Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reform Bills Close To Final Approval

Pittsburgh City Council is expected to approve five reform bills on Tuesday, May 5Th. The bills focus on campaign finance reform, no-bid contracts, lobbyist registration, new rules on gifts given to those in public office, and on-line records of all campaign contributions.

The campaign finance reform bill that was preliminarily approved has limits much lower than approved by city council last year and lower than the levels proposed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl earlier this year. The new limits are $1,000 for individuals who donate to City Council candidates and $2,000 political action campaigns. Those numbers double for anyone who is running for Mayor of City Controller.

The bills still have to receive final approval but Councilman Bill Peduto does not see anything that will stand in the way of the legislation's success. The bills, if passed on Tuesday, May 5Th, will require action by the Mayor, either veto or approval, before the democratic mayoral primary election.

Penguins Prepare For Second Round Playoff Series

Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma spoke about the Pittsburgh Penguins upcoming second round playoff series against the Washington Capitals. Bylsma said he is excited for the series to begin and that when you take away the fact that he is the Penguins coach he would be just as excited to watch the series as he is to coach in it.

Bylsma said the Capitals are a complete team with more than just an extraordinary talent in Alexander Ovechkin. Bylsma said the Penguins will need to make sure they focus on all players on the Capitals and not just Ovechkin.

Bylsma added that a key to the teams success will be to get as many shots as possible on the Capitals rookie goaltender who before the playoffs started had only 6 career National Hockey League starts.

Magnet Admissions Process Changes

Race will no longer help determine who gets admitted to magnet schools in Pittsburgh. The city's school board last night approved a new system that takes race out of the equation. That's in order to comply with a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring school districts from considering race in student placements.

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt says it was time to revisit Pittsburgh's system, anyway. He says the old system was based on the idea that a certain number of slots should be reserved for African-American students... but at some schools, the African-American population already exceeded that number of slots.

Roosevelt says the system the district has adopted is still expected to generate diverse school populations. It uses a weighted lottery. Students who, for instance, live close to a particular school, or participate in the district's free/reduced price lunch program, will have greater odds of being admitted. Roosevelt says a weighted system was used at the new Science and Technology Academy, and he's pleased with the results.

Point Fountain Reduced This Summer

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says the fountain at Point state park will operate at partial strength this summer due to insufficient electrical service capacity. The fountain is scheduled to undergo extensive renovations and improvements in 2010.
That work could cause the iconic fountain to be shutdown altogether next year. The Department says throughout the summer of 2009 it will operate the peacock sprays around the perimeter of the fountain, but not the water column in the center. The electrical problems are also impacting the Fort Pitt Museum. Point State Park is in the midst of a $30 million renovation. The fountain was dedicated by the state on Aug. 30, 1974, marking completion of the park's construction.

SimCity? How About SimPittsburgh?

Have you ever thought about how the Pittsburgh region might be different if you were in charge? A game under development called CivicsLab will use real data to let kids see where their decisions would lead. The game’s creator, Duquesne University senior Laura Staniland, recently received a national award from the Digital Media and Learning Competition.

Listen to Staniland's interview with DUQ’s Katherine Fink.

The game is expected to be available sometime next year in venues like the Carnegie Science Center and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Heath Care Summit Seeks to Engage Consumers

A coalition of health care organizations hosted a community forum to discuss how consumers can affect change in health care policy and safety by becoming more engaged in their treatment. The meeting was billed as "unusual" because it sought out the opinions and ideas of consumers rather than health care administrators, doctors and experts. Lisa McGiffert, campaign director for the Consumers Union says that the patient's voice is often left out when it comes to discussing health care policy. She says she frequently hears from patients who have been victims of medical errors, but were never told the details of the mistake. She says the silence on the part of the medical establishment may be to shield themselves from lawsuits, but neglects the needs of the people they serve. She says patients can wield more influence when they educate themselves on issues of patient treatment and safety, and when they form groups that can lobby local hospitals for inclusion in policy making decisions.

25th Anniversary of Chemical Disaster Coming Up in December

In 1984 27 tons of MIC gas leaked from Union Carbide's pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, immediately killing 8,000 people and exposing 500,000 others. Survivors and their children are suffering from all kinds of illnesses and congenital defects, and the water supply for thousands of people is still laced with toxic chemicals. Dow Chemical now owns Union Carbide. Bhopal survivors and activists are visiting 22 U.S. cities and asking citizens and Congressional leaders to pressure the company to clean up the abandoned factory and make fair restitution, as well as face criminal charges in India.

Rachna Dhingra, International coordinator for Justice in Bhopal, blames the Indian government, reluctant to lose foreign investment, for accepting a settlement with Union Carbide for $470 million dollars that hardly covered a year's worth of medical costs.

While Bhopal and its people may seem remote to Americans, Dhingra says the issue of chemicals getting into our bodies through air and water affects everyone. For example, a plant owned by Union Carbide and Dow and operated by Bayer in West Virginia is storing three times the MIC stored in Bhopal in 1984. Dhingra says an explosion there last August killed two people and was very near an MIC tank.

The group will speak to students and community groups in Doherty Hall at Carnegie Mellon from 5:30 to 7:00 this evening.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Negative for Swine Flu on both Counts in County

Two possible cases of swine flu in Allegheny County have returned negative. However, County Executive Dan Onorato says there is a possibility that could change. Dr. Bruce Dixon says it is such a huge concern because there are variables with the swine flu, like how contagious it is and how fast it can spread. However, Dr. Dixon says it's best to be careful and use common sense rather than go overboard. He says the outbreak of the swine flu in 1976 ended in more deaths from the vaccine than the flu itself.

Next flu season is completely unpredictable, Dr. Dixon says. The swine flu could possibly stay at bay through the summer and then return in the winter months, but there is no way know for sure.

Court Orders Property Reassessment

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled today that Allegheny County must reassess its property values. County Executive Dan Onorato says it's because the rule violates the uniformity clause. In other words, a base year that is open ended is unconstitutional. Over the next few days, Onorato will develop a plan, and is optimistic that there are different options. He says that even if the county must reassess its properties, it does not necessarily need to be done in 2009 or even 2010. Onorato says having to reassess in Allegheny County is unfair, since all of the surrounding counties do not have to.

Supreme Court Says Allegheny Must Reassess

Allegheny County must reassess the value of every property in the county. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled today that property values in the county have changed so much since the last assessment in 2002 that the numbers are no longer valid. The court stopped short of ruling that all base year systems in the state are faulty. The ruling could open the door to suits demanding new assessments being filed in nearly every other county. The decision in the Clifton et al and Pierce et al v. Allegheny County was unanimous. The justices noted that the current base year is most unfair for those who own property in poorer areas. In 2007 Allegheny County Judge R. Stanton Wettick threw out the county’s assessment system saying the use of a base year was unconstitutional. He ruled that a yearly reassessment was needed. The court disagreed saying a reassessment was needed only when the base year values and current sales values substantially diverge. It noted that has happened. The Supreme Court set an impossible reassessment deadline of March 31st 2009 based on the original case and then noted, “[R]ecognizing that the passage of time may require adjustment by the trial court, we will remand this matter to the trial court to determine Allegheny County’s progress in executing a countywide reassessment and to set a realistic timeframe for its completion.” That task now falls back into the hands of Judge Wettick. County Executive Dan Onorato based his campaign largely on support of a base year assessment. He argues that Allegheny County is put at a comparative disadvantage if the surrounding counties use a base year and Allegheny County does not. He also argues that it is too expensive and causes too much turmoil to reassess every year. Onorato has also lashed out at taxing bodies for taking what he calls a “back door windfall” every time assessments increase and millage rates are not rolled back to the point of revenue neutrality. Onorato is expected to address the ruling later today.

Don't Breathe Easy: Lung Association ranks region high in air pollutants

The American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report leaves much to be desired in the Pittsburgh region. In cities most polluted by short-term and long-term particle pollution, Pittsburgh's own New Castle received first and second place rankings, respectively. However, Bill Flanagan, Executive Vice President of the Allegheny Conference, says the report creates a distorted picture of the region. There are many contributing factors toward this ongoing problem, including out-of-state pollutants being blown into the state. There are also concentrated levels of pollutants where the Clairton Coke Works Plant is located, but Joseph Osborne, legal director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, says this report should not be overlooked because of that. He says the levels are still high throughout Allegheny County, but in the Glassport/Liberty/Clairton area, where at least 20,000 people live, is affecting many. It's not a statistic to be ignored. Flanagan says the ALA collects their data solely from the single worst reading on a given day, and it's unrepresentative of the region.

A misconception that is baffling for Osborne is the claim that the ALA has inaccurate readings, but in fact the readings come from several meters the Environmental Protection Agency has approved. He says there were eight meters in Allegheny County in 2007. Flanagan agrees that the ALA has accurate readings, but are distorted because it is concentrated to the single worst reading, with no other meters with lower rates being factored in.

PLCB Responds to AG Examination

The head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board says he agrees with nearly all of the recommendations made by the Pennsylvania Auditor General following the examination of a training contract awarded last month. Chairman P.J. Stapleton opened a written statement to AG Jack Wagner by saying, "We are pleased that your examination did not reveal any violations of any state laws or codes… Further, we are gratified by your conclusion that we affirmatively and properly dealt with potential conflicts of interest when they arose.” Stapleton says the board will begin implementing policies and procedures recommended by the Auditor’s report. However, the Chairman says the board does not feel it should have rejected all the bids as was suggested by Wagner. Stapleton says the PLCB must live by rules and laws that, “require the awarding of a contract arising from an RFP to the responsible proposer who submits the qualified proposal that is most advantageous to the Commonwealth, taking into consideration all of the evaluation factors. The rejection of such a qualified proposal for a service deemed to be necessary and without substantial legal justification would expose the PLCB to litigation.”

