Sunday, October 31, 2010

Obama Campaigns for Sestak, Onorato

President Obama is warning Pennsylvania Democrats their party could lose Tuesday, if voters don’t amp up their energy over the coming days.
Speaking for less than ten minutes to a crowd of about 16-hundred people in Philadelphia Saturday, Mr. Obama urged Democrats to knock on doors and make phone calls between now and Election Day.

"The key right now is not just to show up here. It’s not just to listen to speeches. It’s to go out there and do the hard work that’s going to be required to bring this home over the last few days."

But interviews with attendees, Joatta Glover, Jamie Papas and George Scott, revealed a wide gap, when it comes to support for the president, compared to enthusiasm for Tuesday’s Senate, gubernatorial and Congressional elections.

"I want Joe – what’s his name? Joe Sec…sec…Sestak? Sestak. Yeah I want him to win.
I’m going to sound bad – I didn’t register. I went to the day it was due – my mom yelled at me – but I just didn’t get do.
Governor – what’s his name? Dan Onorato? I can’t pronounce it."

Top Democrats say big turnout in Philadelphia and its suburbs is key, if the party wants to win.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mixed Verdict for G20 Protester from NYC

A G20 protester has been acquitted of aggravated assault but convicted on 2 lesser counts in connection with a clash with police September 24, 2009 in Pittsburgh.
An Allegheny County jury found 28 year old Allen Weber of New York City guilty of disorderly conduct and obstruction of highways. The jury was deadlocked on a charge of propulsion of a missile into an occupied vehicle.
Police say Weber refused an order to disperse during a protest in Oakland and an officer in a SWAT truck tossed a smoke grenade to get protesters to leave. Police say Weber picked up the grenade and threw it back at the officer.

Razing of Braddock Hospital Okayed

Allegheny County Judge Lawrence O'Toole has signed off on the demolition of UPMC Braddock Hospital and the transfer of the property to the county Redevelopment Authority. Seven Braddock residents filed a lawsuit to stop the razing of the closed hospital, claiming UPMC violated their civil rights and the health system failed to adhere to laws that govern nonprofits.
Judge O'Toole ruled that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to challenge the demolition. A UPMC spokesman says the razing of the main hospital building could begin Monday.
The state is providing $3 million for a new facility that will house a health services clinic, a community college center, a restaurant, and additional housing.

Friday, October 29, 2010

West Penn Finalizes Job Cuts

The West Penn Allegheny Health System announced its final plans for the consolidation of the West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield today saying around 400 jobs would be cut as relocation of its services begins in January. An original estimate for jobs lost due to the consolidation announced in June was approximately 1,500 positions. The facility in Bloomfield will continue to offer outpatient services and outpatient surgery. But other areas, inluding emergency services will move to Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side. The emergency unit of the Bloomfield branch will close December 31. According to West Penn, 210 employees will accept other positions within the system, 65 employees will move to Allegheny General, 220 employees left through resignations, and 400 will lose their jobs as a result of the consolidation. West Penn spokesman Dan Laurent says West Penn's plan is to provide health care needs locally with an eye on future changes in health care reform, "We're focused on our system and what we need to do to become a more effective health care system for the people of this community." Laurent says they plan to develop more localized, community health care at a center it plans to built in Peters Township next year.

Study Finds "Natural Plastics" Not Very Green

University of Pittsburgh students performed a study on 12 kinds of plastics to determine how green their life-cycle is. Biopolymers, plastics derived from natural elements, were the most biodegradable, with low toxicity, and used the most renewable resources. But, because of the natural components that make up Biopolymers, fertilizers and pesticides used in creating the material for the plastics those components pollute more then other plastics during their production.

Eric Beckman, Professor of Chemical Engineering, says that when designing Biopolymers engineers worked to make them as green as possible, but when it came to production they missed the mark. He also says that the most surprising aspect of the research was that Polypropylene, a fossil fuel based plastic, tested well, polluting less during manufacturing.

Beckman says the main improvement the chemical industry can make after the study is using less material during plastic production. "If you look at the guidelines we give to people to be more environmentally benign we always say 'reduce, reuse, and recycle'...And I think the key lesson for this study is that if your going to try to be greener in the future no matter what you make, is to just less stuff when you make it."

