Tuesday, June 30, 2009

PA House Votes to Expand AdultBasic Care

By a vote of 104-96, the Pennsylvania House has voted to extend the Adult Basic Care program for low-income adults. Currently, 46,000 adults are enrolled but there are another 236,000 on the waiting list. House Bill 1 expands the program to cover 130,000 Pennsylvanians between 19 and 64 years old. To be eligible, the recipient's earnings must be no more than 200% of the federal poverty level.
All House Republicans but one voted against the measure. GOP Representative Dennis O'Brien voted with the Democrats. In addition to adding more people, the bill expands the coverage to include prescription drugs, preventative and wellness care, chronic disease management and behavioral health care. The additional coverage would qualify the state to receive a 54% federal subsidy. Other revenues for the program include a 2% tax on nonprofit health insurers and $362 million from the MCare program that helps doctors pay for malpractice insurance.
The measure faces an uncertain future in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Savings and Loan Meets Financing Plan Deadline

Dwelling House Savings & Loan President John Haines announced today that he has submitted a capitalization plan to meet the deadline imposed by federal bank regulators. The new financing is part of the 119 year old Savings & Loan's effort to fill a $1 million capital deficit left by cyber thieves who stole $3 million through electronic bank transfers. Haines says they've made progress in recovering some of the money from other financial institutions that unwittingly processed the fraudulent transfers. Haines says that new financing plan includes additional funds from Dollar Bank as well as from a group of Pittsburgh philanthropies: the Pittsburgh Foundation, Elsie Hillman Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and Richard King Mellon via a grant to the Poise Foundation.
Haines says he "wasn't surprised but rather overwhelmed" by the response of the foundation community. Haines refused to disclose details of the plan until F.D.I.C. officials respond to it..."What we can say at this point is that we are confident we have a way forward that will meet expectations of federal regulators in terms of recapitalization and recovery from a terrible criminal act."
Haines says the plan will "reinvigorate a historic Pittsburgh institution so that it continues its special mission of serving the African American community for decades to come."

G20 Security Still Being Planned

Security plans are slowly coming together for the upcoming G20 summit but Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says there are still more things they do not know than things they do know. In the coming days the city will be meeting with labor leaders to talk about their plans to protest the September 25th and 26th G20 summit in Pittsburgh. In the past, labor groups have played a big roll in protests outside similar gatherings. When asked if the city will be meeting with anarchists and other groups that have also made past G20 events a prime focus, Ravenstahl would only says that the did not want to reveal too much about “sensitive public safety issues” to make sure security keeps an upper hand on the protesters. He says it will be important for the city to accommodate “peaceful protesters” but he wants to make sure things do not “turn violent.” The Secrete Service is in charge of over all security for the summit but city and county public safety administrators will be closely involved. Ravenstahl says it is “yet to be announced” where protesters will be corralled and he says “there has been no decision yet.” The Mayor reiterated the Police Chief’s estimation that 4,000 officers will be needed. Many of them will come from federal agencies. Ravenstahl says there has been a “constant line of communications” among the city, county and White House on security preparations.

G20 Marketing Efforts Underway

With the leadership of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development the new group “Pittsburgh G20 Partnership” has gathered a long list of participants and nearly half a million dollars. The goal of the organization is to capitalize on the media attention that will come with the G20 Summit in September. Conference CEO Dennis Yablonsky says with the delegates will be on such tight time tables during the event the real opportunity will come in showing off the city for the estimated 3,000 members of the international media. Yablonsky says a media center has already been established and the Partnership will soon begin hosting media tours. Story ideas showcasing the city’s renaissance and resilience are being gathered to distribute to visiting media. Many of the ideas are based on thoughts put forward during the three G20 brainstorming sessions. Yablonsky says he hopes to raise an additional $100,000 in the coming weeks. He says the members of the Pittsburgh G20 Partnership are already meeting on a regular basis and the collective international media marketing expertise of the participants has already been very valuable. Yablonsky says a focus will also be put on efforts following the summit. He says that will be the time to capitalize on the good image he hopes will be generated worldwide. He says it may put Pittsburgh on the radar screen for companies considering expansion in the US that had never considered Pittsburgh as a landing spot. Among the more noticeable aspects of the pre event efforts will be the remaking of 25-30 empty store fronts, training for hospitality workers, and volunteers wearing “Ask Me” buttons on city streets ready to provide help to visitors. More ideas and volunteers are still being solicited at the Partnership web site.

Act 47 Plan Amended, Adopted by City Council

In a 6-3 vote, Pittsburgh City Council adopted the Act 47 five-year recovery plan. Along with the plan, 30 out of 42 suggested amendments by city council June 24 were approved by the state to be added. Councilors Patrick Dowd, Darlene Harris and Doug Shields voted against the plan. Approving councilors noted that it took a lot of work and discussion to come to a decision.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says he is happy that council members "stepped up and did the right thing." The mayor met with several council members Monday including Councilors Tonya Payne, Jim Motznik and Bruce Kraus. Ravenstahl says he thinks the relationship between he and the members of council is on the mend after some harsh words were exchanged earlier this month.

City Council President Shields says there are many issues the plan does not look over, such as a commuter tax, pension fund plans and structural issues. Councilor Bill Peduto says the plan will certainly not solve all problems, but by seeing how the previous plan has worked over the past five years, he sees it as a lifeboat that keeps the city above water. The plan now goes to be approved in Harrisburg.

Onorato Still Being Briefed on Latest Shuman Problem

An investigation has been launched into the alleged assault of a male resident at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center at the hands of a guard. Allegheny County police and the state Department of Public Welfare are conducting the investigation. The resident claims the guard smashed his head against a wall. He first reported the incident to his court appointed lawyer just before a hearing. He was transported to the hospital for treatment. Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato says he has not yet gotten the details of the incident from center Director William Simmons. He says right now it is too early to say what will happen with the employee but he says his “track record shows I will not tolerate misbehavior.” The Post Gazette reports the guard has been "taken off the schedule" and is not being paid while the investigation continues but the director says there is no evidence at this time to support the victim’s claim. The allegation is just the latest in a long string of problems at the center. Onorato says Simmons came into a tough situation and is trying to make some changes. He says he fully supports the new director. Onorato is backing off his previous threat to close the center. He says, “ that probable got a few people nervous about it.” He says, “Our goal is to run the best facility the state can possible run, and lets just say that we will make what ever changes need to be made and Director Simmons has been doing it.”

The Path of the Flood Trail

Pennsylvania now has eight nationally designated trails. The "Path of the Flood Trail" has now been named a National Recreation Trail. Today's ceremony was held at the South Abutment of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, where officials of the National Park Service dedicated the trail.

David Knepper, Executive Director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance said the national designation of the trail should increase the amount of federal funding.
Knepper said the Parks Service chooses trails that can contribute historical and recreational opportunitions to the nation.

Carl King, the coordinator for the Pittsburgh/Harrisburg Mainline Canal Greenway, said, "the trail follows the path of the mainline canal which was the path of the flood waters from the 1889 flood that devastated Johnstown, giving the trail its name." The Path of the Flood Trail also passes through the oldest railroad tunnel in the U.S., the Staple Bend Tunnel.
King says that gives the 9-mile-long trail such historic importance.

This Cambria County trail will include trail markers noting its designation as well as providing historic facts.

Capital Stock Tax Back in Limelight

The business community is taking issue with one of Governor Ed Rendell's tax proposals, saying it's a blindside that will hurt small companies across the commonwealth. As a way of helping fill Pennsylvania's budget gap, Rendell wants to freeze a long-planned reduction in the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax, which is due to expire in 2011. This year, companies are paying a 1.89% levy on every thousand dollars of assets. The governor wants to retroactively bump that up to 2.89%. President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council David Patt has a problem with that. “For firms that have already legally complied with the tax law, and fully paid 100 percent of what they were supposed to pay, we would now be saying, 'oh, sorry. We took the tax rate up. You're going to have to pay more money for the last six months.’” The tax is scheduled to gradually decrease for the next few years, but Rendell wants to keep the rate at 2.89 percent through 2011, and phase it out in 2014. The phase out of the tax has been delayed and accelerated several ties over the last several years. The Governor says the additional revenue will help see Pennsylvania through the current recession.

State Workers Can Get Free Loans

With the legal budget deadline now hours away, state employees have begun applying for no interest loans, in case they miss paychecks during prolonged negotiations. The Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union is offering the loans for commonwealth workers who are members but there is a catch to the great rate. After a budget is signed into law, workers will have sixty days to repay the loan. If they don’t the interest rate jumps from zero to 3.9 percent. State workers will stop being paid tomorrow and will not see a paycheck until a deal is in place. However, they are required by law to keep showing up at work. PSECU members will be able to withdraw up to a thousand dollars per paycheck period. Department of Community and Economic Development assistant counsel Matthew Speicher told reporters he signed up for the program over the phone, calling it an "easy process." “I wanted to be ready for the impending impasse. I think it might go on two to six weeks, so I wanted to be ready just in case we needed the money” says Speicher. He says about half of the people he works with have signed up for the program.

