcing crews to retreat many main roads. By 7:00am salt trucks were starting to hit the side streets. Costa says conditions will improve after sunrise and once more traffic hits the streets. There have been reports of ponding in some areas where snow has clogged sewer grates. The ice forced the Port Authority to close its Allentown “T” line but the other lines are running as usual. There are delays on the bus routes. Pittsburgh had decided to delay trash pick up today. Anyone with a Wednesday pick will be serviced Thursday. Costa says crews will do a “double pickup” Thursday, hitting both the Wednesday and Thursday routes. Friday routes will be picked up as normal. Federal Courts in Pittsburgh are closed.

Landlord-Tenant Rules Change Slightly

Landlords, not the city of Pittsburgh, will keep records to prove they're encouraging responsible behavior from their tenants. The Pittsburgh Council has already approved legislation requiring landlords to inform tenants of the city's trash schedule. Councilman Bruce Kraus says that came following complaints that renters in Oakland were setting out their trash on the wrong days. The legislation requires landlords to review a fact sheet on the trash schedule with their tenants and have them sign it. Originally, those forms were going to be housed in Pittsburgh's Bureau of Building Inspection. But due to the tens of thousands of forms the regulation is expected to generate, a new bill would require instead that landlords keep the forms themselves.

The new rules are scheduled to take effect April 1st. Kraus says landlords who feel they've been cited unfairly will be able to make their case to an appeals board.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

City Council Holds Public Hearing

Pittsburgh City Council held a public hearing to discuss the rezoning of a 10-acre parcel of land in the Ridgemont section of the city. The rezoning would clear the way for the development of a condominium and townhouse community. The proposed development would be called City Vista at Parkway and would be partly in Green Tree and the city. The hearing heard from many residents who are not pleased with the proposal. They feel the development would add more unnecessary traffic to an area they say can not handle any more cars and would endanger the young children who play in the streets. The matter is to be voted on in city council within a week but will most likely be postponed until a city council representative is selected for the district. Former council member Dan Deasy won a State House of Representatives seat in the November Election. The special election for his former district is scheduled for next Tuesday.

Aliquippa Hospital Workers Get Some Backpay

Former Aliquippa Hospital workers were told by a bankruptcy court judge Tuesday that they will be getting at least some of the pay still owed to them. The hospital, now know as the Commonwealth Medical Center, filed for bankruptcy December 5th and shut it doors December 12th. Workers were scheduled to be paid December 12th but were told the checks would be delayed until the 15th. When the 15th came they were told there would be no check. Union members have been holding regular rallies in an effort to get the back pay, including one rally outside of bankruptcy court this morning. More than 30 ralliers were in the courtroom Tuesday morning when the judge ruled that they will be paid for any hours worked after the bankruptcy petition was filed December 5th and before the hospital closed its doors December 12th. Union organizer Linda Graham says the workers are owed between $120-130,000 for those days. Lawyers are still fighting to get the hospital to pay the union members for their work prior to December 5th, which for most workers was three weeks pay. That bill comes up to about $360,000. Hospital management has already been paid for pre bankruptcy work. Former emergency room nurse Linda Karamarkovich says the ruling from the judge was “fantastic” and shows their efforts in the last month and a half have paid off. Bankruptcy hearings continue Wednesday.

DEP Lifts Drought Watch

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ended the "drought watch" for western and central Pennsylvania today, after above-average precipitation in December reversed an autumn dry spell. The drought watch was put in place November 7 after some regions experienced rainfall as much as 8 inches below the average levels. DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun says the drought watch is the least serious of three drought classifications and asks only for a voluntary 5% reduction in water use. However, it still serves as a reminder for businesses and local government to moniter water use closely, should dry weather continue. In the rare case of a drought emergency, people are required to cease unnecessary water use such as washing cars, watering lawns and running fountains.

CEO of National Aviary Resigns

Linda Dickerson is leaving the top job at the National Aviary, effective immediately. She sent her resignation to the Aviary's board yesterday. Board chairman Mike Flinn says Dickerson's departure did not come as much of a surprise, but would not comment on any conflicts between them. Dickerson's resignation letter cited conflicts over business practices and recommended closing the Aviary's current capital campaign and delaying plans for construction.

The Aviary issued this statement today: "While we regret Linda's departure, we are appreciative of the contributions she has made to the National Aviary and its vision during her tenure with us and we wish her all the best."

Flinn says the $23 million capital campaign continues, although he acknowledges fundraising has been more difficult during the economic downturn. The Aviary broke ground on its expansion last fall and plans to open a new African penguin exhibit, called Penguin Point, in May.

Flinn says the board has a regularly scheduled meeting tonight and plans to make an announcement tomorrow about Dickerson's successor.

Additional 13 Weeks Federal Unemployment Coming to PA

Pennsylvania’s rising unemployment is bad news for the newly unemployed but good news for those who have been out of work for months. With December’s unemployment rate of 6.7%, Pennsylvania now qualifies for an additional 13 weeks of federal emergency unemployment compensation (EUC). The unemployed in all 50 states qualified for an additional 13 weeks compensation in June of 2008 and congress extend those benefits another 7 weeks in November to all Americans and 20 weeks to those in high unemployment states. At the time Pennsylvania’s relatively low unemployment meant PA residents were not eligible for the additional 13 weeks of payments. Pennsylvania now qualifies. Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry spokesperson David Smith says the law calls for the emergency payments to end in August but proposals have been made to extend the benefits to the end of the year as part of the economic stimulus package. Smith says the state has already handed out nearly $640-million in federal emergency unemployment benefits. He says anyone currently on unemployment will receive a notice that they qualify for the additional payments early next month.

Specter May Hold Keys to Holder

The confirmation process for Attorney General-designate Eric Holder has landed Pennsylvania's senior senator back in the national spotlight. Democrats say it's time for a vote on Holder but Republican Arlen Specter says he still has a lot of questions about President Obama's pick. Specter is the leading Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says he's not ready to make up his mind yet. He says nominees for Attorney General should be held to a higher standard than other Cabinet picks. “He's a different Cabinet officer. Other Cabinet officers carry out the president's policy. The Attorney General has a duty which is independent-to the people, and to the rule of law.” Says Specter who used to be the Philadelphia District Attorney and assistant to the Warren Commission. Further concerning Specter is Holder's role in a controversial pardon handed out to Marc Rich on the last day of the Clinton presidency. He says makes him wonder whether Holder has the qualities needed to hold the office wondering if, “Holder bent to try and please President Clinton.”

Monday, January 26, 2009

CDL's Made Easier for Members of Military

Starting today, members of the military who had been given the responsibility of driving a truck can skip a step when trying to get a Pennsylvania Commercial Driver’s Licenses. Returning veterans who are certified by the military to drive large commercial vehicles or have at least two years military experience driving trucks need only take the written test to get a CDL rather than having to pay for and take the state’s skills test. State Rep. Paul Costa says, “If the military trusts them so should we.” He says a pair of teamsters brought the idea to his attention two years ago, however, he had to wait until the controversy over leasing the Turnpike and tolling I-80 cooled before introducing the bill. He says everyone wanted the bill to pass but they were afraid it would be bogged down with amendments if it hit the floor too soon. The bill includes several other transportation related provisions including the elimination of the rule that licenses plates must be replaced every 10 years. Penn Dot says the current plates last longer than they used to and should only be replaced as needed. The change is expected to save the state $59-million over the next three years.

County Commissioners Set Priorities for 2009

Counties need another way to raise money locally, say municipal leaders meeting in Harrisburg today. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania is unveiling its legislative priorities for this year. Topping the list is a push to allow counties to implement a sales tax or personal income tax. The goal is to provide a revenue stream besides property taxes.

Other priorities include getting the state to pick up a larger share of the tab for court services, and funding for mass transit, roads and bridges.

Jim Kennedy is President of CCAP and a Butler County Commissioner. He says county leaders will be watching to see how the state resolves its budget shortfall, currently estimated at $2.3 billion. He says the solution should not be forcing counties to take a greater responsibility for the services they provide.