The bulk of the research was done by a group of undergraduate students at Pitt in the School of Engineering. More research is planned on the polymers by examining the plastics environmental impact during disposal.

Historic Artifacts Missing

Auditor General Jack Wagner audited the 23 locations that house Pennsylvania’s historic artifacts and found at least 1800 missing or unaccounted for. He says the audit shows lax oversight that demonstrates the need for a complete inventory and upgraded barcode system.

Now that the Ft. Pitt Museum is being managed by the Senator John Heinz History Center, Wagner says its artifacts are in good hands, but the other venues need improvement to safeguard the state’s historic treasures that are of such great national significance: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the battle of Gettysburg, etc.

Wagner says the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s budget has been cut drastically over the last four years, and this audit should say to the governor and future governor and legislature that a new security system must be given priority for the state’s valuable historic resources.

Energy Bill Assistance on the Way

Monday marks the first day that low-income families can apply for state assistance in paying their home energy bills. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, is a federally funded program in which the state distributes cash grants to those who might not be able to afford their heating bills during the winter. Department of Public Welfare spokesman Michael Race says there are two components to LIHEAP assistance. “There are cash grants that go to families to help them pay their heating bills and in those cases the grants are sent directly to the utility company or the fuel provider and show up as a credit on the consumer’s bill. There are also crisis grants that help households who have an emergency and are in immediate danger of having their heat cut off.”

For this winter season, Pennsylvania has requested about $3.3 billion, which would be divided into $2.5 billion in regular grant money and $790 million in crisis grants. Race says the Department typically extends the window for application because they don’t spend as much money early in the winter season as they do in the later months. For those who might need help paying their bills this winter season, Race suggests searching for the income eligibility guidelines at the Department’s Web site and learning how to apply for LIHEAP. One way in which to apply is by filling out an application at the Allegheny County Assistance Office or one of many local utility providers.

Rendell is Getting Ready to go

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell finds out who his successor will be Tuesday but he says his administration is already working on a detailed transition plan. Rendell says every department has put together memos for the incoming, “Every department has prepared a transition memo for the governor-elect that will outline what’s been accomplished in the department, what the challenges are that still remain. Analysis of personnel and resources, and even recommendations of what personnel are dispensable, etc.” The governor says he’ll also write a long private briefing for Pennsylvania’s next chief executive. He says he’ll consult with either Dan Onorato or Tom Corbett on major decisions he needs to make between Election Day and Inauguration Day, “I don’t say that I will necessarily follow his opinion, but I will certainly listen to it. Particularly if those decisions have far-reaching effects. But understand that under the constitution, there still is only one governor until January 18th, and then there will be one governor after January 18th.” Rendell told reporters he didn’t want to comment on how helpful outgoing Governor Mark Schweiker had been when the Democrat was preparing to take office in 2002. In the final days before the election, Rendell says he’ll be busy campaigning for Democrats Dan Onorato and Joe Sestak in the Philadelphia area and Lehigh Valley.

Food Bank Launches Foodshare Drive

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is looking to literally take in tons of food during its 11th Annual Foodshare drive that launches Saturday and runs through November 7th. For the next two weekends hundreds of volunteers will be standing outside of Giant Eagle stores handing out lists of much needed items. The same volunteers will then be collecting the items when shoppers emerge fro m the store. Shoppers will also be able to make cash donations inside the stores and Giant Eagle will make a $2 donation to the food bank for every 10 cents in “fuel perks” donated to the cause. Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank CEO Joyce Rothermel says they continue to see new clients walk through the food bank’s doors and many of the high demands items are hard to keep in stock. She says that the onset of the winter heating season will further squeeze family budgets forcing more people to turn to the food bank in an effort to put food on their tables. Rothermel says they have not set a specific goal for the campaign but are hoping to add as much food to their warehouse as possible.

