Thursday, December 31, 2009

First Night Downtown

About 25,000 people are expected at first night being held in the Cultural District Downtown. Many streets are shut down and there will be over 100 cultural events held in about fifty places, including music and dance performances. At 6pm and at midnight there will be fireworks shows. People were out and about by 6pm.

North Side resident Lance Chimka was there with his three year old daughter. He said "the vitality of the streets" on first night made the experience particularly fun.

Pictured are instruments from an interactive percussion zoo at The August Wilson Center and 2010 cupcakes from Dozen bake shop.

Smokers Call It Quits

About 21 percent of adults in Allegheny County are smokers. Around the time the new year approaches and people are acting on New Year's resolutions, Tobacco-Free Allegheny sees a spike in phone calls from smokers who are interested in quitting. They will receive about ten to fifteen calls a day to their offices.

Tobacco-Free Executive Director Cindy Thomas says they provide counseling and refer people to other services. Those that are successful also use some sort of nicotine replacement therapy. Nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco products causes users to experience cravings if they stop using them. Research shows it can take seven to ten attempts for a smoker to quit smoking permanently.

Council Meetings Go Online

Thanks to the purchase of new software and hardware in December the Pittsburgh City Council will begin posting video of its meetings online starting in January. The meetings will be streamed live from the city’s website and will also be archived for playback. City Clerk Linda Johnson-Wasler says the archived video will have bill numbers embedded into the recordings so users can search council meetings for the topics that interest them rather than having to watch the entire meeting. Councilman Bill Peduto says the goal is to eventually embed data into the video to indicate which council member is speaking to make the data even more research friendly. At the same time, the Clerk’s office will update its web page to allow for easier access to information about the bills. Johnson-Wasler says users will soon be able to sign up to receive updates when action is taken on specific bills. Councilman Bruce Kraus says he is amazed at how many people watch the meetings every week. Currently the meetings are played on the city’s cable channel live and repeated three times later in the week. Krauss says residents want to be able to access the meetings on their schedule not on the city’s schedule. For decades a team of stenographers captured verbatim minutes of the council meetings but that practice ended in 2006 due to budget constraints. Johnson-Wasler says the webcasting will serve as a good replacement for that lost service.

Bike Ranking to be Rocky Road for Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s bicycle-pedestrian coordinator Stephen Patchan says the city will apply next February for a “bike-friendly” ranking from the League of American Bicyclists.

If Pittsburgh wants the highest ranking, it will be a tough trail to the top: only three U.S. communities are on the League’s platinum list. Denver CO, Davis CA, and Portland OR. The gold, silver, and bronze levels are more feasible to start, but still difficult to attain.

But League spokeswoman Meghan Cahill says that doesn’t mean the city would be without help.

“Even if a community doesn’t even make the bronze level, we still give them a bicycle road map, because we’re aiming to have a bicycle-friendly America,” says Cahill.

The road map would address the city’s problem areas in terms of bikeway structure, local laws, encouragement of bicycling, and more. After fixing these issues, the city could reapply for a higher rating.

Cahill says special legislation for bike-related offenses is a good example of bicycle-friendly policy.

“Maybe not just having just a ticket but also, say, having to take a training course or something after an infringement on the rules-of-the-road type of laws that are in place in that community,” says Cahill.

If Patchan submits Pittsburgh’s application in February, Cahill says it should be done within a few months.

Download a full list of rated cities here.

Efforts to Create Elephant Sperm Bank in Somerset County

The head of the Pittsburgh Zoo and elephant experts from around the world recently took the first step in creating an "elephant sperm bank" at the zoo's International Conservation Center in Somerset County. The center currently is home to Jackson, the most valuable breeding elephant in the United States. But according to zoo director Dr. Barbara Baker, Jackson is "over-represented genetically" and the sperm bank will help them enlarge the gene pool for elephants.
Recently Baker and the project team went to the Phinda Reserve in South Africa and collected semen from 15 bull elephants after they were tranquilized with darts from an open helicopter. Baker says the semen was frozen in liquid nitrogen and they believe it will be useful for an indefinite amount of time but no one has actually tried this before.
This semen will be used to inseminate elephants in Europe. They plan another trip to Africa in April as part of "Project Frozen Dumbo" to collect more samples for a sperm bank that will eventually be located at the conservation center. That sperm will be used to artificially inseminate female elephants in the U.S. and Canada.
Dr. Baker says this first of a kind effort could greatly impact breeding of elephants worldwide.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Turnpike Tolls to Increase Slightly

The Pennsylvania Turnpike will hike tolls by 3% January 3, as part of a scheduled increase meant to combat inflation.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo says the most common toll of $0.95 will increase by a nickel for cash-paying customers, because the Turnpike doesn’t accept pennies.

DeFebo says the same toll for an E-ZPass driver will increase to 98 cents exactly, because the transaction is done electronically.

The Turnpike plans to implement 3% increases annually after upping fares 25% last year. The revenue will be used to fund road construction and mass transit projects, as mandated by Act 44 of 2007.

DeFebo says before electronic toll payments, larger fare increases were done about every decade to avoid reprinting Turnpike tickets each year. He says the smaller, incremental hikes are easier to manage now that most customers use the E-ZPass system.

Survey Says Many Workers Don't Use Vacation Days

Right Management, an employment services company, recently surveyed 667 people nationwide, and 66 percent said they did not use all of their allotted vacation days. But using vacation days is important in maintaining well-being and good health.
"Vacation is a time to rejuvenate and refresh so that people can come back with a higher energy level, better focus, more creativity," says Helene Cavalli, a Right Management spokeswoman.
Cavalli says people may not be taking time off this year in fear that they may lose their jobs, or that they have no one to do their job while they're gone. She says taking vacation curbs absenteeism and employment turnover, and gives workers a better sense of balance between work and personal life.

Donated Blood Shortages in Some of Region

Blood donations are critical during the holiday season, with donated blood at or below a two-day supply in the some parts of Pennsylvania.
There are several factors that have caused shortages. Marianne Spampinato, regional communications manager for the Greater Alleghenies Region Red Cross Blood Center in Johnstown, says this time of year is usually not good for receiving blood donations. She cites schools being out of session, where the center brings in more than 25 percent of its blood donations, regular donors being on vacation and inclement weather like snow or ice that cancel blood drives.
The Greater Alleghenies Regional Red Cross Blood Center serves more than 100 hospitals in parts of six states, including many southwestern and central Pennsylvania counties. They do not serve Allegheny or Washington counties.
On the other hand, Lisa Cassidy, a spokeswoman from the Pittsburgh Central Blood Bank, says they are not facing inventory shortages at this time. She says although the holiday season bring in fewer donations, there is not an urgent need for blood there.

Animal Friends Hold Dog Rescue Campaign

Animal Friends will be holding its 13th annual new year's eve dog rescue on Thursday. Groups of volunteers travel to animal control facilities and gather lost dogs that are slated to be euthanized at the end of the year. The dogs are then taken back to the animal friends facility in Ohio Township where they are bathed, groomed, vaccinated and evaluated for behavioral and medical issues. The dogs will then be put up for adoption. Jolene Micklas, spokesperson for Animal Friends, says they expect to rescue around 30 dogs. Micklas says that a good way for authorities to identify your dog if it is lost and then found without its tag or identification is to get a micro-chip inserted in the dog allowing for it to be tracked, located and identified.

Louisville Wants to Check Out Pittsburgh

A group of about 400 economic development officials from Louisville KY and Lexington KY will travel to Pittsburgh this May to try to learn a few lessons from the region’s success stories. Carmen Hickerson of Greater Louisville Inc. says she sees several parallels between Louisville and Pittsburgh starting with our industrial past and our efforts to become a leader in the new green economy. Louisville officials take a trip to another city every year to look for ideas including trips to Denver, Austin TX, Kansas City and Jacksonville FL. They have even traveled to Dublin Ireland. Hickerson says cities are always ready to show off their success and she says they have never run into a city that has been worried about Louisville stealing their secrets. She says every region is different so the leaders of Louisville cannot take a trip and then simply implement and idea intact, but she says several success stories in Louisville can be tracked back to idea gathered o their trips. She says, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” The group will be in Pittsburgh May 10-12, 2010. The itinerary is still being formed but Hickerson says they usually meet with community, elected, education and arts leaders in the cities they visit to, “Get a good broad stroke of everything going on in your community and why it is working.” Louisville’s leaders may leave few of their own ideas behind. Louisville and its surrounding county have formed what is known as a merged government, which is an idea many have proposed for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. The Louisville region is about half the size of the Pittsburgh region. Hickerson says this is the first time Louisville has made its trip in conjunction with Lexington. She says the city’s leaders felt it was time to take a more regional approach to economic development. The two cities are about 80 miles apart. Hickerson says she is looking forward to stopping at the Warhol Museum.

Rudiak to Join Council

Natalia Rudiak will be taking over the City Council District 4 seat held by Jim Motznik on Monday January 4th. Rudiak beat out a handful of Democratic challengers for the seat, and joins Robert Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District as newcomers on city council. Rudiak says she wants to focus on community development and isn't interested in bickering with other council members. Rudiak says she is eager to get started and wants to focus on developing the business districts in the communities she represents. Rudiak says she is going to focus her time on council on connecting with the community and fighting crime and neglect.