New Device Could Help Blinded Vets and Civilians

For a long time blinded veterans and civilians have had few tools for coping with their impairment, and a large number of them choose not to venture outside at all.

But DUQ’s Larkin Page-Jacobs reports that emerging technology could help make a difference in the way blind people live.

Click here to listen to the story.

UPMC Merger Under Way

The UPMC South Side Hospital will be gradually merged into UPMC’s Mercy Hospital, starting tomorrow. The facility will be renamed the UPMC Mercy Hospital South Side Outpatient Center. Among the changes patients can expect are reduction of inpatient services and less emergency care available. The South Side facility’s emergency room will now be called an “Urgent Care Center,” treating only minor injuries and available from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Outpatient services will remain, but spokesperson Susan Manko says “duplicate services” of both facilities, such as inpatient and emergency service, will be cut. Because of the influx of South Side employees, however, the emergency and physical therapy departments of Mercy Hospital will be expanded. Manko says the fate of the South Side building is yet to be decided.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Health Advisory Panel Meets

Congress is expected to debate and vote on health care legislation after their summer recess. 3 dozens health care leaders and advocates from Western Pennsylvania gathered this morning at Medrad’s headquarters in Marshall Township to discuss what that measure should include. Democratic Congressman Jason Altmire’s Health Care Advisory Board includes doctors, nurses, hospital officials, insurers, pharmacists, long-term care providers and advocates. Altmire says he wanted to hear from people who represent different points of view and who will be impacted differently by the legislation that is passed. Altmire says they have to find ways to bring down costs while paying for coverage for the uninsured. He says much of this cost of extending coverage can come from savings in the insurance and pharmaceutical
Altmire says he does not support taxing the health care benefits that people receive from their employers.
Ted Zimmer of the Consumer Health Coalition of Pittsburgh says the legislation needs to deal with several segments of uninsured Americans including workers with no coverage. He says they are willing to contribute to their coverage but their current options are not affordable. Zimmer says many workers would be interested in a subsidized public option.
Representative Altmire says Congress has been talking about health care system changes for 60 years, but this time will approve legislation because it’s too important not to do it.

Deadline Looms for Dwelling House

It's not clear whether Dwelling House Savings and Loan will raise enough reserve capital by tomorrow's deadline. But founder Robert R. Lavelle says it might not matter. He says he's optimistic that banking regulators will allow Dwelling House to continue operating when they see the progress its made in recovering the funds, as well as correcting a vulnerability that allowed cyberthieves to steal $3 million.

The problem was uncovered during an audit at the end of last year. Lavelle says it should have been discovered earlier. About $1 million has been recovered from financial institutions that were used to commit the fraud. Federal banking regulators want Dwelling House to recover at least another $1 million by tomorrow, and Lavelle says they've been making progress.

Lavelle says it's in no one's interest to shut Dwelling House down. As Pittsburgh's oldest minority lender, and one that serves low-income customers, he says it plays an important role in the community.

Hospital Says Stay Away From Fireworks

West Penn Hospital is urging picnicers and partyers to stay safe this Fourth of July holiday. Director of the Hospital's Burn Center Larry Jones says fireworks and grills are two main sources of burns every year. Jones says personal fireworks can cause severe damage to the face, eyes, and hands, and should be avoided completely.

"They're problems not only because of the immediate care, but they produce long-term disabilities. They are injuries the individual will have to cope with the rest of their life. It's a sad thing to see in young people, and it tends to be young people that suffer these injuries," says Jones.

Jones says to keep small children away from the grill when you light it and afterwards, because curious kids tend to touch it and get burned deeply. He says in the city of Pittsburgh, fireworks also mean more than just burns: they're illegal, they will be confiscated and the owner will be given a citation. He says it's more fun to leave it to the professionals, anyway.

Rep. Wheatley Continues Minority-Owned Business Hearing

A state representative is continuing to assist minority- and women-owned businesses by talking with prime contractors to improve communications and relationships with one another. Representative Jake Wheatley is Chairman of the House Select Committee on Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Inclusion. Synterra Ltd. CEO Myrna Toro says disadvantaged business owners are a misunderstood sector to those in the mainstream, but they are a valuable asset. She adds that these business owners deserve to get contractors based on their own merit, and not because of a quota. Gibane Building Company Manager Andrew Notarfrancesco says minority- and women-owned businesses face additional challenges. In particular, there are financial, procedural, and current supply firm challenges. House Select Committee on Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Inclusion, which the House adopted in March, is to focus on understanding barriers to participation and to remedy those issues.

Study Says Current Swine Flu Linked to Past Outbreaks

A new study from Pitt says its possible that humans release past strains on themselves during research of the H1N1 virus. A type of swine flu from 1950 remerged in 1977, when scientists were doing increased research on the virus after a 1976 outbreak at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

Lead author Shanta Zimmer says H1N1 has been harassing humans in various forms for over 90 years. "We've actually been dealing with a virus that has similarities to 1918's through our regular seasonal influenza, because our regular seasonal influenza that we see annually called H1N1 also has some genetic similarity to that original sequence," says Zimmer.

Zimmer says there is usually a link between past and future virus strains, and therefore similarities in research and treatment. She says we need to pay attention to a virus's history when confronting it now. Zimmer says despite the case of 1977, there are no problems with the way viruses are stored or researched now.

State Energy Office could come back

State legislature is deciding whether the Energy Office should be re-established. It was disbanded by Governor Tom Ridge in 1995. With House Bill 786, State Representative Camille George says the savings are apparent. Instead of having several agencies control different aspects of Energy, it will all have one common place without state bureaucracy slowing it down. It would be run through the Department of Environmental Protection, and backers said it would draw from existing staff, thereby creating no new additional cost for the state. As the Environmental & Energy Committee Chairman, he calls his frustration of dealing with several agencies "alphabet soup". Between the DEP, DCED and DPW, he says it's difficult to deal with all of those groups on similar issues. The bill is now pending in Senate.

AAA Predicts Travel Decrease

AAA says travel rates will drop slightly this Fourth of July, due to a sagging economy and rising fuel prices. They estimate about 700,000 fewer people taking a trip over 50 miles from home. But as gas prices go up and airfare drops (about 16% from last year), plane traffic is expected to increase almost 5%. AAA spokeswoman Bevi Powell says the decline in travellers makes destination spots more eager to give good deals. "Hotel rates are about 12% less year-over-year than last year. There are a lot of great last-minute deals that are out there," says Powell. Gas prices are still lower than last year, though, and the drop in travel doesn't nearly match the shift from 2007 to 2008. That period saw a 10.5% decline in travel, while this year's decrease accounts for a 1.9% drop.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Western PA Congressmen Disagree Over Clean Energy Bill

Members of the southwestern Pennsylvania Congressional delegation were split on the American Clean Energy and Security Act which squeaked through the House by 7 votes. Democrats Mike Doyle and John Murtha voted "yes" while Democrat Jason Altmire and Republican Tim Murphy voted "no."
Congressman Doyle said the presents a tremendous opportunity "to promote economic growth and job creation while we solve one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the world today,”
H.R. 2454 would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States below 2005 levels by 17 percent in the year 2020 – and by 83 percent in the year 2050.
Doyle says the legislation would make the U.S. a leader in energy-efficient technology
“Pittsburgh, which is already a world leader in this field, is well positioned to prosper if the American Clean Energy and Security Act becomes law.”

Congressman Murtha says he did not support the original draft of the bill until compromises were made and he still called it a difficult vote.....“But solving America’s energy and environmental problems requires making tough decisions and taking immediate action. The American Clean Energy and Security Act will make America more energy independent and protect people from exorbitant energy costs in the future."

Congressman Altmire said he's long advocated for comprehensive energy legislation that will lower energy costs for Americans and end dependence on foreign oil, but this bill does neither.
“As our country struggles to recover from a severe economic recession, this legislation would raise energy prices for western Pennsylvania families. We need to focus on cultivating our abundant domestic energy resources and investing in alternative energies that will put our nation on a path to energy independence."

Altmire says he will continue to focus on expanding domestic energy production in a way that will create jobs, lower energy costs and help make America energy independent.

Republican Tim Murphy says his constituents are worried about their jobs and cost of living. "This Congress has abandoned Western Pennsylvania in a misguided attempt to shut down the coal industry in the United States, believing that we can't have clean energy with coal...we can have clean coal and clean emission. But we need to invest in the technologies that will lead us there."
Murphy says his legislation would reduce dependence on foreign oil by exploring for domestic oil and dedicating funds to build clean coal plants and clean nuclear power plants.

Arnet Resigns From School Board

Heather Arnet is resigning from the Pittsburgh School Board effective Tuesday after just a year and a half at that post. Arnet informed Board President Theresa Colaizzi of her decision through a letter. Arnet, who is executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation, says the economic downturn has hurt the foundation's revenues and she needs to spend more time at that job.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will appoint a replacement to serve out the remaining 2 and a half years on Arnet's term on the board.