Turnpike 43 to Test High Speed Tolling Technology

A six-mile section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike 43 shut down its Express E-ZPass lanes on October 27th. The express lanes between Exit 54 and Exit 48 on the Mon-Fayette Expressway will remain closed until sometime in January as the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission tests the latest in high speed tolling technology.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, as part of an E-ZPass Group consortium that includes 24 other transportation agencies nationwide, has submitted this stretch of road to test the equipment because of the current technology in place and the steady but small traffic on the roadway.

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spokesman Tom Fox says Turnpike 43 is a convenient toll road on which to test the latest technology.

“One of the reasons that we selected the high speed E-ZPass lanes on Turnpike 43 is because traffic out there is minimal to a certain extent and will be minimal until the entire portion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway between Uniontown and Brownsville is completed,” Fox says.

According to Fox, drivers who currently use E-ZPass will still be able to use their transponders and move efficiently through the tollbooths, but at a slower speed.

“They just have to go through the traditional E-ZPass lanes,” Fox says. “Instead of going 40-50 mph through a high speed E-ZPass lane, you’re going to have to go through a traditional E-ZPass lane as people are familiar seeing on the mainline turnpike.”

New equipment and technology submitted by a number of companies vying to provide equipment to all of the transportation agencies in the E-ZPass Group consortium will be examined during this testing phase. Fox ensures that message boards and traffic controllers will guide those who plan to exit through the proper lanes and that on or off ramps will be affected.

Onorato's Last Days on the Trail

With just days left before the gubernatorial election, Democrat Dan Onorato keeps plugging away. WDUQ's Scott Detrow reports the Allegheny County Executive is confident he’ll overcome Republican Tom Corbett’s lead in the race’s final days.

Listen to Scott Detrow's story here.

Find yesterday's story looking at Republican Tom Corbett's campaign here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pilobolus comes to Pittsburgh

The dance troop Pilobolus comes to Pittsburgh Saturday for two shows and DUQ’s Mark Nootbaar had a chance to speak to Associate Artistic Director Renee Jaworski about being in a group that everybody knows by sight, but few of us know by name.

Listen to the interview here.

False Positive From Poppy Seed Bagel Leads to Suit

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in Pittsburgh federal court today on behalf of a New Castle couple whose newborn daughter was seized and held for five days by Lawrence County Children and Youth Services (LCCYS) after the mother failed a drug test because she had eaten a poppy seed bagel before she was admitted.
According to the lawsuit, Jameson Hospital, where Elizabeth Mort gave birth to Isabella, uses a much lower threshold for a positive drug screening than federal guidelines, leading to a higher rate of false positives.
ACLU attorney Sara Rose says the day that Mort and her fiance Alex Rodriguez brought the baby home, 2 caseworkers and 2 police officers showed up with a court order to take the infant. Rose says CYS later admitted it was a false positive but still did not return the child for 5 days even though Mort denied ever using illegal drugs......

“No parent should have to go through what this couple did. This case is a tragic illustration of the harm that can result when the government removes a child based only on the accusation of a third party and without any independent investigation.”

The baby's mother said that when Isabella was gone the family was at a loss of words.....“I couldn't stop crying. Alex just didn't even know how to be himself. It felt like our heart was ripped in pieces. The most important person was missing, and we didn't know when we would see her again.”

Rose says it's a civil liberties matter because it's a county policy and not an isolated issue. She said the ACLU had a previous client who lost her child for 2 months and other lawyers have told them that this happens about a dozen times a year in Lawrence County.

Rose says the suit asks the court to declare Lawrence County's policy of automatically removing newborns from parents based solely on a prenatal drug test without any investigation violates parents' rights and they are asking for damages "whatever a jury thinks is appropriate."