Walko to Pursue Problem-Solving Courts through Re-appointment

State Representative Don Walko (D-Allegheny) has been re-appointed by Speaker Keith McCall as chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts. Walko plans to utilize his position to push for more "problem-solving courts." These special courts are designed to treat and rehabilitate non-violent offenders without incarceration. Defendants receive services to help them turn their lives around. Walko says problem-solving courts such as drug court, veteran's court, and mental illness court have had great success and save counties money. Walko intends to offer legislation creating more funding for counties to develop problem-solving courts of their own.

Obama Makes Tougher Auto Emission Standards Possible

President Barack Obama today asked the EPA to review the Bush administration's December, 2007 rejection of California's tougher auto emission standards--standards which Pennsylvania and other states also adopted but could not put to work. John Hanger, Pennsylvania's Acting Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, says it will benefit Pennsylvanians in three primary ways: assuring that the very best, cleanest and most fuel-efficient cars are sold here; reducing the air pollution that sickens and kills citizens; and stabilizing energy costs by reducing the demand for fuel.

Some Pennsylvania Republican state senators have said the new standard would be "potentially costly and unnecessary", but Hanger says initial vehicle costs are not higher and when higher technology kicks in, any added cost is recovered, and then some, because the cars use less fuel.

Hanger says some cars sold in other states already meet the higher standards, so he expects to see them in Pennsylvania showrooms very soon.

Solar Energy Initiatives in City

Pittsburgh is now directing money from a $400,000 Department of Energy grant it received in 2007 to install a solar hot water tank into a city facility. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says the best candidates are currently Fire House 29 in Westwood or Truck 34 in Woods Run to receive the solar technology. He says a final decision will come in the near future, with the tank being installed by late summer or early fall.

Ravenstahl says this project is the first of many, and it is to show that Pittsburgh is in fact a viable source for solar energy and the city is capable of doing it. From there, the mayor says he hopes to expand the technology to other city facilities, and eventually, to homeowners and small businesses.

Dowd Questions Potential Lease of City Garages

Last week, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl expressed his interest in privatization of Parking Authority-owned garages. This privatization, said Ravenstahl, could yield the city several hundred million dollars which he would use to eliminate debt and shore up a floundering pension fund.

City Councilman Patrick Dowd opposes this idea. Dowd believes the composition of the Parking Authority board—which would have the final vote on the matter—needs to be ironed out. He says one of the spots on the board ought to be appointed to a city councilperson.

Dowd also wants to further understand the garage-leasing strategy. The councilman says he’s concerned about possible rate increases if the city turns over control of the garages and what that could mean for Downtown businesses.

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority voted to hire a consultant to look into the effects of garage leases on Friday.

Boat Moves Like a Larva

The movement of a beetle larva inspired researchers at The University of Pittsburgh to build a boat that is propelled without the help of any moving parts. Sung Kwon Cho, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Pitt engineering doctoral students Sang Kug Chung and Kyungjoo Ryu learned that the larvae move by creating an imbalance in surface tension to propel themselves across water. The larva changes the surface tension by changing the shape of its body but Cho decided to use an electrical charge instead. The mini-boat created by the team is 2 centimeters long but Chung says someday it could be used on a much larger scale to allow boats to enter waters that until now were inaccessible. On the other hand, he says it may also be possible to miniaturize a surface tension boat that could be placed into blood vessels for medical purposes. Video of the boat can be found on the university's website:

PA Game Commission Weighs Bats and Wind Power

With the Obama administration pushing for more alternative energy, many think Pennsylvania is well positioned as wind turbine construction increases over the next few years. At the same time environmentalists are worried what that could do to wildlife. In response the state Game Commission is trying to work with energy companies to make sure the structures don't harm wildlife. Some bat and bird experts say poorly placed turbines can drastically reduce a region's bird and bat population. Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser says the agency is working with more than twenty wind energy companies to find suitable locations. Right now there are no state regulations regarding windmills and wildlife. Feaser says, “We stepped forward to make sure that we were going to do what we needed to do to protect wild birds and mammals. And so far, with few exceptions, the wind energy companies have stepped forward to voluntarily work with us to avoid, minimize and mitigate those impacts on wild birds and mammals, and their habitats.” Feaser says over the past year, companies have voluntarily moved locations out of respect for migration routes at least three times.

Reps. Say State Layoffs Counterproductive.

Legislative leaders say they're not surprised by news the state will likely face a $2.3 billion budget shortfall this year, but some Republicans disagree with Governor Rendell's suggestion that job cuts are needed. The governor says state employees may have to be laid off to balance the budget. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi says he takes issue with that. The Chester and Delaware county Republican says he doesn't see how the state can use money from President Obama's federal stimulus package in the budget, and reduce jobs at the same time. He says, “His primary objective, as I have heard him, is to make sure that people are able to continue working, and that people who have lost their jobs are able to find gainful employment. Again, laying off state workers seems at odds with that.” House Majority Leader Todd Eachus says Democrats agree with the governor on the fact that every agency will have to trim its sails. “There are things that we're going to have to take a look at, that are core services that you can't cut. But as it relates to all agencies, and efficiency of departments, I think everything's on the table.” Says Eachus. State employees haven't been laid off in large numbers since the early 1990s. Rendell says just about the only thing not on the table is a hike on income tax.

"Steelers Opera"

With 6 days to go until Super Bowl 43 DUQ's Bob Studebaker has found a new Steeler's song, an opera, written by Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of voice Douglas Ahlstedt, who also also offers some timely advice for fans to protect their voices while watching the game. Listen to the full-length story here.

Carson Homestead Pushes for Pesticide Reform

In cooperation with Beyond Pesticides and the Pesticide Action Network North America, the Rachel Carson Homestead Association (RCHA) is sending a statement to President Barack Obama regarding the regulation of pesticide use in the United States. The document makes recommendations for pending pesticide legislation and offers suggestions for alternatives to be used in the future. The white paper, about 35 pages long, was delivered to the Obama Transition Team on January 9th. RCHA Executive Director Patricia DeMarco says agricultural pesticide use can harm farm workers, or even the children of farm workers. Toxic substances like pesticides also have negative effects on insect pollinator populations that form a vital part of many food webs -- including our own. DeMarco says the U.S. government should act now by replacing harmful pesticide use with benign alternatives where it is viable.

Health Department Offers Free Nicotine Patches

Starting February 2nd, the Pennsylvania Department of Health will be giving in-state smokers free nicotine patches while supplies last. Health Dept. spokeswoman Brandi Hunter-Davenport says the supply of patches are expected to last about a month. Those interested should call 1-800-784-8669, where they will answer a series of questions determining what strength and type of patches they should receive; in addition, participants must set their own quit date. Each package contains a four-week supply of patches. The give away comes as a follow up to "Determined to Quit Week," Jan. 25-31, in which smokers can learn about the resources the Health Dept. has to offer those who are quitting. Additional information and quitting resources can be found at the department's website.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Living Wage Fight

With the new Democratic White House and gains made by the party in the House and Senate, many activists are hoping life will improve for those on the lowest rungs of the employment ladder. DUQ's Mark Nootbaar takes a look at some of the efforts underway in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Listen to the full-length story here.

Pennsylvania Bats in Danger?

There's evidence that a deadly bat disorder known as White Nose Syndrome that's killed hundreds of thousands of bats in New York and New England may be spreading to Pennsylvania. Many of the stricken bats have a fungus on their noses and wings, though it's not known if that's a symptom or a cause.

Infected bats in other areas leave their hibernacula in winter for unknown reasons, according to Jerry Feaser of the PA Game Commission. With exposure to cold and no available food, they soon deplete their fat reserves and die.

There's no sign Pennsylvania bats are leaving prematurely, but some have the whitish fungus and are moving to cave entrances--a possible precursor to departure.

Recovering from a huge die-off--90% of some colonies-- will be difficult because bats have only one pup a year. Feaser says bats are crucial to the environment because they eat millions of insects that destroy crops and can make it miserable for people to be outside. Scientists are monitoring and researching but don't yet know if they can help bats overcome the disease.