Rendell Details $500 Million in Budget Cuts

In an effort to brush back criticism he's not serious about cutting state spending, Governor Rendell has provided details of the 500 million dollars he's chopping from his initial budget proposal.
Rendell He wants to reduce 182 line items, and eliminate 47 others.He says many of the cuts are programs he's proud of.

"Classrooms for the future-as you know, wildly successful. One of my initiatives, one of my favorite projects. All 22 million dollars. Services to non-public schools, ten and a half million dollars. Customized job training, 9 million dollars. Mental health services, eight and a half million dollars."

Rendell's proposal includes 13% cuts in funding for state-related schools: the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln; $45 million less in PHEAA grants for college students; and, elimination of state money for all museums including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Republican critics say they're not impressed, pointing out Rendell's spending plan is still more expensive than this year's budget.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Chester and Delaware County Republican, says the GOP will hold the line against increased spending and new taxes, even if budget negotiations drag on for several months.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Johnstown to Learn About Watershed

The Greater Johnstown Water Authority has begun an effort to make area citizens and municipal governments “more aware” of the regions watershed. Over a year’s work has resulted in the identification of 487 potential sources of pollutants. Authority General Manager Mike Kukura says his group will even reach out to area schools to spread the word of the water. “We actually have a – it’s called a WREN grant – Water Resource Education Network Grant that we have obtained through the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, and we are using that for our school education program,” says Kukura. He says the effort will have DEP oversight and a department representative will attend ongoing yearly meetings.

Common Pleas Court Says No To Electronic Billboard

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James has upheld a Zoning Board decision to not approve a digital billboard for Lamar Advertising. Lamar had challenged the Zoning Board's vote, which was 1-1 and 1 abstention. City councilman Doug Shields says he is not surprised by the common pleas courts decision. He says that in order to prevent issues like this from happening again you need people on the zoning board who are not afraid to uphold the law and who do not bend to the will of the city's administration. Shields said that because of zoning board member Wrenna Watson's position of support for the billboard he will be reading all of her opinions on issues that have come before the board before he approves her appointment from the Mayor.

PAT Approves New Budget Plan

The Port Authority of Allegheny County approved a budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year. The $362.9 million plan will implement a fare increase in January of 2010, and also use carryover funds from the passing year for their increasing pension spending. CEO Steve Bland says the fare increase must raise $4 million, but it will not exceed 25 cents per ride.

Board member Guy Mattola says aside from the North Shore Connector, the Authority will not spend money on any new capital projects -- much capital money will go to the renovation and upkeep of existing facilities. Mattola says they're asking for $36.4 million from Allegheny County, down from the $37.6 million granted last year. He says this only accounts for about 7% of their spending, but it is "the most important 7%," because state and federal grants depend on the amount received from the county.

The Board also decided not to implement hybrid propulsion in favor of "clean diesel" buses, aside from applying electric power to 3 new buses.

Secret Service To Lead Security for G20 Summit

Security plans are being worked out for the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh. It's expected that before the summit opens on September 24th, thousands of demonstrators will descend on the city. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano named the G20 Summit a "National Special Security Event," which means the Secret Service takes the lead in developing and implementing security. James Gehr, Special Agent in Charge of the Pittsburgh Office, says that local and state law enforcement, as well as other federal agencies, will play a huge part in the security. Gehr says there will be an executive committee meeting of the agencies after July 4th and subcommittees will be named that will focus on specific issues: protection for the VIP's, intelligence gathering, and securing air space and the rivers.
Gehr says he "believes Pittsburgh is ahead of the curve" when it comes to planning and implementing security because of experience with the 2006 Major League All Star Game and the many visits last year by presidential candidates.

FOP Seeks Assistance In Disbursment Of Fallen Heros Fund

The Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 is working with Common Pleas court to create a comprehensive plan for the distribution of money raised through the Fallen Heroes Fund. FOP union President Daniel O'Hara said working with the court will help to ensure the disbursment of the money is done in the best way possible for the familes.

Also created out of the April 4th Stanton Heights tragedy is a fund for those who have given their life in the line of duty and will support police, fire and ems personell. O'Hara said the two funds are different because the fallen hero's fund is soley for the families affected by the events on April 4th.

Currently almost $1.5 million has been raised for the familes of the three slain officers. General donations total $912,027, donations for an education fund total $83,370 and memorial t-shirts have raised $449,200.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Local Locks and Dams to be fixed with Stimulus

After years of postponements, stimulus money allotted for the American Recovery and Investment Act will go toward fixing a river wall at the Monongahela River Locks and Dam in Charleroi. The National Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh Project Manager Jeff Fritz says the $17.5 million will be invested in fixing the river wall over the next two years, employing 204 directly and 230 indirectly. After fixing the river wall, Fritz says there will be two more phases to ultimately build two new locks to replace the old ones at the Locks and Dam. The stimulus money is a great aid and catalyst to the project, and Fritz says the Charleroi-based site is grateful to receive it.

Land Trust Needs $51K for North Park Deal

The Allegheny Land Trust says it still needs $51,000 by the end of the month to purchase a 73-acre parcel adjacent to North Park. The Trust has been working with the landowner for months on a $504,000 deal. Trust Executive Director Roy Kraynyk says the parcel includes a popular half-mile hiking and biking trail, and a creek that flows into North Park Lake. He says protecting that tributary is important to the health of North Park Lake and it will serve as a buffer for North Park. Kraynyk says they have a commitment for $15,000 that is being processed and verbal agreements for last mile funds but the Trust is still in need of tens of thousands of dollars to make this a reality. He says the land is part of 100-acre parcel and the red tape associated with breaking up the land is delaying the process a bit and that could give the Trust a few days reprieve. He says the owner of the land has also been very friendly and could extend the deadline but he does not want to count on either possibility. Kraynyk says if the land is not protected it will probably be developed in the not so distant future. $243,200 for the project is coming from the Allegheny County Parks Department as part of their Growing Greener funding and foundations have committed more than $145,000.

ACLA Changes Formula for Library Funding

Member Libraries of the Allegheny County Library Association, have agreed to a new formula for the distribution of Regional Asset District funding. The Allegheny County Libraries Association is slated to receive Nearly $5.2 million next year from the 1% sales tax levied in Allegheny County. ACLA Executive Director Marilyn Jenkins says the 44 libraries in the system asked for the new funding formula. The old one had been in place since the first RAD dollars began to flow to the libraries. She says the request launched an 18-month review and rewriting process. She says the new formula is more “fair and equitable.” Among the factors that go into the formula are population, usage, the relative wealth of communities served and circulation of materials outside of the library’s service area. Jenkins says she thinks the framework of the new formula will have a long life but it will be reviewed regularly. She says among the items not in the formula but of great importance to libraries these days is computer usage. She says that may be factored in some day in the future. The RAD board must approve the new formula before it takes effect.

Online Budget Bill

With recent Harrisburg scandals such as "Bonusgate", a representative is pushing a bill that will list budget line items and expenses online. State Representative Jim Christiana of Beaver County says House Bill 1460 will make the state budget more transparent. He says there are 20 states and the federal government that have such a law in place, and on average it costs approximately $140,000. The database PennWATCH.com would be updated at the end of every month to ensure accuracy.

"People from their homes, or their Blackberrys or iPhones can track their tax dollars and see exactly where they're spending it," Christiana says.

There are 102 co-sponsors backing the bill.

Acklin: Mayor is Running Autocracy

Independent mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin says he wants to see a change in the way Pittsburgh’s mayor appoints members of boards and authorities. Acklin says he would like to see the mayor get approval from the city council for all board and authority appointments and he thinks those appointees should be allowed to serve out their terms unless the mayor can show just cause to remove them. He says dismissals should also be approved by council. He says the boards are too important to be impacted by politics, “A lot of city business is conducted through boards and authorities and these have been created primarily for good government purposes. To insulate those decisions that should be insulated from political processes. Acklin’s announcement comes in the same week Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dismissed Stadium Authority board member Debbie Lestitian. It was widely speculated that the mayor did not agree with how she was voting on north shore development projects. The mayor’s office says her term had expired more than a year ago and she had never been replaced or reappointed. Acklin says having an expired board member voting on important contracts is even more concerning than removing her for her voting record. Acklin says having a mayor with too much power looks more like an autocracy than a democracy. The candidate has sent a letter to the city council president asking him to introduce legislation to make the new process law.

School Board Improves Grade

A community initiative tracking public education gave the city school board its second report card today. A+ Schools rated the board a little higher than last time, giving them a B- average. Executive Director Carey Harris says the grade rose in the transparency category, but fell in the areas of conduct and role clarity.