Parking Rejects Bond Review Proposal

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority Board has put the breaks on City Council’s plans to fund the pension program by selling its parking assets. By a 3-2 vote, the board rejected a proposal by Pittsburgh City Councilwoman and board member Natalia Rudiak that would have sent out a request for proposal to get bids to review the viability of a $220 million bond issuance. Specifically, the RFP would have asked for bids to appraise the assets, hire a consultant to look at what rates could be charged, hire a financial advisor to review the viability of the bond and hire bond council to look at the tax status of such a bond. Some members of council and the Pittsburgh Controller believe it would be a tax exempt bond but the mayor’s office disagrees. The City Council was hoping the Parking Authority would approve the proposal and then eventually let the bond and purchase a city owned garage, 5 surface lots and miles of parking meters. Rudiak reminded board members that they were only voting for an RFP, not to purchase the assets. Board member and City Finance Director Scott Kunka called that a “ruse” and voted no. Christopher D’Addario followed suit and board member Linda Judson voted no saying she did not think the Parking authority was where such a review process should begin. Judson says council could do the work but she added that if the city council were to hire consultants she hopes the board would have input into the review process. Natalia Rudiak says the idea is not dead and she will return to council members to look at other options. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says he is drawing up a budget that assumes the pension will be taken over by the state. During the public comment portion of the meeting Mayor Ravenstahl told the board that he would not support any plan that put the city further into debt. “It is irresponsible to open a new credit card to pay for an old credit card,” says Ravenstahl. He says the vote was a waste of time.

Pgh in Discussion on How to Attract Immigrants

Representatives from Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cleveland will convene in Detroit today to discuss methods of attracting and retaining immigrant workers to Midwestern cities.

Audrey Russo, Chair of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, says where the immigrants hail from doesn’t matter as much as the skills and entrepreneurship they bring to the region.

“This monumental shift, from manufacturing into more advanced manufacturing and technology and healthcare and education, requires us to take it to the next level and to further commercialize innovation to smart people,” says Russo. “We’re talking about people who are highly educated and who are also highly creative.”

Russo says while Pittsburgh had one of the most diverse metro populations in the early 20th century, the city now has trouble attracting and retaining global talent. She says the city’s universities seem to be an exception to this.

Russo says in addition to an atmosphere of cultural acceptance, Pittsburgh would better attract immigrant workers with an “amazing school system.” Russo says demographics show that immigrant families often settle in areas with high-performing schools.

Rothfus Challenges Altmire for PA's 4th

Pennsylvania's 4th Congressional District spans six counties in western Pennsylvania and since 2007 Democrat Jason Altmire has kept Republicans at bay. In the May primary Keith Rothfus defeated former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan and is challenging Altmire by hitting him on issues like the economy, expiring tax breaks and health care reform. Rothfus, a private industry lawyer, served under President George W. Bush for two years in the Department of Homeland Security heading an office of faith-based initiatives after Hurricane Katrina. Rothfus says it's not enough that Altmire didn't vote for President Barack Obama's health care law, "You have a representative who would rather go on national tv and hem and haw for weeks on end, that's not the kind of leadership we need." And despite Altmire's "Blue Dog Democrat" label, Rothfus says he's a traditional liberal at heart. Rothfus says he wants to get the economy rolling again and vows that he would pay attention to the private sector and the job creators.

Jason Altmire joined Congress after beating three time incumbent Republican Melissa heart. He says he has a record of listening to constituents regardless of political affiliation, saying his district isn't interested in a partisan politician "they want someone who can get things done in a highly charged political environment." And while he says he'll leave it to Rothfus to distinguish himself, Altmire notes that he was a high profile participant in the discussion leading up the health care reform vote. "I was a pretty visible player, both in western Pennsylvania and around the country and I'm surprised, of all the lines of attack, that people would come at me for not being visible enough." Altmire says he's looking ahead to November 3rd, when he thinks those willing to work across the aisle will wield he most influence in Washington.

Click here to listen to an interview with Republican candidate Keith Rothfus.

Click here to listen to an interview Democratic incumbent Jason Altmire.

Corbett's Last Days on the Trail

The Pennsylvania Gubernatorial election is just days away and Republican Tom Corbett has led Democrat Dan Onorato in the polls throughout the entire election. DUQ’s Scott Detrow went on the road with the Attorney General and found he is using the last few days to urge supporters not to become complacent as what has been a low-key gubernatorial campaign winds to an end.

Listen to Scott's story here.

A look at Democrat Dan Onorato's campaign can be heard tomorrow during Morning Edition on 90.5 FM in Pittsburgh

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Council Postpones Vote on Rental Requirements

City Council members were not ready this morning to vote on changes to the Residential Housing Rental Permit Program, which was the city's 2007 effort to crack down on slumlords.

