Friday, February 27, 2009

Transit Riders May Get Tax Credit

Pennsylvania State Senator Wayne Fontana of Brookline has proposed legislation that would provide a tax credit for mass transit users. He says the details of the legislation are still to be determined but he wants to offer a $100 dollar tax credit on the state income tax form. He says the details will be worked out in committee and then brought to the full senate. State Rep. Nick Kotik of Coraopolis will serve as the sponsor for legislation in the lower chamber. Among the details to be worked out would be how riders would prove the expenses and how much an individual would have to spend to get the credit. Fontana says even the amount of the credit is open to debate. He says he thinks there will be more support from both sides of the aisle by making this a tax credit rather than some sort of subsidy to the transit agencies or the riders. Fontana says if the rest of the legislature gets excited about the idea and moves quickly there may even be a credit on the 2009 tax form. He says just incase, regular riders may want to start saving receipts. Fontana says this could put 30 million dollars into PAT riders pockets alone.

Wind Farms Face New Restrictions

Some Somerset County residents say they've had enough of wind farms. Quemahoning Township has become the latest in the county to impose tighter restrictions on noise levels and on how close windmills can be to neighboring properties. Horizon Wind Energy told the Daily American newspaper that the new ordinance may alter its plans to build what would be the largest wind farm in the county.

Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk says townships have the right to impose stricter regulations on wind farms. The county has its own ordinance. Vatavuk says he personally feels that wind farms are a good source of green energy and a revenue generator for the county... but he understands that some people don't like them as neighbors. Aside from noise and setback issues, he says the windmills can create large shadows, harm bats and birds, and fling ice onto neighboring land.

Fogle Leaves the Carnegie for L.A.

Douglas Fogle, curator of contemporary art and organizer of the Carnegie International 2008, will leave the Carnegie Museum of Art to become deputy director and chief curator of the Hammer Museum of Los Angeles in May.

"Life on Mars" , the 55th Carnegie International, was seen by more people than any other since the first in 1896.

North Shore Connector Officially Over Budget

With the awarding of two construction contracts today the price of the north shore connector has gone over its original $435 million budget. The board approved a contract to lay the rail lines the entire length of the project and another for the elevators at the north shore station. The project is now expected to come in nearly $118 million over budget with three contracts yet to be bid. Those contracts are for “station finishes.” PAT CEO Steve Bland says more than $61 million coming from the “formula funds” portion of the federal stimulus package will fill half of the gap. That money is expected to be delivered in the next two months. Bland says he is optimistic PAT will also get some “new starts” money from the stimulus as well. He says there are only a handful of projects in the nation that qualify for that money. Bland says there are other pots of money to be competitively award that he thinks will flow to the connector project. He says if the project were shut down today they would have spent $320 million for nothing and if they had to mothball the project waiting for new funds it would cost $10 million right away and another $3.5 million in cost increases each month.

State Foots Bill for Religious Books

Good government advocates say they're riled by news that more than 13-thousand taxpayer dollars were spent on Bibles, Torahs and Qurans for swearing in ceremonies. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer report, 220 state representatives and senators were given personalized books, and taxpayers footed the bill. In all, the gifts cost 13-thousand-seven hundred dollars. Good government activist Gene Stilp says the purchase shows the General Assembly is out of touch. He says, “Two things wrong here. Taxpayer money for an item that families should provide, and two, taxpayer money for a religious item. There has to be a separation of church and state, simple as that.” Stilp says this is a clear issue that voters in Pennsylvania have been complaining about for years, “We're getting tired of saying this to the senators and representatives, but send the money back, ok? Or send the bibles back.” House Majority Leader Todd Eachus wasn't available for comment, and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi's office didn't return calls on the topic. The Bibles, Torahs and Qurans ranged in price from $30 to $90, according to the Inquirer report.

Poll shows PA Residents Like Government Spending

Pennsylvania residents are putting a lot of faith in government efforts to turn around the economy. A new poll from Franklin and Marshall College finds this may not be a good time to be a small government conservative. A majority of Pennsylvania residents say the economy is bad, but are hopeful things will start turning around within the next year, and they think government will play a part in that change. Poll director Terry Madonna says more than 70 percent of respondents want to see government spending on health care increase, if it means more people are covered. He says, “I don't think the average resident in Pennsylvania is looking so much now for cutting programs or laying off employees, as they are toward expanding some government services given the nature of the recession.” Madonna says 64 percent of respondents "strongly favor" increasing government spending meant to boost business in Pennsylvania. A majority favor raising cigarette taxes, though Rendell's proposals to tax Marcellus Shale extractions and allow counties to impose a one percent sales tax generated low approval levels.

Robbers Shoot at Victims in Duquesne University Garage

A robber fired a gun at three people in a parking garage next to the A.J. Palumbo Center last night during the City League basketball championship games. No one was injured and two suspects, believed to be high school students, have been arrested by police. The shooting occurred around 7:30 and the suspects were caught after a brief chase on foot. The victims were walking up the stairs of the parking garage on Forbes Avenue when the suspects caught them and ordered them to lie down. One of the victims ran, prompting one of the suspects to shoot until his gun jammed. The victims' property was recovered.

Researchers Ask "What's a Green Job?"

Green jobs will be the focus when President Barack Obama's task force on middle-class families meets for the first time in Philadelphia today. The panel will hear from experts on how to create those jobs and help middle-class workers find them.

David Passmore with Penn State University says it's important to define what jobs truly are "green." Construction jobs may be green if workers are doing things like installing solar panels. But other construction jobs may not be. Passmore says it's important to come up with a definition to make sure that investments in these jobs are targeted in the right ways. Otherwise, he says the spending could be wasted.

Passmore and fellow Penn State researcher Rose Baker recently authored a report that establishes benchmarks for green employment in Pennsylvania. They used definitions set by the Center for American Progress. The researchers say by tabulating how many green jobs Pennsylvania has now, the state can use the data to better target its own job creation investments.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pittsburgh Public Schools Getting More Green Space

Through a $1.5 million dollar grant from the Grable Foundation the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy will be adding green space to every Pittsburgh Public School. The four year implementation process will add open green spaces, quiet spaces with plants and seating for students and teachers, active play spaces with natural surfaces, additional trees, and green fences and walls enhanced with vegetation. The greening efforts have been in a planning phase since November of 2007 when the grant was secured and 12 pilot projects were completed at separate schools during 2008. The imitative will complete approximately 18 projects annually from 2009 through 2011.

City Explores Pension Problem

Pittsburgh City Council continued its series of hearings investigating a new five year financial recovery plan. Thursdays hearing focused on Pensions.The third of seven hearings saw City Council searching for a way to address a pension fund low on cash and in trouble. Council member Bill Peduto says the city pension system is "broken" and in a "continuous spiral".
With an infusion of cash needed to alter the path of the fund, the Mayor has proposed leasing city parking assets, but Peduto is worried about how that would affect parking rates and wants to explore selling the garages to gain taxable property. The jury is still out on the Mayors plan with a feasibility study currently underway. Peduto also wants to explore merging the states pension plans into one large plan. Peduto said currently Pennsylvania has 1 out of every 4 municipal pension plans in the nation. He admits this would be a difficult task to accomplish but says it has been successful when tried in other states. The next in this series of hearings concerns city debt and health care costs, and will be held next Thursday at 10 A.M.

Federal $ for Pittsburgh Locks & Dams

The U.S.Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh is slated to receive more than $120 million dollars in the 2009 omnibus bill. Corps Deputy of Programs Management Lenna Hawkins says much of the funding would go toward large, urgent projects. The two that top the list are the Emsworth Locks & Dams and the Monongahela Locks & Dams 2, 3 and 4. The Emsworth facility is currently labeled "unstable" by the Army Corps, and would require more than $25 million in construction costs to stabilize it. Hawkins says the Monongahela projects are somewhat less urgent. However, work on these projects cannot begin until the Inland Waterway Trust Fund matches the federal funding. That means the the start date of this project remains undetermined. Hawkins warns that long delays of Monongahela River construction may cause business to be diverted from the area.

Schools Not Testing Graduates Says Study

A new study claims the vast majority of Pennsylvania's school districts aren't doing a good job at measuring the skill levels of students they're awarding diplomas to. The research was sponsored by the Department of Education, and carried out by Penn State University. It claims only 18 of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts are making sure their high school graduates have reached proficient reading and math skill levels. Only 418 of the districts responded to the survey. Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak says for mathematics, that standard means students need to be at or above Algebra II levels. He says, ”You're going to at least come to that platform. That doesn't mean you would stop. Students who are interested in some fields, for example-mathematics, engineering, science-would be expected to push on. Because they would know their field's going to require a lot more than Algebra II.” Zahorchak blames inconsistent testing standards and practices for the disparity. He backs an effort to implement a series of statewide proficiency tests in a range of subjects that students would need to pass before graduating.

PHEAA Head: Both Funding Plans Are Fine

The head of the state's top student loan agency says he's looked at the competing plans to increase college tuition aid in Pennsylvania and he doesn't have a preference. The Governor introduced one plan and the other was put forward by the Republicans. Republican Senator Jeffrey Piccola sits on PHEAA's board, and would route his 145-million dollar tuition grant program directly through the agency. Piccola says his proposal would extend college aide to 25-thousand additional students. The details on Rendell's plan haven't been worked out, but the Administration wants to provide tuition breaks to lower-income students at Pennsylvania's state-owned and community colleges. PHEAA CEO James Preston says he'd be happy with either proposal, and he says he'll let members of the General Assembly decide which one becomes law. Rendell would fund his plan by taxing video poker, while Piccola says he'd redirect existing state funds and eliminate tax breaks.


The Chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board says overall sales are up but that is only half the story. Chairman P.J. Stapleton told the state house appropriations committee that at the mid point in the 2008-2009 fiscal year state store sales were $1.02 billion. PLCB Spokesperson Nick Hays says that is 4.3% more than the year prior. However that is slower than the 4.7% growth seen the year before and the 7% growth two years ago. Hays further broke down the numbers to show that all of the growth was in sales to individual customers. Those numbers were up 6% while sales to bars, restaurants and other resellers was down 1.3%. Hays says he does not have information on the number of gallons sold by the state. Hays says the LCB has theorized that people are doing more entertaining at home rather than going out or they are opting to purchase less expensive liquor when they are out on the town.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pittsburgh to open a new curfew center in Oakland.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says this one will be more successful than the one that closed in 2004. The city has reached a deal with three rivers youth to run the center for a year at the cost of half a million dollars. The 24-bed facility in and old home on Dithridge street in Oakland will not only take in youth who are violating the curfew and hold them until their parents arrive or the sun comes up but the staff will also go through an assessment process and offer each child a long list of services. Ravenstahl says the goal is to get the kids off the street before they become the victim of violent crime or commit a violent crime. When the parents pick up their children they too will be evaluated and offered services. In the past the centers have been under used. Officers complained that they had to give warnings every night before they could take in a child. That rule has been changed to allow officers to take in a child they believe has knowledge of the curfew law. The officers also complained that it took too long to process a curfew breaker. The director of the center says that process will start while the officer is in route and her staff will take over quickly upon arrival to get the office back o the street. Youth taken into the center will be issued a fine but that fine could be reduced if they enter into treatment programs. Curfew will run from 10pm to 6am weeknights and 12-6 weekends during the school year and then change to 11-6 and 12-6 during the summer.

Rivers Casino talks Table Games

With table games being considered in Pennsylvania casinos, Rivers Casino President Ed Fasulo weighs the consequences. Although there is 120,000 square feet of space to open this August, Fasulo says there is 30,000 square feet of “shell space”. In other words, the space has exterior walls but no interior. It remained from the previous casino project, and it can quickly be utilized if such a bill passed. However, Fasulo says they would not be profitable unless the 55 percent tax rate could be lowered for table games. He suggested a 20 percent tax rate would still make them profitable. The lower rate would be in order to provide pay for the several hundred dealers that would need to be hired and trained, as well as having surveillance equipment for each table. Democratic House Whip Bill DeWeese of Waynesburg is preparing a bill to legalize table games.

Free Online Tax Filing Events

The Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) and Allegheny County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty are partnering to sponsor a free two-day program that will give residents the opportunity to file taxes on computers.
CCAC Spokesperson David Hoovler says it’s to provide the e-filing program to low-income residents that need access to a computer. Volunteers from CCAC will be there to assist in navigating the E-Filing program, while local representatives from accounting firms and from the Controller’s Office to aid in filing questions.
The following dates are:

Thursday, February 26th
Allegheny Campus, 808 Ridge Avenue
North Campus, 8701 Perry Highway

Thursday, March 26th
Boyce Campus, 595 Beatty Road in Monroeville
South Campus, 1750 Clairton Road (Route 885) in West Mifflin

This event is by appointment only. To schedule an appointment, call 888-443-4615.

UPMC Doctors Study Parent-Infant Bed Sharing

Despite being aware of the dangers associated with parent-infant bed sharing—suffocation, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)—some parents still choose to sleep with their child. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have attempted to find out why. Through interviews with 28 bed-sharing caregivers, Dr. Jennifer Chianese, lead author of the study, and Dr. Judy Chang, the study’s senior author, believe it breaks down to five motivational themes:

1. Better Sleep- Parents believe bed sharing allows both parent and infant to sleep for longer periods of time.
2. Convenience- By having the infant in bed with them, parents can more easily tend to different needs they may have through the night.
3. Tradition- Dr. Chang says there are cultural and historical references to bed sharing. Some parents also had personal experiences with bed sharing as infants.
4. Child Safety- By having infants by their sides, parents believed they could more closely monitor their children with their breathing patterns.
5. Emotional Needs- Parents often report a strong bonding when sleeping with their baby.

Dr. Chang says she recommends to these parents a compromising alternative: a separate crib in the same room. She says it provides a safer environment for the child while also emitting a better sense of security.

Re-Formatted Auto Auction Runs Smoothly

The City of Pittsburgh today held its first car auction since adding safeguards to prevent tampering and rigging of the bidding. In December, a city controller’s employee was charged with conspiring to buy cars at the auction for a cheap price and re-selling them for profit. The employee has since been fired. City Controller Michael Lamb says these new safeguards include posting auctioned vehicles and their sale prices online and rotating auditors who oversee the auctions. He says the preventative measures do not make the auctions take any longer than before. This morning’s auction sold 24 vehicles netting the city about $18,000.

Congressmen respond to State of the Union

U.S. Congressman Tim Murphy says he liked that President Obama began his State of the Union address in an optimistic tone, since focusing on the economic turmoil will only hold us back from getting past it. However, in order to move on, he says small businesses should be given a chance and not have their taxes increase.

U.S. Congressman Jason Altmire agrees with Obama's optimism. He says that despite the nation's current challenges, America's best days still lie ahead.

Murphy's other primary concern is about reforming the health care system. He says billions of dollars are wasted every year on having an inefficient program. The doctor and the patient are the most important, not the government getting in the midst of it.

In addition to health care, Altmire says the country's energy independence and its education system are other key issues that he looks forward to reforming with the president as well as colleagues from Republican and Democratic parties.

Pittsburgh Schools to Have New Sex Ed Approach

Beginning in the next school year, sex education within Pittsburgh Public Schools will no longer be abstinence-only. Instead, it will have a broader base that discusses contraception methods and alternative lifestyles. A school board meeting on Tuesday voted 8-1 for creating a new approach.

"It's 2009," says Theresa Colaizzi, Pittsburgh School Board President. "Parents can try to control as much as they want, but a great deal of the time they can't control it." She says kids will learn, regardless of where it is: on television, in music lyrics or on the street.

Colaizzi says there are students that played a big role in changing policy. Some parents and teachers also went to the school board to request revising the abstinence-only education. She says this benefits both students and teachers, because it gives students the option to learn more, and it also provides a clearer boundary for teachers and what they can talk about. Colaizzi says the rule was previously a verbal agreement; the amended rule will be written.

DiBerardinis defends Rendell

The head of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says the job Governor Ed Rendell created for a former Democratic lawmaker is consistent with government cutbacks and hiring freezes. Ever since former Democratic Representative Dan Surra was given a $95-thousand a year job promoting the Pennsylvania Wilds, the newly-created position has been a rallying point for Republicans who say Rendell isn't practicing what he preaches when it comes to government cutbacks. But DCNR Secretary Michael DiBerardinis says he's standing by the decision. He says, “We needed the help. I've asked for it three consecutive years. We got the help. I think any secretary who gets support for their number one or number two program would be crazy to say no. And particularly with a guy we think can do the job. I have great expectations.” But Republican lawmaker Doug Reichley, says he doesn't buy that argument. Reichley point to 68 DCNR positions that are being eliminated in Rendell's budget, and says the new job shouldn't have been created in a year when services are being scaled back.

Freedom Singer Shares Stories of Civil Rights Movement

A woman who sang in support of civil rights says she hopes her group's original message will live on. Rutha Harris was part of the original Freedom Singers, which traveled to 48 states, singing songs and telling stories about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Harris says many of the songs were originally spirituals; singers changed some of the lyrics to reflect the struggles they faced at the time.

The Freedom Singers began as part of a movement in Albany, Georgia. Harris and other peaceful demonstrators, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were jailed in Albany in December 1961. The singing group was organized soon afterward. Harris says the Freedom Singers had a few close calls--their car was shot at once.

Today, Harris continues to tour to tell stories about the civil rights movement. She says lots of progress has been made, but there's more yet to accomplish. And she says she was proud when the country elected its first black President.

Harris is appearing at the Byham Theater this morning as part of PNC's Black History Month Speaker Series.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Orie Wants to End "Pay-To-Play"

A local State Senator says she has introduced a bill that will end the possibility of "pay-to-play" practices in Pennsylvania. Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie of McCandless says her bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Dominic Pileggi, would improve the way professional service contracts are adopted by state agencies by requiring agencies to establish an open "most qualified bidder" process for contracts of $25,000 or more. She says “The citizens of Pennsylvania demand honest and transparent government.” Under the bill, agencies would be required to advertise the services being sought along with the specifications, procedures and requirements to be followed, and any other factors that will be used in scoring. The bill also requires that there be disclosure and posting of all political campaign contributions for the previous five years by bidders on contracts totaling $25,000 or more. The measure would force all state agencies to select a "Qualified Evaluation Committee" made up of state-agency employees to score submitted proposals. A similar bill was passed by the senate 50-0 in the last session but died in the lower chamber. Orie says this bill has even more controls. She says, “This bill will open processes which have taken place behind closed doors for far too long."