AG: PLCB Did Not Violate Contract Bid Rules

According to the Pennsylvania Auditor General the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board did not violate any laws when it awarded a training contract last month but it did exercise poor judgment. The $173,820 contract was awarded to Solutions 21, which is owned by the husband of a PLCB Regional Director. Wagner says, “The PLCB should have anticipated the reasonable public questioning that would result over a potential conflict of interest, regardless of whether that conflict was an actual conflict or the appearance of a conflict." The contract originally came under scrutinity because many felt the training was not needed. It later came out that the contract winner had ties to the PLCB. Investigators found, “no evidence that the Western Regional Director used the authority of her employment or confidential information to assist her husband's business in obtaining the contract.”
Wagner says there were other red flags that should have caused the board to reject and rebid the contract. He says unsuccessful bidder Alutiiq Business Services LLC was asked to modify its proposal when it was learned that a different PLCB employee was included by name in the bid. Wagner also points out that the three bids ultimately considered ranged in cost from $173,820 to $1.2 million. Wagner says when you see something like that you have to wonder if the bid specification were well written. He says the PLCB even asked Solutions 21 if it could actually perform the work expected. The Auditor General says the RFP should have been rebid at the time but now that it has been awarded in a legal manner it should be allowed to proceed. He says the contract is at least half complete and canceling it now would wind up costing the state more and could expose it to legal action. Wagner went on to say the PLCB might not have needed the contract at all. The Board has full-time trainers on staff. He thinks they may have been able to do the job. He says in these tough economic times every dollar needs to be spent wisely. Wagner launched the examination at the request of the PLCB and says the board was very cooperative in the process.
Wagner made several recommendations including the suggestion that the PLCB refine its procurement handbook to more vigorously avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. He also suggests he board conduct a pre-proposal conference for every request for proposals issued, or formally document why one is not necessary to make sure there is no confusion. He also recommends that the PLCB record more detailed minutes from all meetings related to contract evaluations.

Bill Calls for Medical Marijuana

State Representative Mark Cohen of Philadelphia has introduced a bill that would legalize and regulate the use of medical marijuana. Under the law, a patient could get a recommendation from their doctor to begin using marijuana to help treat a disease or alleviate the pain of a disease. That individual would then apply to the State Department of Health to receive a card allowing them to grow as many as 6 plants and hold one once of “usable marijuana” at a time. For those who do not want to grow their own marijuana the bill allows for “compassion centers” to be established to grow the marijuana on behalf of the card holder. Cohen says it will take empathy for those suffering from painful ailments and knowledge of how marijuana can help to get the measure passed. Right now he has 6 cosponsors. The Democrat says these are not people looking to get high. They are people looking to find relief from their suffering. He says for many the high price of other pain medication puts it out of reach and for others the side effects and addiction associated with painkillers are worse then the pain itself. There are 13 other states with medical marijuana laws and several states with similar bills pending. Cohen says his law has tighter restrictions than all the states with laws currently on the books. The bill carries a charge of $50 for each medical marijuana use card, a licensing fee for compassion centers and a tax on all medical marijuana sold. It has been estimated that 25 million dollars would be created by the new industry. Cohen says it is time to shed the old image of marijuana and see its new face. He says that new face is one of a father suffering from cancer, a son stricken with AIDS, a grandfather fighting glaucoma, and a friend with Crohn’s Disease.

Riverfront Development

Members of The Urban Redevelopment Authority and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl held a press conference Tuesday to kick off talks for the development of The Allegheny Riverfront.

The development would stretch from The Convention Center to Highland Park, spanning ten neighborhoods.

The conference marked the beginning of what officials and developers said will be a year-long discussion about the development.

It is expected to be mixed-use, with both residences and businesses. It will also open up the riverfront- currently only 90% of the riverfront is accessible.

"These rivers used to be used for industrial purposes to carry goods up and down them - today we have an opportunity to use them as an amenity, as an asset, to connect them to neighborhoods and to give people the recreational opportunities that they're calling for,'' said Ravenstahl.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Receives Stimulus Money

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has received $139 million in stimulus funding for projects in the Pittsburgh district. Most of the stimulus money will go toward updating aging reservoirs and navigation systems on the Monongahela River. $84 million of the funds will go specifically to the Charleroi locks replacement project. That money will help fund an existing contract to replace river walls at the Charleroi locks. The money was needed because funding problems arose when a trust fund that was funding half of the project began to experience financial difficulties.

Foreclosure Prevention

The community group, ACORN today asked the federal government to help fund a foreclosure diversion program in Allegheny County that is based on a Philadelphia program. The Philadelphia program set up mediation meetings where lenders, borrowers, lawyers and individual program workers could meet before a judge to create an affordable plan to help homeowners make their payments and remain in their home. In Philadelphia, ACORN says 78% of families who were at risk of foreclosure were able to stay in their homes. ACORN believes the program could save Allegheny County and the city up to $300 million dollars annually. However, there already is a program in Allegheny County intended to avert foreclosure.
In January, County Judge Joseph James,Sheriff William Mullen and County Executive Dan Onorato introduced the new plan under which homeowners who receive a complaint of foreclosure will also receive a pink form along with it. On that form will be a number for a hotline which runs out of the Department of Community Development. The homeowner must call the hotline within 20 days to set up free mortgage counseling with pro bono counselors. The homeowner then has 90 days to complete the counseling. Meanwhile, the program also requires lenders to designate someone to re-negotiate the mortgage, hopefully conciliating it before the scheduled foreclosure hearing. Onorato says the plan will not only help people, but will save taxpayers millions of dollars and prevent the spread of neighborhood blight, as well.

Memorial Ceremony Held at Market Square

A workers memorial day ceremony was held in market square today to honor and commemorate the lives of union workers who died while doing their jobs in the last year. Representatives from across the service sector were present and spoke. The ceremony also honored the lives of three Pittsburgh Police Officers who died in the line of duty after responding to a domestic disturbance call earlier this month. In attendance at the ceremony were Bishop David Zubick, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Vice President of the FOP lodge #1 Chuck Hanlon and other labor leaders.

Specter Switching But Not an Automatic 60th Vote

Long-time U.S. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania made it official today that he is switching from the Republican to Democratic Party. But he said he would not be "an automatic 60th vote" for the Democrats and Obama Administration to head off filibustering in the Senate by Republicans. Specter says he's switching because the Republican Party in Pennsylvania has shifted very far to the right and that he travelled across the state and did polling and discovered his chances for winning the GOP Primary in May 2010 were "bleak." He said he did not want to have his 29 years in the Senate decided by a "jury" of the Republican Primary electorate. Instead he will run in the Democratic Primary and says that President Obama has promised to visit Pennsylvania and campaign for him. Specter said it was a "painful decision" to switch and he knows he is disappointing some friends and colleagues, but he has been disappointed by some of the comments they have made. Specter says he agrees with President John F. Kennedy "that sometimes the party asks too much" and if the Democrats ask too much, he will maintain his independence and put his principles at the top of the list.
Recent polls have shown former Congressman Pat Toomey well ahead of Specter among Republican voters for the 2010 GOP Primary.

Casino Jobs Outlined Wednesday

Any one interested in learning about job opportunities at the still-being-built Rivers Casino are being encouraged to head to the David Lawrence Convention Center Wednesday. Casino HR Director Andre Barnaby says the event is more of a meet-and-greet event than an opportunity to apply for a job. He says both the 10:00am and 4:30pm session will begin with a short video presentation about the casino and the industry in general and then managers who have already been hired will be on hand to answer questions. Barnaby says there will also be information about the state’s licensing process for those who are eventually offered jobs. Applications for about 1,000 jobs are being accepted at the casino’s web site. The casino will also hold a “career fair” for food and beverage jobs next week. The event at Heinz Filed May 6th from 12-7 will focus on the openings in the casino’s 4 bars and 5 restaurants. Barnaby says applications will be taken at that event. Non-tip jobs discussed at Wednesday’s fair will start at $8.00 and run up to $30.00 and hour.

GOP Senate Candidate Says Specter Has "Gone Home"

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Peg Luksik is calling Senator Arlen Specter's move from the Republican party to the Democratic one "clarifying". "He's now made abundantly clear to the voters of Pennsylvania that he stands with the radical liberal agenda of the Democrats. It's good that he's made his position clear," says Luksik. The GOP candidate, who runs against fellow Pat Toomey in the 2010 primary, says Specter's switch will allow for a more conservative Republican to challenge the Democratic party. "Now people have a choice between Senator Specter, who is a very liberal Democrat, which he's kind of always been, and a true conservative... I think that's a good thing." Luksik says she is confident that Pennsylvania families want a senator who has not "lost touch" with their familial values. Her "Build America from the Family Up" campaign started this March.

Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Weighs His Options

A Democratic state lawmaker who just last week announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate says he's now going to re-evaluate his options. State Representative Bill Kortz of Dravosburg says he knows he'll be even more of an underdog in the race now that incumbent U.S. Senator Arlen Specter has announced he's changing his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. Kortz is in his first term in the General Assembly. He says he will look at poll numbers and other reaction to today's announcement before deciding whether he will continue with his campaign.