Landlords sued the city over various parts of the legislation, and the judge in the case has asked the parties to work out an agreement. Councilman Bill Peduto says responsible landlords are unfortunately protecting irresponsible landlords when they oppose the city's reasonable efforts to preserve neighborhoods. Peduto says some owners have used city properties as ATMs for so long without being required to meet certain standards, they see anything the city does to protect its neighborhoods as an infringement on their property rights, which they think should trump others' quality of life.

Peduto says problem properties are more likely to make people give up on living in the city than property taxes or issues of public safety and school quality.

Among other things, the city's law department wants Council to reduce the registration fee from $12 per unit each year to $12 every two years.Since representatives of the law department could not answer many questions without jeopardizing pending litigation, Council voted to take up the topic in a private Executive Session.

Pittsburgh Gets Government Green Award

The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) has awarded the city of Pittsburgh a "Milestone Five" Award. ICLEI calls on local governments to commit to inventory greenhouse emissions, set realistic reduction goals, develop and implement hands-on climate action plans that yield results, and measure the impacts of their actions. The group says Pittsburgh is one of only 18 municipalities nationwide to take on those tasks at a level substantial enough to receive this recognition. ICLEI says the city achieved the Milestone 5 recognition for updating its greenhouse gas inventory. The inventory measures emissions generated by residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, and solid waste processes within Pittsburgh city limits. It also teases out the impact of city government operations. ICLEI says in 2008, Pittsburgh's greenhouse gas emissions totaled 6.8 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, 3% of which came from City government operations. The group applauded the city saying, “Significant strides have been made in completing recommendations to lower emissions from local government, businesses, universities, and residents. City government has completed or made significant progress on 18 of the 23 municipal recommendations, including hiring the City's first Sustainability Coordinator, establishing a Sustainability Commission, installing bike racks in business districts, and increasing recycling in City buildings.”

Rendell Lease Ban May Stay, May Go

One Candidate of Pennsylvania Governor says he will keep a ban on selling state forest land to gas drilling companies and the other says he will have to review it. The Rendell Administration has leased out more than 130 thousand acres of state forest land over the past two years and now that he is about to leave office Rendell has signed an executive order to not sell any more. Only about 20 wells are active in the forests right now, but Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary John Quigley says thousands could be operating in the next few years. The order does nothing to prevent those wells from being drilled, it only prevents more land from being leased. Quigley says the forests have reached a breaking point. “In a perfect world we would not have done the last lease sale, but the facts are that we did,” says Quigley, “We did it with the absolute minimum impact, and did it in a way that we think preserves the sustainability of the forest. But clearly we have reached the point where we can’t go any further.” When Rendell leaves office in January the ban will remain in place but the next governor could decide to overturn it. Democrat Dan Onorato says he will keep Rendell’s order in effect, and urge the development of more private land. He also supports a tax on gas pulled from the Marcellus Shale formation. Republican Tom Corbett would overturn the moratorium. Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley says, “It’s something that is generating revenue for the state, and could generate more. When Tom Corbett’s elected governor, he’ll sit down with his new secretary of DCNR and DEP, and examine what could produce revenue for the state. The leases generate money for the state, and Corbett would look for additional ways to gain revenue from state forests.” Corbett does not support the idea of a tax on shale gas.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gingrich: US House Will Flip

While Campaigning in Harrisburg today former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted Republicans will flip control of the House of Representatives next week. Gingrich says if the Republicans take control of the House, they should refuse to fund President Obama’s programs and priorities. “And so I think you say, we’re not going to pay for that stuff. Make it Obama’s problem to go to the country and say, I’d like to have a bigger deficit to borrow more money to spend more government money implementing programs you hate,” says Gingrich. “Don’t appropriate money for all these phony czars that haven’t been approved by the Senate. Don’t appropriate money to implement ObamaCare. The Congress has the power of the purse, and all it has to do is calmly and confidently use it.”