Rep. Maher and Rep. Shapiro Spar Over Investment Changes

One state lawmaker wants to divest state-held funds invested in so-called “terror holdings” but another member is questioning his ethics. Representative Josh Shapiro is a member of the Tobacco Settlement Investment Board and he has introduced a resolution calling on that fund to not invest in “foreign companies that help terrorist-sponsoring nations.” Shapiro says that could be $1-2 million. State Representative John Maher of Upper St. Clair is also a member of the board. He says he does not disagree with the ideals of such a measure but he does take exception with the way it is being proposed and the way it would be implemented. The fund invests and spends the money received from the national tobacco settlement. Maher says the fund has just three full time employees and they would be unable to determine which companies should be shunned and which would be acceptable. He says there is no government agency that publishes such a list but there is a private firm by the name of Conflict Securities Advisory Group that provides such a service and he hints that Shapiro may be looking to help that firm more than he is looking to make a social statement. Maher says right now the roll of the board is to make sure the money is spent on health-related endeavors and invested wisely. He says if his fellow lawmaker wants to change the focus of the fund to include a social or political agenda he can do that legislatively. Shapiro introduced a measure last year that would have divested two state-managed retirement funds from sponsors of terror but it was defeated in the lower chamber. Maher went on to question Shapiro’s ethics, noting that he voted to allow “lobbyist firms to pay legislators.” He says Shapiro has “gone wild.”

Health Care Ethics Discussed at DU

Duquesne University will host the first in a series of health care ethics forums Thursday. The forum will delve into three areas with a trio of speakers. Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center Director of Physical Therapy Regis Turocy will give an overview of “Health Care Today and the Ethics of Clinical Practice.” That will be followed by “Ethical Decisions in Clinical Practice: Autonomy and Choice” by David J. Emrhein, Administrative Director of Graduate Medical Education at York Hospital. The day will wrap up with Diane Redington who is the Administrator at Catholic Charities Free Health Care Clinic. She will discuss issues surrounding free care and providing services to those without health insurance. Duquesne University Athletic Training Department Chair Paula Turocy says ethics discussions have ebbed from many of our daily activities so it is even more important that health care providers, and future providers, gather in this type of forum. She says this will not just be a discussion of Catholic ethics but all types of ethical debates. Turocy says topics considered at future forums will be determined at a later date to allow for hot topics of the day to be added at the last possible moment.

Pittsburgh International Airport To Raise Parking Fees

The Allegheny County Airport Authority is raising parking rates at Pittsburgh International Airport starting March 1st in an attempt to limit fee increases for the airlines operating out of the airport. The parking rate increases are for extended term parking and full day short term parking only. Extended term rates will jump to $8 a day from $6.75 and the full day short term rates will be raised $1 to $21 a day.

The rate increases are a result of a loss of parking revenue resulting from the loss of U.S. Airways flights. If the airport were to maintain the current parking rates they would have to increase fees to the airlines which are already higher than the national average. The airline fees are high in Pittsburgh International Airport because their debt service payments have remained the same while at the same time the airport has lost millions of passengers a year. The airport is capable of servicing 30 million people annually but is only handling 9 million passengers a year. A large part of the loss of passengers is the result of U.S. Airways cutting flights into and out of the airport.

Airport Authority spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said the airport is not worried about losing even more revenue because of the increase because historically the privately owned parking lots around the airport have increased their rates when the airport has. She also is not worried because the airport is still keeping the 1$ rate for people parking for an hour or less when picking up or dropping of passengers.

Money in Place for South Hills High School Redevelopment

Pittsburgh City Council today passed a motion authorizing Urban Redevelopment Authority funds to be put towards redevelopment of the old South Hills High School located on Ruth Street in Mount Washington. The old building, which has been closed since 1986, has undergone asbestos removal and roof improvements in preparation for its rebirth into a mixed housing facility, senior housing facility, community center, and retail outlet. Councilman Bruce Kraus says the building will serve as an anchor in the revitalization of that neighborhood. Work on the project is set to begin in coming months, he says, and he expects the redevelopment will take several years to complete.

Schwartz: Single-Payer is Focus, May Run For Senate

A Congresswoman from Philadelphia says she is mulling over a possible run for the US Senate in 2010. Democratic Allyson Schwartz says she's backing health care reform efforts, but argues any changes will come from within the existing framework. She says a single-payer system simply "isn't going to happen." She goes on to say, “Let me be very clear about this. President Obama, Congress-not that there aren't some people who want to see single-payer, they think that that's the right thing to do. What that actually means is a question. But I can tell you, it's not where the president is. It's not where we're going to end up.” Schwartz told the Harrisburg Press Club that lawmakers will keep Medicare, Medicaid and other safety net programs in place, and that employer-based health care will likely remain the primary source of coverage for most Americans. But she says she feels Congress and President Obama will make changes over the next few years, and is confident there's a real movement to expand and improve coverage. Schwartz says she hasn't yet decided whether she'll enter the 2010 Democratic primary.

Aging Dept. Could Get More Duties

In a year of government cutbacks, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell is proposing an expansion of the Department of Aging to cover services not just for the elderly but also disabled Pennsylvanians. The administration says the move would streamline duplicated services and increase the effectiveness of state-provided care. Acting Aging Secretary John Michael Hall agrees. He says right now, his department and the Department of Public Welfare are covering much of the same ground. At a budget hearing Hall said, “It means that policy takes forever to issue. It means that people have been frustrated with the fact that you keep having the same debates year after year. Providers get different instructions and different guidance depending on who they talk to.” Hall says this isn't a government expansion. He argues it would save money, and eliminate 32 state jobs. Hall says his department needs to make sure it can still provide services during bad economic times, noting vulnerable Pennsylvanians rely on the state for help whether there's a recession or not. The Department of Aging oversees prescription drug programs and other senior health care initiatives.

Greensburg Prison Guard Sentenced

A former Westmoreland County prison guard will serve nine months of probation for forcing inmates to kneel, bark like dogs and sing nursery rhymes. Scott Rogers, 39, of Mount Pleasant, plead guilty yesterday to three counts of official oppression. Rogers was charged in September 2007, two months after he was fired from the Westmoreland County Prison in Greensburg. County officials rescinded the firing and allowed Rogers to resign to protect themselves from a lawsuit if he was acquitted. The inmates Rogers abused were in a unit housing sex offenders and prisoners mental health problems.

Monday, February 23, 2009

City Police Pressured to Seek Accreditation

The Pittsburgh Police Bureau could face legal action unless it pursues accreditation. The city's Citizen Police Review Board is discussing the matter at its meeting tomorrow night.

The CPRB says accreditation would give the public confidence that the bureau is adhering to state or national standards. CPRB Executive Director Beth Pittinger says gaining accreditation would essentially continue best practices that were established following a 1997 consent decree. That decree was put in place following the death of motorist Jonny Gammage during a traffic stop.

Pittinger says accreditation is required under the city code. The CPRB has been pushing for it publicly for about a year. The CPRB may seek a writ of mandamus from Allegheny County Common Pleas Court to compel the bureau to seek accreditation.

Partnership on New Streetlighting Announced

Despite differences in their approach, Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto today announced a partnership with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on streetlight replacement throughout the city. The goal is to switch nearly 40 thousand streetlights to energy-efficient bulbs thereby cutting costs and minimizing the city’s carbon footprint. Peduto says this collaboration is a big step towards the solution. As a result of the partnership, grant money lined up by councilman could still come of use.

Other issues discussed included re-wording the bill to say “energy efficient lighting” instead of “LED” to open up opportunities for different types of lighting. Also, council mulled over the possibility of creating a unified lighting code for the city. A preliminary vote on the bill is set for Wednesday.

11-year-old Charged with Premeditated Homicide

The Lawrence County case of an 11-year-old boy charged with shooting his father's pregnant girlfriend raises questions: Is someone that age as answerable for his actions as an adult? In Pennsylvania, homicides are automatically tried in criminal court, yet Melissa Sickmund, researcher at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, says someone that young would not be able to make any legal decisions for himself--couldn't vote,smoke, drink, drive or be in the military.

Another question is where to hold the boy before his trial. He's been alone for two days in a county jail cell, but Sickmund says he should be in a juvenile facility if he has to be incarcerated. In 1989, a 9-year-old boy in Monroe County shot and killed a 7-year-old girl riding on a snowmobile. He stayed home with his parents until he was found guilty in criminal court.

Sickmund would not expect the 11-year-old to end up in the state penitentiary even if he's found guilty. When the 9-year-old was found guilty, the judge sent the case to juvenile court for disposition, and the boy was put in a treatment facility until he turned 21.

Veterans' Court

In an effort to improve prison efficiency and give veterans more personalized attention, a state representative is asking for more funding for veterans' courts. Representative Don Walko of Allegheny County says having a court geared for veterans makes sense because their challenges will be better understood. Unlike a problem-solving court that primarily deals with mental illness and drug addiction, the veterans' court will have people who are knowledgable in ways to treat veterans.

Walko says funding for this cause from the Commonwealth, even in these tough economic times, would remedy several problems of the court and prison systems. Allegheny County officials plan to have a veterans' court up and running by June.

Corbett: Bonusgate Continues

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett is hinting his investigation into illegal use of taxpayer dollars recently ran into some snags, but a spokesman for one of the caucuses being investigated says it's cooperating with the probe. When Corbett testified before the House Appropriations Committee, he said the next round of Bonusgate indictments would "shock the conscience." Corbett wouldn't offer many details, but implied he ran into some roadblocks over the past few months, saying, “I can say that the investigation is moving more smoothly now than it was a few months ago.” The House Republican caucus is among the groups being looked into, but spokesman Steve Miskin insists GOP lawmakers and staffers have been working with Corbett since the first reports of illegal bonuses for campaign work. He says, “From that point forward we feel we have cooperated fully with the Attorney General and with his investigation. And we will continue to do so.” House Republicans have spent $1.8 million on legal fees since the investigation began, but Miskin says hiring outside council was the right thing to do. House Democrats have spent more than $2.5 million, while Senate Republicans have paid out $1.4 million in legal bills.