Smoking Complaints Generate Warning Letters

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has sent 329 warning letters to facilities that may not be complying with the Clean Indoor Air Act that went into effect in September.

Spokesperson Tracy Kriedeman calls them informational letters advising that a complaint has been received and offering help and information about how to comply with the law. If another complaint is received, there's an investigation by the agency that has jurisdiction. Fines range from $250 to $1000. Kriedeman says enforcement is already underway, with the first investigations due to conclude soon. She says it's important to remember that the intent of the Clean Indoor Air Act is to safeguard the health of employees and patrons.

Some establishments are exempt from the law.

Windber Firm is Raided by Feds

Federal agents raided the offices of Kuchera Industries and Kuchera Defense Systems yesterday but would not tell the media why. The FBI, IRS and Defense Criminal Investigation Services agents also raided the homes of CFO Ron Kuchera and Chief Executive Bill Kuchera. The brothers say they do not know why they were raided. The two companies are based in the Western Pa town of Windber.

YSU Cuts Rates For Nearby Counties

Youngstown State says the out-of-state surcharge will be reduced from $1,692 to just $200 for students enrolling from homes in eight Pennsylvania counties that are near the Ohio border. The tuition breaks will go to Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Crawford, Erie, Lawrence, Mercer and Venango county residents. In-state tuition for YSU is $6,921 a year. The reduction goes into effect with the fall semester.

PA Unemployment Up

The state's rate of job loss hit an 18-year high in 2008, and the unemployment rate in December was the highest since March, 1994. Over the last year, the state shed 76,000 jobs, which was about 1 percent of the state’s workforce. The unemployment rate jumped to 6.7%. That compares to 4.4% in December 2007. Despite the bad numbers, Pennsylvania looks good compared to the nation as a whole, which lost 2% of its jobs in 2008 and is facing a 7.2% jobless rate.

Rendell: Layoffs Now an option

Back in mid-December, the Rendell Administration said the commonwealth's anticipated revenue shortfall would be $1.6 billion. But over the course of the month, that figure has grown by 700 million dollars and now stands at $2.3 billion. With the higher number, Governor Rendell now says layoffs of state employees are for the first time on the table. Rendell says in order to rein in the budget, everything will be on the table, "There will be some layoffs, and there will be universal pain. And we can try to get ready for it--and I don't want to hear whining. I don't want to hear whining. I think everyone has to tighten their belts." One thing not on the table is an income tax increase. “The legislature could pass one, but I am not going to submit a budget on February 4th that has a broad-based tax increase in it,” says Rendell. Instead, the Governor will likely suggest placing a tax on smokeless tobacco or on natural gas extractions from the Marcellus Shale. He also predicts the state will fill budget gaps with federal stimulus funding.

State Explains Why it Did Not Like Highmark Merger

A day after Independence Blue Cross and Highmark pulled the plug on what would have been the largest health insurance merger in state history, Pennsylvania's top insurance official said he was prepared to reject the deal. Joel Ario says his department was reviewing the Highmark/Independence merger on seven different criteria. It passed five but failed on two important aspects--competition and impact on the insurance-buying public. Ario says if the two providers began operating as one company, insurance consumers would have had fewer choices. Ario says the health insurance market is already too limited, with car, home, life and other forms of insurance having dozens of providers in Pennsylvania, while only a small group of companies dominate the health insurance field. The merged company would have held 51 percent of the state's market share. The providers argued they did not go head to head in any market, but Governor Ed Rendell countered that with the merger, they never would. Ario says when it came down to it, bigger wasn't better for Commonwealth consumers.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Levels of Total Dissolved Solids In Monongahela River Drop

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has announced that since October levels of total dissolved solids, or TDS have dropped well below state and federal guidelines. In October the DEP discovered high levels of TDS in the Monongahela river. The high levels of TDS were detected between the West Virginia border and the confluence in Pittsburgh. The DEP said the high levels were because of low precipitation and run off from mines. The TDS levels have been tested for three weeks at well below the levels outlined by the DEP.

Total dissolved solids in water does not pose a known health risk but can make water look, smell and taste differently. Normally solids such as carbonates, chlorides, sulfates, nitrates, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium are found dissolved in the water. The limit for TDS is set at 500 parts per million. In December levels were tested at 110 ppm to 196 ppm as opposed to October levels that reached as high as 908 ppm in some parts of the river.

Kane Regional Center Opens New Care Unit

The John J. Kane Regional Center at Scott has opened a brand new Transitional Care Unit in order to provide rehabilitation services to patients who are on their way out of a hospital or nursing home and on their way back to their homes. The TCU has 26 private rooms and a specially trained staff that is available to help prepare patients to live at home. Patients will stay at the TCU for around one month. The TCU is within the same facility as the Kane Regional Center and has been completely renovated over the last year and has been open and operating for just longer than 2 months.

State Board Of Education Makes Reccomendations On Making College More Affordable

The State Board of Education has unveiled a proposal to help college students fight debt. The boards Higher Education Counsel has been researching college affordability for many months, surveying students and looking at the states cost of higher education compared to the national average.

The study found that students in Pennsylvania are graduating with an average of $19,047, which is the second highest out of the 50 states.

The study recommends a "no-frills" approach to college. The study believes a college that offers an accelerated bachelors program that would go year round with no sports teams, "glittering fitness centers," or extracurriculors. The study held multiple public hearings and heard from many current students and recent graduates.

The Board of Education found that students are finding ways to finance a college such as using credit cards to pay for books and other related costs. The board made nine recommendations that the state will consider that include the accelerated bachelors program, monitoring of credit card marketing on college campuses and increased state financial aid.

Murtha: No Problem With Gitmo Detainees in PA Prisons

U.S. Representative John Murtha says he would not have any qualms if the Guantanamo detainees were transferred to a prison in his Congressional district. The Johnstown Democrat, a strong critic of the war in Iraq, praised today's signing by President Barack Obama of an executive order to shutdown the Guantanamo Detention Center within a year. The President also signed orders to review the military trials of terror suspects and ban the harshest interrogation methods.
Congressman Murtha, who heads the House Subcommittee that funds the military, says there's no reason not to put the Gitmo detainees in prisons in the United states and handle them the same way as other prisoners. Murtha says the Bush Administration never understood what the Guantanamo detention facility symbolized to the rest of the world "they saw it as simply a prison" and "the problem with Guantanamo is that its very existence stains and defies the moral fiber of our great nation."

Visitors flock to The Carnegie Museums in 2008

Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh set a new record for annual admissions at its four museums last year. More than 1.1 million people visited the facilities, breaking the previous 2001 record of just more than a million visitors. Betsy Momich, spokeswoman for the museums, says the increase could be attributed to the seven-month run of the Carnegie International art exhibit, as well as the final phase of the opening of "Dinosaurs in Their Time," a long-awaited natural history museum upgrade. The BODIES exhibition at the Carnegie Science Center also attracted national attention and 266,000 visitors. Momich says the admissions record speaks for the cultural value of the city, not just for residents, but for over 200,000 out-of-town guests. Momich says the re-opening of the Bruce Galleries and SportsWorks should help make 2009 another very successful year for the museums.

Connector Won't Connect without Federal Funds

The Allegheny County Port Authority will halt work on the North Shore Connector over the next year if they fail to get $117.8 million dollars from the federal government's stimulus package. The Port Authority budgeted $435 dollars for the project in 2005. But PAT spokes person Judi McNeil says they could not have anticipated the skyrocketing cost of concrete and fabricated steel that make up most of the overruns.

So far, PAT has committed approximately $300 million to the project and has finished the tunneling portion of the Connector. McNeil says they are working with the Congressional delegation and Transit Administration to make sure their voice is heard when the federal dollars are made available. She says that every month the project is delayed will add an extra $3 million to the cost overruns. The Connector includes an underwater transit line from downtown to the north shore and three new "T" stations. It was slated to begin service in 2011.