Gingrich is also calling for a repeal of the new federal health care law, “that doesn’t mean that out of 26-hundred pages, there aren’t some things that are good. I helped found the Center for Health Transformation. I think we could find 260 pages, ten percent, that are actually pretty good things. But I’d rather repeal the whole thing and then pass those 260 pages freestanding.” Gingrich admits that overturning Mr. Obama’s signature won’t move past rhetoric, as long as Democrats retain control of the White House and Senate. The Harrisburg native is one of several high-profile politicians descending on Pennsylvania in the days before the election. President Clinton is stumping with Congressman Paul Kanjorski, and President Obama will make another visit to Philadelphia this weekend.

News of Shale Tax May Be Premature

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has issued an executive order banning any further leasing of state forest land for natural gas drilling and at the same time has opened the door to more talks on a Marcellus Shale severance tax. Last week Rendell declared the severance tax dead for 2010 but in a news conference today Rendell said that he is willing to talk if the legislature wants to return in a lame duck session. The move comes as five Republican state senators announced that they are asking their caucus leadership to continue negotiations over the tax. Ed Rendell blamed their party for killing the talks. The five southeastern Pennsylvania lawmakers wrote to Senate President Joe Scarnati late last week urging him to work toward enacting a tax before the end of the legislative session. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter, sent by Sens. Ted Erickson, Stewart Greenleaf, Chuck McIlhinney, Bob Mensch and Robert Tomlinson. The senators say they disagree with the governor's claim that Republicans haven't negotiated in good faith. Scarnati says talks among legislative caucuses are continuing. Rendell has called on the Senate to return November 8th to work out a deal.

Wheatley Wants 'Equitable' PAT Fares

State Representative Jake Wheatley says the Port Authority of Allegheny County's plan to hike fares for Pittsburgh bus routes is unfair because it doesn't raise rates for suburban routes.

Wheatley says while city routes are cost-effective, suburban routes aren't. He says with that in mind, the Port Authority should increase fares across the board, including the city's “T” system.

The Allegheny County Democrat says in general, suburban riders could also better afford a rate hike than city riders.

The current plan would increase Zone 1 fares by 25 cents and Zone 2 fares by 50 cents. The Port Authority says it dropped its plan to impose $4 'premium' fares on suburban and light rail routes because it didn't want to “complicate” those systems.

With the premium fares, PAT says it would offset about $5 million of its projected $47 million budget deficit. If PAT only increases Zone 1 and 2 fares, that offset would shrink to $3.5 million. The Board must make a decision on 2011 fare increases at its November 24 meeting.

Wheatley says as a member of the House Transportation Committee, he'd vote against any state funding increases for PAT unless its fare increases are equitable for all routes.

Market Square Opening

Although it never fully closed, Market Square was fully reopened at a small ceremony on Tuesday morning. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl joined Rob Stephany of The Urban Redevelopment Authority, Mike Edwards of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Jason Capps, owner of Bella Sera- Urban Trattoria and others to celebrate the completion of the renovation.

"Today our vision for this public space became a reality," he said, referring to the closure of the roads that ran through the historic space, widened sidewalks, tree plantings and making the square more of a public space with plenty of outdoor seating.

The renovations cost $5 million dollars.

Foreclosure Rates High in Some Areas of Pgh

While Pittsburgh’s rate of foreclosure remains below the national average, several neighborhoods in the city weren’t so lucky.

University of Pittsburgh researchers compiled foreclosure data for city neighborhoods and found several communities, especially in the south and west of the city, had high rates. For example, Sheraden’s 2008-2009 foreclosure rate of 22% was the city’s highest, at about 30 times the Pennsylvania rate of 0.7%.

Pitt assistant professor Sabina Deitrick says the data she compiled should be useful for those trying to fight foreclosures.

“There’s lots of groups across the country who are working in similar kinds of neighborhoods and finding homeowners before foreclosures finish,” says Deitrick. “There’s groups here in Pittsburgh, like the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, that are doing those kinds of things. This is information to help them in identifying some areas when working with others, particularly with funders or foundations or financial institutions.”