Kortz says he was surprised by the announcement, especially since Specter had recently re-affirmed his commitment to the GOP. But Kortz says he respects Specter and believes he's done a lot of good for Pennsylvania and the country.

Duquesne Students Plot Asset Map of the Hill District

The first asset map of Pittsburgh’s Hill District was unveiled Tuesday, as Duquesne University students under Acting Liberal Arts Dean Dr. Evan Stoddard presented their findings on the community’s resources at the Duquesne Towers. Stoddard says his University and Community class, an honors college seminar, read multiple studies on the region, only to find that the majority of them focused on negative statistics such as poverty and crime. Stoddard asked his students to find out what is positive in the neighborhood and to present it to the University and the community. The result is an online, interactive map that points out over 68 assets of the Hill, including the new Consol Energy Center, a plethora of churches, the YMCA, and much more. “We’re told here at Duquesne University to avoid going into the Hill District, but we think there are some positives here, because we’re reading about the arena development, the community development agreement… Let us document what is positive, and by doing that perhaps we can encourage more visitors, more investment, and more interest in the Hill,” says Stoddard. The map will be presented to the community at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Hill District Branch on Wednesday, May 6 at noon.

Arlen Specter to Change Parties

On his web site today US Senator Arlen Specter of PA announced he will running in the 2010 Democratic primary. Specter says, “Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.” Specter noted that when he voted for the stimulus spending plan he knew it would not be a popular decision among some in the Republican party. He says, “Since then, I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable.” He goes on to say he is now unwilling to have his record as a Senator judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. Specter says he is, “ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election.” Democratic State Rep. Bill Kortz has already announced his candidacy. He says he will reevaluate that decision saying he will be even more of an underdog running against Specter. Specter says he regrets any disappointment he may have caused friends and supporters by making the decision to switch parties. He says he will return any campaign contributions if asked. Specter says he has never represented the Republican Party but instead he has represented the voters of Pennsylvania. He says, “The American people do not care which Party solves the problems confronting our nation. And no Senator, no matter how loyal he is to his Party, should or would put party loyalty above his duty to the state and nation.” He says he will continue his record of independent voting. Two conservative Republicans have already announced their candidacy. Former Congressman Pat Toomey and Peg Luksik have said they will run. Toomey lost to Specter in the 2004 primary by less than 2%. By changing Parties Specter helps Democrats move closer to a 60-vote Filibuster-resistant majority in the US Senate.

Lawmaker Calls for 15 Member School Consolidation Commission

State Senator John Wozniak says he will introduce legislation to create a commission to study the possibility of consolidating the state’s 500 school districts. The commission will eventually make recommendations on how to improve the finances and educational outcomes of Pennsylvania schools. The commission will include; The PA Secretary of Education, the Chair of the State Board of Education, the minority and majority chairs of the PA House and Senate Education Committees, members of all 4 caucuses, a teacher, a parent, a school board member, a school administrator and a business owner. The commission will hold 10 hearings to gather information about possible cost savings and educations improvements associated with consolidation. The commission will then draft recommendations. Those recommendations would then be made public and subjected to another series of 10 hearings. Wozniak says this is not about all of the emotional issues associated with school consolidation such as school names, sports rivalries and mixing of neighborhoods. He says the commission will only look at money and education issues. Wozniak says he thinks he can get the bill passed in the House and Senate but he knows it will be a much harder sell to get the commission’s recommendations passed. He says, “Many people say they want government to act more like a business, until government acts like a business.” The senator says this review and recommendation process will take about 2 years to complete. When asked, “why start something like this when the current governor will be gone before the final vote is cast?” he answers, “it should have been done 25 years ago and if it is not done now it will be another 25 years before it is discussed again.” The last time there was substantial changes made to the state’s system of school districts was in the 1960’s. In his budget address the Governor called for the state to consolidate from 500 to 100 districts.

Penn State Drug Ring Busted

The Pennsylvania Attorney General has charged four Penn State University students and three others in a broad conspiracy to distribute mass quantities of marijuana throughout State College. A.G. Tom Corbett says the investigation focused on Penn State student Paul Spara and New York resident, Jason Remington. They are allegedly responsible for the distribution of more than 400 pounds of marijuana with an estimated street value of $1.2 million. The drugs allegedly came from Canada into the United States through an Indian reservation. The grand jury says Spara received 10 to 50 pounds of marijuana from on a weekly basis. Spara then allegedly supplied drugs to at least five individuals who then sold the drugs widely. Many of the ultimate customers are said to have been Penn State Students.

Trim the PA Budget Says Republican

The head of the PA Senate Appropriations Committee says he wants to see Governor Ed Rendell's spending plan scaled back by one and a half billion dollars. Committee Chair, Republican Jake Corman of Centre County says Rendell's $29-billion spending plan is "budgetary malpractice," and too costly for the current fiscal climate. Corman wants to see a final plan closer to 27 and a half billion dollars, though he concedes that means institutions like state libraries will suffer. He says, “Some line items that do positive things for the commonwealth aren't going to get funded. Libraries are obviously an important part of our community-an important part of the commonwealth and education-but it's a tough year.” Corman says Rendell's plan relies too much on taxes, and says a proposed levy on Marcellus Shale natural gas extractions is "off the table." A spokesman for Governor Rendell says the targeted taxes in the budget are fair.

Mayors: We Need Pension Help

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl gather with mayors from across the state yesterday to call on the General Assembly to act quickly to pass pension reform. He says without the assistance the commonwealth's cities and municipalities will face steep fiscal problems. Ravenstahl says Pittsburgh’s pension plan lost 93 million dollars last year alone. Noting cities and municipalities across the commonwealth have experienced heavy losses in the bad economy, he says lawmakers need to pass measures to help local governments restructure the ways they fund and distribute pensions. Ravenstahl says one solution is letting cities consolidate plans. He says more than three thousand municipalities are funding programs right now. “Each of those 31-hundred plans has a pension fund manager and people who work on that pension plan. So simply efficiencies of scales and the costs it would save for municipalities and governments to consolidate, I think is why that makes the most sense as we look at it for one of our four-point plans,” says Ravenstahl. The mayor’s also want the General Assembly to restructure the state pension aid formula, and ban employees from manipulating pension payouts by spiking overtime hours in their last years of employment. Ravenstahl says, “The reality is at some point, the state is going to have to deal with this pension problem for their own pension issues, not even to mention what we're experiencing at the local level. So when that happens we want to be prepared, have legislation ready, so we can simply insert ourselves into that discussion.” Experts say annual payouts fro the state pension plans may balloon to $5.7 billion a year by 2012.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center Wins $25 Million Grant

The National Science Foundation has awarded a second five-year grant to the PSLC, a joint effort of Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh to study how people learn and to develop the most effective, science-based teaching tools. Carnegie Learning is a spin-off company that uses research results to provide mathematics programs to 2600 U.S. schools.

The research on math, science and foreign language education is done in real classrooms all over the country and the world with students from middle school to college, including the Steel Valley Middle and High Schools, where the announcement was made.

American students do not compare favorably with other countries: Pitt Professor Charles Perfetti says 4th grade readers are in the middle third and haven't improved since 2001, while 15-year-olds lack science literacy. The ranking is 17th out of 30 industrialized countries--below six countries less well-developed.

Only 9% of American high school graduates have a useful knowledge of a foreign language, compared to 53% in Europe, according to Prof. Perfetti.

Fair Wages Ordinance

A first-of-its-kind legislation is being submitted today to remedy the pay disparity between women and minorities in the county employed by the public sector. County Executive Dan Onorato says he hopes the ordinance will act as a model for other employers. He says the wage study will be conducted in 2010, and then every five years thereafter. Following each study, there will be action taken to balance paychecks. Onorato calls this is a matter of classification and compensation. Women & Girls Executive Director Heather Arnet says this is critical to remedy systematic inequities.

This will affect approximately 7,000 employees from two sectors. There are 5,400 in the operating sector, and 1,500 in the human service sector.

Virtual Reality

Usually doctors and family members can only imagine what it feels like to experience the delusions and hallucinations that can haunt someone with schizophrenia. An engineer and a psychiatrist at Western Psychiatric Institute collaborated to form a virtual reality simulation of the disease. In one scenario, the person is walking in downtown Pittsburgh. The walk is jarring - voices tell you to pick up knives, visuals appear that may not really be there.

The program is meant to be used as a training tool - for medical residents and crisis intervention teams in police departments. It can also be used to help family members of a person with the disease understand what their relative is going through.

To listen to a report about the program click here.

Depression Organization Dubs New Executive Director

LEAD Pittsburgh, one of the region’s largest depression awareness collectives, announced the hiring of its new Executive Director Friday. Jeananne Nicholls says she will use the leadership role to increase knowledge of workplace depression and to lobby methods of treating mental illnesses.

Nicholls, a Pittsburgh native who attended Carlow and Duquesne Universities, says depression awareness may be especially pertinent in a time when millions nationwide are losing their jobs. “Of course, you see some of the publicity around some bigger names that might be associated with depression… I do think that the time is perfect for the general public awareness that depression is a treatable illness,” says Nicholls.

Nicholls says physicians should consider depression and other mental problems their patients may have as well as their physical ailments, giving a more holistic approach to medicine. She added that she would also like to see employers take into account the negative effect depression has on workplace productivity, and wants companies to provide effective diagnosis and resources for dealing with mental illness.