Port Authority Fare Increases Take Effect January 1st

Starting January 1st the Allegheny County Port Authority increase fares on most of its routes. In Zone 2, the monthly pass, annual pass, transfer cost and "T" peak-period surcharge will all go up. Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie says the rate increases will benefit riders because it pays for improvements. Ritchie says higher costs and flat state and local funding are the reason for the increases. He added that instead of large increases every four or five years, slight annual increases are more manageable for riders.

Upcoming fare changes include:

Zone 1
Cash fare: $2 > $2
Weekly pass: $20 > $20
10-trip tickets: $20 > $20
Monthly pass: $75 > $80
Annual pass: $825 > $880
T peak-period surcharge: 50 cents > 75 cents

Zone 2
Cash fare: $2.60 > $2.75
Weekly pass: $24 > $27.50
10-trip tickets: $26 > $27.50
Monthly pass: $90 > $105
Annual pass: $990 > $1,155
T peak-period surcharge: 50 cents > 75 cents

All Zones
Transfers: 50 cents > 75 cents

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Highway Signs Changing Throughout State

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has been replacing its old highway signs with new ones that have a new font. The new font is called Clearview and according to research done by Penn State University, is 10-18% more legible than the traditional font, Highway Gothic. The new font uses thinner lines and more open space on the inside of some of the letters to help motorists better distinguish between different letters. Approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2004 the font is now being adopted by highway departments across the United States and Canada. Rich Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the PennDot Harrisburg office says that he expects all of the signs with the old font to be replaced within ten years. He added that all sign replacements are being done on a normal schedule and that because all that is being changed is the style of the lettering no additional money is being spent to change the signs.

Bioterrorism Lab Ready for Higher Designation

Pittsburgh’s bioterrorism lab is on the cusp of being able to test exotic and deadly pathogens like H1N1, anthrax, and smallpox.

The Bio-Safety Level 3 designation was originally slated for August, but the Lawrenceville facility’s ventilation system and air pressure did not meet safety requirements.

Allegheny County spokesperson Megan Dardanell says after fixing those problems in November, the county now only awaits a signature of approval for the $6.4 million lab.

She says once authorized, the lab will allow for quicker testing of public health threats in Western Pennsylvania.

“When the H1N1 first came out last spring, we were having to send samples across the state to get results,” says Dardanell. “With the new lab, we’ll be able to test those samples right here in Pittsburgh and have results almost immediately.”

The facility has been staffed since August, but Dardanell says workers are not currently permitted to test pathogens like the swine flu for fear that they might escape into the atmosphere.

State Supreme Court Adopts New Rules

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court now has the ability to react to emergency situations throughout the state. New rules allow for the Supreme Court to declare a judicial emergency giving it the ability to change procedural or administrative rules such as reestablishing the location of court, reassigning judges, canceling or modifying court calendars, subpoenas, court orders and even canceling or suspending trials and jury duty. Spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts Stuart Ditzen says court responses to both the September 11th attacks and Hurricane Katrina were examined in creating the new rules. The new rules, two and a half years in the making were adopted on Monday and take effect immediately.

Library For Blind And Handicapped Getting Digital Audio Books

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has announced that it is beginning the distribution of its new digital audio books and digital audio players to its customers. The service provides audio books, large print books and narrated movies to people with a variety of conditions that make it so they are unable to read on their own. Many of the services customers have conditions like diabetes, Parkinson's disease, macular degeneration or severe arthritis. The new digital audio books will replace the older audio cassette books that have become outdated. Director of the Pittsburgh Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped says this transition has been years in the making and is happening because of the low cost of the digital devices. Funding for the transition comes from Federal and State sources because the library, although affiliated with the City's public libraries, does not receive local funding.

Christmas Tree Collection

Allegheny County is collecting Christmas trees to reuse as mulch for nine county parks. County Spokeswoman Megan Dardanell says they collected about 150 trees last year, and they expect to collect more this year. Trees that are stripped of decorations can be dropped off at swimming pool parking lots in Boyce, North, Settler’s Cabin and South parks between 8am and 3:30pm until January 22. Dardanell says it’s an easy way to be environmentally friendly, and it helps both the tax payers and county parks.

PNC: Pittsburgh’s Economy on the Rise in 2010

Pittsburgh based PNC Chief Economist Stewart Hoffman says the economy in the Pittsburgh region, “will turn the corner from severe recession to economic recovery” in 2010. He notes that although the region did suffer the “slings and arrows” of the national downturn it was not as bad in Southwestern PA as it was nationwide. He predicts that by the end of the year the region will have shed about 25,000 jobs. As Hoffman looks forward to 2010, he says job growth will return to the region by the spring and to the nation as a whole some time in the first half of 2010. Unemployment will be a bit “sticky” according to Hoffman, ending the year in Pittsburgh around 8% and 9.5% nationally. He says he does not fear a “jobless recovery” but he knows the jobs will not bounce back fast enough to please some in Washington. Hoffman says the Pittsburgh housing market has seen its trough and homes will begin to pick up value in 2010. He notes that several markets in the South and the Midwest will continue to see values decline. He says, “Pittsburgh has a good mix of buyers and sellers where it will still be a buyers market in other parts of the country.” Hoffman says he is not worried about inflation in 2010 and he feels household incomes in the region will rise faster than the rate of inflation in the region. He predicts an inflation rate around 2.5% and an increase in household incomes between 3% and 4%. Among the issues that Hoffman says could kill the recovery; Rising oil prices, a lack of job creation in the private sector and poor decisions by state and local governments.

Motznik: From Sewer to Judge

Pittsburgh City Councilman Jim Motznik leaves office today to become a District Magistrate. Motznik says when he learned that long time 9th Ward District Magistrate Charles McLaughlin was retiring he knew he needed to run. He says he was worried someone would get in the office that would not fight or the quality of life in the district. He says the neighborhoods served by the court need a judge that will be tough on landlords that do not keep up their properties and drug dealers that walk the streets. He says he is not afraid to stand up to the criminals. Motznik has served nine and a half years in city council. He says some of the things he is most proud of are the little pieces of legislation that may not have gotten much attention but they improve the quality of life. Things such as cracking down on the flyers left on resident’s cars, lawns and front doors, changing the way bars and night clubs are inspected to prevent tragedies and finding ways to move money around at the right times to get new police cars purchased and additional streets paved. Motznik says he has also had a few failed attempts at change. He says he was unsuccessful in growing the city’s income by selling add space on baseball fields and reducing spending by cutting the size of the City Council from 9 members to 7.
Motznik says he got into politics when he was in his early 20’s working as a laborer in the Public Works Department. He says he watched as a fellow crewmember that “never did a lick of work” was promoted because he had political ties. He also watched as other streets were plowed and salted after snowstorms while he had to wait 4 days to get a salt truck down the street where he lived. Motznik says he knew right then that he had to get into politics to protect his family and his neighborhood.
Motznik says he will miss the political meetings and events but not the council meetings. For the last month he has had a countdown calendar in drawer of his council chambers desk. When the arguments became heated, as they often did this month, he would often take out that list of days and mark off one more date with a big smile on his face. The councilman says the council is not as civil as it used to be. He says council members used to have heated debates but they did not become personal.
To get ready or his new job Motznik had to take a month long course in Harrisburg where he learned about the laws he would be dealing with as a magistrate. He passed that course earlier this month. Jim Motznik may be most remembered as the councilman who once wore his sewer boots to a council meeting. Motznik says he regrets pulling the stunt but not taking the stand. He pulled out the boots from his days on public works as a way to say the mayor’s 2004 budget was “full of crap.” The budget relied on gambling revenue to stay in balance and Motznik and four other council members feared they would never see the revenues. He says, “people will always remember the boots but not the reason for them.”
Natalia Rudiak will take over Motznik’s council seat January 4th. Motznik says the first thing she will have to learn is how to work cooperatively with the other eight council members and the mayor if she wants to take care of her district.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Signs of Economic Recovery in State According to Non-Profit

According to the Keystone Research Center, a non-profit research organization in Harrisburg, the slowing down of job losses in the last quarter of this year is a sign of an economic recovery.

The unemployment rate fell 0.4 percentage points to 8.5 percent, which is better than it was.

Mark Price, a labor economist with the organization says 250,000 jobs need to be created to replace the jobs that have been lost and to provide labor for new workers entering the labor market.

The recession has affected workers of all age groups and more men than women since they tend to work in two of the hardest-hit industries, construction and manufacturing.

A Fast Track Program to Jobs

A new CCAC program that will begin in January gives students an opportunity to receive a certificate in six months or less. There are a variety of programs to choose from that are in high demand, according to the state. There's accelerated studies in child care, information technology support, welding, as well as a variety of others. Brenda Trettel, Dean of Academic Affairs at CCAC's South Campus says the program should attract a variety of students, including those who are employed and want a better job and those who are unemployed. She says there will also be programs beginning in May and August.

Wrongfully Imprisoned Man Wins Settlement

Pittsburgh City Council made a unanimous vote to award a wrongfully prosecuted man who served 18 years in prison approximately $3.8 million for loss of revenue and punitive damages.
Thomas Doswell had been found guilty of raping a woman in 1986. He was released in 2005 after new DNA evidence found him innocent. City Councilman Bill Peduto says the money will come from the city’s law department, under it’s settlements. He says they set aside money each year for such cases.
“This case in itself is more than what we set aside for an entire year, and therefore we’re going to need to do it over several years to make that payment.”
The settlement will be split into three $1.26 million payments in the next three years to go to Doswell, his attorney and Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston. Peduto says Allegheny County and the prosecution have immunity from wrongful convictions, making the city liable.
“Three million dollars for 19 years of your life seems pretty low when you think about it,” he says. Peduto says he’s looked into similar cases in the country, and Doswell will be awarded a comparable settlement to others who have been in the same situation.