Deitrick says often these foreclosed houses become property of financial institutions. She says since these companies want to get rid of these properties as quickly as possible, they’re often undersold or they stand vacant. Deitrick says this has happened most often in Beechview, where financial groups owned 29 properties.

Vigil Ceremony Planned

A vigil ceremony to commemorate victims of gun violence will be held on Tuesday evening from 6pm to 7:30pm at the Pittsburgh Project Sanctuary at 2801 North Charles Street.

The names of the more than 100 people who have died violently in the North Side since 1993 will be read off.

Organizer Will Tompkins is the director of community outreach at The Pittsburgh Project. He has arranged three other vigils in previous years. He says its important to remember the victims of gun violence as people, not just statistics. He has lived on the North Side most of his life.

"I know many of those young people. I've helped to bury them by raising money, I've been a pallbearer, I've had relatives who have been impacted as well. So for me, its part of my everyday," he said.

Grant Will Train Pediatricians for Poor Areas

Children’s Hospital has picked up a $1.9 million grant to train medical students to become primary care pediatricians in medically underserved neighborhoods.

Children’s Residency Program Director Dena Hofkosh says many areas in and around Pittsburgh are in need of primary care pediatricians, as well as family doctors. She says this is especially true of both urban and rural low-income areas.

The 5-year program will add two doctors per year for the three-year training course. Hofkosh says the doctors will not only get the traditional academic training of residency, but also hands-on experience in community primary care centers.

Hofkosh says this will be Children’s Hospital’s first attempt to target pediatrician training specifically for high-need areas.

Funding for the grant comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, by way of the Affordable Care Act.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Council and Mayor Spar Over Pension

More than four hours of debate, lecturing, name calling, and posturing in Pittsburgh City Council Chambers today all boiled down to a single question. The question posed to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl by Pittsburgh City Councilman Bruce Krauss came more than three and half hours into the meeting, “So we are at a stalemate?” Ravenstahl answered, “That’s a fair word, sure.” That short exchange may have made all of the other talk around the conference table moot.

The council has rejected the Mayor’s plan to fund the pension program up to at least 50% through the lease of parking assets for the next 50 years and the Mayor says he will not support the council’s plan to sell assets to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority to fund the pension program. If the city does not get its pension program up to the 50% funded level by the end of the year state law will force the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System to seize control of the pension’s assets and layout a schedule to make the plan fully funded within the next 30 years. Everyone agrees a take over by the PMRS will lead to higher minimum payments. How large those payments will be should be known by the end of next week but the Mayor’s office has estimated it will cost the city an additional 27 million dollars next year.

The meeting opened with Mayor Ravenstahl outlining why he thought the council’s plan was irresponsible. He says it is based on what he believes to be an erroneous assumption that a bond floated by the Parking Authority would be tax exempt. If the IRS deems the bond to not be tax-free it would increase the interest rate by 2 to 3 percent. The council disagrees. While pension bonds are usually taxable, City Controller Michael Lamb and Councilman Patrick Dowd argue that it is would be a bond to purchase an asset, not a pension bond. The Mayor also believes the plan puts the parking assets at risk. Council moved its plan partially based on the argument that it keeps “public assets public” while the Mayor’s plan would give control of the assets to a private company. Ravenstahl says the poor financial condition of the city and the parking authority, coupled with the poor condition of the garages means “it is a very real possibility” that the authority would default on the bond. “That means that the public assets would become the assets of Wall Street,” says Ravenstahl. Under the lease deal the assets return to the city in 2051.

The meeting nearly disintegrated after the Mayor’s presentation when he began to asking councilwoman Natalia Rudiak questions about the viability of the plan and its chances of being accepted by the Parking Authority. Council President Darleen Harris scolded the Mayor for asking questions saying a post agenda meeting is intended to help the council gather information, not to launch a debate.

After cutting to the heart of the mater with his question to the mayor, Councilman Bruce Kraus suggested that the council should stop looking at either plan and instead begin talking about how to best deal with a state pension take over. “So lets be honest and call it what it is and begin to do our due diligence and make certain that however the state is to administer this plan it become administered in the most efficient manner with the least impact on services that need to e delivered and the least impact on city employees,” says Krauss. Councilman Ricky Burgess says all of the council’s efforts to derail the mayor’s plan were aimed at forcing a state takeover and them put the blame on the mayor.