Commonwealth Foundation: Stimulus Funds Ironic

Philadelphia's Independence Hall is benefitting from the federal stimulus package and some feel that is a bit ironic. Opponents of increased government spending say the stimulus plan in general runs contrary to the nations founding fathers and basic Constitutional principles. 5.6 million stimulus dollars are being used to repair the iconic Independence Hall. The funds will fix a leaky steeple. That funding comes from a 750 million dollar block of money being used for national Park projects. Matt Brouillette is the President and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative group that helped organize a recent "tea party" at the state Capitol to criticize they label out of control government spending. Brouillette calls the grant ironic, arguing the stimulus and recent federal bailouts of private companies aren't what the Founding Fathers had in mind for the country when they drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution there. He says, “I think lots of folks would be rolling over in their graves right now, looking at what is happening in Washington, and the direction that we're headed in, in terms of using taxpayer money to prop up failed business operations.” Independence National Historic Park superintendent Cynthia Macleod says the restoration will last fourteen months. Also included in the list of National Parks getting stimulus money is the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. Those funds will be used to reconstruct observation towers.

Governor Rendell Concedes Plan to Merge PA Schools Stalled

When Governor Rendell suggested consolidating Pennsylvania's school districts from 501 to 100 in February, the idea got a lot of attention. Rendell wanted lawmakers to form a commission to study the plan, and report back ways to make it happen. But the governor notes there hasn't been much progress on that front, to-date. “We've been so busy with the economy and the budget that I haven't had a chance to check on it. I've asked the legislature to study this. They should absolutely do that, and see what the commission recommends.” Says Rendell. The state is facing a projected $2.3 billion budget gap this year, and has until June 30 to pass next year's spending plan. Making maters worse, Republicans aren't keen on Rendell's consolidation idea. House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin says districts can decide whether or not to merge on their own, and devoting lawmakers' time to studying the issue would be a waste of resources

Friday, April 24, 2009

House Considers Video Poker

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell's proposal to fund college tuition breaks through legalized video poker is one of the most controversial and talked about issued at the state capitol this year. But the legislation was not formally introduced until this week, and won't come up for a vote until June at the earliest. That's leading critics to suggest the governor's time frame for implementing the system is next to impossible.
Listen to a report from DUQ'S Scott Detrow in Harrisburg

Laurel Highlands to Hold Summit on Economy and Environment

Community leaders from throughout the Laurel Highlands will gather this weekend to look for ways to expand the region's economy by capitalizing on its natural and cultural resources. The “Laurel Highlands Summit” is on of seven such regional summits being organized by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative includes all of Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties and parts of Cambria and Bedford counties. There are four sub-landscapes in the region: Laurel Ridge, Chestnut Ridge, the Great Allegheny Passage and the Stonycreek-Quemahoning corridor. DCNR spokesperson Chris Novak says there region has plenty to offer tourists. She says, “The region encompasses the state's highest point and two of its three deepest river gorges in the Allegheny Mountain physical region, where deep-cut hollows and rushing streams with waterfalls are carved between rolling hillsides and picturesque farmlands.” She says many of those gathering this weekend already know each other and are cooperating in various ways but the goal is to refine the focus and bring in new partners.

PAT Announces Budget Shortfall

The Port Authority of Allegheny will be faced with a $13.4 million deficit for their operating budget unless a solution can be found – which may include cutting routes or increasing fares. As of yet, the board has not decided on a course of action. Spokesman Jim Ritchie says the Port Authority board has had to resort to desperate measures to fix their operating budget more than a few times in the past.

“Unfortunately, one of the options that we rely on too much is dipping into our capital budget to plug the holes in our operating side. We don’t want to do that because when we don’t have money going into those kinds of maintenance projects, then things start to not get done. Things start to fall apart,” says Ritchie.

Part of the problem seems to be the “flat” funding stream that is coming from the state. Rising health care and benefits costs are beginning to outweigh the steady $212 million coming from the state for that purpose each year.

Ritchie says because the capital budget is separate from the operating budget, projects such as the North Shore connector and the new “Smart Card” fare system won’t be affected. Although $61.9 million in federal stimulus money was given to the Port Authority, Ritchie says it is reserved for routine maintenance projects. “[The money is for] taking care of the nuts and bolts of the system. We still don’t know what other kinds of monies we are going to get through the stimulus program, but hopefully we’ll find out about that soon,” says Ritchie.

Glass Design Chosen For Stanwix

A pair of New Yorkers has been chosen to design and install a new permanent art-glass lighting installation in the lobby of 11 Stanwix Street. 28 individuals and teams applied and the judges chose the design by Jill Reynolds and Daniel Spitzer. The judges say they were, “extremely impressed with the concept and quality of the “Rivers of Glass: Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” proposal.” Spitzer says, “This is a great opportunity for us to work in such an interesting and historic building. It was a challenge to activate the space from inside and out, but it all came together. We love Pittsburgh and are excited to come back to town to produce the work with the assistance of two or three local artists at Pittsburgh Glass Center.” According to a press release the artists represented the three rivers in three ways. First the shape and orientation of the rivers is represented in the flow of the hanging glass. Second, each glass element is comprised of three or four blown glass forms based on high-speed photographs of water droplets. From across the plaza the view is of a long blue line rising and falling across the length of the building lobby windows and from below the view is of a stream of aqueous blue forms. The artists also borrowed from the regions jazz history. The title of the piece is borrowed from a Duke Ellington big band piece that featured the work of longtime Pittsburgh resident Billy Strayhorn. The glass artists then took a segment of the sound wave from a classic performance of the tune, stretched it out on a computer, and used that as one of the lines in the work.

NRA Sues Pittsburgh Over Lost-Stolen Legislation

Pittsburgh's law requiring the reporting of lost or stolen guns now faces a legal challenge. The National Rifle Association says the law infringes upon the rights of lawful gun owners, and violates state law. Spokeswoman Vicki Cieplak says it also criminalizes the victims of theft by penalizing them if they miss the law's 24-hour reporting requirement. She says the real problem is a revolving-door legal system and laws already on the books that aren't being enforced.

Several members of the City Council acknowledged when they passed the legislation that it would likely end up in court. A similar law in Philadelphia was struck down in Commonwealth Court and is now on appeal. Council President Doug Shields says the law was passed in Pittsburgh to make a point: that lawmakers here were tired of waiting for action at the state or national level. He also says the lost or stolen legislation does not violate state law, which applies to the "transfer, ownership, transportation or possession" of weapons. Shields also says he thinks the dialogue on gun laws has changed since the shooting deaths of three Pittsburgh police officers April 4th.

Rendell: I'll Keep Pushing for Gun Control

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell says he knows it's an uphill battle, but he's still pushing for gun control legislation in Pennsylvania and across the country. Members of both parties have expressed skepticism over Rendell's bill requiring handgun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. In Washington, President Obama and high-profile Democrats have said a new federal assault weapons ban isn't an urgent priority. Rendell says he understands that the economy has to be the main focus of the Obama administration but he says he still wants to keep the issue hot. Rendell says he's hoping Congress will take up a new assault weapons ban after tackling health care reform. Both Pennsylvania Senators say they'd oppose a new ban on semiautomatic weapons.

Lawmaker says Change the Gaming Board

When Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico announced he was dropping perjury charges against casino owner Louis DeNaples, he made a series of suggestions to improve the Gaming Control Board's operations. Governor Ed Rendell says he supports those reforms, especially a bill making all seven Board members gubernatorial appointees. He says right now the way the board is constructed is flawed. Each legislative caucus has an appointee and the governor has three seats at the table. The Pennsylvania State Treasurer, Secretary of Revenue, and Secretary of Agriculture are non-voting ex-officio members. Rendell says he doubts he'll make another appointment while in office, so the change wouldn't give him any more power. Marsico, a Republican, also wants the state police or Attorney General's office to conduct background searches of potential casino licensees, instead of the Gaming Control Board's investigative unit.

Depression Not Strongly Linked to Time Online

More than a decade ago, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University wanted to know how the Internet was affecting people's social and psychological well-being. The results of the HomeNet study surprised the researchers: participants became more depressed the more time they spent online. Now that a lot more people are using the Internet, and using it in different ways, DUQ's Katherine Fink looks at whether those findings still hold true... and if so, what it means for how we interact with our friends, family and neighbors.

Click here to listen insights from the CMU researchers, and from residents in one community that has an active volunteer base on and offline: Mt. Washington.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Request For Proposals Sought For Hill District Master Plan

Today Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Councilwoman Tonya Payne and members of the hill district community announced the release of the request for proposals for a hill district master plan. Any responses to the RFP are to be turned in to the urban redevelopment authority by May 29Th. The responses will then be evaluated and one will be chosen sometime in July, according to the Mayor. A master plan steering and advisory committee will aid in the decision.

The announcement of the proposal came with some criticism by State Representative Jake Wheatley. Wheatley said that announcing the beginning of the search process in the midst of a political campaign was inappropriate because there is nothing tangible that can be seen in the hill district yet. Carl Redwood who is the chairman of the One Hill Coalition expressed concern over a master plan that is being developed by the Pittsburgh Penguins. That plan is for the 28 acres that Mellon Arena currently sits on. Redwood said his concern is the inclusion of the hill district community in the formation of the plan.