A City Council Farewell

Today marked the last meeting of the year for Pittsburgh City Council, and the last for Councilors Jim Motznik and Tonya Payne. It was a brief, but emotional meeting filled with laughter and sniffles. Motznik will become district judge, while Payne will be running for a state representative’s seat.
Payne wiped tears her eyes as the remaining council members said their goodbyes at the end of the meeting. Councilors Darlene Harris, Theresa Smith and Bill Peduto specifically commented on her hard work and passion.
Payne said that she and Motznik had become close friends during her time on council, and he taught her many things.
“I know that we’ll always have this special friendship no matter what,” Payne said. “You’re a lot like myself… we’re just not afraid.”
Motznik said he’s worked hard to get where he is now, and at first, he never planned a political career. It’s a tough job, but he’s going to miss it.
“Imagine moving up from a laborer to district judge,” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”

Bill Aims to Inform PA Energy Consumers

The commonwealth now has an Energy Consumer Bill of Rights.

The new document is meant to centralize several rules and rights that are not new. It was crafted by State Representative John Bear of Lancaster County, along with the Public Utility Commission and state Office of Consumer Advocate.

Bear says a lot of people have rights they don't even know about -- regarding when companies can shut off power, for example.

"A little, unknown fact: if you have up to 250% of the poverty level, which is up to $50,000 for a family of four, if you are at that or under, there's certain things utilities have to do. They can't just shut you off."

Another portion of the Bill of Rights explains how to choose an electric or natural gas supplier, which Bear says is especially important with the pending expiration of PPL's rate caps on January 1, 2010.

A copy of the document can be found on the PUC's website.

New Airport Security Measures Imposed

The nation's Transit Security Authority (TSA) announced new airline safety measures Saturday in reaction to Friday’s attempted bombing of a flight to Detroit.

Passengers will not be permitted to stand up or hold anything in their lap for the final hour of flight. A TSA spokesperson says these rules will only affect incoming international flyers, not domestic travelers. Additional bodily searches and bag checks can also be expected at the gate to each flight.

Spokesperson JoAnn Jenny of Pittsburgh International Airport says that will affect a few of the airport’s regular flights, including service from Canada and Latin America.

Jenny says given the new measures, passengers should arrive a bit earlier than they normally would. She says she doesn’t expect the new rules to affect how many people fly.

Pitt to Study Environment Threats

University of Pittsburgh researchers are trying to gauge the levels and types of environmental threats in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Dr. Dan Volz of the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health is heading the study funded by a $250,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments. Volz says the Pittsburgh Environmental Threat Analysis will involve four layers of research. The team has already begun the first phase, which includes interviews with “key informants” in the region. Elected officials, regulators and academics comprise that first group. Volz says their concerns will then be used to build a survey to be sent out to a larger group of individuals and organizations. He says the preliminary results show that while the concerns are wide ranging most of them are nearly universal among the group. The third phase of the study will involve a review of newspaper and broadcast articles from the last several years to see if the current concerns are similar to those highlighted by the media. Volz says the researchers will then use all of the opinions and media reports as a framework to begin a review of scientific data from the region including air monitoring and disease tracking numbers produced by governments, foundations and the private sector. All the layers of data will be stacked on top of each other to build maps that Volz says will be unique. He says the report will evaluate threats in the region as a whole but the goal is to be able to drill down to individual municipalities and water sheds. The report is to be submitted to the funder in June with a final report released in October.

A+ Schools Ready to Crunch Equal Access Data

Two months ago teams of 3 or 4 A+ Schools volunteers meet with 23 public middle and high school principals to administer a 60-question interview that the organization hopes will serve as a base for system wide reforms. The interviews are part of the community action research initiative called “School Works” that A+ Schools Executive Director Carey Harris says is aimed at, “ending the achievement gap, so school works for all students.” The interviews were meant to determine if all students have equal access to learning opportunities, quality teaching and resources. Harris says most of the questions were multiple choice but there were some opened ended questions on the form. The data was shipped of to consultant to be tabulated and A+ Schools will present the information at three separate public events. Harris says the January 23, March 11, and April 29 sessions will each address a different slice of the data. A+ will present the participants with the data, begin discussions, break into small groups and then build recommendations. Harris says participants will use hand held voting devices to register their opinions. After each meeting, recommendations will be sent to appropriate groups including Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators, elected officials and union leaders. Harris says participants will then be asked to support those recommendations by writing letters, testifying at meetings and crafting letters to the editor. People who want to take part in the meetings must sign up at the A+ Schools web site. Harris says they need to know how many people will be at each session so they can plan for food and childcare needs. Harris says she hopes her organization is, “creating a roll for the public in school reform by giving people a positive and constructive way to influence school reform so it can continue.”

Efforts for State Constitutional Convention Grow

Several good government groups have called for a state constitutional convention in recent months to revamp several aspects of the way the state’s operations are managed. One problem facing the reformers is a lack of understanding on how to proceed. There have only been five constitutional conventions in Pennsylvania’s history, and the last one was back in 1968. Several advocacy groups recently put together a guide explaining how a convention could get up and running, and what it might look like. Barry Kauffman is the executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. He points out there aren’t any guidelines for what form the convention would take, or how the delegates would be chosen, “I’m not recommending this, but theoretically we could have the constitutional convention live on television every night, and have people sit there with their clickers to vote, just like they do for American Idol.”
Commonwealth Foundation CEO Matthew Brouillette says he has a few suggestions as to what should be considered, “Moving Pennsylvania back to a part-time legislature, placing term limits on our House and Senate members as we do for our governor. Those, to us, would be the way to restore a citizen legislature, rather than having career politicians running our state Capitol.”
Governor Rendell and the General Assembly would need to sign off on a convention before it takes place. Proponents say that’s the biggest hurdle, since lawmakers would be reluctant to approve a session that could reduce the General Assembly’s size or impose other changes that could limit their numbers or tie their hands. Brouillette says that is a hurdle that should not exist, “I think it’s pretty clear that our constitution does give the people the power to reform, alter or abolish their government as they see fit. Those are the words to our constitution. The problem is we just have not been given the power to exercise those constitutional rights.” Barry Kauffman points out that voters elsewhere have an easier time getting a convention called, “In 17 other states the question automatically goes on the ballot every ten or twenty years: should there be a constitutional convention? And the citizens vote on it. It usually loses, but at least they have the opportunity. In a dozen or more other states, citizens have the right to petition onto the ballot.” Voters would need to approve the convention through a referendum. Any proposed constitutional changes would also be placed on the ballot.

Walko Becomes Judge Today

After 15 years in the Pennsylvania State House Don Walko will be sworn in as a judge in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas today. Walko says he felt it was time to move on from making policy to making sure those policies are implemented properly. He says it is a good next step, “Knowing as a policy maker where we failed or succeeded, and then seeing where the rubber meets the road down at the court house.” Among the work Walko is most proud of in his time in the house is his work to expand the state’s prescription drug programs, Pace and Pacenet. He is also proud of his work on the Intermediate Punishment Task Force, which dealt with alternative courts such as the drug and mental health courts and setting rules on alternative forms of incarceration.
Since being sworn into office in 1995 Walko says he has seen a lot of changes in Harrisburg. He says there is a growing lack of civility and a growing bitterness among the legislators. However, he says he will always remember the high level of debate on the house floor. He will also miss his friends and, “dealing with the 5,000 issues a year that you face as a legislator.”
Walko will serve in the Family Division Of The Court Of Common Pleas. He calls it, “the ultimate problem solving court.” He says he has been getting ready for the job by attending several family court related seminars and he has been meeting with his law clerk to go over some courtroom procedures such as evidentiary rules.
On issues still facing the state Walko hopes someone will take up his charge to better regulate bounty hunters and private detectives, expand gaming opportunities for small non profits and place tighter controls on prescription program managers. Walko notes that it will be tough to stay focused with all of the “bonusgate” controversies in Harrisburg. The Democrat from Lawrenceville says he is still opposed to downsizing the state legislature. He says the representation lost is not worth the money saved. He says there are other ways to save money.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

"SAD" Can Affect 1 in 5 People

The holidays can trigger the blues for some people but medical experts say it's not just the holidays, it's the season, the weather and the shorter days. Curt Constant, director of Adult Behavioral Health Services at Mercy Behavioral Health, says 20% to 30% of the general population suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), another manifestation of depression. Constant says getting up while it's dark and going home from work when it's dark can lead to SAD, and these depressed episodes can alternate with periods of normal mood or even high mood over the spring and summer.
Bright light therapy, especially fluorescent light, is considered to be the first line treatment, as well as counseling and anti-depressant medications. Constant says no group is predisposed to SAD and symptoms include daytime fatigue, oversleeping, social withdrawal and carbohydrate craving.