Reduction in Hospital-Acquired Infections Attributed to Quality Improvement Efforts

As per a report produced by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, Pennsylvania hospitals lowered their rates of infection by about 8 percent. The Hospital Council of Western PA, a coalition of medical facilities in the region, attributes this decrease to special programs and improved patient care quality. Spokesperson for the Hospital Council Pat Raffaelle says participation in programs such as the Institute for Health care Improvement’s “5 Million Lives” campaign and the Highmark-sponsored “Quality Blue” program has really brought hospitals to focus on infection prevention. She says public awareness also plays a role because people are now doing things like washing their hands before visiting patients. Raffaelle expects the infection rate to continue to decline in coming years and says the ultimate goal is lower the infection rate to zero.

Report: Hospital-acquired Infections Dropped in 2007

A report by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) shows that the rates of hospital-acquired infections in PA hospitals declined in 2007 by about 8 percent. According to the report, infections decreased from a reported 30,237 in 2006, to 27,949 in 2007. That 2007 rate is about 19.2 infections for every 1,000 patients. PHC4’s detailed analysis also discovered that infection rates for Urinary Tract Infections (UTI), Bloodstream Infections, Pneumonia, and Surgical Site Infections all dropped significantly, while Gastrointestinal Infections stayed about the same. Spokesperson Stephanie Suran says the report does not pinpoint the reason for this drop, but she believes it is due to hospitals’ more stringent focus on infection prevention. The full report is available at

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Highmark and Independence Kill Deal

Pennsylvania insurance providers Highmark and Independence Blue Cross say they are withdrawing their merger applications with the Pennsylvania Insurance Department. The heads of the two companies say they feel the merger is still very advantageous but believe the state will not approve the deal as they had hoped. The merger was proposed more than a year and a half ago and the state has held 10 public hearings including one in Pittsburgh in July. The CEO's of both insurance providers say they felt the state would reject the merger on the grounds that it would hurt competition. In a statement they say, "We fundamentally disagree" and "This is genuinely disappointing." Highmark's client base is strongest in the Pittsburgh market and IBS is focused mostly in the Philadelphia area however, the two companies do overlap in the center of the state. A decision from the Insurance Department was expected Jan. 28th. That decision was expected to allow the merger but with the stipulation that the merged company not use the "Blue Cross" brand. In the statement IBS says it has worked for "more than 70 years developing our brands' value..." and "Throughout the process, we have stated repeatedly that we would not give up one of our brands."

Duquesne Light Offers Free Energy Audits

Starting this month, Duquesne Light is offering a free energy conservation program to customers whose income falls between 150 and 250 percent of Federal Poverty Guidelines, which are based on income and the number of people in the household.

To set up a free energy audit, call the company's Universal Services Department at 888-393-7600. Duquesne Light spokesman Joseph Vallarian says Conservation Consultants will walk through your home or apartment and point out ways to save money. Easy fixes may include plastic sheeting on windows to reduce drafts, adding insulation, or changing the furnace filter.

Vallarian says Duquesne Light also has programs for paying the bills, but it's very important to call at the first sign of a problem.

PennDOT Makes Wish List

With President Obama now in office, and expected to push an infrastructure stimulus package, PennDOT has prepared by making a list of how to spend the possible money. Thus far, PennDOT is seeking for approximately $1.5 billion in funding for road and bridge projects through the state, including almost $200 million for projects within Allegheny County.

PennDOT Spokesperson Jim Struzzi reminds everyone that the list is preliminary, and it has been made to ensure that additional funding would be spent properly if they received it. He says most of projects listed within Allegheny County are existing projects that need more funding.

Key county projects include the North Side expansion and upgrade of Route 28, the Fort Duquesne Bridge upgrade, the re-organization of the Routes 22-30-60 interchange in Robinson, and Liberty Tunnel updates.

Land Trust Becomes Nonprofit

The Westmoreland Land Trust has received nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service. This means funding will be a much easier process for them, and donations will be tax-deductible.

Chuck Duritsa, chair of the Land Trust Board, says the organization's purpose is to preserve open space in Westmoreland County. Attaining more property faster is now underway, and their potential land acquisitions are coming from both purchases and donations. He says the year-old Land Trust is unique to the county because it serves only the county and exists only for one sole purpose.

Memorial Medical Center Cuts 47 Employees

Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown laid off 47 employees yesterday, blaming the weak economy for the job cuts. The 47 employees make up about 1 percent of the hospital’s 3,700 person staff. The layoffs consist primarily of support positions and do not include hospital nursing staff.
The affected employees have been offered generous severance packages and will be provided with career counseling and job placement assistance with some of the employees being offered internal job opportunities.
Memorial Medical President Steve Tucker says through a press release, “Careful planning went into this process and our goal was to maintain as many jobs as possible while meeting our fiscal responsibilities in this unprecedented economic environment.”
On a statewide scale, many hospitals are feeling similar effects from the economic downturn. 50 percent of Pennsylvania hospitals have reported a moderate to significant decrease in admissions, particularly elective procedures.
Similarly, hospitals across the state have also reported a moderate to significant increase in patients without insurance. Conemaugh Health System provides over $34 million in uncompensated care each year, in addition to over $2 million in charity care.
This could lead to other cost-cutting measures for Memorial Medical Center including adjustments to employee benefit packages and a possible salary-based tiered health care program sources say.
“These are really challenging times,” adds Tucker, “and this current national economic challenge does not change our commitment to continue to grow and excel!”
Historically, hospitals have depended on profit from investments to offset a decline in income. However, 83 percent of PA hospitals have seen an investment decline.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Allegheny County Launches New Website

Allegheny County has launched a new website titled "Help in Hard Times" in order to provide resources for families who are affected by the struggling economy. The website provides information and access to programs that help with employment, food, housing, utility assistance, health care and more. The county has already been giving this information out to people who ask but thought it would be easier if they made it available online. The website can be found at

VisitPittsburgh Searches for No.1 Steelers Fan

Pittsburgh's convention and tourism bureau is looking for the most enthusiastic Steelers fan in the world, says spokeswoman Beverly Morrow-Jones. VisitPittsburgh is accepting videos and photographs of extreme team spirit from now until January 28th. The winner of the contest will receive two tickets to a future home game, a Steelers jersey and a Super Bowl XL game ball. this is the second time VisitPittsburgh launched a fan search. The first was three years ago when the Steelers were in Superbowl XL. Creativity is encouraged in contestants. The winner of the 2006 contest carved pumpkins into football helmets and wore them to October home games. Morrow-Jones says there are more than 800 Steelers bars across the world, and the 2006 contest drew fans from as far away as Alaska and New Zealand.

Duquesne University Celebrates Obama's Inaugaration

As Barack Obama was being inaugurated in Washington D.C. students and faculty gathered at Duquesne University to share in the historical inauguration. Onlookers watched via web cast from CNN and afterward shared poems, songs, and spoken word performances celebrating the election of the nations first African American President. Many people expressed great amounts of inspiration and said how President Obama has affected their lives. The program was organized through the efforts of two student organizations wanted to create a place to celebrate President Obama's inauguration.

Coroner Requests More Room

Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha says his facility lacks sufficient space for the bodies he must store. He wants the county to build a new morgue and coroner's office with up-to-date equipment and more refrigeration trays. Currently, bodies are stored in the morgue at Westmoreland Manor, a county-owned nursing home. There are four refrigerated drawers at that locations, three of which can be used to store bodies. Bacha says he wants a new facility with about 18 storage drawers. He says the more space is needed because of an increase in caseload and an increase in the length of time bodies must be kept at the morgue. Bacha has spoken with Westmoreland County Commissioners about his need for more space, but no formal request for a new facility has been made.

Tax Time is Coming

Tax forms are starting to arrive in mailboxes and the IRS has a few reminders, as you get ready to start work on your 1040. IRS Spokesperson David Stewart says the first thing to do is grab a folder and start putting all of the W-2’s, 1099’s and tax statements into the folder so you will be ready when its time to get down to work. He says the next stop should be the IRS.GOV web page. He says every from you will ever need is there along with instructions, tips and a long list of tools. Among those tools are links to free electronic filing software for people making less than 56 thousand dollars a year. He says 70-percent of Pennsylvania filers qualify for that free service. The software takes you through the tax forms in a question or answer format. Stewart says everyone qualifies for a new service on IRS.GOV called “fillable forms.” He says the on-line forms are exactly the same as the printed forms but they do the math for you and can be filed electronically for free. One of the biggest changes to this years tax form is a deduction for first time homebuyers.