“We’re talking about how well the board handled differences of opinion and whether or not their comments were solution-oriented rather versus sarcastic or accusatory. And when we’re talking about role clarity, we’re talking about, ‘Is the board exhibiting a policy-making role? Are they talking about strategies and district goals?’” says Harris.

A+ Schools has also made several recommendations, including removing “routine administrative items” from the school board agenda. Harris says these things should be done by school administrators. “It just ends up in the board packet for the board to vote on. So we’re recommending that they figure out a way to either put that in some consent agenda or just hand that off to the staff,” says Harris.

However, Pennsylvania school code requires that the board vote on these items. Harris says she hopes this can be changed soon. She says her organization recommends the school board support legislation to change the code, if only in terms of Pittsburgh.

Report cards will be given every time students receive a report card, says Harris.

Elephant Move

Two African elephants from the Philadelphia Zoo will be coming to the Pittsburgh Zoo's International Conservation Center next month. Pittsburgh Zoo spokeswoman Connie George says the ICC in Somerset County is an excellent home for them, and they will be staying there for the foreseeable future. A professional elephant mover who has plenty of experience will be hauling the pachyderms, and they will in the vehicle wearing an accommodating seat belt. George says the Pittsburgh Zoo has been easing the elephants through the move, with zookeepers going to Philadelphia, and once the move takes place after the July 4 weekend, Philadelphia zookeepers will be coming to the ICC.

Contractor Registry

Starting next month, Pennsylvania contractors who make more than $5000 per year need to register with the Attorney General's office. Attorney General Spokesperson Nils Fredrickson says much of the law has the consumer in mind. By taking down a contractor's name, address and other personal information, these people are much easier to track down in case there may be a dispute. Fredrickson says the the Attorney General web site will provide a place where contractors can be searched by registration number or zip code beginning next month, and recommends that any consumers that have contractors should be sure they are registered. This registry will also give con-artists who claim to be contractors less room to hide or disappear when work is payed for but not completed.

Northside Bus Tour

A bus tour through the Northside today is to reveal neighborhood disparities to local lawmakers between Northside and the adjacent North Shore developments. Pittsburgh United Program Director Rachel Canning says public investment should be given back to the community, perhaps by North Shore developers hiring local Northside workers full time with benefits. She explains that surrounding committees should be more involved with the nearby projects, and also there should be more attention paid to Northside neighborhoods. Canning says some are in dire need of investment.

DEP Urges Action Against Ozone Today

Today has been declared an "air quality action day" in 20 of Pennsylvania's counties, including Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, Beaver and Butler. Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Repetz says today's action day was called because high ground-level ozone forced a "code orange" to be called -- warning at-risk people like the elderly, children, and those with respiratory problems. He says people can chip in by carpooling or taking public transportation, using less energy in their homes, and even filling up their gas tanks in the evening when less emissions will be absorbed by the air. Repetz says these days are usually called for high ozone levels but can also be due to fine particulate matter emmitted from diesel and combustion engines and electric generators. Heat generally exacerbates such engines, increasing their negative outputs.

Sci-Tech Magnet School Tries New Approach

The NBA draft is taking place today... and it's serving as an unlikely source of inspiration for the Pittsburgh Public School District. The system used to determine which NBA team gets the first draft pick is a weighted lottery--similar to the system used to determine which students will get to attend Pittsburgh's new Science and Technology Academy this fall. It's a unique way for magnet schools to select their students... and it's not the only innovation students and parents will notice at the school. DUQ's Katherine Fink has more.
*Since this story was produced Daniel Lentz has resigned as Principal of the new school to become principal of the Fox Chapel Area High School.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Local Coal Miner Killed on Job

A coal miner died early Wednesday morning after being struck by falling rock in a Greene County mine. Consol Energy Spokesperson Joe Cerenzia says the rock fell around 11 last night at the Bailey Mine in Wind Ridge, striking a 54-year-old miner close to the end of the afternoon shift. After the incident Robert Maust, of Unionstown, was brought out of the mine. Emergency crews tried to revive him, but they were unsuccessful. Mr. Maust left a wife and two grown sons. He was an experienced miner, working 11 years specifically with underground coal mining, and had spent two years with Consol Energy. Cerenzia says falling rock is a known hazard of underground mining, and Consol does all they can to help prevent accidents from happening.

City Council Give Preliminary Approval To 5 Year Plan

Pittsburgh City Council met today to discuss the city's 5 year financial recovery plan.Council eventually gave initial approval to the five year plan setting the stage for a final vote next week. Council gave initial approval only after approving multiple amendments to the plan. The proposed amendments now go the act 47 coordinators for approval. The act 47 team has the oversight power to decide what proposed amendments it wants to add. Some of the amendments proposed by City Council include urging the state to create enabling legislation for a payroll tax on non-profits, changes in pension plans for new city employee's, adding a 5th week of vacation time for city employee's who lost their 5th week in the initial 5 year plan, and exploring combining the city police homicide departments major crimes unit with the county's. Many council members expressed their intention on how they plan on voting for the final plan regardless of what proposed amendments are adopted. Councilman Reverend Ricky Burgess said he is voting to approve the plan no matter what and councilman Patrick Dowd said he is voting against it. Other members of council said they will decide how to vote only after seeing what amendments the act 47 team adds to the plan.

Rivers CEO says "Yes But" to Table Games

Rivers Casino President Ed Fasulo says he has been in contact with state lawmakers as they begin debate on the possibility of expanding the state’s gaming laws to include table games. He says he is very much in favor of the legalization of table games but only if the is a tax rate “is one that that we could live with.” “We have asked for that to be no more that 20%“ says Fasulo, “It makes no sense to have a 55% tax rate on table games.” The Rivers Casino still being built on the north shore has 30-thousand square feet of space that Fasulo says could be turned into table game space in 4-7 months. He says it is much more expensive to run table games than slot machines so the tax percentage needs to be lower. The extra cost comes in hiring dealers and pit bosses and adding another layer of security. The Rivers Casino plans to hold test days for its slot machines Aug. 5 and Aug. 7 with a public opening August 9.

Casino Opening Delayed Four Days

The Rivers Casino has asked for a four-day delay in its opening date and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control board has agreed. Rivers President Ed Fasulo says his management team was thinking about the delay for the last few weeks and then made the request after a storm sewer break damaged 45 slot machines beyond repair. Fasulo says the heavy rains last week backed up all of the storm sewers in the area and the backpressure caused a pipe joint to break sending water into an area being used to store the machines. As the construction was nearing completion it became clear that the extra days would be needed. Fasulo says, “A lot of systems are being installed, there is a lot of connectivity involved and you want to have a good comfort level that we can get things done and in compliance with everything [the Gaming Control Board] needs and we thought it was prudent to ask for four more days.” Fasulo says putting a finer point on a completion date on a project when it is nearing the end is not unusual. The Rivers Casino will now hold test days Aug. 5 and Aug. 7 with a public opening August 9.

ACHD: Clairton Air is Bad But not as Bad as an EPA Study Shows

A report released this week by the US Department of Environmental Protection finds the risk of getting cancer based on air quality in Clairton and Glassport is 20 times that of the national average. For those in Glassport the risk is 700 in one million and 762 in a million in Clairton. The report uses air quality data from 2002. Allegheny County Health Department spokesperson says the air quality in the Clairton and Glassport area is much better than it was when the numbers were gathered. He says the health department recently entered into an agreement with US Steel to either upgrade or remove old coke ovens from the Clairton Coke Works. In the last year the company has idled many of the ovens due to falling demand and that has resulted in improved air quality in the Mon Valley. That may give the county a glimpse of what is to come. Cole says the county is also in the process of reaching agreements with other pollution sources that blow into the valley. He says the ultimate goal is to bring all of the Mon Valley into attainment with federal air standards. Right now glass port and Clairton are considered to be out of attainment. Cole says the air quality for the 25,000 people in the nonattainment area is “unacceptable.” He says, “The air quality is not as good as it needs to be but it is getting better and it is better than it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago.”

Sustainable Farmers Looking for Markets

The Community Supported Agriculture deliveries have begun in the Pittsburgh region. The idea is to allow people to have a personal connection with the food and the land on which it was produced. Customers' CSA membership fees cover production costs on the farm and keep food dollars in local communities. The seasonable produce is delivered to common sites where customers get a box of just harvested, sustainably and locally-grown produce.
More and more farmers in Pennsylvania are adopting sustainable practices but in order to be successful they must establish a solid base of customers. They're doing that through CSA's, farmers' markets, road stands, the internet and the old reliable "word of mouth." Art King of the Harvest Valley Farms in Butler County says he loves to provide "good, healthy food," but "I can grow beautiful products but if I don't have a market, I can't be successful.
Photos: top: Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve, site of a CSA drop-off; bottom: CSA delivery day at Beechwood

To listen to the full audio version of this story, click here.
To listen to part 1 of the Sustainable Farming series, click here.
To listen to part 2 of the Sustainable Farming series, click here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Citizens Meet To Pitch Ideas For G20 Summit

The third brainstorming session for the upcoming G20 Summit was held on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh tonight and hundreds of people showed up. Of the many ideas that were discussed more than a few people wanted to find ways to discourage protests but encourage discussion. Bill Bates wants to see the civic arena open for protesters to come and have a discussion with the most popular points of contention forwarded to the leaders of the G20 to address.
Other people would like to see the G20 leaders meet with Pittsburghers. Grover also wants to see local chefs cook regional dishes for the leaders of the G20. While some people wanted to meet with the G20 leaders for social purposes Adrienne McGrail wants to see the leaders meet with local environmental activists because of the importance she feels should be placed on global conservation efforts.
Angie Saylor wants to see not only the airport decorated with flags and welcome signs but the convention center as well. Saylor said local schools and community groups could work to create murals of the G20 nations and of the different communities that make up Pittsburgh.