Specter Stands by Vote

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter says he's not sure whether the recently passed federal stimulus package will lead to economic recovery, but he's confident it's worth trying. Specter says he knows nearly all of his Republican colleagues in Congress were skeptical of the stimulus, but he has serious concerns about the country's economy. He says he'll stand by his "yes" vote, even if it costs him a Senate seat or invites a primary challenge. At a recent public appearance Specter acknowledged that it's tough to tell whether President Obama's $787 billion bet will pay off. He says, “I'm asked if this stimulus package is going to work, and I give a candid answer. As I said before, economics is not a science. But I do know that if we did not have the stimulus package, things would get a lot worse and the economy would fade into a depression.” The White House says the stimulus will create or save 143-thousand jobs in Pennsylvania. Specter says he thinks that figure is accurate.

Ross Twp. Fire Raises Suspicions

At around 5 a.m., a Ross Township blaze tore through a home leaving one man dead. Officials found the man unresponsive in the basement after the fire had settled at around 6:30 a.m. and he was pronounced dead at the scene. Authorities have not identified the man, but could not account for the owner of the house. The Allegheny county Fire Marshal says the fire is suspicious, but will not explain why.

Tax Checkoff Helps Diabetes Research in PA

At the bottom of the Pennsylvania tax return, filers owed a refund have the opportunity to give all or a portion of it to one of 5 charities. Among them is the Juvenile (TYPE I) Diabetes Cure Research Fund. In 2004 the state legislature added the fund to the list of options that annually generates about a half million dollars for the charities. In 2007 alone the Diabetes Fund picked up $58,000. Leslie Best is the Director of the Bureau Of Health Promotion And Risk Reduction at the State Department of Health. She manages the fund. She says the tax check-off is the only source of revenue for the fund so it took two years before they could award their first research grant. Best says when they asked for proposals they received a good batch of applicants and put together a panel to review them. The grant ultimately went to a researcher at the Penn State School of Medicine for a study on the impact type I diabetes has on vision. Best says the researcher has two years to finish the work. In the meantime the fund is building up its reserves again and hopes to put out a request for applications next year. She says Type I Diabetes is a serious issue that deserves the research dollars. She says more than 3 million Americans have Type I diabetes and every year about 5,000 kids are newly diagnosed.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mayor Meets with Obama, Cabinet

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and other prominent mayors met in Washington D.C. today with President Obama and key members of his cabinet to discuss federal funding that will help the country’s large cities during the economic crisis. Ravenstahl says that he is pleased with the outcome of the discussion, but cannot specify yet what programs and projects the funding will help. The mayor says he must work first with local officials to determine the usage of the funds. Also, much of the money will be granted competitively. Ravenstahl says when he returns from Washington, he and city officials will “sit down… and understand everything we need to do [to get these competitive grants].” Ravenstahl adds that cabinet members expressed their wish to have the funding sent out as quickly as possible. The mayor projects that the city will receive funding in three to six months.

Pennsylvania's Pension Problem

New data from the state's Public Employee Retirement Commission reveals that Pennsylvania's three biggest cities own 90% of the state's unfunded pension liability. DUQ's Larkin Page-Jacobs reports that everyone agrees that Pittsburgh's pensions need help, but there's a lack of consensus on how it should take shape.

Listen to the full-length story here.

Pitt Hosts Gender Wage Gap Conference

The University of Pittsburgh hosted the Gender Wage Gap Conference today to discuss the latest research and responses to wage disparities. Pitt Law School Professor Deborah Brake says legislation is needed beyond the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act because there are still legal loopholes. She says fair, strong laws give employers the right incentives to examine proactively their own employment policies to make sure they don't discriminate.

Sabina Deitrick, a researcher at Pitt's Center for Social and Urban Research, says it's not just a matter of policy solutions either. Research shows some women have lower salary expectations to begin with and fail to negotiate effectively. Workshops and training could help with such behavioral issues.

According to Deitrick, the current recession is so far having more of an impact on traditionally male occupations, but stimulus projects will likewise help those professions like manufacturing and construction.

A Per-Mile Driven Tax is Proposed in PA

One Pennsylvania house members says he has a new idea when it comes to transportation funding. PA Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler says the one billion dollars in he federal stimulus package designated for road and infrastructure repairs in Pennsylvania will help the economy. House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Markosek of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties does not disagree but he says the stimulus isn't a long-term solution. Markosek wants to investigate new revenue sources, including a possible tax on the amount of miles a person travels each year. He says that is better than a higher fuel tax, ”Theoretically you could use a horse and buggy, and if you traveled a thousand miles on that there would be a tax associated with that.” Some have complained that as cars become more fuel-efficient the traditional gas tax funding scheme will no longer work. Markosek points to a pilot program underway in Oregon, where officials track miles traveled with GPS chips, which seems to be viable.

Nano-sized Etch A Sketch Created at Pitt

University of Pittsburgh researchers say they have found a way to create a two nanometer wide path that will channel single electrons from point A to point B. Researcher Jeremy Levy says the process creates the transistors by swapping insulators and conductors. He says it works like a microscopic Etch A Sketch. Levy says that childhood toy served as an inspiration for his efforts. The process is still in the early stages but levy says it could have a huge impact on electronics. He notes everything is getting smaller but at some point silicon “peters out.” He says this could answer the question, “Where do we go after that?” Along with creating nono-sized transistors, the technology could be used to create high-density memory devices and computer processors. The findings were published this week in “Science.” Levy says it illustrates that the potential of this process extends beyond simple insulators and conductors. It can be tailored to specific uses, most notably field-effect transistors (FETs), the building blocks of computers and electronics. From that idea Levy and his colleagues fashioned a transistor they call a “SketchFET.” Levy says now researchers need to see if they can keep power consumption low enough to not burn up the new products that could be created using this technology. He says this could also become very environmentally friendly because of the low power usage.

Pennsylvania's Pension Woes Grow

New data from the state's Public Employee Retirement Commission reveals that Pennsylvania's three biggest cities -Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton- account for 90% of the state's unfunded pension liability. Pittsburgh's pension liability has risen to $523 million and is only 30-40% funded. Experts have differing views on what to do about the debt burden statewide. Suggestions include selling public assets, sharing the pension burden equally across all municipalities or eliminating future state worker pensions in favor of 401ks. Listen to Larkin Page-Jacobs' report on WDUQ's Audio Archive page.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Catholic Diocese Offers Guide To Area Social Services

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has put a special resource guide in its diocesan newspaper, Pittsburgh Catholic. The resource guide provides information on where to go to get social services. The paper reaches 200,000 people throughout six counties in Western Pennsylvania. The counties the newspaper reaches are Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington. The Catholic Diocese isn't surprised by the amount of people who need assistance and is asking people who need help to look for it. The paper also provides a list of parish social ministers with contact information and a survey outlining the social services offered by the parishes.

"The Giver" is One Book's Choice

One Book One Community has chosen its book for 2009. Allegheny County Library association spokesperson Beth Mellor says “The Giver” by Lois Lowery was chosen partially because it is approachable by such a diverse group of readers. The organization wanted to have a theme of “the future” this year and after the selection committee narrowed the field to 23 books “The Giver” rose to the top. The 1994 Newberry Award winning book is written from the point of view of a 12-year-old as he moves from childhood to adulthood living in what is first seen as a utopian society. That appearance gradually changes and the book ends in a way that Mellor says allows the reader to think about their own future. She says in the past, One Book has had to choose one book for adults and one for younger readers but she says everyone can read this one. The idea of One Book One Community is to get a large number of Allegheny County residents reading one book to create a public dialog through a series of discussions at libraries and other public venues. Mellor says book clubs will be coming on board soon as well as library sponsored reading groups, senior centers and schoolteachers. She says the ACLA hopes to encourage readers to think about and discus Allegheny County’s future and maybe even write essays about their hopes for the region in 10 or 15 years. The library association is making sure libraries have enough copies to go around and will be distributing books to homeless shelters this year. Mellor says events will be added to the ACLA web site as they are scheduled. This is the 7th book chosen By One Book One Community.

City Councilman Announces Candidacy For Mayor

Standing in front of dozens of his supporters Pittsburgh City Councilman Patrick Dowd announced his candidacy for the Democratic Mayoral nomination. With the quote "winds of change" at his back the councilman started his campaign by challenging the involvement of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in issues ranging from campaign finance reform to gun control. Dowd said his first act as Mayor would be to sign an executive order that would ban the awarding of no-bid contracts to any person who contributed to the campaign of an elected official. Dowd now joins Carmen Robinson of the Hill District as the two challengers vying to unseat the incumbent. The Democratic primary is to be held on May 19Th.

Pennsylvania Exports on the Rise

Exports from the state of Pennsylvania rose by 18 percent from 2007 to 2008, raising the total worth of international shipments to $34.4 billion. Prime exports include coal, steel, chemicals and machinery. Deputy Secretary of International Business Development Wilfred Muskens says while Pennsylvania's two top buyers remain Canada and Mexico, several overseas markets like China and Brazil have been gaining on them. The United Arab Emirates and Spain were two other markets that saw extravagant growth over the 2008 fiscal year. Muskens says that it is Pennsylvania's "aggressive" business practices that allowed for the increase. By putting trade representatives in 13 foreign markets, state trade offices were able to help small- and medium-sized companies succeed globally. "We don't typically help the large corporations," says Muskens. "They have their own networks... they really don't need help from the state."