Stimulus Funds Give Local Education A Boost

Good news for the young: both the city and the county have declared the week of April 27th “Head Start Week” for the region. As well as open houses and fun activities, area parents will take heart in the $1.86 million that the city and county’s Head Start programs are receiving from the federal stimulus package. The two-year funding will go towards the development of the Early Head Start program of the city and county, which educates about 70 children from birth to three years of age annually – a number Head Start hopes to expand with this new money. Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Head Start Blair Hyatt says much of the funding will go towards the professional development of their employees, among other things. “They’re looking at doing a certificate program to improve their ability to work with families and meet families’ needs. That, and they’re looking at how they might provide extra staffing and qualifications, and some people are looking at building issues and how to improve their facilities,” says Hyatt. The 4,000 children involved with city and county Head Start programs also came together to make a mural addressing ways to combat childhood obesity. Susan Buffton, Director of Early Childhood Education Programs for the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, says the mural will be on display in the lobby of One Smithfield Street downtown. “If kids learn at this age, it makes it more possible that they’re going to end up in the end being healthy adults… I think it will give our attendees a sense of where the kids are coming from and what the programs provide for them.” The mural will remain on display through the month of May.

Rate Cap Legislation Amended

Pennsylvania House Speaker Keith McCall and Democratic Majority Leader Todd Eachus have both thrown their weight behind a measure that would limit utility bill increases to 15% a year once rate caps begin expiring in 2010. However, the House Consumer Affairs Committee has amended the measure, and raised the limit to twenty percent. House Democratic spokesman Brett Marcy says party leaders plan on fighting to restore the fifteen percent cap when the bill reaches the full floor. He says, “That's an issue that we feel strongly about. We believe that language is not consumer-friendly. And we're going to work to improve his bill and enhance it from where it's at.” Experts say Pennsylvanians' electric bills could rise by thirty percent or more once rate caps expire. The amended bill would also let utilities collect interest on any deferred payments. Marcy says Democratic leaders take issue with that change, too, and will try to remove the language. Utilities say without the interest, they'd take a financial hit from the measure.

Flight 93 Memorial Receives 1 Millionth Visitor

The temporary memorial for flight 93 has received its 1 millionth visitor. The memorial, which overlooks the crash site, started to count visitors on Memorial Day weekend in 2003 and doesn't count visitors who come after sunset or before sunrise. Memorial superintendent Joanne Hanley says because of the way visitors are counted it is easy to assume that the number of visitors is actually much larger than 1 million.

Judge in Poplawski Case Says Gag Order Not Violated

On April 14th a gag order was issued in the case of Richard Poplawski who is charged with killing three police officers. The order barred police, attorneys and jail employees among others, from discussing the case in public, in a way that would impact the legal process. Six days later the District Attorney’s office revealed that they would seek the death penalty. The Defense attorney called it a violation of the order and sought sanctions.

But according to defense attorney Lisa Middleman, it wasn't the revelation that the DA would seek the death penalty that Defense attorney Lisa Middleman took issue with, but rather the use of the words "as of now, there are no mitigating circumstances" -- meaning that the DA didn't have any evidence at the moment that would compel them to seek a more lenient sentence. Because the defense might give mitigating information during trial, she felt that that jury pool could be tainted by the assumption that none existed. She also believed-though it was never stated-that the families of the victims were covered under the gag order and that the prosecution failed to alert them.

But in the end presiding Judge David Cashman decided that the DA was merely describing the structure and schedule of the case, and had qualified his statement with the words "as of now." He also dismissed the notion that the victims' families had violated the order.

Organic Wine is the Buzz

155 wineries representing 18 countries will be pouring more than 240 wines at this year’s Pittsburgh Wine Festival Thursday April, 30th. The event, including the dinners, tastings and auctions in the week leading up to the Grand Tasting, will benefit medical research at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC. Organic and Biodynamic wines are becoming more popular and event goers are sure to be asking about the history of the grapes in the bottles they are sampling. An event sponsored by Slow Foods Pittsburgh is only pouring wines that have been certified biodynamic. Virginia Philips of Slow Foods Pittsburgh says it can be tough to figure out which wines are organic or biodynamic because not all wines put that information on their labels. She recommends the Fork and Bottle web site as a start. In Pennsylvania wine stores organic wines should be marked with a green price label. Click here to listen a longer version of this story

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Clean Drinking Water Bill

On this Earth Day, 18 Pennsylvania State Senators, Republican and Democrat, introduced a bill to protect rivers and aquifers that are used as public drinking water sources. The main sponsor, Republican Senator Charles McIlhinney of Bucks County, said there's no more precious resource than clean drinking water and "it is imperative that we take action to protect our drinking water supplies from pollution." The legislation would amend the state's Safe Drinking Water Act and establish "critical zones" upstream of drinking water intakes along rivers and around public drinking water wells, and restrict polluting activities in those zones. Myron Arnowitt, state director of Clean Water Action, says the zones would be about 25 miles upstream of the intake, the distance water travels in about 5 hours....."the basic idea is if you are going to site a gas station somewhere, maybe you shouldn't put it next to your public drinking water well. I think that's common sense for people but there aren't any state rules that say you can't do that, and we do that all the time."
Arnowitt says this legislation not only will protect the public's health but makes good economic sense because E.P.A. studies have found that for every dollar spent on preventing source water contamination, up to $27 are saved in treatment costs.

Museums Ask For State Funding Back

Advocates for Pennsylvania's museums say funding the commonwealth provides their facilities is a speck in the state budget, but it plays a major role in keeping their doors open. Governor Ed Rendell has proposed zeroing out the state's $3.5 million museum assistance grant program in his executive budget. Last year the program help fund 292 museums. Ford Bell, the president of the American Association of Museums, says state aid is critical for smaller, rural operations. “It's very hard for them to raise money, to find wealthy donors. They're never going to have an endowment. Admission, across the board in this country, is only about five percent of museum budgets. It's a very small percentage. So even if you are charging admission it doesn't begin to cover your costs.” Bell and other museum advocates made their case to lawmakers at the state Capitol this week. Rendell says the difficult fiscal climate means state expenses have to be trimmed.

Mayoral Emergency Declaration Forces Davis Avenue Bridge to Close

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced today a Declaration of Emergency was issued yesterday for the immediate demolition of the Davis Avenue Bridge on the North Side. The 110-year-old span connects the Brighton Heights neighborhood to Riverview Park and has been closed to vehicular traffic since 2001.

A structural engineering inspection and report issued by Michael Baker, Jr., the City’s engineering consultant, shows that the bridge is in danger of collapse. Four nearby homes have been identified as endangered, and residents have been recommended to vacate and relocate. The report also suggests the bridge be demolished as soon as possible.

Displaced families are being assisted with temporary housing through the City and the Red Cross.

Orie Announces Gaming Reform Bill Package

Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, alongside a handful of other state senators, today unveiled a package of bills aimed at reforming Pennsylvania’s gaming industry. The bills span a variety of topics including a measure that would ban convicted felons from working at any level within the gaming industry and legislation that would grant municipalities a voice in the location of new gaming facilities. The bills were drafted collectively by a bipartisan group of lawmakers within the senate. Senator John Rafferty (R-Berks) says he hopes the legislation passes and can help clean up the reputation of the Pennsylvania gambling industry.

The Pennsylvania gaming board has come under close scrutiny since several mishaps over the last few years including:
-The 2007 licensing of Louis DeNaples who was brought up on perjury charges for alleged mob ties. Those charges have since been dropped with DeNaples blaming the board for a poor investigation.
-Granting approval to a financing plan for the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh by Detroit financier Don Barden which eventually fell through. The board then had to scramble to find casino owner Neil Bluhm to take over the financing.
-Lawyers who quit the gaming board and then took jobs with casinos they had been regulating.
-And contractors with felony convictions who were allowed to work on casinos. Those contractors were suspended by the board, but have been since allowed back to work after appealing to the courts.

Highmark and UPMC Fire Back at West Penn

The two organizations named in the suit filed yesterday by West Penn Allegheny Health system say the charges of conspiracy and anti trust are unfounded and frivolous. The suit claims Highmark Inc. and UPMC were in collusion to limit access and drive up costs for some specialized heath care. In a written statement Highmark says it is very surprised by the suit, “[West Penn] have chosen to overlook Highmark’s long history of financial support for its health care institutions.” The statement goes on to site, “a $125 million loan and more than $50 million in grants to help improve clinical care and services and help strengthen West Penn-Allegheny’s administrative and information systems. Without Highmark’s support, there was a distinct possibility that Allegheny General and its sister hospitals would not have survived.” Highmark says the system has been fairly reimbursed for care and points to a recently inked five-year reimbursement agreement as proof.
UPMC issued a similar statement saying it, “unequivocally denies the allegations raised in WPAHS's frivolous lawsuit.” UPMC claims to be a, “fierce competitor” with Highmark and, “Efforts by WPAHS to distract from its own operational failings by filing this lawsuit accusing UPMC of misdeeds are simply a tactic to divert attention from their own operating and financial difficulties.”

Alternative to Keystone Exams Floated

A coalition of parent, teacher and education advocacy groups have presented an alternative to the graduation tests proposed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The department’s proposal would require seniors to pass a series of tests before they can earn a high school diploma. The proposal dubbed “Keystone Examines 2.0” by the ad hoc “Coalition for Effective and Responsible Testing” would create tests that would be given as part of a course and would be a portion of an overall grade. It would also provide for other alternative means of proving competency in a given subject. The goal is to address some of the concerns voiced by the members of the coalition. Among them; the high-stakes tests are unfair to some students, the tests could lead to higher drop out rates, the gatekeeper tests are not a fair assessment system and the tests would take away from the time teachers spend on items not on the test but important to future success. Under the proposal the tests would be reviewed by teachers, administrators and the state and then assessed to make sure they are providing a good indication of future success. Keystone Examines 2.0 also would prevent the tests from becoming mandatory until they are approved as an alternative to the PSSA tests. The current proposal has the test becoming mandatory in 2015. State Senator Andy Dinniman has scheduled a meeting between the State Department of Education and those in opposition to the plan with the goal of finding a compromise between the two plans. That meeting is set for next week.