Anti-apartheid Activist, Former Pitt Professor Dies

South African poet and former political prisoner Dennis Brutus has died at age 85. His publisher says the writer died in his sleep at his home in Capetown, South Africa yesterday. Brutus was an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed with Nelson Mandela in the mid 1960's. His activism led Olympic officials to ban South Africa from competition from 1964 till apartheid ended nearly 30 years later. Brutus was exiled from South Africa in 1966 and moved to London and in 1970 to the United States. He taught literature at several universities and eventually came to the University of Pittsburgh where he chaired the Black Studies Program starting in 1986. He retired from Pitt in 1999. Ending apartheid was not Professor Brutus' only cause....he fought against the death penalty and urged wealthy nations to cancel the debt of poorer countries.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pennsylvania Man Member of Human Terrain Teams

They're called "Human Terrain Teams." They help give the U.S. military commanders insight into the culture of the civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. A Pennsylvania man helps prepare the 5-member teams at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Harry Pecote, a 49-year-old father of six from Erie, Pennsylvania is a Civil Affairs Officer in the army. He train officers, anthropologists and political scientists to be members of human terrain teams.

Pecote says the team members get to know civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan in an effort to promote peace and reduce military and civilian deaths.
"We're not seeking ideally the local government official or police chief. We want to know what is the true mindset of the person in the street, what does the village really feel, what do they think. Often there is a disconnect between what the local government says and what the local population is truly thinking."

Pecote says during his trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, he's noticed that every region in each country is different....
"Village by village, it will vary and that's one of the problems we have as a military and as Americans in general. We look at people as Iraqis or Aghanis and that would be like saying someone from Western Pennsylvania is the same as someone from Eastern Pennsylvania whereas the people grew up with different cultures, different perspectives."

When he's not serving, he owns and operates an antique shop.

The program started in 2006. The teams typically consist of five members. Several hundred have been deployed since it started. Three have died.
It has been criticized by anthropology groups who see it as a way to weaponize anthropology.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Attorneys General Question Deal in Health Bill

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett and at least 7 other Republican State Attorneys General are questioning the constitutionality of a provision of the health care legislation approved yesterday by the U.S. Senate. Corbett's spokesman Kevin Harley says at issue is a portion of the bill that would require the federal government to pay for the full expansion of Medicaid in Nebraska. This was a concession to Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson to get his vote in favor of the health care bill. Corbett says Pennsylvania and other states are required to pay for the expanded Medicaid expenses and it's unfair to pick up the cost of Nebraska's Medicaid recipients. Nelson says other senators are welcome to try to negotiate a deal for what he calls an underfunded federal mandate.

Grand Jury Investigates Orie's Office

An Allegheny County grand jury is reportedly investigating whether a worker in State Senator Jane Orie's North Hills office was employed for campaign purposes. The Post-Gazette report that an aide to the Republican senator was questioned for 8 hours by the grand jury. Orie's attorney Jerry McDevitt told the paper that the questioning followed surveillance of Orie's staff and office. McDevitt said investigators raided Orie's office two weeks ago...taking computers and laptops. According to McDevitt, the investigation began after an intern in Orie's office contacted the district attorney alleging campaign work for State Supreme Court nominee Joan Orie Melvin, Orie's sister, was being done out of the senator's office.

PA Mercury Emissions Restrictions Stricken

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld a decision by Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pelligrini to throw out a state rule that required coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions below federal standards. The high court says Pelligrini was correct when he called the regulation "unlawful, invalid and unenforceable." Allentown-based PPL Corporation challenged the rule which had made Pennsylvania the first major coal-producing state to attack mercury emissions. However, a federal judge last year ordered that mercury be returned to a list of hazardous pollutants that Pennsylvania cannot regulate under state law.

Census Looking for Workers

The US Census Bureau is taking applications from people wanting to help with the decennial count in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Local Census Spokesperson Pam Golden says the process should be completed online as soon as possible. Most of the hiring will be done starting in January with the surveys being sent out mid March. “Census Day” is April 1st. Golden says most of the jobs will be “in the field.” In some cases Census workers will be hand delivering forms to homes without regular mail delivery and making calls on homes that have not returned the form. Pay for the “Part-time temporary” positions will range from $15.00 per hour to $18.75 per hour. Golden says the work hours are flexible and the Bureau tries to keep workers as close to home as possible to take advantage of the knowledge of the neighborhoods. She says that makes it an excellent job for someone looking to augment their income from another job but she says in some instance workers may be able to get as much as 40 hours a week. Depending on the job and the location, the work could begin almost immediately. Golden says the jobs will last for anywhere from three weeks to more than three months. Nationwide the Census Bureau plans to hire 1.4 million temporary workers.

3 PAT Workers Sickened by Substance on LRT Cars

3 Port Authority workers...2 light rail operators and a supervisor...were treated last night at UPMC Mercy after they became sick. PAT spokesman Jim Ritchie told the Tribune-Review that city's HazMat team was called to investigate a substance that was found on 2 light rail vehicles on the Allentown line. Ritchie says there was no indication that any passengers became ill. Firefighters say it appears some residue from body work done on the vehicles might have sickened the PAT employees. The vehicles were taken out of service

12 Days of Christmas Expensive This Year

In its 26th annual Christmas Price Index survey PNC Wealth Management has determined that the cost of Christmas this year is $21,465.56. Based on the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" PNC determined the cost of every gift. Three items fell from last year, five increased in cost and four remained the same. A partridge in a pear tree, six geese a laying and seven swans a swimming decreased in cost while four calling birds, 10 lords a leaping, 11 pipers piping and 12 drummers drumming all remained the same. Two turtle doves, three french hens, five gold rings, eight maids a milking, and nine ladies dancing all increased in price. This years index is the smallest increase since 2002 when the index fell 7.6 percent. The true cost of Christmas is much more expensive though at $87,402.81. The true cost of Christmas means purchasing not just a present for every day but the prior days presents as well. If you were to purchase your gifts on the Internet then you would be paying even more. The cost this year is $31,434.85 and $127,643.08.

"Reformer" Gives Up

A second-term Pennsylvania state representative who came to Harrisburg as a reformer says she no longer thinks the state's government can be fixed from the inside.
Chester County Democrat Barbara McIlvaine Smith has been in the House since 2007, when she arrived with a slew of other first-term lawmakers who were elected in the wake of the pay raise uproar.
She's pressed for reform for three years, but now says it's no longer worth the effort.
McIlvaine Smith won't run for reelection next year, because she says she's convinced the system can't be changed from the inside.

"I wish it were different, because I wish that Harrisburg functioned better. I see it as a dysfunctional place to work."

McIlvaine Smith says she'll work with Common Cause, Democracy Rising and other good government groups to call for reforms like a shift to a part-time legislature.
She says it's now clear to her that a bill without the blessings of House and Senate leaders doesn't have a chance of becoming law, and that it likely would have taken several years to pass any of the measures she has pushed for.

Mitzvah Day

"Mitzvah" in Hebrew means "good deed." For the 9th straight year, the Shalom Pittsburgh initiative of the United Jewish Federation has organized "Mitzvah Day" on Christmas Day. Spokeswoman Becca Lehner says they started Mitzvah Day to give the regular volunteers at agencies and organizations in Pittsburgh a chance to spend Christmas with their families while still taking care of the needs of the needs of those who are served by those organizations on a daily basis.
Lehner says they have about 420 volunteers who will be helping out at more than 40 sites today including several soup kitchens, assisted living centers, nursing homes, hospitals and the Auberle House for at-risk youth. Lehner says they've also made up gift bags for children who have to be moved from dangerous homes to safer settings.
Lehner says the volunteers want to have an impact..."they want to give back to the organizations that give so much to the Pittsburgh area."
Lehner says that the Mitzvah Day volunteering has become an annual tradition for many as well as a family activity.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Legislation Aims to End Partisan School Board Elections

When the Pennsylvania Senate returns from its Christmas break, it will take up legislation to end partisan school board elections. The Senate Education Committee has already unanimously approved the measure by Senator Andy Dinniman of Chester County. Under the bill, the names of individuals seeking election to school boards would appear on ballots without affiliation to political party. In addition, there would only be a general election in November for school board primary election in the Spring.
"We could give independent voters an equal say and most importantly we can separate education policy from partisan politics which is the way it should be." Currently, independent voters cannot vote in primary elections in Pennsylvania except on ballot questions.
Dinniman says that electing school board members in November would eliminate actions over several months by lame duck school directors..."We have school board members who get defeated in a primary where they proceed to institute new building programs, curriculum changes, fire superintendents, when they were defeated in the primary over those very issues."
According to Dinniman, Pennsylvania is just 1 of 3 states that still allow partisan primary elections..."My legislation would shift the focus of school board elections from political differences to real educational and fiscal issues at stake."
If passed, the measure would take effect with the 2011 local elections.