Free Tuition Program a "Success"

15 displaced workers in the Johnstown area have stepped forward to claim a free education at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. The School announced it would provide a year’s worth of free full-time tuition to any worker who lost a job in the last year due to the faltering economy. The program was announced January 5th and enrollment ended just 9 days later. College President Walter Asonevich says in that short period of time 100 people inquired about the program and 15 enrolled. He says the school will offer the program at the beginning of each semester for at least the next year. Asonevich says the program will allow many people who could not even think about getting a degree or certificate a chance to improve themselves. He says he expects many more to enroll in the summer and the fall. The school will make sure everyone knows the 15 new students and will make sure they are hooked up with every assistance and support program available to them. CCAC has also launched a similar program for displaced workers in Allegheny County. Enrollment for that program ends in March.

Rendell and Casey Look to Grow Ties With Obama

"Yes We Did" was the theme of Pennsylvania Democrats' Inaugural celebration in Washington D.C. on the eve of the swearing in ceremony. Both Governor Ed Rendell and Senator Bob Casey voiced their high hopes for an Obama Administration. Gov. Rendell says Pennsylvania can claim a special role in electing Barack Obama. He says after all the resources the McCain campaign poured into the commonwealth, when it was called for Obama just after eight pm, he knew the Illinois Senator was headed to the White House. “He told me a couple weeks later that he knew at 8:06, too. So we think we were the ones that put Senator Obama over the top and we're real proud of that.” Rendell says he's hopeful that Pennsylvanians will benefit from the economic stimulus package Obama says he'll be pushing for upon being sworn in to office. Senator Casey agrees, and says the new president will have allies on Capitol Hill when that bill comes up for a vote. “I think there's a lot of unanimity across party lines to stimulate the economy. I think we'll have a lot of support for it.” Many analysts expect Casey to work closely with the Obama Administration. The two senators developed a close bond during the campaign and are said to often share a basketball court.

Inauguration Charter

Americans are coming from all over the nation, including the Pittsburgh area, to witness the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. DUQ's Alexandria Chaklos spoke with Denise Norris of Moon Township before she headed for Washington.

Listen to the full-length story here.

PA Does its Part For the Inauguration

National Guardsmen are spread out all across Washington, DC, directing traffic and helping with crowd control including a large contingent from Pennsylvania. With 13-hundred Pennsylvania Guardsmen and women taking part in Task Force Anacostia no other state has more Guard members assigned to the inauguration duties. Colonel Regis Cardiff is running the operation, and says there's a lot of coordination involved among not only the Air Force and Army, but also Secret Service, District Police and FEMA. He says while the rest of the city is soaking up the week's historic significance, the Guard is there to do a job. Adam Korb of Clearfield County is charged with refueling the more than one hundred vehicles the Guard drove down from Pennsylvania and he says there will not be much time for reflection on the day’s events. “More focused on what I'm doing right now, definitely. Dealing with fuel--it's not a joke. You can really mess a lot of things up. So you've got to focus on your job at hand.” In addition to manning traffic posts, Pennsylvania Guardsmen and women are coordinating three charter bus staging areas during the Inauguration.

First Lady's Career Projected

While Americans are curious as to how effective Barack Obama will be as president, people are also wondering what kind of first lady Michelle Obama will be. Will she be outspoken? quiet? confident? politically active? Also, how will the media portray her? DUQ's Kevin Gavin spoke with Lisa Burns, a former DUQ reporter and now Associate Professor of Media Studies at Quinnipiac University about her book: "First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives." Listen to the full stories here.

Inauguration Theme of Downtown Exhibition

An exhibition at the Future Tenant gallery downtown is based around a presidential theme. "Sworn In" opened on Friday. Curator Lauri Mancuso says she began planning it long before anyone knew how the election would turn out. She says Future Tenant contacted her about a year ago to invite her to be a guest curator, and January 2009 happened to be open. When she began brainstorming ideas, the inauguration came to mind. And although she says at the time no one knew who was going to win, she says she had a feeling that the inauguration would be a special time.

The exhibition consists of oil paintings on canvas. Mancuso says she modeled it after the White House art collection; she wanted to create a parlor-type setting. Artists created portraits. Mancuso says there are a few of Barack Obama. But she says the theme may be less clear in some other works. Some artists interpreted the theme to imagine the type of art they would like to see in the White House collection. The exhibition runs through February 14th.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tech Companies Go to the Birds

The National Aviary is partnering with the Pittsburgh Technology Council to help create more up-to-date exhibitions and stage performances. The move comes in conjunction with Phase One of the aviary's $23 million dollar expansion project, which should be completed in the spring of 2010. Erin Estell, the Manager of Community Outreach at the aviary, says they need the advice of the Technology Council because their own technological knowledge is quite limited. Estell says some features of the expansion would be an indoor theater with cutting-edge lights and sounds, along with improved exhibits. The Technology Council will tour the aviary January 26th to brainstorm and develop ideas.

Steelers Shop Sees Super Sales

Following the Steelers 23-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in last night’s AFC Championship game, some local sportswear stores have really picked up. Marcia Feinberg, of the Mike Feinberg Company located in the Strip district says sales have been steady throughout the playoffs, but have really jumped today. Party items and Steelers clothing have been the top sellers. Feinberg says she expects sales to increase over the next two weeks. The Steelers are set to take on the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals February 1st in Tampa Bay.

Lillian Allen Inauguration Feature

The inauguration of a black president is something one Oakland resident thought she would never see in her 99--or is it 100?--years. Here she is, talking to DUQ's Charlee Song recently.

Listen to the full-length story here.

Scotch-Irish Preacher to Deliver Martin Luther King Jr. Day Message at Baptist Minister’s Conference

At 12:30 today Dr. Jerry O’Neill, president of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary on Penn Avenue in Point Breeze, will be the first person not of African-American descent to speak at the Baptist Minister’s Conference. O’Neill is scheduled to give the Martin Luther King Jr. Day message to his fellow preachers. The doctor, who is from Scotch-Irish roots, says he will avoid talking about changes in policy and speak more on how Jesus Christ changes hearts. He says although it is important to have legislation which encourages better race relations, true reconciliation requires a change of heart through Christ. The Conference is being held at Calvary Baptist Church on Wylie Ave. in Pittsburgh.

Friday, January 16, 2009

South Hills High Transformed

After more than 20 years of standing vacant, the former South Hills High School in Mount Washington will become a senior housing complex.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority agreed to the sale and finance of the building yesterday. URA's Director of Real Estate Kyra Straussman says the structure, which was both large and old, was vacant for such a long time partly because of difficulties in finding a "good fit." There were also difficulties in finding proper funding for the project. Thanks to Senator Wayne Fontana's push and the approval of state housing tax credits, the project is now underway.

Despite the long period of time it went unused, Straussman says "the bones of the building are in pretty good shape." There will be some demolition and reconstruction that takes place, in order to make room for a parking lot and to eliminate unnecessary spaces such as an auditorium, but some areas of the school will be preserved. Straussman says these spots may be recognizable to South Hills High graduates.

County STD Reports bring Good News

The Pennsylvania Department of Health saw an increased number of reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly gonorrhea and chlamydia, in 2007. However, preliminary reports from 2008 within Allegheny County show either decreasing or more slowly increasing rates in these diseases.

County Health Department Spokesperson Guillermo Cole says it's extremely important that sexually active people get checked, even if they are not showing signs of symptoms. He says because gonorrhea and chlamydia are often asymptomatic, many people may have it and not know it. Cole says the efforts to contain and control the spread of syphilis is paying off, with a number of 36 reported cases in 2008, down from the record high of 71 reported cases in Allegheny County in 2006. He says chlamydia cases rose by 5 percent from 2007 to 2008, a much smaller jump than 20 percent in 2006-2007 reports. Also, preliminary numbers show that gonorrhea cases may have leveled off in 2008, but it is too soon to tell because final numbers are not yet in.