New Family House Home

Family House cut the ribbon this morning at its newest home in the Oakland section of the city of Pittsburgh. This is the 4th home for the 25 year old organizations which tries to provide safe, comfortable and affordable housing for patients and families who must travel to Pittsburgh for the treatment of serious or life-threatening illness. Thew new house has 48 guest rooms and according to Family House Executive Director Christie Knott that means they will be able to accommodate an additional 4,600 people a year. Knott says the 4 houses will give them a total of 162 rooms to house about 13,000 families and patients annually. Family House entered into a long-term agreement with the University of Pittsburgh to renovate and lease the top four floors of the University Club and build a separate entrance for patients and families. Knott says on an average day they have to turn away 30 eligible families because their 3 other homes have been at full capacity and "that is heartbreaking" because that leaves families with such options as "expensive hotels, sleeping in their cars or crowded hospital lounges"and at times, they even postpone treatment. Knott says they expect to open the new home in a few weeks.

West Penn Sues UPMC and Highmark

The West Penn Allegheny Health System has filed suit against UPMC and Highmark Inc. claiming the two have, “conspired to protect one another from competition.” In the suit filed in federal court Tuesday West Penn says the conspiracy resulted in, “an increasingly exploited Pittsburgh Community” which has “suffered rising health care costs.” In a written statement West Penn board Chair David McClenahan says, “We believe that for several years UPMC and Highmark have engaged in mutual back-scratching designed to preserve Highmark’s monopoly in health insurance and to permit UPMC to build a monopoly in sophisticated tertiary and quaternary health care in this region.” McClenahan goes on to say the result is a threat to the quality and cost of health care in the region. In 2006 West Penn Allegheny filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice over what it felt was an unfair collusion between the entities. That complaint is still being investigated by the DOJ. UPMC and Highmark are expected to issue statements later today.

Great Athletes Have Great Hands

The Pirates, Allegheny Health Department, Northside Leadership Conference and Allegheny General Hospital have partnered on a new public health campaign to encourage teen handwashing and prevent MRSA in schools. Cheryl Herbert, Director of Infection Prevention at Allegheny General, says there are 2 main type of MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) infections that are highly resistant to antibiotics: a hospital based strain that can attack the bloodstream and be deadly, and a community strain that is a dangerous skin infection that results in rashes, boils, and pimples. Herbert says regular handwashing can help prevent transmission. Herbert says the community strain has been around for about 8 years and has cropped up in schools and in particular among sports teams because of the nature of the sports including possible skin contact, shared towels and water bottles. So, health and community officials have teamed with Pirate Gold Glove outfielder Nate McLouth for the "All Great Athletes Have Great Hands" campaign to encourage handwashing by teen athletes and other students. Herbert says drastic steps are not needed....just wash uniforms and disinfect the sports equipment.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

City Council Forms Committee on Police Officer Safety

City Council President Doug Shields has created a special committee on Police Officer Safety. The committee is to chaired by Bruce Kraus who is the chair of the Standing Committee on Public Safety. Also serving on the board are council members Jim Motznik and Bill Peduto who chair the Governmental Services Committee and Finance Committee respectively.

Shields says the committee has two primary goals, to determine if police officers need improved radio communications and the second goal is to determine if police officers are properly equipped to deal with suspects who posses automatic weapons.

The committee will work with the Public Safety Department and the Fraternal Order of Police to reach recommendations. The committee can only produce recommendations that would then be considered by the city.

Mayor To Make 3 Debates

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will participate in 3 debates after all. The Mayor had been criticized for not having room in his schedule to debate his challengers in the democratic mayoral primary. The Mayor says that the KDKA debate will take place on Thursday April 30Th and added that he had to cancel a previous commitment to make sure he would be available for the debate.

The KDKA debate had been postponed because of the April 4Th, killings of three Pittsburgh Police Officers. The mayor drew criticism because he said that he did not have the time in his schedule to appear at the KDKA debate.

Pittsburgh Promise Partners With Need To Help Students Prepare For College

The Pittsburgh Promise announced today the formation of a partnership with the college access program NEED. NEED will help high school seniors fill out their applications for scholarships, grants, colleges, and their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). NEED will provide FAFSA completion workshops which will detail line by line how to complete what can be an hours long application. NEED will also help high school seniors by making college advisers available to them to assist in finding a college that best fits the needs of each particular student.

Pittsburgh Promise Executive Director Saleem Ghubril said he noticed the need for this type of a program when many promise applicants expressed questions and concerns on the issues of applying for aid and deciding on colleges.

Science Center Unveils New Robotics Exhibit

The Carnegie Science Center announced detailed plans for Roboworld, the world’s largest permanent robotics exhibition, today at an online press conference. The display, which totaled $3.4 million in costs and takes up the majority of the Center’s second floor, replaces space previously used by traveling exhibits. Opening June 13, Roboworld will feature many different exhibition stations, including:

- the first physical space for the Robot Hall of Fame
- a greeter robot named Andy who can answer general questions about robotics or the exhibit
- a station relating robotic design to that of animals
- a “Hazardbots” station that teaches visitors about dangerous and dirty jobs done by robots
- stations allowing patrons to play robots at air hockey, foosball or basketball

Project Manager Kim Amey says one goal of Roboworld is to reveal what’s going on “behind the scenes” in the field of robotics – keeping in mind the Science Center’s educational nature. “You can see a lot of the working parts of some of our robots. We’re isolating algorithms, showing what computer readouts and outputs are, and showing what sensors feed so we can break these things down into their simpler parts to teach folks about this and to get kids excited about robotics,” says Amey. Roboworld will be free with regular admissions to the Science Center, which is $14 for adults and $10 for children 3-18. Children under 3 and members of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh get in free.

Auditor General Concerned About Accountability

Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner says with $16 billion in federal stimulus money coming to the state over the next 2 years, he's concerned about the accountability of how that money is spent. Wagner sent a letter to the federal Government Accountability Office administrator about the "potential for a lack of statewide government transparency and accountability in the use of these vitally important funds." Wagner says he salutes Governor Rendell for creating a stimulus funds Oversight Commission but says there still needs to be "an independent set of eyes" looking at how these tax dollars are spent. In his letter to the G-A-O, Wagner mentioned that there were "significant internal control weaknesses" in federally funded programs administered by the state including Medicaid and low income heating assistance (LIHEAP). Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo says the administration believes Wagner's assertions are unwarranted and wonders about his true motive. Ardo said that a review of alleged fraud in LIHEAP determined the money was properly spent and that Wagner's audit of Medicaid expenditures contained errors.

Dravosburg Native to Run For U.S. Senate Seat

State Representative Bill Kortz of Dravosburg is announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in the 2010 race in Pennsylvania. The 54-year-old Democrat is in only his second term as a Western Pennsylvania representative, but he is confident in his ability to run a successful grassroots campaign.

Kortz says the state of the economy was a major factor in deciding to run. “The working class guy is getting trampled on, and yet the CEOs are walking away with these million dollar packages. It’s unbelievable… and it’s time to do something about it,” says Kortz.

Kortz says that his "underdog" status and his working-class background are two of his main selling points to Pennsylvania voters. He maintains that his background in the steel industry and the economic misfortunes he encountered there will help him with making important fiscal decisions in the U.S. Senate. “If you recall back in the early 80s, we had the terrible downturn in the steel industry. I lived through all that. I witnessed those Black Fridays, the massive layoffs, the plant closing, the devastation to the workers, their families, and their communities all around the Mon Valley. I was at the epicenter of all that and I saw how terrible that was,” says Kortz.

The Democrat says Barack Obama’s successful grassroots campaign inspired him, and will change the face of politics in the future. “He’s the forebear of what’s to come. Normal people are going to rise up and start to run for office, and do you know what? They’re going to start to win,” says Kortz. When running against an incumbent with over 27 years of experience, Kortz can only hope that he is right.

Natural Gas Could Lower Energy Costs, Property Taxes, Fitzgerald Says

Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald will propose legislation tonight that could lower property taxes by as much as one mil. The measure would authorize officials to tap into natural gas deposits beneath county-owned land to lower the county’s $50 million per year energy bill. Fitzgerald’s plan will allow agencies to utilize natural gas for heating, cooling, and power, and authorize the sale of excess gas for royalties. He says he sees no opposition against lower taxes, but could see other problems arising from natural gas drilling. Fitzgerald gave no specific timeline on his legislation offering that much research needs to be done before any drilling can commence. Allegheny County owns tens of thousands of acres, much of which does lie on top of the largest natural gas deposit in North America.

Pitt Holds Tuition for Regionals

Students at four University of Pittsburgh regional campuses will not see their tuition increase next year. The board made the announcement yesterday that impacts the approximately 7,000 students at the campuses in Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown, and Titusville. Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg says, "Particularly in these difficult times, the University is sensitive to the difficult task of balancing our own financial uncertainties with the challenges faced by families who are budgeting to meet tuition expenses. As a result, we are redoubling our efforts to limit tuition increases." Tuition rates for the main campus will be released this summer. Nordenberg says, “Some increases [at the main campus] seem inevitable, but we will do our best to temper them."