Public Riverfront Vision Meeting Scheduled

The first of three public meetings for the Allegheny Riverfront Vision will be held Thursday. The two-hour meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at the Heinz History Center. Community members are invited to learn about redevelopment slated to happen in the Strip District, Lawrenceville, and Highland Park. Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Rob Stephany says a 6-mile stretch of land along the Allegheny River will see many of its stagnant warehouse properties converted into something more productive. “We’re kind of excited about the idea of converting warehouses into places really for the universities’ technologies to be dreamed up and turned into technologies for research, if not be fabricated and moved forward,” says Stephany. He says housing is another riverfront option, as some of the current successful businesses in the area are attracting people from places like Seattle and New York City. Stephany says the project will keep the good things and change the bad along the riverfront: “It’s both about saving what’s great and trying to reposition the stuff that’s not so great as it is trying to connect those things that are really strong and vibrant and make them more so by connecting them to the river.”

PNC Economist: The End is Near

PNC Financial Services Chief Economist Stuart Hoffman told a group of pension fund managers Tuesday that he sees a light at the end of the recession tunnel but they should not get too excited. Hoffman says things are “getting somewhat better” for the national and global economy and there is some optimism among fellow analysts, business leaders and consumers. He notes tat “the new ‘up’ is ‘less down’” but that is about to change. He says things should begin to turn around later this year and unemployment numbers will begin to recover in 2010 but that does not mean the economy will be roaring anytime soon. He says, “There are to many speed bumps” on the path to recovery but he says they are not “roadblocks.” Hoffman says among the issues that could retard the rebound is the possibility of a continued slow global economy, high oil prices, changing consumer trends and slow job growth. He says with oil in the 60-70 dollar range the economy can rebound but oil at 80-90 dollars a barrel could kill the recovery. Hoffman says he thinks the federal stimulus package is having an impact but with so much of the money having to pass through state and municipal governments we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. He says the impact will continue to be felt in to the new year. Locally, Hoffman says the economy is doing better than many other parts of the country, partially because it did not have the big build up going into the recession. However, he says the regional economy is poised to rebound as quickly as the rest of the nation. That is something that the region has not seen coming out of past recessions. He says one factor to watch is the global economy. The Pittsburgh region now has strong global ties and Hoffman says the local economy will need to have those markets recover if it is to fully participate in the rebound. Hoffman says small business success will also be a key to the local economic recovery.
Click here to listen to Stewart Hoffman's full address.

Muni Pension Fund Managers Urged to Merge

At a gathering of municipal pension fund managers and political leaders Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato urged them to consider merging their funds. Those mergers could be made on a fund-by-fund basis but Onorato is pushing for a state-run pension plan that would be open to all municipalities. Such a plan would require action in the he state legislature but Onorato says now is the time to act. He says there are more than 3,100 pension funds in the state and most have 10 or fewer enrollees. Nearly all of them are underfunded. Onorato says it is important for lawmakers in Harrisburg to understand that this is not just a big city issue. Huge underfunded liability levels in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have grabbed most of the headlines and therefore the attention of lawmakers. He says the issue impacts cities and counties of all sizes. The executive says the money saved through consolidation will go a long way to filling the gap between fund levels and liabilities over time. Onorato says it would be optional to enter into the fund but he sees it as a “carrot and a stick” situation. He says if a pension fund is struggling and is looking to the state for help it is very unlikely that a financial bail out will be coming but if the municipality is willing to give up local control it can enter into the larger pool to realize some cost savings and gain long term stability. Onorato says a merged fund could be very powerful. Combined, the municipal funds in the state hold 14 billion dollars in assets. Among those giving financial rather than political advise to those gathered today was Michael Patalsky of Wilshire Associates. He says the most important thing to do it to understand that we are coming out of a “one in one hundred year flood and you should not set up your fund to take advantage of a one in one hundred year flood” because that is behind us. Patalsky says it will be very hard for funds to invest their way out of this situation and most municipalities do not have the money to dump into the funds. The alternative is to try to take the long-term approach.

Nonprofit Says Gaming Industry Funds Officials

A state nonprofit group says public officials have accepted over $4 million in political contributions from gaming industry organizations over the past 8 years. Common Cause of Pennsylvania says the April State Supreme Court ruling that struck down a ban on gambling contributions has "opened the spigot" for even more money to come in from the gambling world.

Common Cause Associate Director of Development James Browning says the Commonwealth has a bulls-eye painted on it by the gaming industry. "The public has no protection at all when it comes to money coming in. In fact, Common Cause is calling on elected officials now to disclose any gaming contributions they have received since the April Supreme Court decision," says Browning.

He says the state's weak Sunshine Laws don't give the public much insight into political contributions. "It's hard to find out exactly how much has been spent. The real problem is there are no limits on campaign contributions in the state," says Browning. Studies have indeed shown a lack of transparency in the state's government. A 2007 study conducted by the nonprofit Better Government Association gave Pennsylvania an "F" grade (53 out of 100) in terms of political transparency.

He says while there's nothing illegal about this money-moving process, it certainly isn't encouraging. "It is hard to protect the integrity of the political process when the gaming industry has such enormous power to get candidates who share their views elected and to gain special access to elected officials through campaign contributions," says Browning.

PA Helping Farmers Transition to Organic

Pennsylvania has launched a pilot program "Path to Organic" transitions program for farmers considering a switch from traditional to organic practices. There are more than 60,000 farms in Pennsylvania and a growing number are adopting sustainable practices. Advocates like the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) say it's healthier for the consumers and for the environment. Many of these farmers who are switching train with or learn about sustainable practices from a Virginia farmer who is considered the guru of sustainable Agriculture, Joel Salatin who says he likes to share his knowledge with young farmers. Peter Burns, who, with his parents, owns a farm in Elk County, apprenticed with Salatin. Burns says having his chickens graze in the pasture eliminates the need for antibiotics.
Photos: Left top: Blackberry Meadows Farm: largest organic farm in Allegheny County; Left bottom: Movable Chicken Pen at Heritage Farm; Right: Elk County Farmer Peter Burns
Listen to a longer audio version of this story.
Listen to Part 1 of the series on Sustainable Farming.
Listen to Part 3 of the series on Sustainable Farming.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dept. of Ed to Halt Exam Development

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is putting development of its end-of-year assessments on hold until the heated issue is cleared up with the State Board of Education and state lawmakers. The tests, known as the Keystone Exams, make up a third of a $201 million contract with the Data Recognition Corporation that will also develop a new cirriculum and new diagnostic methods for Commonwealth schools. The latter two endeavours will continue on schedule. Department of Education spokesman Mike Race says its unclear if the state will save any money through the hold, because the government wasn't sure how far development would go in this fiscal year, which ends shortly. The State Board of Education is under a related moratorium that prevents them from enacting any new graduation requirements. That restriction will be lifted at the end of June.

Passenger Rail Service Talks

A Congressional hearing about the future of passenger rail service this morning discussed many possibilities, including improvements made to the Amtrak Daily Pennsylvanian route between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, creating a route to stop at State College, creating a route between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and additional routes to Pittsburgh's light rail system to include South Side, Oakland and the Route 28 Corridor. Amtrak Senior Director for National State Relations Ray Lang says the Keystone Corridor, the route connecting Harrisburg and Philadelphia, is a major triumph. It take 90 minutes to get from one city to the other on an express route, 30 minutes faster than it was before making improvements. Since improvement completion, ridership was up by 26 percent. Lang says the Daily Pennsylvanian route could use similar improvements to become more efficient. Also, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 Patrick McMahon says light rail will pay large dividends, and would be more reliable than other modes of transportation to get to jobs, businesses and run errands. The most practical routes to extend Pittsburgh light rail service to be to accommodate the East End, South Side, and Route 28 Corridor.

University Of Pittsburgh Researchers Develop Technique To Identify Ozone

University of Pittsburgh researchers have developed a fluorescent substance that glows green under an ultraviolet light after being exposed to ozone. The Pitt researchers report that their detector may one day function as a consumer device to measure ozone for those with asthma or other conditions. The ozone detection substance is significant because other attempts at identifying ozone often lead to false positives. The University of Pittsburgh team was able to prevent false positives by changing the way in which the ozone is identified. Previous methods tested oxidation of ozone, but other chemicals or substances undergo oxidation. The new method enables ozone to react with the detection probe to create a compound that produces the green ultraviolet glow.