Anti-Tobacco Crew Asks Pregnant Women to "Quit for Love"

Tobacco Free Allegheny (TFA) has begun a campaign against maternal smoking both during and after pregnancies. The effort, called "Quit for Love," is a pilot project made possible by a $24,920 grant from the March of Dimes. TFA was selected as one of eight organizations statewide that would begin the pilot program. TFA Executive Director Cindy Thomas says while many women quit during their pregnancies, they plan to resume after the birth of the child. This can cause multiple problems in a child's development, including chronic lung problems and increased chance of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Thomas added that while having the mother of the child stop smoking is certainly a main goal, the ultimate aim of Quit for Love is to have the entire family stop smoking for the newborn's sake. Pittsburgh had the highest percentage of maternal smokers in the nation's 50 largest cities in 2000, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation study.

Smokeless Tobacco Users Asked to Stop for 24-Hours

Today is the great American Spit Out where users of smokeless tobacco are encouraged to go without for 24 hours. The ultimate goal is to get people to eventually stop altogether. The annual event is sponsored by the Oregon Research Institute, which is right now looking at ways to help youthful users of chewing tobacco kick the habit. Institute senior scientists Brian Danaher says their focus right now is getting kids help online. He says they have had success with the online program among adult users but their youthful approach is still being explored. The web site helps people deal with the mental addiction associated with chewing tobacco as well as the physical addiction. Danaher says many people think chewing tobacco is a safe alternative to smoking but he points out that users of smokeless products are 50% more likely to get oral cancer, which he says is a very dangerous and deforming type of cancer.

Pin Numbers are Coming to your Library Card

Library users in Allegheny County now have to assign a pin number to their cards. The new system was launched Wednesday. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Spokesperson Suzanne Thinnes says the next time you use your card you will have to create a pin number and associate the card with an email account. Thinnes says this is just the first step in a much bigger system upgrade. She says once the pin number process is up and running for a while the library will allow card holders to keep track of what books they have read and create a wish list of books they might look for in the future. Thinnes says card users will also be able to get suggestions of books they might like based on the checkout history of others who have may have similar interests. Those tracking features will be rolled out later this year. Thinnes stresses that all of the information will remain confidential and library staff will not even have access to those records.

Rendell's Tuition Proposal Has Competition

A Republican lawmaker has unveiled a college aid program to compete with Governor Ed Rendell's Tuition Relief Act. State Senator Jeff Piccola of Dauphin County says his plan would help more students go to college without legalizing video poker machines, as Rendell has proposed. Piccola wants to increase funding for grants through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency by 145 million dollars. He says that would help an additional 25,000 students. The assistance could apply to tuition at any Pennsylvania school. Piccola says he'd pay for it by eliminating tax breaks for movies filmed in Pennsylvania, and by reducing funding for private colleges, museums and arts programs.

Rendell says he likes some of Piccola's ideas, but the proposal doesn't go far enough. Rendell's program would help an estimated 170,000 students when fully implemented. It would help cover tuition, fees, room and board for students who go to community colleges or state-owned universities. Students whose families earn less than $100,000 could get up to $7,600 in aid. Rendell would pay for it by legalizing video poker machines and imposing a 50% tax on them.

The head of Pennsylvania's Gaming Control Board says it's not clear whether legalizing video poker machines could cut into casino profits. Mary DiGiacomo Colins also says she would need more details before determining whether the Gaming Board should oversee the proposed video poker system.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gateway Students Asked to Remove Religious Headscarves

Two Gateway High School seniors left school Tuesday after school administrators asked the students to temporarily remove their headscarves because of tensions between students.Gateway School District Spokesperson Cara Zanella said the meeting between administrators, parents and students went well, and added there will be a follow-up meeting to arrange a conflict-resolution.

A dress code violation a few weeks ago had initiated the escalation between students. Zanella said a student wore a t-shirt that was labeled “R.I.P Israel”. She said some students took offense in the shirt, and as a result administrators asked the student to remove it.

Another student then wrote an article about the situation in a local newspaper, in which students had also complained. It was at that point that Muslim students felt unsafe at school. Zanella said the headscarves follow dress code rules; the t-shirt with the anti-Israeli sentiment does not.

City Residents Asked to Save

Pittsburgh will mark America Saves Week starting Monday by encouraging residents to become “Pittsburgh Savers.” The focus of the week is to get people to start saving money with some goal in mind such as buying a home or creating an emergency fund. The Financial Education Consortium of Southwestern Pennsylvania is spearheading the effort and Chairman Richard Witherspoon says even people having a hard time paying their bills may be able to start saving. He says the first thing he does is ask people to write down every dime they spend for a month. Then they look for waste that could go to covering those bills and maybe a bit more. The consortium is offering several financial management classes and other events over the week and several partner banks will be offering participants the chance to open savings accounts with no minimum balance. Witherspoon says the savings plan does not have to be huge, even a few dollars a week will add up over time. Witherspoon stresses that learning to manage your money is as important as starting a savings account. He says the current financial situation facing the nation is due to the fact that we did not manage our money well.

Unions want "A Fair Chance"

At a community meeting in downtown Pittsburgh this morning, local union workers and leaders discussed the importance of unions in today’s economy. There is no question that the economic crisis has left middle class families in a tough bind financially, said Keystone Research Economist Mark Price. Price explained that the decline in labor unions that has progressed for 36 years has adversely affected middle class workers. Price noted times of broadly distributed prosperity, from the 1940s to 1973, were also times when unions had a strong grip in the labor force. If the Employee Free Labor Act passes into law, he said it will give unions more strength, and therefore make the middle class stronger.

John Vignovic, a local union member, said the banks and the auto industry are asking for more money. He asked about what middle class workers want. “We’re asking for a fair chance,” he said.

The Employee Free Choice Act would enable workers to negotiate better benefits, wages and working conditions with their employers. It is intended to give workers a freedom to choose for themselves whether or not to join a union.

Pilot Deal For Pittsburgh Close

Pittsburgh has not had a contract with its largest tax-exempt organizations to make payments in lieu of taxes for more than a year but it looks as though a new deal will be signed soon. The city’s budget assumes more than 4 million dollars a year will come from the “Pittsburgh public service fund” that was set up several years ago by a consortium of nonprofits with large land holdings in the city. A deal has reportedly been submitted to the city to make payments this year but is yet to be signed. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says he is not ready to put his name on that deal. He says he has been advised by the law and budget departments to not yet sign on the dotted line. Ravenstahl says among the issues to be discussed is the possibility of inking a multi-year deal. Some of the tax exempt entities in the fund are worried about what the downturn in the economy will mean to their long term operations and are hesitant to enter into a multi-year commitment. Ravenstahl says he is confident a deal will be reached and the payments will be received this year. Ravenstahl says the city is trying to “dive a hard bargain” but the city’s ability to “flex its political muscle is limited” because ultimately the payments are voluntary. He says if the nonprofits want to have a one-year agreement ultimately that is what will have to be signed.

North Shore Connector Project Grinds on as Stimulus Cash Could Flow In

Despite an estimated cost overrun of $117.8 million, the Port Authority of Allegheny County is continuing work on its North Shore Connector project in the hope it might receive some stimulus cash. As per recommendation of an authority committee, the group today awarded contracts for the train system ($82.3 million) and elevators and escalators for the rail stations ($6 million). PAT spokesperson Judy McNeil says the group believes the project will likely receive some stimulus funding as it meets the criterion to a "t." The North Shore Connector is a 1.2-mile light rail system that will connect Heinz Field and PNC park to the Downtown area. It is scheduled to be completed in 2011.

Police to Put More Emphasis on Pedestrian Safety

Police in Oakland will today begin cracking down on dangerous drivers and jaywalking pedestrians as part of a PennDOT pedestrian safety enforcement campaign. Officers from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh will be handing out written warnings to pedestrians caught crossing mid-block or against crossing signals, and drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks will receive citations with fines around $250. PennDOT safety spokesperson David Pritt says both drivers and pedestrians need to pay more attention to make the streets safer. In 2007, there were 139 crashes involving vehicles and pedestrians in PennDOT District 11--which contains Allegheny, Beaver, and Lawrence Counties--resulting in 10 fatalities.

Pension Programs Take a Hit.

Pennsylvania's two main public pension programs lost more than $28 billion dollars last year, mostly due to the stock market's drop. During a budget hearing at the state Capitol, officials told members of the House Appropriations Committee that taxpayers might have to make up the shortfall. The State Employees' Retirement System lost nearly 29 percent of its value over the year, while the Public School Employees' Retirement System dropped almost 30 percent. Jeffrey Clay, the executive director of the public school pension program, says 2009 will likely bring similar results. He says, “We don't have any firm projections at this point. I don't think we've hit bottom yet. We're not expecting positive results for this fiscal year. And it will be interesting to see if there's even a positive result for this calendar year.” Clay stresses that pension payments in both funds are guaranteed by the state. He says that means tax increases may be needed, as government agencies will likely have to increase their contributions. Clay says his main concerns are maintaining PSERS' liquidity and calming fears of school employees who rely on pensions. He says, “We've been in existence since 1917. We're long-term investors, we keep our eye on the long term. We've been through the Depression, we've been through a lot of other upheavals in the markets, and we're going to get through this. We do have well-diversified investments. The markets are down, that's the way they go, but the markets will return at some point in the future.”