Gun Controll Debate Enters PA US Sen. Campaign

Republican US Senate candidate Pat Toomey says Governor Rendell's push for a new federal assault weapons ban is misguided and he has a better solution. Toomey’s remarks come as the idea of tighter gun control laws falls in the spotlight in the wake of the killing of three Pittsburgh police officers. Rendell wants Congress to renew the expired federal ban on assault weapons like AK-47s, and is also calling for several state gun control measures. Pat Toomey argues banning weapons won't keep them off the streets. “You can say it's illegal to have a gun, but these are people who are willing to rob and maim and kill. It's not obvious that all of the sudden you can pass a law against a gun they're going to say, 'well, I'll follow that law,'” says Toomey. He went o to say, “Some of the most crime-ridden places in America are places that have strict gun control laws. Criminals, by definition, are willing to break the law.” Toomey's primary opponent, Incumbent Arlen Specter, voted against the original assault weapons ban, and has said he'd oppose efforts to reinstate it.

Bill Would Cut Gambling Money for Philadelphia

A measure barring Philadelphia from sharing gaming revenue until its casinos are up and running has cleared a Senate committee. Even if it gets out of the Senate it may stumble when it get to the governor’s mansion. Last month, Governor Ed Rendell said he'd consider signing legislation keeping Philadelphia from the funds. He says he was frustrated by the multiple delays faced by SugarHouse Casino and Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia but he no longer supports the bill. Rendell's spokesman, Chuck Ardo, says dynamics have changed. He says, “While we understand the continuing frustration expressed by the legislators, we believe there's been progress made in Philadelphia, and that the legislation is unnecessary at this point.” The bill sponsored by Sen. Jane Earll of Erie, passed through the Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee by a 10-4 vote. She says her measure is a safeguard, “If progress continues to be made then maybe these bills will never have to come to fruition. But in the meantime, I think the rest of the commonwealth deserves a safety net if, in fact, these casinos never get up and operating. Philadelphia should not receive the benefit of a deal they're not honoring.” Both casinos now have the support of Mayor Michael Nutter, though grassroots opposition continues.

DA Expects to Seek Death in Cop Killing

The Allegheny County District Attorney says he file the paperwork to support the death penalty against Richard Poplawski. The 22-year-old Pittsburgher is charged with killing three Pittsburgh police officer who were responding to a domestic dispute call April 4th. Through a spokesperson, DA Stephen Zappala says he expects to file the paperwork next week. He has until June 1st to make the official request. The court appointed lawyer for Poplawski says the announcment may violate the gag order placed on everyone involved in the case. Judge Jeffrey Manning issued that order at the request of defense attorney Lisa Middleman.

Pittsburgh Area Housing Market: Parts 1 and 2

Part 1: The Pittsburgh area is often referred to as a bright spot in a disheartening national real estate market.

DUQ’s Larkin Page-Jacobs reports on some of the reasons the region has been able to avoid the worst of the housing market bust.


Part 2: Though the local housing market is faring better than many others, the mortgage crisis and poor economy are hitting some homeowners hard.

DUQ's Larkin Page-Jacobs takes a closer look at the downside of the region's real estate market.


Breastfeeding Lowers Women Health Risks, Study Shows

A study conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers shows the more women breastfeed, the lower their risk for heart attacks and strokes. According to the study, women who breastfed their babies for more than a year were ten percent less likely to suffer heart disease, than women who had never breastfed.Dr. Eleanor Schwarz, Assist Professor of Medicine at the university says it likely has to do with the natural process of recovery from pregnancy. She hopes policies can be changed to promote breastfeeding among women including changes in public breastfeeding policy and maternity leave for working mothers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

"Ethics, Regulation and Risk Management" Financial Symposium

On Tuesday, April 21st, Duquesne University is hosting a gathering to discuss future directions in the financial services industry.

The loss of the trust essential to a well-functioning economy has shut down financial activity and will almost certainly result in the sort of legislation and regulation that follow major crises, according to Pitt Prof. Bradley Agle, who also says it would be much better and less burdensome if businesses invested in doing business ethically. One practice that works, says Agle, is to make ethics a part of employee performance evaluations--sending the message from the top that cutting corners will not be rewarded. Another is to incorporate hypothetical situations into training, with management presenting scenarios and explaining what responses would embody the company's value system.

Agle says some people will always behave ethically; some will always push the limits, and the great number in the middle will react to the climate they work in.

End Pay to Play Legislative Package

Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto will introduce a 5-bill package tomorrow that he says will help end the so-called "pay to play politics" in the city of Pittsburgh. Peduto's proposals involve everything from limiting campaign contributions to registering lobbyists to eliminating no-bid contracts. Peduto says you "can't break the culture of pay to play politics if you just pass one of the bills...together they begin to loosen the bolts of the new 21st Century machine politic and its influence of money on decision-making."
One proposal would limit campaign contributions for mayor and controller to $2,000 from an individual and $4,000 from a political action committee(PAC). For council campaigns, the limits would be $1,000 and $2,000 respectively. Those amounts could be contributed in the primary and the general elections. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl earlier this year introduced a proposal to limit contributions for mayor, controller and council to a total of $4,600 from an individual and $10,000 from a PAC for the entire election cycle. Peduto says that allows the entire amount to be contributed for the Primary Election which is the key race in Pittsburgh (because of the city's heavily Democratic registration edge). Peduto's legislative package also includes creation of an online searchable database for all campaign contributions and contracts.
Peduto is also proposing eliminating all no-bid contracts for all contracts over $30,000. On Friday, Mayor Ravenstahl removed an exception from the no-bid contracts for professional service providers such as attorneys and financial advisers where the contract is above $30,000. However, Peduto says an executive order could be changed by the next mayor and it's important to put the no-bid changes into the city code.
The councilman also wants to require all bids for city contracts to disclose any finder's fees or payments to lobbyists or consultants, and that all lobbyists register annually with the city.
Peduto says the timing for these proposals is right because the primary for mayor and half of council is next month and voters should know where the candidates stand on these issues.

National Aviary to Have New Kind of Theater

Observing and learning about birds has always been as easy as going to the Northside-based National Aviary, but now they’re going a step further by constructing a first-of-its-kind theater. National Aviary Executive Director Patrick Mangus says the Helen M. Schmidt Theater will host an immersed 30-minute show of approximately 100 free-flight birds. It will be designed with the audience sitting in swivel chairs in the center, and the performance to go on around them, and above them, by using movable stages. The $23 million project will also include high definition videos and sound, and the expansion will be LED certified. Mangus says the former executive director developed the idea, and it goes beyond the free-flight shows the aviary has been hosting for five years now. Groundbreaking is on Wednesday, Earth Day, with expected completion in mid 2010.

High-Speed Rail Choices in PA Debated

Present Obama's recent commitment to high-speed rail development means Pennsylvania transportation officials will have to figure out the best way to move forward with a Pittsburgh to Philadelphia line over the next few months. The line is to run from Pittsburgh, through Harrisburg and on to Philadelphia. It is one of ten corridors singled out by the Administration for funding. Penn State Harrisburg professor and transportation expert Jeremy Plant says if the line gets built, PennDOT officials will need to decide whether to improve on existing rail infrastructure, or build a new line with Maglev technology. He says, “[A] lot of it's going to depend on how much the administration wants to see a interconnected high-speed rail system, which would almost inevitably be based on the traditional steel wheel on rail technology that we have now. Or whether they'd be willing to see kind of a hybrid system that would mix maglev technology with the steel rail.” PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick says the department expects to learn more details about the federal government's plan in June, but he understands administration officials would rather build on existing lines. McKeesport based Maglev Inc has been trying to build a high-speed magnetic levitation line from Pittsburgh International to the golden triangle for years. Maglev President Fred Gurney says he is optimistic his technology will be chosen. He says he will continue to lobby to make that a reality. President Obama wants to spend 13 billion dollars on high-speed rail over the next five years.

Lawmaker: Sell the State Stores

Pennsylvania State Senator Rob Wonderling of Montgomery County says Pennsylvania has no business operating wine and liquor stores. The Republican says Pennsylvania's 2.3 billion dollar budget gap underscores the need to privatize liquor stores. He and others have pushed for state store privatization before, but Wonderling says this year's budget crisis gives weight to his argument. Wonderling wants to auction off the liquor licenses, which he says could earn the state up to 500 million dollars. “Use the proceeds from the sale of those stores to fund something that's more critical and that citizens view as more important,” says Wonderling. “Such as health care, high-speed passenger rail, investments in infrastructure.” Wonderling says President Obama's recent push for high-speed rail development is good incentive for the state to invest the auction proceeds in a better Pittsburgh to Philadelphia train route. He introduced a similar measure last session, and will officially announce the bill later this month.

Lawmakers Look for Economic Silver Bullet

Pennsylvania State House Democrats took testimony Tuesday from policy experts on ways Pennsylvania government can grow jobs. Lawmakers point out that while the federal government has the power to deficit spend and pour billions of dollars into the American economy, the state is required to balance is annual budget. That means any state spending aimed at stimulating growth needs to be much more targeted. Stephen Herzenberg, the Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center, told lawmakers the General Assembly should focus support on companies developing renewable energy and energy efficiency technology. He says these are new industries, “… where there's a lot of innovation. These are industries where you don't yet have, in many cases, economies of scale. So by using regulation and government purchasing to grow the market, you can fuel that innovation, you can increase economies of scale. You can drive down costs.” Herzenberg says lawmakers should view support for the alternative energy industry as an investment, saying the United States needs to position itself so that it's selling, and not importing, solar power, wind power and other renewable energy products in the coming decades.