Cole says two-thirds of cases are in teens and young adults, from ages 18 to 24. It's important to note that multiple sexual partners and/or unprotected sex increases risk of disease. The County STD Clinic located in Oakland and is open Monday through Friday. They take walk-in appointments, stay confidential, and everything is free of charge. For more information, call (412) 687-ACHD.

Study Says CLP May Need to Right Size

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh asked the RAND Corporation to study is income and spending and rand came back with a list of ideas. Chief among them was a right sizing of the system. Also near the top of the list was finding new revenue sources considering a merger of the more than 40 independent libraries in the county. Carnegie Library president Barbara K. Mistick says a merger would be very difficult. The Carnegie Library system has 19 branches and a $26 million budget. More than half of the budget comes from the Allegheny Regional Asset District. The district gets it’s funding from a sales tax, which is expected to slump in the soft economy. Funding from the state is also on the decline. Mistick said the Center for Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University will conduct such a right-sizing study within six months.

Casino Milestone

The Rivers Casino has made great strides in progress, with the final beam of the parking garage being placed today. The casino's general manager, Ed Fasulo, says the project is on time and on budget to open this August. Construction started in March of last year.

Fasulo says there are 450 construction workers contributing to the project. Many of them are working today, with a blast furnace heating them through the blistering cold weather. Also, over the next month, he says he's expecting all external construction to be finished.

PA Could Benefit From Inauguration

The economic impact of next week's Inauguration is reaching into Pennsylvania. The Inaugural weekend officially gets underway with a ceremony at Philadelphia's 30th Street train station. Meryl Levitz is the President and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. She says while she doesn't think the event will provide any immediate economic boost for the city, it's yet another high-profile presidential milestone that's taking place there. Levitz points out President-elect Barack Obama gave a major speech and held a debate in Philadelphia, and also met with governors at Independence Hall right after the election. The Inauguration is having a more immediate effect elsewhere. Robin Scaer, the Marketing Director for the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau, says hotels in Dauphin, York and Adams County are all approaching full capacity for Washington visitors looking for cheaper options within driving distance of the big event. Scaer say she's hoping those visitors will enjoy their stay, and then return to the region this summer for a longer vacation.

Lawmakers Balk over Rendell Hire

Republican lawmakers are criticizing Governor Rendell for appointing a former Democratic House member to a newly created state position while the state is in a hiring freeze. But the governor insists he did the right thing. Former state Representative Dan Surra lost a reelection bid in November, but now makes 95-thousand dollars a year promoting northern Pennsylvania tourism in a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources post. Cumberland County representative Glen Grell is one of six Republicans who have sent a letter to Rendell, asking him to respect his self-imposed hiring freeze and rescind the job. Grell says the appointment left him scratching his head. “I'm disappointed because for months I've been defending the governor and actually complementing him for being proactive and imposing the hiring freeze. And banning out of state travel and doing other things, like asking agencies to cut back.” But Rendell says he's allowed to make appointments, arguing Surra is filling a vital need in his new job. “I reserved the right when I announced the hiring freeze to make exceptions. We have made a number of exceptions. This is the first one for anybody who has held office.” Rendell says he didn't interview anyone else for the job or seek applications, but says he has the right to fill his administration with the people he feels will do the best job.

CareerLink Lab Helps Unemployed File Claims

Pittsburgh's PACareerLink office downtown is offering assistance for people filling out unemployment compensation claims. The pilot program provides a lab dedicated solely to filing claims, with trained staff available to help claimants with the filing process. The lab is open from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM Monday through Friday and is located in the Regional Enterprise Tower at 425 Sixth Ave., 21st Floor. Claims can also be filed over the phone from 7:00 AM to 8:30 PM Monday through Friday by calling 1-888-313-7284 and on the Department of Labor website

Thursday, January 15, 2009

County Council Holds Public Hearing On Human Relations Commission

Allegheny County Council held a public hearing regarding a proposed Human Relations Committee that would provide discrimination protection to members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community. 85 people signed up to speak in front of the council and voice their support or their disdain for the proposed legislation.

Many people who supported the legislation cited the city of Pittsburgh as an example of a successful anti discrimination policy that protects gays, lesbians and transgendered people from discrimination in housing, employment or other public accommodations. Many people who opposed the legislation did so for moral or religious reasons.

The legislation, authored by councilwoman Amanda Green, would create a human relations commission in the county that would look into allegations of discrimination against people of any race, age, gender, or sexual orientation. The bill is co sponsored by 7 members of council. The bill needs 8 votes to be approved and passed on to county executive Dan Onorato for authorization, or 10 votes if Onorato were to veto it.

Mayor Looking Into Leasing Parking Garages To Pay For Pensions

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced that the Pittsburgh Parking Authority will vote to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to conduct a feasibility study on the revenue that could be generated from leasing or selling the authority's 11 parking garages.

The Mayor used successful examples of similar decisions made by other cities such as Chicago and Harrisburg. Ravenstahl said Chicago was able to generate over $500 million resulting from the lease of parking garages.

The Mayor said after the first RFP is completed and a study completed he will then decide whether or not to go forward with a second RFP that would call for bids to lease or purchase the garages.

Let the Race begin

Filing season has already begun in the race to replace lame duck Governor Ed Rendell. Former state Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf is the first Democrat to officially throw his hat in the ring. Wolf says an official announcement is still about three weeks away, but he's filed paperwork with the Secretary of the Commonwealth to form a committee called "Tom Wolf for Pennsylvania." The York County native ran a private business for years before becoming the state's revenue secretary, and says he stepped down from that post in November to think about making a run for governor. He says he'll spend the next few months making contacts, raising funds and talking to Commonwealth residents about the issues. He says, “Campaigns, for better or for worse, have just been running longer and longer. And since I'm an outsider, I think I need to start as early as I possibly can. ...[P]olitical campaigns at the state level are not sprints. They're long distance runs. And I'm going to be in it for the long distance.” Wolf says improving the economy will be his top focus, but he also mentions education reform, urban revitalization and the preservation of Pennsylvania's green spaces. Both parties will likely see crowded primary contests next year.

Two Groups say LIHEAP can be Improved

A new report has some recommendations for expanding Pennsylvania's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Pennsylvania received 280 million dollars from the federal government for LIHEAP this year, and the Department of Public Welfare says the program is helping more people than ever before. However, Energy Association of Pennsylvania president Mike Love says that is not good enough. His group partnered with the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania to issue the new report. He says two things need to happen if LIHEAP is to be better. A consistent and adequate source of funding needs to be developed, and the program needs to provide energy assistance 12 months a year. Love says if given the choice of only one he would take consistent funding. “Because at least that allows you to plan. If you think about it, we always know that our federal taxes are due April 15th. To get federal dollars for assisting our poor, we never know. It could be the end of March. It could be the middle of April. It could be whenever.” Love suggests supplementing federal aid with a state tax that would specifically fund the program. A DPW spokeswoman says there are no plans to make LIHEAP year-round.

Snow Slows Drivers but Crews Get the Jump

Pittsburgh Public Works Director Guy Costa says all of the city’s main roads have been treated and they are now working on the secondary streets. He says there is still some snow falling and they are going back to main streets as needed but drivers need to be cautious on all streets. Her says the low temperatures make the salt work slower so a street that has been treated may not look like it right away. He says to help the process he has been mixing liquid calcium and anti skid material with the salt. Costa says salt stores are getting low but he is not worried right now. He says another shipment is due in the next few days. At the state Level Penn Dot Dist. 11 spokesperson Jim Struzi says trucks have treated all of the main highways and they are just wet right now. At this time they are working on the smaller routes including all of the “three and four digit” routes. The cold and snow has prompted many schools and businesses to close or delay their opening.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

No Charges in Police Shooting Involving K-9

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala says he will not pursue charges against two officers involved in the fatal shooting of a suspect in Mount Oliver last May. The officers shot the suspect after the man shot and killed K-9 officer Aulf. Zappala says his investigation found the officers were justified in shooting 19-year-old Justin Jackson of Allentown and he has issued a memorandum to that effect. He says his detectives have spoken to the dead man’s family outlining his position.