State's Goose Population Marked

Some of the state’s Canada geese population had bands placed on their feet by the Pennsylvania Game Commission early this morning, as an attempt to track hunting rates and population growth. Every three to five years, about 1% of the birds’ population is banded; this means about 2,500 to 3,000 geese will be marked this year. Game Commission biologist Kevin Jacobs says the state worries more about overpopulation than sparseness, and the testing is done to determine how much the geese should be hunted. “There are very few natural predators of Canada geese. Coyotes are one that we have. So, hunting is a very important tool that we have in Pennsylvania,” says Jacobs. He says the population of the geese has nearly tripled since the 1980s, with about 290,000 of the birds nesting in the Commonwealth this year.

Table Games for PA?

A top House Democrat is once again dealing out a bill to legalize table games in Pennsylvania casinos. It’s failed before, but some lawmakers seem more willing to consider the proposal due to the commonwealth’s tough financial straits.
Greene County Representative Bill DeWeese has been pushing for table games ever since casino gambling was legalized in Pennsylvania.
It hasn’t passed in previous sessions, but this year supporters are framing the measure as a way to bring in additional revenue, and help bridge a 3.2 billion dollar budget gap.
Governor Rendell says he’s not a fan of the idea, and he doesn’t think it would bring in enough funding to make a dent in the deficit, but he’s not completely opposed.

"It just doesn’t accomplish enough. And again, I think we need to wait until everybody’s up and running. If the legislature sent it to me and it was the will of the legislature, would I consider signing it? I would consider it."

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Chester and Delaware County Republican, says table games aren’t a viable solution for the coming fiscal year, since it would take the Gaming Control Board several months to set up a regulatory system.
"It doesn’t seem reasonable to factor any revenues into the current or coming fiscal years. It’s more of a situation where if we do allow table games it would be the year after the year that we enact it that we would likely see tax revenues benefiting the commonwealth."

Pileggi says if the General Assembly does consider the measure, there should be a series of public hearings, so that commonwealth residents can weigh in on the debate.

Little Hope for An On-time Budget in PA

Any hope for an on-time state budget has all but vanished in Harrisburg. Now some lawmakers say they’d consider passing an emergency short term budget if negotiations drag deep into the summer.
With top Democrats calling for an income tax hike and Republicans vowing to shoot down any revenue increase, August 1st is beginning to sound like an optimistic prediction for when lawmakers will reach a spending agreement.
Governor Rendell says he’s committed to working around the clock to strike a deal, but insists new taxes will have to be part of the final arrangement. Rendell says he’d consider a stopgap budget if negotiations run too long, and state workers start missing paychecks.
House Minority Leader Sam Smith says he’s open to a temporary spending plan.

"They’re passing just a short-term budget that kind, just the basics that everybody agrees are critical functions. And that keeps the general services of government running."

Governor Rendell says Republicans who argue he hasn’t made any cuts are wrong.

"You go through any of the lines that we cut, and we’ll blindfold you, and you’ll just point to a line. And when we get to that line I’ll have you call the people who are losing the funds. And you ask them if there’s a cut. And you know what they’ll tell you? You’re darn right there’s been a cut. There’s a lot of pain in that two billion dollars."

A stopgap budget hasn’t been used in Harrisburg for more than 30 years, and Smith says it’s unlikely lawmakers will have to draft one this year.

Library Faces $3M shortfall

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is looking to take input from and rally the support of the general public as it begins planning for its 2010 budget. The library made nearly $2 million dollars in cuts this year in an effort to keep its 2009 budget in balance. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh President Barbara Mistick says she is looking at a $3 million shortfall next year and $4.5 million deficit in 2011 if nothing is done. She says without new revenues or creative solutions they will have to close branches and that is the last thing she wants to do at a time when library usage is up. She says library usage system wide hit a 17-year high last year. She says the system is becoming more important as people turn to libraries not only as a source of books, CDs and DVDs but also as a place for job search help, internet access and free children’s programs. The library system will hold least three town hall meetings in July to allow people to make suggestions on what cuts could be made. The dates and locations are to be announced next week. Supporters will also be asked to write letters to lawmakers asking for more public funding. Mistick did not make any recommendations on how to increase revenue other than to suggest that Pittsburgh offers less funding than other host cities. 72% of the library’s budget comes from the sales tax funded Regional Asset District, 20% from the state and just .2% from the city. She says the budget problems have been looming in the future for a while but the economic downturn has accelerated the problem as sales tax revenues fall and the state threatens to cut funding for all libraries. Mistick notes that the city has seen its population cut in half since 1950 but the library has retained the same infrastructure. However, she says each branch is a critical part of the neighborhood it serves and would be missed if they were closed.

Sustainable Farming Grows In PA

Agriculture is the number one industry in Pennsylvania with more than 60,000 farms across the Commonwealth. More and more of those farms are adopting sustainable practices and becoming certified "organic." That's due to a growing demand by consumers who want locally-grown produce and grass-raised livestock because they believe its safer and more environmentally friendly, and the mission of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). That non-profit organization's encourages farms to produce healthy food while respecting the environment. One of the leading proponents of sustainable agriculture is Joel Salatin who trains and teaches young farmers about sustainable practices.
To listen to Part 1 of a series on Sustainable Farming in the Pittsburgh region, click here.
To listen to Part 2 of Sustainable Farming Series, click here.
To listen to Part 3 of Sustainable Farming Series, click here.

Congressman Doyle Speaks In Support Of Energy And Climate Bill

United States Congressman Mike Doyle spoke with members of labor and environment groups today on legislation being debated in Washington D.C..

The American Clean Energy and Security Act would create targets for reductions in global warming pollution and increase investment in alternative energy projects. By 2020 the bill aims to reduce U.S. global warming pollution by 17% below 2005 levels and 83% by 2050. Doyle said the bill would also create jobs throughout the nation in alternative energy development.

A recent study by the University of Massachusetts claims that a $100 billion investment in a clean energy economy could create up to 2 million new jobs in the U.S. within 2 years by investing in wind energy, solar energy, smart grid electrical transmission systems and advanced biofuels. Doyle said the legislation is important because America needs to lead the way in reducing carbon emissions and creating an alternative energy economy.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act is expected to be voted upon by the House of Representatives next week.

Legislation to Hike Marriage, Divorce Fees

Child abuse and domestic violence programs in Pennsylvania would receive additional funding if legislation upping fees for couples getting married or divorced becomes law. State Senator LeAnna Washington is sponsoring two bills that would increase the dedicated fees on marriage licenses and divorce filing to generate resources for services funded through the Children's Trust Fund. "With approximately 80,000 Pennsylvania victims of domestic violence each year and thousands of children becoming victims of neglect and abuse, this legislation will go far toward ending this endless cycle of abuse."

Marriage license fees would go up by a total of $50 and divorce filings by $40. One bill would boost the surcharge on marriage licenses from the current $10 to $35 and on divorce complaints from $10 to $25. Those surcharges than go to the Children's Trust Fund.

The other measure would increase the state fee for marriage licenses to $38, of which $2.50 would be retained by the county where the license is issued. The other $35.50 would go to the state's General Fund. Of that amount, $35 would go to the Department of Public Welfare to help victim's of domestic violence. Senator Washington says the fees have not been increased since they were enacted 2 decades ago.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the bills and sent them to the full Senate.

Using Math & Science Pros to Teach

Math and science professionals may soon be able to teach in Pennsylvania, under a proposal from Governor Rendell.
He wants to provide such individuals with residency teaching certificates, which would allow them to enter the classroom before obtaining a full instructional degree.
Michael Race, with the state Department of Education, says the proposal would help offset a rising teacher shortage...
"We have an increased focus on math, science and engineering
as learning subjects and those are the jobs of the future, as it were.
But at the same time that we have an increased emphasis on math, science
and engineering course work, we're seeing a shortage of teachers in
those areas."

Race says Candidates must have at least a bachelor's degree and some work experience in their field.
"The core of what they need, which is that relevant knowledge and experience in the subject matter, is essentially built-in to these mid-career professionals. If you've been in a science or engineering field for five or ten years, you have a tremendous amount of applicable
knowledge that can be easily transferred into the classroom."

A residency certificate would be valid for three years. After that time, participants would need to complete their teaching certification. The proposal is awaiting action by lawmakers.