Save-A-Lot Still Looking at Hill

The St. Louis based grocery store chain Save-A-Lot says it is still willing to build a store in The Hill District if the deal is right. Nearly a year ago the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, with the guidance of Hill District leaders, chose a proposal from Pittsburgh based Kuhn’s Markets to open a store in the Hill over a proposal by the Landmarks Community Capital Corporation and Save-A-Lot. Driving the decision was a desire to land what is known as a “full service” grocery store with amenities such as a deli and a bakery. Save-A-Lot does not offer those amenities. Last month Kuhn’s dropped its plans to open the store. Save-A-Lot Vice President for Development Rick Meyer says they are waiting for an invitation from the city to try again and they feel they can make it work financially where others who have pulled out saw an anemic market or “trade area.” He says they are looking for an “intense” market rather than a large market. Meyer says the soft economy actually makes their business model, which offers groceries at 20-40% discounts, work better than it did two years ago when the process began. He says Save-A-Lot still needs the million dollars offered by the URA and the million dollars offered by the Penguins to make the deal work. Meyers says, “Deals rise and fall on the details and we will have to see how it all works out.” Meyer says the chain has opened several corporate owned stores in urban areas in the least year including stores in New Orleans and Philadelphia. The chain has 1,200 stores in 39 states. Meyers says 20-25% of them are in urban areas so they know they can make the model work in the Hill District.

New Study Suggests Weekly Food Guide Pyramid

If you’re going to eat a lot on the weekends and holidays, maybe you should cut back during the rest of the week.

That’s according to University of Pittsburgh Marketing Professor Jeff Inman. He says he studied two years worth of food-intake data that told him people eat a good bit more over the weekend.

“That’s not too much of a surprise,” says Inman. “What was a little bit of a surprise was what meal that comes from.”

Breakfast intake increases by almost ten percent on weekends, says Inman. Nosh rates shoot up on many holidays, as well. The significance?

“Maybe [people] should cut back a little bit during the week, so they have that little extra bit of calorie budget built up that they can spend on the weekends and holidays,” says Inman.

That’s why he’s suggesting an expanded time frame for the Food Guide Pyramid to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Inman says it should work with the natural tendency of people to splurge or conserve, depending on the day.

“I think that people want to have a little bit of flexibility in their food intake, so having some guidelines on how they can manage has to be to the good,” says Inman.

Rendell Expects to Have a Busy Last Year

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell says he’s not worried about slipping into “lame duck” status during his final year in office. 2010 is Rendell’s last full year on the job, and he says he’ll keep busy by pushing for a natural gas severance tax, increased basic education funding and legislation addressing electric rate increases, among other efforts.
Rendell says he doesn’t accept the notion that a governor fades into obscurity at the end of a second term.

"I’m the governor of the fifth-largest state in the union. And the governor wields a significant amount of power here. The only way the governor doesn’t stay relevant is if the governor just gives up the ghost and doesn’t do his job. I intend to stay very relevant."

But Rendell did talk about his post-gubernatorial plans at a recent press conference, addressing speculation he’ll try to replace Bud Selig as Major League Baseball Commissioner.

"You know, I love the sport. If asked I would undoubtedly serve. I think I could market the sport of baseball very well, which I think it needs. But I’m not counting on it."

Rendell says he’s planning on teaching, writing a book, and expanding his sports broadcasting career.
Rendell says he likely won’t endorse a candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. He said he’s close with Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty and Philadelphia businessman Tom Knox.
When asked about Auditor General Jack Wagner, who –perhaps pointedly -- Rendell didn’t mention, the governor said, “he’s a fine public servant.”

Orie's Office Raided

State Senator Jane Orie, a Republican from Allegheny County, has retained a lawyer after her offices were searched by Allegheny County detectives as part of a county grand jury investigation. Attorney Jerry McDevitt says computers and laptops were seized as well as a computer server. McDevitt says the investigation apparently began a day before the November election when an intern in Orie's office complained to the district attorney's office that political calls were being made from there on behalf of State Supreme Court nominee Joan Orie Melvin, the senator's sister. McDevitt told the Post-Gazette he plans to "unleash hell in December" over the raid at Senator Orie's office. He accuses District Attorney Stephen Zappala of carrying out an overly broad and unconstitutional search warrant.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Number of Pennsylvanians Slowly Growing

Pennsylvania's population is rising slowly but steadily. That's according to estimates released today by the U-S Census Bureau, which show a 2-point-6 percent growth rate between 2000 and 2009.
The nationwide increase was 9-point-1 percent. Sue Copella, who directs the Pennsylvania State Data Center in Middletown, says the rise in the commonwealth can be attributed to a few factors including the steady flow of people moving to other states is being outweighed by the number of people moving to the commonwealth from
other countries.
Overall, Pennsylvania remains the sixth-largest state.The numbers out today are overall statewide figures. The Census Bureau is expected to release local population estimates in March.

Turzai Reacts

With the Pittsburgh Tuition tax legislation off the table, Mayor Ravenstahl and city officials will be scrambling to find another way to aid the troubled pension fund.
State Representative Mike Turzai says the city needs to “be bold” and should first look to privatize and outsource some of its operations before trying to apply greater broad-based taxes, like raising the $52-a-year tax on people who work in the city to $144, or expanding a tax on payrolls to include tax-exempt employers. Turzai says there should be a more sustainable plan to last, not find a quick fix. He says looking at what the private sector does would be a good start.

Welfare Legislation Approved

Senate Bill 47 has been signed into law. The legislation would ease the approval process for someone nominated for a county board of approval position. State Senator Bob Robbins, who also authored the bill, says the process will now be similar to that of a notary public. The bill carries with it two amendments added by the House of Representatives. The first makes sure that welfare money can not be used to purchase alcoholic beverages and the second creates protections so that whistle blowers in the Department of Public Welfare can feel safe in reporting abuses or fraud. Robbins said that he likes to two amendments but is unhappy that they had to be created in the first place.

Rodent Problem Continues at PA Capitol

A rodent infestation will keep the state Capitol’s cafeteria closed through the end of the year.
Department of Agriculture health inspectors will take another look at the Capitol cafeteria, and if it passes that re-inspection, the facility will open after the new year.
Aramark spokeswoman Sarah Jarvis says the company is doing everything it can to clean up the problem, which was discovered during an inspection carried out by the Department of Agriculture.

"We continue to work with the commonwealth and outside cleaning firms to clean the facility. And at the Department of Agriculture’s request, we’re going to coordinate a re-inspection prior to the proposed reopening on January 4th."

Jarvis says Aramark is drafting new protocols for cafeteria employees to follow.
Good government activist Eric Epstein, of Rock the Capital, is drawing symbolism from the rat infestation after a legislative year filled with stalemates and arrests.

"Well, we always knew there were rats at the Capitol. We just didn’t know they were in the cafeteria. But whatever they used to cure the rat infestation where we eat, hopefully they’ll extend that strategy to the legislative rats. Take care of them."

Epstein says he’s pushing for reform candidates to run for office. The year ends without an agreement on legalized table games, which is a key part of the October budget agreement.

New Mortgages Program

Governor Ed Rendell says a state-federal partnership will boost Pennsylvania’s housing market by providing 11-thousand new mortgages to home buyers.
Rendell says the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency will use federal funding to offer 30-year fixed rate mortgages with interest rates around five percent.

"Low-interest, fixed rate loans are exactly what we need today. They’re the opposite of the kind of sub-prime, interest only adjustable rate loans that got so many home owners in trouble in the first place."

State bond sales will also finance 50 million dollars in loans aimed at home construction. Rendell says he’s also expanding a program that offers 6-thousand dollar interest-free loans to first-time homebuyers. In all, Rendell says the effort will cost 1.2 billion dollars.
More than 18-thousand Pennsylvania residents are in foreclosure right now. Rendell says the state’s median home price dropped by more than six percent last year.

Rendell: No Confidence Table Games Will Be Okayed

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell says he’s lost all confidence in the General Assembly’s ability to pass a bill legalizing table games.
Rendell says he’s dead-serious about a thousand or more state worker layoffs if the General Assembly doesn’t pass a table games bill by January 8th.
A reporter asked how much confidence the governor has in whether lawmakers can meet his deadline.

"Nil. I wouldn’t be asking our secretaries of going through the exercise of preparing for layoffs if I had confidence that we’re going to get this done. I have waited and I have waited and I have waited. I have waited during the budget process, and I have waited for almost three months subsequent to the budget process."

Rendell says he’d also be forced to close state parks and make other cuts. This year’s budget agreement banks on at least 200 million dollars from table games taxes and licensing fees.
The House and Senate both passed bills this month, but the measures differed on whether or not to grant more resort casino licenses. There were also disparities on how to distribute local shares of table game taxes.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Commissary Nabs Last Bit of Funding

The commissary slated to be built in Moon has received its final piece of federal funding.

$5 million was given for the new building, which will replace an older, smaller facility in Collier.

Congressman Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair says this latest funding will be used to cover the cost of keeping the current commissary in Collier open, while expanding the new one to include an “exchange” – another section of the building that would provide supplies, uniforms and household items.

Murphy says the expansion of the region’s commissary has piqued the interest of the Navy and the Marines to add bases in the area.

Murphy says more troops drilling in Southwestern Pennsylvania means more income spent at local businesses and more population to the region.

The $5 million will be added to a $4 million given in 2007 and $8.2 million granted in 2008.

City Lobbyist/Contractor Database

In order to a pay-to-play attitude in Pittsburgh, City Controller Michael Lamb is implementing a database where contractors and lobbyists will need to register in 2010. Lamb says the ultimate goal in mind is to provide transparency to the public. On, lobbyists who spend more than 30 hours within three consecutive months talking with at least one city official to push legislation for someone else will need to register. Exceptions are volunteers who are doing an act of civil duty rather than a job. Lamb says the city also has the right to know if a contractor is using lobbyists for city business.
City Councilman Bill Peduto says citizens will be easily able to “connect the dots” with the database. This reform package was passed by City Council in May.