The Budget Debate Begins with a Benchmark.

Budget hearings got under way at the state Capitol Tuesday with a look at Pennsylvania's economic climate and experts say it's not a pretty picture. Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, Dr. Mohammed Iqbal of the economic analysis firm Global Insights said 2009 will likely be another recessionary year, with 72-thousand more jobs lost in Pennsylvania. Iqbal says the economy likely won't start improving until 2010, making the recession one of the longest on record. The hearing's other witness, Ron Snell from the National Conference of State Legislatures, pointed out that balanced budget requirements mean state lawmakers can't do much to improve the situation. He says, “If you do what has to be done to balance the state budget, then you're either spending less or raising more revenue. Those are really the alternatives, aside from dipping into reserves. And either one of those is a situation that worsens conditions in your state.” Governor Rendell and most lawmakers say they don't want to raise broad-based state taxes. But some experts are beginning to question whether Pennsylvania can balance its books without some sort of new levy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Laid Off Nurses and Hospital Employees Left With Nothing

At a bankruptcy court hearing in downtown Pittsburgh today laid off workers from Commonwealth Medical Center were left with no pay for approximately 2 weeks of wages that they are owed. The hospital's Chicago based lender, Bridge Finance Group, decided to pay attorneys for the creditors committee that was formed in the wake of the bankruptcy.

Last month, the hospital and its lender agreed to pay a portion of the unpaid wages to workers with the intent to work toward a full payment. In court on Tuesday Bridge Finance decided to step back from their previous agreement. The Hospital filed for bankruptcy in the first week of December with the hospital closing a week later.

PNC Announces Mortgage Foreclosure Moratorium

All new or pending mortgage foreclosures by PNC Financial Services and their subsidiary National City Mortgage will be put on hold until the federal government unveils its loan modification program. The exact date of this is yet to be determined; however, PNC projects that it will uphold the freeze until about March 13. PNC spokesman Pat McMahon says the moratorium is just one of several steps the bank has taken to help "distressed borrowers." Reduced rate options, extended payback terms and doubling their customer service staff are some of the other measures PNC has employed. McMahon says the bank wants to see as many customers as possible stay in their homes.

PDP Turns 15

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership launched its 15th year celebration Tuesday morning with its annual members meeting. During the event PDP President and CEO Mike Edwards noted that cleanliness and safety have always been top priorities of the partnership and that has not changed. The Clean Teams in their yellow outfits and the Safety Ambassadors are now under one contract and have been doing more than every before. He says in 2008 the Clean Teams collected more than 50,000 bags of trash and removed 3,600 graffiti “tags.” The Safety Ambassadors helped answer more than 24,000 questions from visitors and dealt with 2,500 “panhandling incidents.” He says they will continue to focus on panhandlers and the homeless. Edwards says over the last year the PDP has focused on 5th Ave and Smithfield St. and he thinks despite the slowdown in the economy the Golden Triangle will continue to attract more retailers in the coming year. He points to a pair of studies which show there has been an increase in the number of people walking around downtown from 2006 to 2008 and they have “more money in their pockets,” which Edwards says is good news or downtown businesses.

50 School Buses To Be Retrofitted

The Pittsburgh Public School System is having 50 of its school buses retrofitted to reduce diesel pollution by 90%. The retrofitting is being done by W L Roenigk, INC and the funding is from the Pittsburgh Healthy School Bus Program. In total 50 school buses are being retrofitted. The buses being retrofitted are from 2007 and earlier. So far, 15 buses have been completely retrofitted with another 18 expected to be completed soon. All 50 buses are expected to be completely retrofitted by the end of the school year.

Buses to Better Accomodate Disabled People

People with disabilities may find it easier to use public transportation in the future, thanks to new research being performed by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University at Buffalo (UB). A grant from the U.S. Department of Education catalyzed a five-year, $4.7 million dollar effort to help the universities collaborate on a new Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Accessible Public Transportation. Aaron Steinfeld, a systems scientist at CMU, leads the investigation and co-directs the new facility with his father Edward, of UB. Aaron Steinfeld says public transit is crucial to the personal independence and employment of people with disabilities, and it should be developed so that they can use it easily. The new center will incorporate public input in both individual and community formats. Gillig Corp., a large bus manufacturer, and the transit systems of Pittsburgh and Buffalo are all partnering with the center to develop and implement new designs in buses when they are made.

What to Cut? The Debate Begins

Spending cuts are the theme of this year's budget proposal, but a conservative think-tank says Governor Rendell has the ability to eliminate billions more in state spending. A new report from the Commonwealth Foundation says Pennsylvania could cut $5 billion from its budget, and still carry out government responsibilities. Rendell's budget proposal comes in at just more than $29 billion, but Nathan Benefield, the Foundation's director of policy research, says it includes billions of dollars in what he calls government welfare. “You know, funding for Boscov's. Or tax credits for big Hollywood movies. Or smaller things like the Opportunity Grant Program, which has been heavily criticized for not producing the number of jobs it's supposed to create. And we found billions of these types of programs in the state budget that are not really being talked about being cut by Governor Rendell.” Benefield argues if companies like Boscov's were worth lending money to, private companies would do-so. He's also against state subsidies for initiatives like a new Major League Soccer Stadium in Chester County and a new airport in Hazelton. Backers of those efforts say state investments spur economic growth.

Stimulus Package Could Boost Local PennDOT Projects

1.5 billion dollars is set to flow into Pennsylvania pending the president's signature and infrastructure projects are lining up to receive it. PennDOT has more than 900 miles of roads and 428 bridges ready for construction awaiting funds from the economic stimulus package. Officials say the money will likely go first to "shovel-ready" improvements. PennDOT District 11 spokesman Jim Struzzi says several projects in Allegheny County fit that criterion and could get a boost including:
-The second phase of Liberty Tunnels repairs
-Preparation for Route 28 widening
-Redesign of the Route 60 interchange at Robinson Town Centre
-Rehabilitation of the Fort Duquesne Bridge

Pennsylvania, the sixth largest state in population, will receive the sixth highest amount of money from the package. There has been no word yet on exactly how Pennsylvania funds will be funneled into local projects.

Penguins New Coach Meets With Media

Pittsburgh Penguins Interim Head Coach Dan Bylsma met with the media to talk about his new job. He said being called up from the minors to coach was different that being called up from the minors to play. He says he is confident that he can get the job done. Bylsma already is familiar with many of the players already because some of them played for him in the minors and during training camp former coach Michel Therrien allowed him to run a practice and run some drills. Bylsma said that when he spoke with the players before his first game he was happy with the body language that he saw. Bylsma joined the Penguins as an assistant coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2006 and was in his first year as head coach before he was called up to coach the Penguins. The Baby Penguins were 35-16-1-2 with Bylsma as the head coach.

State Draws Praise for Newborn Screening Changes

Pennsylvania will soon improve its standing on a national report card grading newborn health screening. The March of Dimes is praising the passage of a law that will require all newborns in Pennsylvania to be screened for 29 conditions. The conditions, including sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and hearing loss, are rare, but treatable. If caught early, the March of Dimes says parents can often make simple diet changes to protect their infants from mental retardation or even death. Screening is done by taking a few drops of blood, usually from a newborn's heel.

Most hospitals in Pennsylvania screen for the conditions already. Delores Smith with the March of Dimes in Pennsylvania says the law is important not just because it makes screening universal; she says it will also allow the Department of Health to track how many children have these serious conditions. Smith says that will provide an important resource for physicians who may never have seen other patients with these conditions.

Currently, 24 other states and the District of Columbia require these screenings. Pennsylvania will join them in July.

New Market Square Design Unveiled.

Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl says the new design for Market Square will bring to mind a European Plaza. Ground is to be broken for the $5 million project this summer with a grand opening a year later. Ravenstahl says traffic along Forbes Ave. will be cut off but the perimeter will remain open to cars with 27 parking spaces along the rim. Trees will be removed and replaced with taller ones that will allow for better site lines from one end of the square to the other and it will be built as one level to give it that plaza feel. He says the project is pedestrian friendly from start to finish. Ravenstahl says he hopes the square will act like an octopus sending its tentacles into the rest of the golden triangle. $2 million dollars of the project will come from state funds allocated to the city. Another $2.5 million will come from three foundations. Ravenstahl says he is confident the remaining $500-thousand will be found before the project is complete. It is still unclear what will happen with bus traffic. Some say it needs to be removed completely and others say it is an important way to get people to the square. Ravenstahl says there is also still debate about a stage area. Some are calling for a permanent structure while others want something that can be removed. The center of the square is to be stocked with tables and chairs to allow for dining.

Clean Water Conundrum

The process for disinfecting the water that comes out of your tap may be changing. New federal regulations aimed at improving water quality are prompting many utilities to switch the chemicals they use. But one increasingly popular disinfectant may do more harm than good. DUQ's Katherine Fink reports...

Listen to the full-length story here.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Consider Comprehensive Sex Education

The Pittsburgh Public School Board heard testimony last night arguing for a switch to a more comprehensive sex education program. Currently the curriculum contains an abstinence-only sex ed program. Concerned parents, like Henry Schmitt of Squirrel Hill, want the schools to move to an "Abstinence Plus" program in which abstinence is still taught as the best way to treat sex, but also recognizes alternative practices of safe sex and contraceptives. Mr. Schmitt says the current program is like teaching math without including algebra or science without chemistry, and would like to see the new program implemented. The school system has said that it would not distribute contraceptives or demonstrate their use and, if implemented, parents who disagree with the program could have their child removed from the classes. The board is set to vote on the new plan next Tuesday.