SportsWorks Suffers Construction Delays

The completion of Carnegie Science Center’s new SportsWorks facility is delayed until late December, says the Center. Spokesman Mike Marcus says “normal construction delays” such as bad weather and slow permitting processes have put the building behind schedule, but he doesn’t expect it to be slowed any further. “What we’re working on now is getting the frame and skin up on the building. Once those are on later this summer/early fall, the weather isn’t really an issue because then we’ll be working on the exhibit and doing all the work inside the building,” says Marcus. The old building was bought late last year by the Port Authority to complete its North Shore Connector Project. Marcus says the new facility will feature many of the exhibits from the old SportsWorks, but will also feature a health aspect that correlates sports and exercise to good health. Though the exhibit will be managed by the Science Center, Highmark Inc. will be partnering with them specifically for the SportsWorks complex.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Disaster Emergency Declared

Allegheny County has declared a disaster emergency a a result of the flash flooding that occurred during the powerful storms that moved through area Wednesday night. Between 3 and 4 inches of rain fell on communities in the Pittsburgh region. The county's declaration is also preemptive due to the possibility of additional heavy rainfall today. A flash flood watch is in effect until 2 p.m. Saturday.
Numerous homes and businesses experienced basement and first-floor flooding and some structures sustained major damage to their foundations. There was also extensive damage to roads, bridges, culverts and sewer systems.
In addition, eight municipalities within the county have declared disaster emergencies: Churchill, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, White Oak, Wilkins Township and Wilkinsburg.
The disaster declaration enables the county to bypass the standard procurement procedures to hire temporary workers, purchase supplies and rent equipment if needed. The declaration also positions the county to seek federal and state assistance.

Friday, June 19, 2009

G20 Brainstorming Sessions Draws 200

Flags and promoting an international feel were hot topics at the first of three G20 brainstorming events held by Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. After a brief opening by African American Chamber of Commerce CEO Doris Carson Williams the approximately 200 people gathered at Point Park University began throwing out ideas and concerns. Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership CEO Michael Edwards says they are trying to figure out how to provide WIFI to all the 3,000 media representatives expected to be in town for the summit September 25th and 26th. He says his group will also be tripling its clean up patrols in the two months leading up to the summit. Most of the suggestions focused on making the city look its best and several of those suggestions revolved around the use of the flags of the nations included in the G20. One would have them displayed on buildings around town, another on the bridge pier off Market Street, a third would display them along the rivers at the point and a suggestion was made to put them all along the Blvd of the Allies. Ideas for lighting the plantings along Grant Street, sprucing up the inbound side of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, holding a special light up night and a plan to fill all the empty storefronts downtown with art were all suggested. Several of those gathered wanted to watch out for the thousands of protesters who will descend on the city for the event. Former City Councilman Sala Udin thinks a forum running concurrently with the summit to allow protesters to have a “discussion” would be a good idea while Mel Taka warns that if the city does not welcome the protesters it will ruin all of the other efforts to promote the city. He pointed to Seattle as proof. When the World Trade Organization gathered in that city in 1999 things turned ugly and the event is still used as a rallying cry for some activists. Several other suggestions centered on the ideas of environmental stewardship and sustainability. Those ideas ranged from promoting local green business and projects to printing all G20 related materials on recycled paper. Pittsburgh has long seen itself as an international city. From all of the ethnic groups represented in the region and the unique history of each group, to the long list of international businesses that call Pittsburgh home. Several of those gathered for the session looked to exploit that feel with international business forums, the use of multi lingual residents to help international visitors get around and traditional performances by various ethnic groups.

The next session will be held Tues. June 23, 12:00-1:30 p.m. at Robert Morris University at the Sewall Center. The final session will be held the same day from 5:30-7:00 p.m. at the University of Pittsburgh Alumni Hall.

Listen to the entire (one hour) Session 1 here.

Power Plant Decommissioning Shortfalls

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after seeing the results of its biannual checkup on decommissioning funds, is sending letters to 18 plant owners that are short. The plants listed are stationed from Vermont to Alabama, but locally hit was the Beaver Valley Power Station. NRC Spokesperson Scott Burnell says the letter is not a bill. Rather, it is asking how the plant owners are going to cover the remaining funds. Those with discrepancies includes 18 nuclear plants with 26 nuclear reactors total, and estimated remaining costs range from $12 million to $204 million. Burnell says this means that in a calculation between the amount of money in the fund, estimated gains in the fund, along with when the plant expects to close, are all calculated in the formula. There are currently 104 reactors in the process of decommissioning, and all of those funds add up to approximately $41 billion.

Salvation Army Providing Assistance To Those Affected By Storms

The Salvation Army is providing assistance to individuals and families who have been affected by the recent storms in the area. Bob Myers, Director of Disaster Services at the Salvation Army in Pittsburgh, says the most important assistance they are providing right now is food and cleanup. With more storms expected tonight, Myers says the Salvation Army is prepared to offer additional help. For people who would like to donate to the cause, Myers says cash gifts are best. The Salvation Army also accepts donated items, but workers have to take more time to sort through the items and determine whether they are usable.

More Rain Expected To Hit Pittsburgh Region

According to the National Weather Service the Pittsburgh region should prepare for more stormy weather today and Saturday. Bill Drzal of the National Weather Service says a storm front forming over the Chicago area will make its way to Western Pennsylvania by early evening late afternoon and will continue to affect the region throughout Saturday. Drzal says there is also a flash flood warning for areas that have seen a lot of rain in the last few days.

PA Unemployment in May 8.2%

Pennsylvania's unemployment numbers ticked up in May but the state continues to fair better than the nation as a whole. The Rate in PA moved up four-tenths of a percentage point to 8.2% in May. Nationally the number increased half a point to 9.4%. Troy Thompson with the PA department of Labor and industry says it is also important to take a look at the overall umber of jobs in the state. Pennsylvania's seasonally adjusted total nonfarm jobs count was down 17,700 jobs in May to 5,630,600. Thompson says as bad as that may look, it is actually good news because it shows a slowing in the rate of loss compared to last month’s loss of 23,500 jobs. He points out that professional & business services and manufacturing accounted for two-thirds of the overall decline with losses of 6,800 and 5,400, respectively. In the last year the state has seen 3.2% of its jobs (185,000) disappear. Nationally, jobs were down 3.9% over the same period.

West End Revival

The West End Village is a Pittsburgh neighborhood in transition. Business owners are increasingly finding it an attractive place to locate. Business owner James Frederick says there have been many improvements to the sparsely populated area, and lists many advantages to being in this small section of town. He spoke with DUQ jazz host Bob Studebaker.
To listen to part one of this story click here.
In part two of the story, Frederick talks about how his business, the James Gallery, is part of transforming a dusty post-industrial section of Pittsburgh into an up-and-coming business district. Frederick talks about his hopes for the future there and the role jazz can play in it.
To listen to part two of this story, click here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

NRA Files Response In Gun Ordinance Suit

The National Rifle Association has filed a response the city of Pittsburgh's motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed against it by the NRA.In the response the NRA claims that the lawsuit can not be dismissed because gun rights do not end once a gun has been lost or stolen. Attorney for the NRA Meghan Jones-Rolla said that not only is the ordinance flawed but it also supersedes state law. Jones-Rolla added that she is not concerned with a recent Commonwealth Court decision that found the NRA didn't have standing to challenge a Philadelphia ordinance similar to Pittsburgh's because unlike the Philadelphia lawsuit one of the plaintiffs in this case has had a gun stolen so he has been affected by the ordinance.

State Colleges have Outdoor Smoking Ban Lifted

A campus-wide smoking ban that was implemented at 14 state colleges last fall has been lifted. The ban was overturned after the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Facilities challenged it two times, with the first being unsuccessful. This means the schools will return to the policies that were in place from last September. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Spokesperson Kenn Marshall says the ban was only intended to follow the statewide policy, but groups have been working together to make everyone happy with a compromise. He says each campus individually will work with constituents to form an acceptable policy for smokers and nonsmokers alike.

United Way sees increase in Campaign Money

Despite tough economic times, the United Way of Allegheny County saw their campaign contributions go up. For 2008, they have been able to raise more than $31 million, a mere 1 percent increase from 2007. United Way County President Bob Nelkin says "it's a double whammy" for nonprofit organizations that help those in need, since now there are more people and need and typically fewer people who are able to donate. However, Nelkin says "there's a very generous spirit to Pittsburghers." Unlike the trend for United Way nationally, local donors gave more money than usual to the philanthropic group to help those in need in a variety of ways. This year in particular, they are creating programs to help with mortgage and utility bills.

Study Links Humans to Orangutans

Humans are more closely related to orangutans than they are to chimpanzees, according to a new study conducted by Pitt and University of Buffalo researchers. Jerry Schwartz, professor of anthropology at Pitt, says people share 28 unique physical traits with orangs while sharing only two with chimps and gorillas. They also studied the similarities of orangutans to Australopithecus -- an ancestral human genus -- and found that the apes share eight unique traits with the fossilized humans, whereas chimps and gorillas share only those traits found in all great apes.