BNY Mellon donates to Scholarship Fund

In a first-time contribution, BNY Mellon has given $500,000 to the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship Fund this month.

“We recognize that the future workforce of our region is an important investment,” said Jim McDonald, BNY Mellon Director of Philanthropy.

BNY Mellon’s philanthropic mission is to help those who need assistance with basic needs, such as food, clothing, utility bills. McDonald says they the philanthropy also pushes for workforce development, which is where the Pittsburgh Promise fits into their goals.

Pennsylvania To Send 2,000 Inmates To Other States

In February Pennsylvania will send 2,000 inmates to state prisons in Michigan and Virginia. 1,000 inmates will go to facilities in each state. The move is happening because of overcrowding in state prisons. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Press Secretary Susan McNaughton says it will cost slightly less per day to house the inmates in the facilities and that it will help to relieve the pressure put on the state correctional institutions by lowering the already high inmate population. The inmates moving will all be male, have had little or no visitors, no medical or mental health problems and have at least three years remaining on their sentences.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder of SAD, a form of depression usually strikes in the fall and winter months when the days are shorter and the nights are longer. Symptoms include oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, loss in interests and social withdrawal.

It affects about 20 to 30 percent of the population.

It is best treated with counseling, antidepressants or with light-therapy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

City Passes Prevailing Wage Legislation

Pittsburgh City Council today approved a bill that would guarantee that workers in future developments that contain city funding earn wages that are based upon the average earnings of their peers in the market. The vote on the legislation was unanimous but came after a shouting match devolved in council chambers. Councilman Patrick Dowd tried unsuccessfully to un-table a series of amendments that he voluntarily tabled when the bill was still in committee and eventually ended up in a shouting match with Council President Doug Shields over his right to be heard by the council. Councilman Peduto was able to introduce amendments that clarified how grocery stores were to be considered and also added a fine for violating the measure and eased reporting regulations among other things. The legislation will apply to projects of more than 100,000 square feet or 25,000 square feet for grocery stores that get $100,000 or more of city grants, favorable loans, financing, discounted land or infrastructure help. When approved the legislation received a standing ovation from the members of the audience.

Also passed today was the city's budget that did not include the 1% student tuition tax.

Study Shows Wheelchair Breakdowns are Common and Dangerous

A University of Pittsburgh-led study showed that nearly half of all individuals with spinal cord injuries have wheelchair breakdowns at least once within a six-month period.
The author of the study, Dr. Mike Boninger, says the people involved in the study were asked how many times they had breakdowns within the last six months and what the consequences of those breakdowns were. He says ten percent of the people who had wheelchair breakdowns were either left stranded, missed an appointment, or were injured as a result.
Boninger says the problem is not that these wheelchairs can’t be repaired. The problem is that they breakdown too frequently, and health insurance does not provide a backup wheelchair to use while theirs is being fixed. Also, the restrictions of health insurance regulations are such that they only buy wheelchairs for a person about every five years, which means though they may continuously repair a wheelchair, they will rarely replace it.
He says healthcare pays a flat rate for wheelchairs, which then gives manufacturers incentive to make the cheapest chair for the most profit. The manufacturers also don’t individually test chairs, causing breakdowns to occur more often. Both of these factors play into frequent wheelchair malfunction.
Boninger says his solution would be independent testing of the wheelchairs, and the improvement of insurance reimbursement policy.

Mentors Give Local Families Holiday Help

Amachi is a Nigerian Ibo word meaning “who knows what God has brought us through this child.”

For some Pittsburgh families, though, it might translate to a little holiday respite from a tough economy and a parent in jail.

That’s because the mentoring group Amachi Pittsburgh has been gathering toys to donate to families with an incarcerated parent.

Parent Leeann Sasala says she was driven to volunteer for the group, because they helped her children regain their esteem after their father got a life sentence.

“When you lose a father, it’s very hurtful,” says Sasala. “They help me and I want to help them back.”

Sasala guided similar parents around a room full of toys to see which would fit their child best this year. But Executive Director Anna Hollis says while getting a toy is nice, it doesn’t replace a parent.

“It’s not just something they feel at Christmastime,” says Hollis. “It’s that overwhelming sense of loss and abandonment that kids feel when their parent has been taken away from them.”

Volunteer Sharon Humphreys says Amachi received almost 500 toys from Toys for Tots and other sponsors.

If you’re interested in the Amachi Pittsburgh program, visit their website.

Mayor Has “Handshake” Deal With Three Non-Profits

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says Highmark, The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have come to “handshake” agreements to contribute more money than they ever have before to the city in payments-in-lieu-of-taxes. City Council members say they will vote no on the 1% tuition tax as a sign of good faith when they meet this afternoon. The commitments of financial support are contingent on the death of the tax. Mayor Ravenstahl says he will work with the other non-profits in the city over the coming year to reach similar deals. His ultimate goal is to find $15 million dollars to help fund the city’s pension program. Neither Ravenstahl nor the universities who were at a joint news conference this morning would disclose the exact level of commitment but Ravenstahl says he hopes it will serve as a catalyst for other non-profit groups to become part of the revived “Pittsburgh Public Service Fund.” Published reports set the past contributions at $800,000 from Pitt, $250,000 from CMU and $1 million from Highmark. Ravenstahl says he hopes it will also serve as a catalyst for a concerted effort in Harrisburg to change the city’s tax structure. The mayor says he will meet with the heads of several non-profit organizations and business leaders to come up with a united plan and then take that plan to Harrisburg. He says the details of the plan are to be debated but he wants to include an increase in the commuter tax and an extension of the payroll prep tax to non-profits. Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg says not only will he help with the lobbying efforts but his school will also offer research and other support to help the state deal with the issue of non taxable entities and pension programs which he says is not unique to Pittsburgh. He says it is still unclear how his university’s contribution to the fund will impact tuition in 2011.

Deal To Avert Tuition Tax

There is a deal with some of Pittsburgh's non-profits on making contributions to the city which will eliminate the proposed 1% college tuition tax. The details are being announced this morning at a news conference by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. DUQ's Mark Nootbaar who is at the news briefing reports the deal involves the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Highmark, which have made a "handshake" agreement to make the largest contributions to the city in their institution's histories. The mayor would not provide specific figures but said the agreements includes the largest ever individual contributions from Pitt, CMU and Highmark. The mayor expects others to follow in the new year. City Council was to take a preliminary vote this afternoon on the tuition tax which the mayor said would generate $16 million a year. Council had delayed voting on the tax three times to continue talks with the universities and other non-profits.

AAA Predicts Holiday Travel Trends

AAA predicts more air and automobile travelers this holiday season than last year. About 3.2 million more Americans will take a trip farther than fifty miles from December 23 to January 3.

AAA Regional Communications Director Bevi Powell says that may be due to travelers’ increased optimism about their financial situations.

Powell says despite gas prices being up about 50 cents from last year’s levels, more people are driving.

“This is the time last year that we saw our record lows. We were up around four dollars in the middle of summer in 2008, and those gas prices plummeted very quickly, and we hit prices that were lower than we had seen in years. So fifty cents higher this year, but still more palatable than $4-per-gallon prices,” says Powell.

She says almost 3% more people will fly this season, which is good news for an airline industry that has been hit hard by economic recession.

PA Lawmaker/Guardsman Returns From Iraq

A Delaware County lawmaker is back at the state Capitol after a tour in Iraq.
Freshman Republican Nick Miccarelli spent just a few weeks in the House before heading to southern Iraq with the Pennsylvania National Guard.
He served as a tail gunner in a Blackhawk helicopter.
Addressing the chamber on his first day back, Micarelli said he and Cumberland County Republican Scott Perry, who's also in the Guard's 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, learned a lot about life's contrasts.

"And Scott and I would go from laughing in the chow hall and arguing politics to hiding in bunkers hoping that the rockets didn't land too close. This chamber, we legislate in peace, while in Iraq government buildings are routinely blown up by car bombs

He says he feels like he's back where he left off in January, recounting a phone conversation he had with Representative Bill Adolph earlier this year.

"He's like, Nick, you know, it stinks you're over there, but I'll tell you - at least you won't have to deal with any of these budget bills. And I get home and the first thing I'm doing is voting on a budget bill for this past fiscal year. So, here we go."

Miccarelli has served three overseas tours. Perry is still in Iraq. He's scheduled to come back over the next few months.

Funding Cut While Table Games Bill Remains Uncertain

In order to account for the lack of revenue from legalized table games at Pennsylvania casino, Governor Ed Rendell has slashed state funding for some medical centers, museums and educational institutions by fifty percent. The governor cut funding for the Children's Institute in Pittsburgh, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Philadelphia's Fox Chase Institute for Cancer Research, among other operations.
The funding reduction is bad news for the Lancaster Cleft Palate Clinic, which was counting on 26-thousand dollars in state aid Heather Wilson is the director of major gifts for Lancaster General Health Foundation, which runs the clinic.
She says the organization needs every dollar it can get, since it often treats patients who can't afford their bills.

"For each child that is on Medicaid or a Department of Health payment we take a significant loss for each of those children. And the money from the state helps us to ensure that we remain the safety net to ensure comprehensive craniofacial team services."

State funding accounts for ten percent of the clinic's annual budget.
State-related universities were exempt from the cuts, since a funding reduction would have barred them from receiving federal stimulus dollars.