Councilman Dowd Announces Mayoral Candidacy

Pittsburgh City Councilman Patrick Dowd yesterday announced he will challenge Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in the May 19th primaries. Dowd says he has been considering running for the office of mayor for some time. He says now is a very important time for the city and it will need strong leadership at the helm. The councilman will formally announce his campaign and platform at a press conference on Thursday.

Rt 28 to See New Delays

Construction of a new wall near the old Heinz plant will slow Route 28 northbound traffic from February 23th onward. Motorists will be restricted to one lane as workers build a $3 million replacement wall in front of the failing structure. Incoming traffic from the Veterans Bridge will be especially slow at night, when one lane of the bridge ramp will also be closed. Jim Struzzi, spokesman for PennDOT, says drivers should use the 31st or 40th Street Bridges to avoid traffic if they can, but most will simply have to allow themselves more time. Several future projects have been planned for Route 28, including an effort to relocate railroad tracks from near the 31st Street Bridge to a less dangerous location. Road work in Millvale and Etna is also expected.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hearing On Wages for Former Hospital Workers

A hearing will be held tomorrow morning in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Pittsburgh on whether nearly 200 former workers of the now closed Commonwealth Medical Center should receive back wages. Commonwealth Medical Center, formerly Aliquippa Hospital, filed for bankruptcy December 5 and then closed a week later. The nurses and other caregivers did receive post-bankruptcy wages but not what they were owed prior to the bankruptcy filing. Former employee Johnni Psomas says the workers are owed about 2 weeks back pay and she's hopeful they can convince the Judge Bernard Markovitz to approve the paying of the wages. When it filed a preliminary budget last week, the Medical Center did not include those unpaid wages. The workers and their supporters are holding a vigil this evening outside the closed hospital and then will take buses tomorrow morning to Pittsburgh to attend the bankruptcy hearing.

Sharpsburg Parishes to Merge

Three Catholic parishes in Sharpsburg are combining next month to form the St. Juan Diego Parish. The merger of St. Mary, St. John Cantius and Madonna of Jerusalem parishes fol,lows several months of meetings by parish committees. The parishes petitioned Pittsburgh Catholic Bishop David Zubik to approve the consolidation and he agreed. For nearly 10 years, the 3 parishes have been administered as a single unit and overseen by one priest. Father Frank Almade, who has been administering the 3 parishes for the last 18 months, will be installed as pastor of St. Juan Diego Parish March 15th. The Reverend Almade says although the 3 parishes have a strong German, Polish and Italian history, the different ethnicities have not divided the community. He says 2 years ago St. John Cantius Church welcomed a large Korean contingent as part of the parish.
Father Almade says there were 2 criteria for selecting a name for the new parish: it could not be the name of one of the existing three and they wanted the name to be unique to the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
St. Juan Diego is a native Indian to whom the Virgin Mary appeared outside of what is now Mexico City in 1531.

Hulton Bridge Replacement

The two-lane, lilac colored Hulton Bridge that is a main artery to and from Oakmont is being replaced, but not for a few more years. The Hulton Bridge, which is stricken with traffic during peak hours, has about 25,000 vehicles crossing it daily. The new bridge will have four lanes, and will hopefully alleviate some of the chronic traffic problems. A two-year construction period will begin in 2012, under the best circumstances.

Bob Cooper, president of the Oakmont Chamber of Commerce, says a wider bridge is what Oakmont really needs. However, depending on where the new bridge is placed will cause problems. Cooper says placing the bridge farther upstream or downstream will affect property owners. He calls it the “not in my backyard theory.” It’s a good idea; as long as the new structure does not adversely affect them.

PennDOT prefers building the bridge upstream, which will reduce traffic going towards the Riverview Junior-Senior High School. However, that also means the bridge will be within 30 feet of a condominium complex on the other side of the river. Regardless, Cooper says a wider bridge will be more beneficial than problematic to Oakmont in the long run.

Ferlo on Cigar Tax

Senator Jim Ferlo of Allegheny County says although a tax on cigars, cigarillos and smokeless tobacco might negatively affect the industry in Pennsylvania, it would "level the playing field" for cigarette smokers, who are currently the only tobacco users taxed. The largest financial burden of the tobacco industry is shipping, Ferlo says, suggesting tobacco companies would rather deal with the tax than increase distribution costs by shipping from other states. "You know, that's a nice thing for them to threaten, but I don't know realistically if [tobacco companies] would just uproot themselves completely," says Ferlo. Governor Rendell's proposition would place a 36-cent tariff on every ten cigars, and the same amount on every ounce of smokeless tobacco. The tax, which would raise an estimated $38 million dollars per year, would take effect in October.

Gov's Video Poker Support Tour Underway

Pennsylvania Governor Rendell is promoting his video poker proposal this week with a series of speeches and he is getting strong support from a key ally in the General Assembly. House Speaker Keith McCall, a Carbon County Democrat, says the idea of funding college tuition breaks through a system of legalized video poker machines appeals to him. However, he says the House will need to hold a series of hearings on the matter, and that he has a lot of questions about how the machines would be regulated. McCall says, “You can't have just people in a piecemeal basis going out checking these machines. So there's going to have to be some form of central registry where all the data is kept on these machines. And I think when we move on that we're going to have to look at some centralized form of enforcement to make sure that the monies collected are going to where they're supposed to be going.” Critics say they're concerned legalized machines would take revenue away from casinos and lottery ticket sales. Rendell wants the General Assembly to pass the initiative as quickly as possible. The state would take 50% of the proceeds from every machine.

President's Day Celebrated the Lincoln Way in PA

Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday gives President's Day some extra meaning this year and the party started early in Harrisburg. The 16th president was recently honored in the state Capitol rotunda, where top hats, fifes and hoop skirts were back in style. Pennsylvania was the site of one of Lincoln's most iconic moments-the Gettysburg Address. House Speaker Keith McCall says that gives the commonwealth a special bond with the president. He says Lincoln delivered an important message with that brief speech, “On our soil, on the ground hallowed by the blood of the brave men and boys who fought and died, Lincoln reassured us that those men and those boys did not die in vain.” To highlight tat tie, renowned Lincoln impersonator James Getty delivered the Gettysburg Address on the floor of the PA House Chamber. Getty says one of Lincoln's greatest accomplishments was his insistence that Confederate soldiers not be punished after the Civil War ended. Getty says the president understood the country had suffered enough, and needed to heal.

Tax Checkoff Helps PA Charities

Income tax forms are being prepared by individuals and accountants across the state and while it may be the source of headaches for some it is the source of funding for 5 non-profits in the state. As you approach the bottom of the PA-40 form, any tax filer who is due a refund is given the option to send all, or a portion, of that money to one of the charities. Pennsylvania Department of Revenue Spokesperson Elizabeth Brassell says each one was chosen by the state legislature and each will either eventually fall off the form or have to be renewed. For the last three years the 5 choices have been the same; The Wild Resources Conservation Fund, The Military Family Relief Assistance Program. The Governor Casey Memorial Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Trust Fund, The Juvenile Diabetes Cure Research Fund and the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Research Fund. Brassell says the number grows every year but last year 540-thousand dollars were donated through the checkoff program usually 7 and 8 dollars at a time. Total donations to each fund ranged from $166- to $27-thousand. Brassell says Pennsylvania is not unique. In fact, in 2003 there were 220 checkoff programs on the tax forms of 41 states and the District of Columbia. Brassell says people who fill out their own forms usually notice the 5 options but those who go to a preparer often are never told about the opportunity. Supporters of the check off program encourage filers to tell their preparers to send any potential refund to one of the programs when they drop off their materials.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Rendell Happy With Stimulus

The final version of the federal stimulus restores much of the funding the Senate had cut out and that has Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell smiling. Earlier this week, Rendell sounded the alarm at a press conference when he said if portions of the stimulus weren't restored, thousands of state employees would be laid off, and 500 million dollars of additional cuts would need to be made. But as the measure moved through the conference committee Rendell announced that the money was back. He told reporters, “It's almost a wash. Not quite, but it's almost a wash. So there won't have to be 500 million dollars of additional cuts. If at all, less than 100 million, depending on how the F-MAP formula comes out.” Rendell says the bill will create between 100-thousand and 120-thousand Pennsylvania jobs, mostly in construction. He says Senator Arlen Specter deserves a lot of credit for making it a reality, as the measure is expected to pass through democratically controlled Congress today.

Altmire Says Yes to Stimulus

The U.S. Congress is expected to approve the $789 billion economic stimulus package later today. Congressman Jason Altmire of the North Hills voted for the measure that came out of conference committee late last night. He says Congress had to act quickly to prevent the recession from spiraling out of control. The goal of the bill is to create or retain 3.5 million jobs. Republicans had complained that it was filled with pork rather than spending focused only on stimulating the economy. Altmire disagrees, he says there are no earmarks and there is no pork in the bill. He says all there is job producing spending and money saving tax cuts. Republicans had said there was not enough in the way of tax cuts but the bill that emerged from conference includes $282 billion in tax cuts. Altmire says with the keen focus on infrastructure spending Western Pennsylvania stands to be a big beneficiary. He says the region’s crumbling, roads, bridges and lock system could mean more spending here than any other part of the country. The final deal also includes almost $54 billion to help states with their budget deficits and to modernize schools. Something PA Governor Ed Rendell had been pushing for over the last few weeks. $8.4 billion has been set aside for public transportation. Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato says he hopes some of that will come the way of the Port Authority, maybe for the completion of the North Shore Connector.