Pitt Receives Grant to Train Foreign Scientists in Combating HIV

Researchers at Pitt have received a 5-year, $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center to train researchers and scientists in countries hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A new center will open in Mozambique, while existing centers in Brazil and India will be updated.

Principal Investigator Lee Harrison says on reason they chose Mozambique is because one in every three pregnant women has HIV there. "And there are very few trained scientists to help study and control the epidemic there," says Harrison. He says students from both of the country's medical schools appear to be promising candidates for HIV education. However, for the time being, pupils will be trained only in the basics of AIDS research. Many scientists that Pitt trained in Brazil in the past 10 years will also help to train new researchers in Mozambique; both countries share the same language, Portugese.

In India, says Harrison, the grant funds will be used to bolster the research on new laboratory equipment that could help in the fight against AIDS and HIV.

Motorcycle Safety

Now that it is the weather is getting warmer, flowers are blooming, and motorcycle riders are returning to Pennsylvania roads. PennDOT wants to remind all drivers to share the road with one another. According to PennDOT, more than 30,000 motorcycles were registered in the state last year, along with 15,000 new licensed motorcyclists. PennDOT Deputy Secretary Kurt Myers advises motorists to check blind spots, avoid reckless driving and abide by traffic laws. He says there are also approved motorcycle training courses of varied levels that drivers can take free of charge. For more information, go to

Pittsburgh Area Housing Market: Part 1

The Pittsburgh area is often referred to as a bright spot in a disheartening national real estate market. DUQ’s Larkin Page-Jacobs reports on some of the reasons the region has been able to avoid the worst of the housing market bust.


Medicare Program Urges Reduction of Hospital Readmissions

Fourteen regions across the nation have been chosen as pilot areas for the Care Transitions Project, which will attempt to cut down on the number of patients that return to hospitals for continuing treatment. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which has been monitoring readmission rates in these designated areas for some time, hopes to eliminate unnecessary returns to hospitals by educating patients on how to treat their own chronic illnesses from their homes. Naomi Hauser, Director of the Care Transitions Project in Pennsylvania, says this is an effort to localize health services to a community level. "Patients need to understand that they can identify some of their symptoms, be able to contact their physicians and work with physicians in the community, rather than go to the emergency room or go to the hospital for acute management of their symptoms," says Hauser. Hauser says since many readmissions are due to misuse or misunderstanding of medication, much of the program's energies will be focused on teaching correct ways for patients to deal with meds. Each of the fourteen pilot areas will approach the program in a unique way; the Pennsylvania pilot will implement "transition coaches," who will meet the patient while they are at the hospital and continue to check up on them through phone calls and home visits. Allegheny, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland Counties were included in the three-year Western Pennsylvania pilot.

Earth Day Celebration Set for Market Square

For some people this Wednesday, April 22, may be just another ordinary day. But for others it marks Earth Day, the annual celebration of the environment. As part of the celebration, the Rachel Carson Institute, Sustainable Pittsburgh, Champions of Sustainability, and the City of Pittsburgh will co-host a downtown Earth Day party in Market Square from 11-1. The celebration will feature a solar-powered DJ and will focus on raising awareness of environmental issues. Acting Director of the Rachel Carson Institute Nancy Gift says her focus is on local and urban farming and reduction of carbon emissions--two subjects which she says the President Obama has taken a major stance on. Gift says even if picking up litter or planting trees is not for you, something as simple as a hike through your neighborhood or refraining from driving on Earth Day is ample celebration.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Flight 93 Memorial Creates Unforeseen Tax Problems

Shanksville-Stonycreek School District, a small community of 2500 in Somerset County, is the home of the Flight 93 crash site, a 1,400-acre area soon to be graced with a memorial. But while the residents support the crash victims, their families, and the idea of a memorial, what they do not like is the loss of as much as $38,000 a year in property taxes. Since the federal government does not pay such taxes, the citizens of Shanksville are faced with the loss of half a mill. Their current millage is 30.7. Superintendent Tom McInroy says though they have mailed letters requesting help to many prominent political entities -- even the president -- he and the school district can only plan for the worst. "It's kind of a long shot. It's kind of like Doug Flutie's pass when he was in Boston College, you know, the Hail Mary.... We're just planning for the worst and hoping for the best." McInroy says he did not ask for any specific figures, only some kind of assistance from the state and/or federal government. McInroy says other communities with monuments and memorials, such as Gettysburg, were assisted by an "amusement tax," but that tariff has since been outlawed by the state.

"Green" Glass Research Gets Federal Funds

Pittsburgh based PPG Industries will be getting $1.2 million from the federal government to do research into environmentally friendly glass coatings. The grants will help fund research into “Integrated Solar Energy Windows” and “Infrared Switchable Architecture Coatings.” The first project involves the development of a window coating that will allow light to pass through but will still serve as a solar cell to produce power. The infrared project will investigate a material that will either reflect infrared energy or absorb heat depending on the environmental conditions. The material would change its characteristics with the flip of a switch. The funds were included in the FY09 Omnibus Appropriations bill, which was passed by congress last month. The funds will be allocated by the end of September. 80% of PPG's world-wide research is done in the Pittsburgh Area.

Pittsburgh City Council Postpones Curfew Center Vote

Council President Doug Shields does not support the one-year, $500,000 contract to Three Rivers Youth requested by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Shields says it would cost thousands of dollars for each of about 40 or 50 children a year, and data do not show that such centers reduce crime.

He says it would be a better investment for the city and its youth to put the $500,000 a year into re-opening pools and recreational programs that were cut during the city's tough times.

Stimulus Oversight Panel Should Be Diverse

A pair of state legislators from the Pittsburgh area and some community leaders are calling on Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to increase the diversity of the Oversight Commission to monitor stimulus spending in the state. State Representatives Chelsa Wagner and Jake Wheatley of Pittsburgh, along with Heather Arnet of the Women and Girls Foundation and Doris Carson Williams of the African-American Chamber of Commerce, are criticizing the makeup of the panel because there is only one woman, one African-American and no one from Western Pennsylvania on it. Representative Wagner says she started drafting legislation requiring a geographical balance to the commission, but it was never introduced. However, each of the 4 legislative caucuses did get to select one member of the panel. Wagner says there are 2 components to the stimulus money: formula-based funding that goes to all parts of the state and accountability is important in how that is spent; and, competitive funding where projects and groups from different parts of the state are competing. She says that's why it's important to have panel members from Western Pennsylvania. She says they've written to the governor asking that he add 6 members to the commission: 3 women and 3 persons of color, with 3 of those 6 from Allegheny County and at least 1 of those from Pittsburgh. Wagner says they hope the governor will recognize that everyone benefits with a more diverse commission.
On March 31st the governor announced the panel, which is chaired by Ronald Naples of Montgomery County. For the last 13 years, Naples has been CEO of the Quaker Chemical Corporation.

Mayview Patients One Year Later

Mayview State Hospital closed nearly a year ago, and former residents are living in the community. At one time the facility housed more than one thousand patients, but by the time it closed, there were just 250. In 2007 two of those patients died of unnatural causes, but the general consensus is that the vast majority are doing well and getting the services they need. Most of those services are being provided by small nonprofit organizations. Patients, service providers and doctors all seem to have their own take on the way the new system is working. You can hear some of those thoughts by listening to a longer version of the story.


Gates: Slow Change is Best for "Don't Ask"

Not asking and not telling may work inside the Pentagon, but military students were not willing to follow the same protocol yesterday when Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a stop at the Army War College in Carlisle Pennsylvania. Fielding questions from students, Gates said any change to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy needs to happen slowly. President Obama has voiced support for overturning the military's ban on gay servicemen and women. Gates says he and Mr. Obama have begun a dialogue on that issue, but Gates firmly believes any change would need to be implemented cautiously. He told the students, “From the time President Truman signed the executive order for integration in 1948, it was five years before that process was completed. I'm not saying that's a model for this, but I'm saying that I believe this is something that needs to be done very, very carefully.” Gates says as long as the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is in place, he and other Pentagon officials will uphold it. He acknowledges it's a "complex and difficult problem," and says President Obama is approaching it in a "deliberate, cautious" manner.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

High Speed Rail May Be Coming To Pennsylvania

President Obama has released a plan for a high-speed rail in America. The President is investing $8 billion dollars of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money in high-speed rail development and has proposed spending an additional $1 billion a year for 5 years on rail development. The plan lists 10 major corridors that have been identified as potential sites for high-speed rail projects. One of those corridors is the Keystone Corridor, which would link Pittsburgh to Harrisburg and Philadelphia. The plan released today will be followed within 60 days by specific details on how to apply and what is required of those who seek the stimulus dollars .

Ability Pittsburgh

The Heinz History Center hosted about 350 students with disabilities on Thursday.
They were there for Ability Pittsburgh, a resource fair that introduces teenagers with disabilities to all of the resources that might be available to them to make the transition from school to the workplace or a college environment.
The event was organized by workers for the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
Students attended mock interviews, practiced resume writing and learned about advocacy and history and picked up information on nutrition and exercise.
About fifty government and community groups were at the history center. Organizers hope Thursday's event will serve as a national model.

Students Gather To Promote Sustainability Ideas

Students from Duquesne University, Carnegie Mellon University and The University of Pittsburgh joined together to present at a local sustainability symposium today. The students worked to develop practical city and campus wide policies and habits to help reduce Pittsburgh's environmental footprint. Some of the ideas presented at the One Step At A Time Student Sustainability Symposium were the powering down of computer systems by universities during off-peak hours and establishing city-wide green building standards.