Street Medicine and Psychiatry

Operation Safety Net recently hired a psychiatrist. One night a week, she delivers mental health care to some of the region's poorest people - those who live on the streets. Dr. Michelle Barwell whose career has been rooted in community psychiatry makes street rounds with Dr. Jim Withers and Mike Sallows who started the street medicine team in 1992. Listen to the story here.

Motznik: I Want a Deal in Writing

Pittsburgh City Councilman Jim Motznik has been leading the charge to pass a 1% tax on college tuition and he says he is ready to take that effort down to the wire. Council meets today at 1:30 today in its final Standing Committees meeting of the year. That would be the last chance to give preliminary approval to the bill. Motznik says if he does not see a deal with the universities “in writing” he will move to vote for the bill. He has 4 other votes in his corner. The measure has thrice been put on a one-week hold in an effort to give the council and mayor Ravenstahl a chance to negotiate a deal with the universities. Originally the heads of the schools said they would not talk if the tax was still being considered but the mayor reports there has been progress on a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement since all sides meet in the council chambers a week ago. Motznik says he will not accept a verbal agreement or a request from the mayor for more time. If the bill passes a preliminary vote today it will come up for a final vote next week. After that the bill dies and there is little chance of a new version being introduced in the New Year. Two of the five supporters on the council are leaving. Motznik is leaving to become a district magistrate and Tonya Payne was voted out of office. Motznik says he regrets that he may have to vote for the bill but he says the schools and other non-profits in the city should have come forward with more funding and the alternative of raising taxes on city residents is even worse.

Winter Solstice Means Homeless Memorial Night

Eleven names will be added tonight to the wall that holds up the on-ramp to 376 East at the end of Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Every December 21st since 1990 Operation Safety Net has placed small plaques with the names of homeless people who died on the streets of Pittsburgh over the last year. The ten plaques added this year brings the total up to 116. Operation Safety Net Founder and Medical Director Dr. Jim Withers says a rather quiet candlelight service will be held where those who knew the people whose names are being memorialized can speak. At times family members who have not had any contact with their loved ones in years will be there to say goodbye. The event is held in conjunction with the National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. Withers says it is symbolic to hold the event on the longest night of the year, and night that is often very cold. The service is usually only attended by a “hand-full” of homeless but Withers says he knows it is very important to them, “In years past when we have not been able to get the names up fast enough people have added them by hand.” Most Pittsburghers do not know about the memorial and Withers says that is okay, “It has the dignity to just be there. The people who want to know about will go there.” Withers says the average homeless person lives to the age of 40. He says he would love to see the day when no more names are added to the wall.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mayview One-Year Review

Over two hundred mental health consumers, workers, state employees and other stakeholders gathered in the South Hills on Friday afternoon to discuss how people who had been discharged from Mayview State Hospital are doing. Among the speakers were workers from the Department of Public Welfare and former Mayview patients.

Mayview State Hospital closed last December. It had been open for 150 years. During the closing process, 244 people were discharged. According to Allegheny Health Choices, the group that has been tracking the people, they are, for the most part doing well. Since discharge, 69 of them have had additional psychiatric hospitalizations, 24 have been jailed and 10 have died of various causes. Most are living in the community in assisted living situations.

Joan Erney, Deputy Secretary for the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in the Department of Public Welfare said they hope to have all of the state hospitals closed within a decade.

State House Selects New Majority Whip

State Representative Frank Dermody of Oakmont has been selected by House Democrats to serve as Majority Whip. Dermody takes over the position from Bill DeWeese who had to resign the position because of charges he is facing as a result of an investigation by the State Attorney Generals Office. Dermody says his role will be even more pronounced because of the bonusgate investigation. Dermody said he will work to ensure that all of the Representatives have their needs and the needs of their constituents represented when he puts together his legislative agenda for the coming year. Dermody beat out a handful of other legislators for the position. Among them was Representative Joe Preston of East Liberty.

Cambria County Commissioner Resigns

Cambria County Commissioner Bill Harris has announced that he will resign his post before the beginning of the new year. Harris, a Republican, says that he wants to resign because he needs to spend more time working at his funeral home business. Harris will be replaced by a Republican chosen by the county court. His replacement will serve out the remainder of his two year term before being eligible to run for a full four year term in 2011.

Cultural District to Host 15th 'First Night'

In many cities, a ball is dropped during the last ten seconds of New Year’s Eve to celebrate the coming of the New Year.

In Pittsburgh, the ball moves the other way.

“Representing the future of Pittsburgh looking up,” says First Night Director Kathryn Heidemann.

The “Future of Pittsburgh Ball” will rise as Scotland’s Average White Band takes the stage and fireworks fill the sky, marking the 15th Anniversary of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s First Night celebrations.

Heidemann says there will be a massive number of artists and exhibits at the celebration, with many of the Cultural District’s venues hosting artistic activities and events. That includes the new August Wilson Center and the CAPA Middle School hosting acts like the “Pied Piper of Percussion” and belly dance lessons.

First Night Pittsburgh Founder Jamee Todd says things have changed since the first celebration in 1994.

“We had to explain so much to people that it was a celebration of the arts, using the city as a stage, but that it was an indoor event, and that they had to buy a button at Giant Eagle to get into everything,” says Todd. “It was just a constant explanation.”

It's $8 for a button that admits you to downtown events from 6:00 to midnight.

Stalled Table Games Bill includes Cash for Libraries Component

A bill that would legalize table games in Pennsylvania's casinos has been shelved until after the new year. But it does include funding for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh through a 1% tax on future table games at Pittsburgh's Rivers Casino as well as another 1% for the Allegheny County Library Association. Appropriations staff project the tax will generate $850,000 next year for the Carnegie Library. The library has reported a $1.2 million deficit for next year.

But Allegheny County Representative Chelsa Wagner says the table game money is contingent on the library system keeping all of its branches open, including the Knoxville and Carrick branches which it planned to merge. Wagner hopes to get a little insight into the library's finances after an audit of the organization wraps up, but thinks local lawmakers will have to press on their own for the facts. She also says she's critical of the organization's lack of effort when it comes to raising operating funds. Wagner isn't satisfied when Executive Director Barbara Mistick mentions that Andrew Carnegie never provided an endowment for the libraries and expected the public to take up the cost. She notes that nonprofits cannot solely rely on public funds and says the library needs to create an endowment or reserve for hard economic times.

Judge Orders Pittsburgh To Change Zone For Abortion Protests

A U.S. District Court Judge has ruled that the city of Pittsburgh can no longer use a 100-foot "bubble zone" around medical facilities to prevent anti-abortion advocates from approaching clients of a clinic. The decision stems from a 2006 lawsuit that challenged the law because of the restriction of free speech around clinics. U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer told the city of Pittsburgh to decided between either a 15 foot buffer zone, which prevents any protests or demonstrations within 15 feet of a building's entrance, or the 100 foot "bubble zone." The "bubble zone" was a 100 foot area from the front of the building where protesters or advocates were not allowed to hand out any materials for or against abortion. Also, if a client or patient asked a protester or advocate to stay away from them the protester or advocate had to stay eight feet away from the patient while the patient was within 100 feet of the building's entrance. Planned Parenthood CEO Kimberly Evert says she expected this decision and is pleased that the city decided to keep the 15 foot buffer zone but is concerned that their may be safety issues for people either entering or leaving a clinic. Evert says that now a protester or advocate will be allowed to hand out literature and will not be required to step back which may lead to confrontation.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Development Study

There are tens of thousands of commuters that pass through the South Hills Junction T stop each day. But Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Rob Stephany says those commuters typically don’t take notice in their surroundings, since there is no reason for them to do so. Stephany sees potential there. A $227,000 study funded by the State Department of Community and Economic Development could draw a connection between the local light rail stop and economic development within its surrounding neighborhoods of Mount Washington, Beltzhoover and Allentown. By looking at national trends, Stephany says practical ideas for the area could include building park and ride lots, developing a convenience stops that sell newspapers and coffee, and building apartment complexes nearby. Pittsburgh officials are inviting proposals from urban planning and transportation consultants to study possible developments.

Duquesne Profs Collaborate to Fight Cocaine Addiction

Three Duquesne University professors are combining research grants to find a way to lessen cocaine addiction.

The National Institutes of Health gave Dr. Christopher Surrat, Dr. David Lapinsky, and Dr. Jeffry Madura a total of $2.4 million to compound a chemical that would block the cocaine “high,” while easing withdrawal symptoms.

Cocaine is said to lead to a bodily increase of dopamine, which controls pleasure, emotion, and movement. Lapinsky says they will examine a 3-dimensional computer model of a dopamine transporter to find a chemical that can block cocaine’s effects.

“Once we understand how these molecules interact with the model, we could potentially bring via the computer new compounds that could represent therapeutic ways of treating those addiction disorders,” says Lapinsky.

The new drug produced would address an addict’s physical need for cocaine without creating the “high” that comes with it.