Stimulus Check Causing Confusion

The IRS says its is already seeing a trend of filers making errors when it comes to the “recovery rebate credit.” Line 70 on the 1040 form is intended to catch anyone who may not have received the full amount last year when the federal government was mailing out 119 million stimulus checks. The checks were technically an advance on a 2008 tax credit. IRS spokesperson David Stewart says some people do not seem to know what to do with the line and are putting in the wrong number. He says most filers should be entering zero or leaving the line blank. Anyone who added a dependent in 2008, are filing an income tax return for the first time, or did not get the full amount in their rebate check need to fill out the two page work sheet and then enter the right number. Stewart says, “That baby born in 2008 is worth an additional $300.” Stewart says the best way to avoid making an error is to use electronic filing. If you do not remember the size of your rebate check the IRS has that information. You can get it by calling 1-866-234-2942 or at IRS.GOV. Anyone who was over paid does not have to return the money to the IRS.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

City Council Holds Meeting Regarding ACT 47 and The Five Year Plan

Pittsburgh City Council held the first of 7 meetings regarding the creation of a new 5 year plan for the city. The meeting was held to have an overview of the 5 year plan with the act 47 team. Discussed at the meeting were the successes and failures over the last 5 years. City finance director Scott Kunka, City council budget director Bill Urbanic, and ACT 47 Coordinators Dean Kaplan and Jim Roberts testified in front of council.

Council discussed issues that ranged from estimating the figures of future budget surplus's to the need or a larger tax base and the damage done by a forced lowering of the parking tax.

The meetings that will be held in the future will address revenue expectations and the capital budget, pension issues, debt and health care issues, public safety department, public works departments, and all other city departments.

Cyber Town Hall Wide Ranging

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato took several questions on the Port Authority and the possibility of a city/county merger in his second Cyber Town Hall Meeting Thursday. The half hour question and answer session was webcast on the County’s website. Questions were submitted via email including several on the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s finances and the North Shore Connector. Onorato says with a new contract in place and a dedicated source of revenue PAT is finally dealing with legacy costs and moving forward on improving operations. He defended the T-line extension under the Allegheny River saying it was 80% federally funded and will not only serve as a connection for north shore attractions and CCAC but it is also the first step to extending the line to the airport. He did however say the county would not cover any cost overruns. When probed about the possibility of a city/county merger Onorato reiterated his support for the merger and called on other municipalities to think about following suit. He says there are still several details to be worked out including workforce, representation and debt issues. He says before the issue could go to a vote there would have to be a series of public hearings and forums. Onorato also took a question on how the county will deal with the economic crisis. The Executive fielded a suggestion that the County Police Department be eliminated. Onorato says he once felt the same way but changed his mind after taking office. He says those officers provide much needed specialty services to the county’s 130 municipalities including homicide investigations. He says without the department each municipality would have to hire more officers, which would lead to higher taxes. The webcast will be archived along with the first Cyber Town Hall on the county’s web page.

Science Center Hires Co-Directors

The Carnegie Science Center has announced the hiring of Ann Metzger and Ronald Baillie to serve as Co-Directors of the science center. The two had been serving as acting directors for the science center since former director Joanna Haas left in July, 2008. President of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh David Hillenbrand says the decision to hire two directors was easy because Metzger and Baillie work well together and compliment each other.

Metzger joined the science center in 2006 as the director of marketing and communications and community affairs. Before she started with the science center she worked with UPMC as the director of corporate communications.

Baillie joined the science center in 1983 and worked as director of exhibits, programs, and technical services. He worked as a math and science teacher before joining the center.

Veterans to Receive Free Tuition from Robert Morris

Veterans and active service members may soon be able to go to Robert Morris University without having to cover any tuition costs. RMU says it will forgive any tuition costs not covered by the G.I bill and other programs. The G.I. bill grants veterans a subsidy equal to the most expensive public school tuition in the state. For Pennsylvanians, that is Penn State's tuition of about $14,000; RMU's tuition is around $20,000. Robert Morris will pay for half of the remaining $6,000, while the Yellow Ribbon G.I. Education Enhancement Program will take care of the rest. Participants can study whatever subject they want, at whatever level in which they are qualified to enroll. Robert Morris President Greg Dell'Omo says he will not put a cap on the program, though there may be a great deal of interest. Dell'Omo believes the G.I. bill created after World War II boosted the economy, helped families and "created the modern middle class in our country."

Poetry Forum Calls it Quits

International Poetry Forum Director Dr. Sam Hazo says he is no longer able to keep the Forum alive and has announced that this will be its last season. Hazo says he was forced to make the decision after spending the last 8 months looking for funding. He says grant-making organizations have had to slow their spending in reaction to the economic downturn. He says it would have been dishonest to continue the Forum at a lower level so he announced Wednesday night that it would not continue after the current season, which has two more performances. The Forum began in 1966 and archives of the readings can be found at the Forum’s website. Hazo says he is now focused on keeping that site alive. He says for poetry to be fully appreciated it should be read aloud. He compares it to sheet music that begs to be played. Hazo says he is most proud of how the Forum has grown the audience for live poetry reading in Pittsburgh over the last 43 years and he thanks all of the audience members and past funders for making that possible. quits

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Biden Touts Stimulus in PA

Right around the time that a Congressional conference committee was hammering out the details of the 789 billion dollar stimulus package, Vice President Joe Biden was in Harrisburg promoting the bill's benefits. It was part of the Obama Administration’s public relations tour touting the spending plan. Biden says the stimulus will pump 16 billion dollars into Pennsylvania's economy, between construction projects, tax breaks, the extension of unemployment benefits and other items. He says he rejects the notion that the stimulus is simply a vehicle for government spending because 90% of the money will wind up in the hands of private companies and contractors. Biden was joined by Governor Rendell and Congressman Tim Holden, who sits on the House transportation committee. The Vice President says he hopes that more Republicans will support the final measure. Not a single House Republican voted for the bill the first time around, and Senator Arlen Specter was one of just three Senate Republicans to back it.

Poll Shows Video Poker OK

New data from a Quinnipiac University poll shows Pennsylvania residents strongly support some of Governor Rendell's budget proposals, but reject others. The poll shows nearly 7 in 10 Pennsylvanians are against letting county governments impose a one percent sales tax. But by the same margin, commonwealth residents support the legalization of video poker machines. PA Governor Ed Rendell's spokesman, Chuck Ardo, says that's an indication that opponents of video poker are on the wrong side of the issue. Republican Doug Reichley says he's in favor of providing college tuition breaks and helping bars and social clubs, but argues Rendell is misrepresenting the issue. He says Rendell somehow wants people to believe video poker is not gambling. The same poll found 67 percent of Pennsylvanians would support a ten-cent per pack increase on cigarettes.

Gas Prices to Rise, Souces Say

This week's average gas price in Western Pennsylvania is $1.976 and are expected only to go up. Despite oil prices lingering around $40 per barrel, gas prices are rising separately as a result of lower production from refinery plants. Western Pennsylvania Triple A spokesperson Bevi Powell says the stimulus plan could cause gas prices to drop. She says gas prices go hand in hand with the economy. This week's gas price is up about 6 cents from last week's average and down $1.04 from this time last year.

Film Maker's Tax Credit at Risk

The film production industry brings $300 million per year to Pennsylvania says Dawn Keezer, Director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, in response to State Senator Pat Vance's bill which would eliminate the Film Production Tax Credit Program. The program offers a 25 percent tax credit to production companies who spend at least 60 percent of their budget in Pennsylvania. Vance contends the program is wasteful in a time when state workers are being laid off and tight budget cuts are being made. Keezer says the program is one of the best programs in the nation and has brought hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to Pennsylvania. Over the past year, 11 feature films have been made in the southwestern Pennsylvania region and have brought in over $50 million to the area.

Salmonella Strikes Allegheny County

An Allegheny County man is one of 17 Pennsylvanians to have been infected with a strain of salmonella connected with a Georgia peanut-processing plant, officials say. The 45-year-old man fell sick in early January, says Allegheny County Health Department(ACHD) spokesperson Guillermo Cole, after eating peanut butter crackers and recovered in about a week. As a result, Cole says the ACHD is currently checking local retailers to ensure they have removed all of the 1800-plus recalled products from shelves. The full list of recalled products is available at

IUP Student Found Dead

A student at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania was found dead yesterday in his dorm room. IUP Spokesperson Michelle Fryling identified the student as Douglas James Haney, a first semester student who had declared a political science major. Friends said he was feeling sick and they had not seen him all day. Fryling says foul play is not expected. An autopsy being performed today is to determine a cause of death. The University is offering support services for students.

State Leaders Call For Fast Passage on Stimulus

Now that the Senate has passed a stimulus package, Pennsylvania politicians are urging Congress to put together the final bill as quickly as possible. In a statement, Pennsylvania Republican Party Chair Robert Gleason calls the federal stimulus "a spending bill filled with pork," but Governor Rendell rejects that mindset. He says infrastructure repairs funded by the stimulus will put commonwealth residents to work. He says bears and robots don’t build roads and bridges, people do. Municipal officials are also urging Congress to act quickly. Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, the president of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, says the legislation will give cities, townships and Burroughs an economic jump-start. Both Callahan and Rendell say they're hoping the conference committee restores the billions of dollars in state aid the Senate eliminated. Rendell says if that money isn't returned to the stimulus, he'll have to lay off more state workers.