Waterfront Cameras may be Just 90-Days Away

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala gave Mon-Valley elected officials a few more details on his plan to put cameras at the Waterfront. Zappala is still looking for the $22,000 local match to free up a $100,000 Department of Homeland Security grant to install the cameras. The 2-mega pixel cameras will be mounted at every entrance to the development and they will be hooked into a system with face and licenses plate recognition capabilities. Zappala says the system will help solve crimes, catch criminals and, reduce criminal activity. “Nothing is a better deterrent to crime than knowing you are going to get caught.” Zappala says he hopes to have the system in place in 90 days and then will look to expand onto 8th avenue and then into other communities. The technology will eventually allow business owners to purchase their own cameras and, with permission, place them on the same system using a simple Internet connection. With the number and face recognition software there is no need for an officer to watch the cameras or comb through the video looking for a suspect.

Frigid Temperatures to Ice Over Region

The weather forecast for the remaining week looks cold--extremely cold-- with highs Thursday and Friday's reaching only the single digits. With these low temperatures comes the risk of cold-related injury including frostbite and hypothermia. Charissa Pacella, Chief of Emergency Services at UPMC Presbyterian, says those most at risk for hypothermia are infants and the elderly, and that children are most at risk for frostbite. The Allegheny County Health Department says that at a windchilld of -19 degrees--which is what the forecast for Pittsburgh predicts--frostbite can set in in just 30 minutes. The following are tips for avoiding cold-related injury:

-Dress in layers. Wear a hat, scarf, boots and mittens. 50 percent of your body's heat can be lost through the head, so it is very important to wear a warm hat.
-Cover as much skin as possible to avoid frostbite. Frostbite often occurs when affected extremities turn numb. If you feel parts of your body going numb from the cold, seek shelter immediately.
-Eat well, but don't consume alcohol. Alcohol, as well as certain medications, can reduce a person's sensitivity to cold and reduce their ability to shiver, the body's natural method for keeping warm.
-And finally, limit time spent outside. The less time spent in freezing temperatures, the less opportunity for cold-related injury.

The County Will Hold Its First Cyber Town Hall Meeting

County Executive Dan Onorato is taking his town hall meetings to the web. Thursday morning at 8:30 Onorato will turn on the web camera used to broadcast county council meetings and begin to answer questions that have been emailed to The webcast can be found on the county website. Onorato spokesperson Kevin Evanto says the executive expects the webcast to last about 30 minutes but if the questions are rolling in he is ready to go longer. Several questions have already been submitted. The webcast will be archived. Evanto says if the webcast goes well they will schedule more in the future. Two classrooms will be hooked into the webcast. One in the Hill District and in South Fayette.

Pitt Researchers Discover Key Diabetes Finding

Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are known to stem from decreased production of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells. The good news is that some University of Pittsburgh researchers have discovered a way to stimulate regeneration of these cells. Lead researchers Dr. Andrew Stewart, Dr. Nathalie Fiaschi-Taesch, and Dr. Todd Bigatel utilized cadaveric beta cells to understand what causes the cells to replicate. Dr. Stewart says they pinpointed 40 molecules that may impact beta cell replication and they discovered two beta cell molecules--cdk-6 and cyclin D1--can be altered using gene therapy to replicate 40 times faster than normal. Fiaschi-Taesch says the next step included injecting diabetic mice with the altered beta cells. She says the cells completely corrected the diabetes in the animals. However, Taesch cautions that this is not yet a cure for diabetes, but that more research must be done to determine if the procedure is safe for humans.

The research was made possible by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the National Institute of Health, American Diabetes Association, Pam and Scott Kroh, and Don and Arlene Wagner.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mt. Lebo Weighs Options for High School

Major repairs to Mount Lebanon High School should wait, says one school board member. James Fraasch introduced a plan yesterday that would call for $10 million to $15 million to pay for much-needed repairs like roofing and boiler system upgrades. The district would have to raise taxes by half a mill for each of the next three years to pay for Fraasch's plan. He says now's not the right time to take on more costly renovations or build a new high school, given the state of the economy. Fraasch says he thinks the full extent of the economic downturn has not been felt in Mount Lebanon yet. Fraasch also says that kind of project would require voters to approve a referendum allowing the district to take on additional debt. He doubts such a referendum would pass.

Mount Lebanon High School was originally built in the 1930s. A major addition was built in the 1970s.

A public forum on various renovation options will take place tomorrow night at 7 at the high school's auditorium. The school board expects to vote on a plan next month.

Shields Questions Mayor's Motivation

Pittsburgh City Council President Doug Shields wonders why Pittsburgh Mayor Ravenstahl vetoed the campaign finance reform bill passed by council last year but is now introducing his own bill. He says he wonders what is motivating the mayor. He speculates that it may have something to do with “a run of pay to play stories” that painted the mayor in a bad light. Shields says he does not have a big problem with the proposed legislation but he wonders why the limits need to be higher than the limits set by the council. He says as he understands it the bill would allow incumbents to raise $18,000 from an individual over a single 4-year term. He says he also wonders why there needs to be the millionaire exemption. He says history shows millionaires do not run for city office. He says they would rather just buy a candidate and expect them to do what he or she wants.

Two Possible Mayoral Candidates Take swipe at Ravenstahl's Leadership

The names of two Pittsburgh City Council members are being mentioned as possible mayoral candidates. Patrick Dowd says he is “considering very seriously, carefully and thoughtfully” a run for the office. He says right now he s not thinking about his personal ambitions but more about what the city needs and if he can fill those needs. He says he thinks the city needs leadership and it does not seem to have that right now. Dowd says he is uncertain where the mayor is trying to take the city and he is not sure Luke Ravenstahl has a “vision.” Dowd says he knows is candidacy would be considered a long shot but he says he favors long shots. In the meantime Council President Doug Shields says he is giving strong and very serious consideration to a run. He says he hopes there will be some type of choice for voters in the primary. He says he knows it will be tough to raise money but he says the fact that Ravenstahl has nearly a million dollars in his campaign fund should not discourage any candidate. Shields says the election will be “a referendum on leadership in Pittsburgh.” He says there seems to be a “press release government” mentality and the mayor seems to be involved in “one imbroglio after another.”

Child Predator Unit Makes Two Arrests

Attorney General Tom Corbett announced that his office's Child Predator Unit has arrested two alleged child predators. The men are from Butler and Northumberlad counties. Corbett said that both men allegedly used Internet chat rooms and instant message programs to communicate with undercover agents who were using online profiles of young girls.

Stanley A. Miller, of Butler County and Bryan P. Hoffman of Northumberland County have been accused of inappropriately messaging and interacting with what they believed were 13 and 14 year old girls.

The Attorney Generals Child Predator Unit has arrested 183 men from across Pennsylvania and other states sine 2005 who have tried to use the Internet to arrange sexual contact with children. Corbett said that parents are the first line of defense against sexual predators because parents should monitor a childs Internet activity and educate children about what is appropriate online behavior.

PA Farm Show is Not Just For Animals

The Farm Show is in full swing in Harrisburg this week. Sure, there are roosters and other prize-winning animals at the show, but for many of the expected 400-thousand visitors this year, the FOOD is the real highlight. The food court offers sausage, pork sandwiches, fried onions, milk shakes, ice cream, french fries, broccoli cheddar soup, cheese cubes and many other choices. Gail Ferranto of Chester County's Mushroom Growers Association makes her pitch for the food her group is selling. She says, “The grilled portabella is very healthy. The salad is very healthy for you. The deep-fried items are...not as healthy for you. But there's still a mushroom in there and mushrooms are a good source of riboflavin.” And, of course, there's the famous baked potato. Carol Devine of Ephrata, Lancaster County, can't quite put her finger on what makes the potato she's eating so good, but she insists it's delicious. "I don't know but I consider myself a half-decent cook and I can't make a baked potato like this!" The Farm Show runs through Saturday.