Poll Shows Low Name Recognition

The latest Quinnipiac University poll shows that with five months to go before the primary, the Democratic race for Pennsylvania governor is wide open. Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato holds a lead on the democrat side but Assistant Poll Director Peter Brown says that doesn’t really tell the story. Onorato stands at 14%, with Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel trailing with 8%, and Auditor General Jack Wagner in third with 7% percent margin. 69% of respondents haven’t made up their mind, and the poll shows all five Democratic candidates have very low name recognition. Brown says the race could come down to which candidate does the best job defining himself. He says, “This is a race, again, where voters really don’t know who these people are, and money will matter. In the ability to buy TV ads – that’s where it will matter. It will matter because they will be able to communicate their message and try to differentiate themselves from each other.” On the Republican side, Attorney General Tom Corbett leads Congressman Jim Gerlach 38% to 12%. The Poll finds Two thirds of Republicans know enough about Corbett to have an opinion one way or another. Brown says that can most likely be traced to his high-profile job, “It is a reasonable speculation that Corbett’s name recognition, even if he’s not doing the overt kind of campaigning as much as the other candidates, is a fact that he is a statewide elected official. So voters have seen his name before on the ballot. And it may say something about their recognition of what he’s doing as Attorney General.” Eight in ten Republican respondents didn’t know enough about Gerlach to form an opinion. State Representative Sam Rohrer wasn’t included in the poll.

Local Komen Foundation to Donate Record Amount

The Pittsburgh Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure will donate $1.75 million to organizations across western and central Pennsylvania in 2010.

About half of those funds will be given to Adagio Health to provide free mammograms. Executive Director Kathy Purcell says the foundation is not changing its recommendations on when or how often women should be screened, despite recent debate over that issue.

Purcell says the rest of the money will be used for education and awareness efforts.

Purcell says a successful “Race for the Cure” event and dedicated 3rd-party fundraising have allowed the foundation to give more than ever before, despite a tough economic climate for many nonprofits.

Hearing On Single Payer

Advocates for a single-payer health care system got a long-awaited hearing at the Pennsylvania Capitol Wednesday.
Supporters want to establish a government-run health care trust fund. They say everyone in Pennsylvania could get their care paid for, if the state collected a 3 percent income tax from individuals, and a 10 percent payroll tax from business. Chuck Pennacchio leads Healthcare for All Pennsylvania.

"This is the time to shift the discussion over to the state level, this is
really about federalism and giving the states the opportunity to model a
doable system to cover everybody, SB 400 is the ultimate answer."

Groups representing Pennsylvania doctors, the insurance industry and small business oppose the plan. Kevin Shivers is the Pennsylvania director for the National Federation of Independent Business says the single payer health care system doesn't do what needs to be done about cost...

"Creating a new government bureaucracy that's going to include benefit
plans that are clearly politicized because they are going to be created by
the government, isn't actually going to be reducing the cost, in fact we
think, like every other program run by the government, it's just going to
balloon and cost more in the future."

Pittsburgh area State Senator Jim Ferlo sponsored the legislation to collect
taxes and create a statewide health care trust fund. He says it was a coup
to get the bill considered before the Republican-controlled Senate Banking

"Even those who were may be not sympathetic to a single-payer, Medicare
for All plan recognize the tremendous support this legislation has around
the state and want to at least be respectful to their constituents who do
support it. Yes it's a movement in progress, it's a works in progress.

Senate Banking Committee Chair, Republican Don White, warned that any fundamental changes at the state level would likely be made irrelevant by coming national reforms. Proponents of the single payer system have been trying to move a bill ahead for several years.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

City Budget Gets Preliminary Approval

Pittsburgh City Council gave tentative approval today to what Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl calls a stopgap 2010 budget. The $446.5 million dollar spending plan is the second submitted by the mayor. The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority rejected his first budget because it contained the 1% tax on college tuition. The Board said the tax was of questionable legality. The Ravenstahl Administration went back to the drawing board and found cuts and revenue enhancements that covered the $16 million hole left by the removal of the tax. To fill the hole the budget calls for additional personnel cost savings that Budget Director Scott Kunka was unable to enumerate for inquisitive council members. He says the savings will be found through “strategic vacancies”, which he says will involve directors reevaluating staffing needs based on demands placed on the department. He says, "We're going to have to make decisions on the fly, so to speak, as we move forward throughout the year. Try to get the departments to be able to figure out what is the composition within the department… what do they need to perform the mission. "
The budget also relies on collection of delinquent taxes and savings from the use of a system-wide software program aimed at better managing the city’s assets and budget. The county is expected to use the same system that was requested by the ICA. The mayor also used $4 million dollars that had been earmarked to pay down the city’s debt. In approving the budget this week the ICA told the mayor that those should be the last dollars used to keep the budget in balance. Kunka says that should not be a problem. The debt service payments come in two flights. The first comes right after property taxes are due so Kunka says here will be no problem making that payment. The second round comes in September and the city will have a much clearer picture of incomes and revenues by the 9th month of the year. Kunka would not speculate how any additional revenues from a PILOT agreement with the city’s universities would be used. The council is expected to take a final vote Monday.

Tuition Tax Held Again But With Less Fighting

Pittsburgh’s City Council has voted to once again put a hold on a vote to create a 1%t tax on college tuition but today’s unanimous vote came with a very different tone. The last two votes to hold were split 6-3 and came after hours of rancorous debate that at times degraded to name-calling. This vote came after council members spent nearly a half hour praising their good work and cooperation. Before the meeting the mayor sent a letter to council asking for the hold because he felt progress was being made in negotiating a deal with the universities for a payment in lieu of taxes deal. In part it read, "Over the last several days, thanks to your strength, conviction and support, we have made progress." Councilwoman Theresa Smith who engineered Monday’s meeting among the mayor, university presidents and the council thanked everyone involved. Councilman Patrick Dowd says he has never seen the nonprofit community respond like they did to Smith’s request to discuss possible solutions in an open forum. Smith demurred and wondered aloud if anyone had ever invited them. Councilwoman Tonya Payne praised the council members who continually voted for the one week holds, “Even though we had [council members] that said ‘don’t try, it can’t happen, presidents of universities will never talk to you.’ You know what I appreciate most is that here we had people that were willing to put people first and politics second.” Councilman Bill Peduto says he does not regret voting no on the first two hold requests. He says a when the supporters of the tax were playing hardball they needed someone with which to play. Peduto warns though that a deal has not yet been reached. The council will have one more chance for a preliminary vote before the end of the year. The tax does not appear to have enough after January 2nd when two new council members are sworn into office.

Prevailing Wage Bill Voted Up

A measure that would force business that use a publically supported facility to pay a prevailing wage was given preliminary approval in Pittsburgh City Council today but a slew of amendments are expected to be added to the final bill when council votes again next week. Both councilman Patrick Dowd and Councilman Bill Peduto showed council members long lists of amendments that they felt would help to clarify the measure while at the same time not gutting it of its intention. Dowd choose to introduce each of his 17 amendments one at a time during the meeting. Each was quickly tabled before there could be any debate. Peduto took a different approach. He gave the members amendments he said he had been working on up until the last minute and the promised to have them read for a vote next week. He urged members to vote for the bill in its raw form and trust that the amendments would be ready as to not slow the process. It is unusual for this council to amend bills at the time of the final vote. Most of the changes are done at the committee level. The amendments deal with everything from making sure it is clear that the bill does not apply to restaurants and is not retro active, to defining who must earn the prevailing wage and when the law goes into effect. Peduto says he has vetted his amendments with both developers and unions and has found favor. He says more than 120 US city have similar laws and many of them are even stronger. He notes than many call for “living wage” which is usually higher than the “prevailing wage” set in this bill. Council President, who began the push or the ordinance, says he has meet with several business owners and developers who were initially concerned by the bill and when he finishes explaining the measure he says hey usually says, “that all?” Some developers and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority say the law would scare away business and stifle development.

Stetler, DeWeese Arraigned

A long-time Pennsylvania House leader and a former lawmaker, who served in Governor Ed Rendell's Cabinet, are free on bail after being arraigned this morning in Dauphin County Court on corruptions charges. Representative Bill DeWeese, former Representative Steven Stetler, who resigned yesterday as Revenue Secretary, and DeWeese aide Sharon Rodavich are charged with theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest.
DeWeese is charged with using his legislative staff to do campaign work and fundraising for him while on the public's dime. Stetler is accused of ordering legislative staffers to conduct opposition research for political campaigns. Attorney General Tom Corbett says he's frustrated that so many politicians broke the law....
"Why don’t these people understand that there has to be a separation from the politics and the office? That you have to have a campaign operation and you have to have an office operation.

DeWeese released a statement saying he's disappointed with the charges and that he cooperated in the investigation and has "taken steps to change the culture of the (House Democratic) caucus."
Photos: Top: Steven Stetler; bottom: Bill DeWeese

KDKA Radio Host Fred Honsberger Passes Away

A thirty year career at KDKA CBS Radio in Pittsburgh has come to an end. Long time reporter, anchor and talk show host Fred Honsberger died at his home in Monroeville this morning. He was 58. Over the span of his career, he won a number of awards for his work reporting and anchoring the news, as well as his series work.

Honsberger, a conservative talk show host, had most recently worked afternoons at the station from noon to 3pm. Michael Young, Senior Vice President of CBS Radio Pittsburgh says one of his clearest memories is of Honsberger voluntarily stepping up to take the helm covering the events of September 11, 2001. He says Honsberger's passion and love for Pittsburgh, listeners and lively discussion rubbed off on the rest of the staff. Young says Honsberger had a very clear idea of what he considered "common sense" and enjoyed engaging callers who disagreed with his views.
He says Honsberger's passing is a loss not only for Pittsburgh, but for radio.