DNA testing often concludes that humans are more closely related to chimpanzees in terms of genetic makeup, but Schwartz says this method of testing is too often unchallenged. "As people became more in love with the supposed objectivity of DNA sequencing, and then taking this data that you didn't touch, and putting it into a computer and letting a computer tell you what the answer was, and the love affair people have with DNA as the supposed blueprint of life, everybody just fell over dead," says Schwartz. "There's only one or two features humans share uniquely with chimps... If you accept the molecular conclusion of human-chimp relationships, you have to reject anatomy or physical features as being revealing."

Schwartz suggests that humans and orangutans have a common ancestor that lived aeons ago -- when the Earth's landmasses looked much different than they do now. "In the Eurasian continent, there was a widespread early group of higher primates that gave rise to different fossils we now recognize as relatives of orangutans. Then the African [tectonic] plate met the Eurasian plate and there was the opportunity to migrate into Africa, and that's where human evolution began," says Schwartz. He proposes a new grouping for this family -- "dental hominoids," named thus for the striking similarities in their jaws and teeth. The group would include hominids, or humans and their ancestors, and orangs and their ancestors as well.

Schwartz says he hopes people can overcome the assumptions and unverifiable data that have culminated in the pervasive belief in chimpanzee ancestry. Says Schwartz, "The best would be for some people to think about alternatives and about the dogmas that are in place, and about the deeper question of how one really goes about trying to understand evolutionary relationships."

Two Studies Claim Benefits To Pittsburgh Region From Investment In Green Economy

Two studies on job creation from clean-energy investment show that on top of job creation there will be consumer savings from new economic opportunities created from a new clean energy economy. The reports, prepared by the Political Economy Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that clean energy investment will benefit millions of Americans from all educational and economic backgrounds. One of the reports says that an investment in clean energy economy would produce 12,985 jobs in the Pittsburgh region with 7,000 available for workers with high school degrees or less and would cut unemployment in the Pittsburgh region by over one percentage point. All of these benefits from clean energy investment would result from the American Clean Energy and Security Act being discussed in Congress and from the already approved American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

More Flooding Possible Tomorrow

The Pittsburgh area could see more flooding tomorrow. Michael Huss, the city's Director of Public Safety, says emergency responders are monitoring forecasts for additional heavy rain. Huss says his best advice is not to drive through standing water. Flash flooding last night trapped 29 people in their cars. Fourteen of them were rescued by emergency workers. Huss says damage was worst in the North Side and East End.

Washington Boulevard is still closed between Allegheny River Boulevard to Frankstown Avenue and is expected to remain closed through this evening's rush hour.

Two churches, one in the South Side and another in Homewood, were damaged by fire last night.

Several vehicles were towed. Vehicles towed from the city can be recovered at the McGann and Chester tow pound at 200 Hargrove Street near the southern end of the Liberty Tunnels. You can call 412-381-9400 to confirm whether your vehicle is there.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has hired contractors to help clean debris from catch basins today. But Executive Director Michael Kenney says a storm of yesterday's magnitude is too much for the current system to handle. He says the current system is designed for a ten-year storm, or about four inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period. The city had almost that much in just a few hours last night. The massive sewer renovations underway in the region are designing a system that can withstand a 25-year storm, which Kenney says is about 5.8 inches of rain in 24 hours.

Digital to Daguerreotype Opens at CMOA Sat.

The Carnegie Museum of Art opens a new photo exhibition Saturday tracing the history of photography with a special eye on people. The exhibition “Digital to Daguerreotype: Photographs of People” begins with a room full of colorful photograph taken with digital cameras and printed on paper by inkjet printers. As viewers walk through the exhibition the photos become black and white “gelatin silver” prints and the last room features some of the oldest types of photography including Daguerreotypes. However, some of the pictures taken using 160-year-old technology were actually taken in this decade, including a Daguerreotype taken at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Curator Linda Benedict-Jones says photography made it possible for people who could never afford to hire an artist to paint their portrait were able to hire a photographer to capture an image of their family. She says that focus on humans as subjects has never changed but the way the images are made has changed and the cost has continued to shrink. Benedict-Jones says with the evolution of digital photography the number of pictures being taken has exploded but a smaller percentage of them are being printed. She says that may be good because there are so many but she warns that people should still print out the pictures that are most important to them to make sure they are preserved for the next generation. The exhibition runs June 20-October 18. To listen to an interview with the curator click here. Images provided by The Carnegie Museum of Art.

PAT to Stay Put

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is very likely to remain headquartered at its downtown facility, says spokesman Jim Ritchie. The old Manchester facility is too run down for use and would require too much money to fix, he says. "Staying downtown would cost about $27 million over the next ten years, which is $11 million less than the apples-to-apples cost of moving back to Manchester and bringing that building up to a safe and habitable level," says Ritchie. He says even after the ten-year window, maintaining and updating such an old structure would outweigh the cost of a lease, despite PAT's ownership of the Manchester building. He says the board has not yet decided the fate of the old headquarters, but demolition and "mothballing" are two options.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

County Council Public Safety Committee Holds Meeting With Shuman Center Director

Allegheny County Council's Public Safety Committee met to discuss recent problems at Shuman Center with the centers director William Simmons. Simmons answered questions from council members for nearly an hour. Council was concerned about employees that purposely subverse the centers policy and with changes that are being made at the center. Simmons said that policy can only do so much and that it comes down to employees wanting to do their jobs correctly. He said that the investigation that is taking place will help him to weed out the employees who are hurting the center and its operations. He says more people may be fired but he does not know when and who may be fired. Simmons said he understands councils concerns and feels that even though they are not happy with the situation they still support him. Simmons also said that the investigation of the center can only help the centers attempt at reaching accreditation because it will enable the center to identify weakness and address them.

Longwall Mining Protests

Outside a long wall Conference in Pittsburgh this morning, concerned protesters wore shirts that read "Coal is Dirty" and told stories of how this kind of mining is ruining lives, going beyond coal pollution. Lone Pine, a small town near Washington, Pennsylvania, has been impacted by longwall mining, a process that lets a mine to collapse after the coal is removed. Sometimes surface water flows are altered as well. Center for Coalfield Justice Board Member Diane Lindley says her elderly parents, after rebuilding a farmhouse in Lone Pine, had their property destroyed after a longwall mining excavation beneath their property in 2001. State law Act 54 allows longwall mining under roads and bridges with little notice to land owners. According to Coalfield Justice Director Raina Rippel, between mine subsidence risks and fewer workers needed, there is nothing good about longwall mining except to help companies make a quick buck.

Mayor Talks Act 47 With Council

Pittsburgh City Council met with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl today to discuss the specifics and the implications of Act 47, the city's proposed five-year economic plan. A vote on the act was held until next Wednesday, June 24th, so that council members and the mayor can think over the plan and assemble any amendments they might wish to make. The plan currently calls for $15 million in revenue that's source is unknown; the mayor made recommendations on filling in that gap to council today. He said that privatizing parking garages is his favorite option, but other options included seeking money from large nonprofit organizations and even raising taxes, as a last resort. The mayor said that his administration outperformed the previous Act 47 ordinance and he doesn't see why that can't happen again. Legislation must be passed by June 30th, in time for the July 1st public safety collective bargaining agreements.

Dump the Pump, with Public Transit

With summer comes gasoline price hikes and road construction, creating additional traffic. But instead of complaining about being bumper-to-bumper, Port Authority Spokesperson Jim Ritchie suggests trying public transit. With the fourth annual national Dump the Pump Day on June 18, he says it’s the perfect time for commuters to ride a bus or the light rail train. Ritchie says Port Authority now has as many riders as they did before the fare increase and 15 percent worker cut.

Fort Pitt Museum to Stay Open

The Fort Pitt Museum will remain open. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) Board today voted unanimously to keep the museum open and to seek a contract with the Heinz Regional History Center to operate the facility.
With state budget cuts, the commission had earlier decided to close Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh and the Bushy Run Battlefield in Westmoreland County. Fort Pitt was built in 1754 when General John Forbes and Colonel George Washington led British troops that chased the French from the region during the French and Indian War.
Several organizations submitted proposals to keep Ft. Pitt Museum open including the group, Friends of the Fort Pitt Museum. Commission Board member State Senator Jim Ferlo says the "Friends" group would still be encouraged to play a role and that would be defined as a contract is drafted with the Heinz Regional History Center. The Center's President, Andy Masich, says he's delighted by the PHMC decision and it's "natural" because the Center was founded 130 years ago in time for the 125th anniversary of the French and Indian War.
Masich says their goal is to make Ft. Pitt Museum bigger and better and attract more people, especially students...."including some of the 50,000 students that visit the Heinz History Center each year."
Masich says he'd like to see ongoing archaeological work at the site because "there's still a lot of history underfoot" and an archaeology lab on the first floor of the museum in cooperation with a regional university.
Masich is hoping to erect a 36-foot tall garrison flag to fly over the fort and be lit 24 hours a day so it's the first thing motorists see coming through the Fort Pitt Tunnels. He says some parts of their 5 year plan can be done in time for the new school year and the G-20 Summit in September.