PA State Rep Prepares to Serve in Iraq

When the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Combat Aviation Brigade begins a year-long deployment to Iraq later this month, Scott Perry will leave his day job as a state Representative and assume command of one of the unit's 5 battalions. The Brigade will spend two months training in Oklahoma before it heads overseas, but once active duty begins, military law will bar Perry from carrying out any partisan or legislative activities. The Republican says he's hired some extra staffers to make sure his office is still able to respond to York and Cumberland County constituents, but he'll keep his distance once deployment is underway. He says, “The army wants to make sure that when you're out on the mission you're focused on the mission and not focused on someone's constituent concern back in your district. So I won't be answering-nor am I allowed to be answering-constituent emails. I'm not going to be looking into, for instance, a PennDOT issue for a particular constituent.” Perry, who's a Lieutenant Colonel, says he's "humbled" by the attention his deployment has received-he's been the focus of several profiles and ceremonies, and last week House members gave him a standing ovation during its opening session. He's been in the Guard since 1980, and served a tour of active duty in the Balkans.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Casey Supports Clinton for Sec. of State

When Hillary Clinton goes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey will be among the lawmakers asking questions. After meeting with Clinton, Casey he's confident she'll be a solid Secretary of State. He says he's hopeful Clinton will steer the State Department in a different direction, arguing the Bush Administration hasn't solicited outside opinions on any major issue. He says it's critical for leaders at Foggy Bottom to work with the international community, as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill and , “Senator Clinton respects that, and she knows the value and the importance of engaging Congress. As well as the obvious need to engage the world in talking about these difficult foreign and military issues that she will confront and the administration confronts.” Casey says when he recently sat down with Clinton to discuss her vision for the State Department, he was impressed with how much thought she had given to operational and management issues. Clinton is expected to win easy confirmation.

Matthews is Out of Senate Run

Cable news host Chris Matthews' decision to sit out Pennsylvania's 2010 senate campaign is opening the door for other Democrats to challenge incumbent Republican Arlen Specter. It was speculated that if Matthews had run for the seat, he'd bring a national reputation and millions of dollars in finances to the table. But the MSNBC host is taking a pass, and Muhlenberg College Political Scientist Christopher Borick says that's creating an opportunity for other Democrats. He says possible candidates include Congressional representatives Patrick Murphy and Allyson Schwartz, Auditor General Jack Wagner, and outgoing Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham. He says, ”With such broad fields in both races, and finite resources, in terms of campaign contributions, there really will be a jockeying to see who can line up those big donors early in the race. For those candidates who don't, their flirtation in the race might be fairly short." Borick notes none of the potential nominees have Matthews' name-recognition, which means building a campaign war chest will be that much more important. He adds Senator Specter is a tough incumbent to run against, saying the Republican has faced several challenges from both parties over the years, but has always come out on top.

PA Cyber School Enrollment declines

For the first time since it's opening in 2001, cyber (online) school enrollment has decreased. Allegheny Intermediate Unit Spokesperson Sarah McCluan (which operates PA Learners Online Regional Cyber Charter School) says it is only a 5 percent decline, and the school will not have to change its business model at this time. While cyber school does not have any extras costs except for household expenses, she says the drop is due to the economic downturn, with parents having to send their children back to traditional public schools in order to find a job.

McCluan says there are many reasons why a student may decide to go back--- because of wanting to be more active, missing school friends, or getting better from an illness.

Onorato and Ravenstahl want Campaign Finance Reform

By the end of the week the Pittsburgh City Council and the Allegheny County Council will both be considering identical campaign finance limits laws. The county executive and the mayor will submit identical bills Thursday. The measure would cap yearly campaign contributions at $4,600 for individuals and $10-thousand for political action committees. However, federal courts have ruled that it is impossible to limit a candidate’s own spending, so if a candidate plans to “self-fund” a campaign, they would have to check a box on their registration form lifting the limits for anyone in that race. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says any candidate checking the self-fund box would come under close scrutiny. He says if they were doing it simply to get around the caps or to allow other candidates to get around the caps the public would be able to see through the rouse. County Executive Dan Onorato says the check-off box is needed to make sure a candidate does not dump a million dollars into a campaign in the final weeks of the race when the other candidate can not possible recover. Ravenstahl says he thinks it is important that both the city and the county have the same law and he hopes the state will follow suit. The caps would not go into effect until 2010. The figures were set based on half of the two year federal limits and would change as the federal limits change. Currently there are no limits on campaign contributions in the city.

Allegheny County Foster Care Placement at Lowest Level in 19 Years

Recent data gleaned through a first-of-its kind analysis showed that Allegheny County Foster care was at its lowest level in 2008 in 19 years. The Office of Children, Youth, and Families Services out of the county Department of Human Services had 25 percent fewer children entering foster care through late June 2008, than it did in a similar period throughout 2007. Human Services Director Marc Cherna says its the lowest level he's seen during his 13-year tenure at the department. When he took the role of director in 1996, there were 3,088 children in foster care. At the beginning of 2008, only 1,959 children were in care. Cherna says he believes strong programming and support aimed at keeping children in their natural homes is the reason for the decline. He says that the decline in foster care is a good thing because children do better in their natural homes. The statewide goal is to reduce foster care numbers by 15 to 20 percent by next year.

A-Plus Schools Expands Focus

A-Plus Schools is expanding its watchdog roll for classroom and student performance to monitoring the Pittsburgh Public School Board itself. It has launched “board watch” which it bills as a “good governance program.” Trained volunteers will go to all Legislative and Agenda Review meetings and fill out forms that A-Plus executive Director Carey Harris says will evaluate the board’s actions in 5 areas: Focus on mission, transparency, conduct (Including conflict resolution), roll clarity (Is the board doing its job and not the job of the Superintendent?) and competency. A-Plus will gather the forms and publish periodic reports. Harris says the school district can only be as good as the board demands it to be and the board will only be as good as the public demands. She says one of the goals is to get the community more engaged in the actions of the board. A-Plus will grade the board but not individual board members. If the program is successful the program may be expanded to include budget and business and finance meetings.

State Budget Forum Held in Allegheny County

The West Hills Center of the Community College of Allegheny County today played host to a meeting between several state lawmakers and residents to discuss state budget issues. House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans and freshmen Representatives Dan Deasy and Dom Costa gathered to hear public comment on the budget in terms of the current economic crisis. Deasy says the forum is an important way for legislators to hear the concerns of their constituents, especially early on in the budget-making process. Four similar forums will be held across the state. The state budget must be passed by June 30th.

Friday, January 9, 2009

GLBT Supporters Rally in Oakland

Supporters of changing Allegheny County's anti-discrimination laws will rally tomorrow in Oakland. A proposed ordinance would add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the list of characteristics that are considered protected.

Sue Kerr, a co-organizer of the rally, says people who have not been subject to this type of discrimination don't realize how serious it is. She says she once left a job because of disparaging remarks her supervisors made about her sexual orientation. Kerr is a lesbian.

The proposed ordinance appears to be backed by a majority of the County Council, although four members have withdrawn their support. Opponents to the measure say it could lead to an increase in frivolous lawsuits against businesses. A public hearing on the proposed change is scheduled for January 15th.

Tomorrow's rally begins at 2 pm at Schenley Plaza.

DEP Takes Closer Look at Coal Ash Basins

In the wake of the disaster in Tennessee last month, DEP Spokesperson Teresa Candori says DEP Acting Secretary John Hanger has requested extra inspections of Pennsylvania power plant ponds and dams. All dams are to be tested by the end of the January, and inspectors will take the next several months to carefully examine ponds. These checkups come in addition to annual inspections.

Candori says the extra inspections are to give a peace of mind more than anything else. However, she says the tests are not to check the toxicity of the coal ash pond, but to be sure that the waste is properly being contained.

In the Tennessee accident, more than one billion gallons of coal ash mixed with water spilled across more than 300 acres.