At one point Councilman Bill Peduto suggested that the city should look at a hybrid plan. He says the city should consider increasing parking rates on the same schedule as is suggested under the Controller’s plan and then use those funds to help cover the increased pension payments that would come following a state takeover.

Onorato Speaks in Hill District

Allegheny County Executive and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato spoke to an audience of about thirty local African-American leaders in the Hill District on Monday.

He spoke about the differences between him and his opponent Tom Corbett.

Corbett does not support a severance tax on Marcellus Shale gas drilling. Onorato does and says the money from the tax should go towards replacing jobs that were shed from The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, to counties for the wear and tear on roads and water systems from the drilling and to protect farmland and open space and to clean up brownfields.

"We're going to have real environmental issues," he said. He called The Marcellus Shale "a golden opportunity" and cited a Penn State report that said the drilling industry would create 80,000 jobs.

He also made promises to increase accessibility to early childhood education and spoke against the Castle Doctrine expansion.

Students Ask for Amnesty when Seeking Help for Intoxication

Around 1,000 students have signed a petition asking the University of Pittsburgh to change a policy that allows campus police to cite students for underage drinking if they seek help at the school-affiliated hospital UPMC-Presbyterian. Ron Bennett, a spokesman for the campus police, says underage students who go to the hospital if they're dangerously drunk "will probably get a citation" which carries fines up to $500. The students say the policy is dangerous because the fear of citation could discourage students from seeking help. The petition asks the school to adopt an amnesty policy that prevents students from being ticketed if they require medical assistance for alcohol intoxication.

Final Campaign Finance Report Released

In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, Republican Tom Corbett outraised and outspent Democratic opponent Dan Onorato over the past month. Corbett raised $6.2 million and spent $8.6 million, while Onorato took in $3.5 million, and spent $4.6. The Republican spent about $7 million on television ads, compared to Onorato's $4 million in TV purchases. Once again, Onorato's biggest contributors were unions - the AFL-CIO gave $160,000 to his campaign. The Democrat also received $50,000 from Governor Rendell's campaign fund, as well as several individual contributions from members of the Rendell administration and Onorato $20,000 from House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dwight Evans. On the other side, the billionaire chair of Chief Oil and Gas gave $50,000 to Corbett, and the vice president of Range Resources donated $10,000. Both of those companies drill in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale natural gas formation. Among the well-known names giving money to the Onorato campaign was Al Boscov, the chairman of Boscov's department stores who gave $25,000. John Hess of the Hess Corporation donated the same amount to Corbett. The Republican Governors Association's $2.5 million contribution to Corbett's campaign dwarfed the $400,000 its Democratic counterpart gave to Onorato. The Democrat's campaign has about $2 million left in the bank, while Corbett has more than $5 million to spend.

The most interesting donor in either report? Elmer Fudd, who gave $100 to the Corbett campaign.

Resolution Calls for Study of Public School Libraries

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a resolution that urges state agencies to conduct a study on the state's public school libraries. The bill asks that the State Board of Education and the State Education Department conduct research on the number of hours students can access their school's libraries, the amount of up-to-date information that is available, the conditions of books, and if Internet access is available.

State Representative Mark Longietti of Mercer County, says he introduced the resolution at the urging of a group of Shenango Valley librarians and the Public Schools Association. He says that research has shown that test scores are higher in schools where students have regular access to library resources.

Longietti also says that a study would allow the state to better know what schools and programs need improvement on."In order to take the next step what we need is data, and so there's no time like the present to collect the necessary data."

The resolution asks that the Department of Education and the Board make recommendations that the state could follow up on and to hold three public meetings about the study.

Onorato/Corbett Fact Check

WDUQ spent some time over the weekend fact checking some of the ads Pennsylvania’s two candidates for governor are running. A new commercial for Republican Tom Corbett doesn’t fudge the facts, but misleads voters by leaving out contextual information. At the beginning of spot, a woman tells viewers Allegheny County has lost 21-thousand jobs during Onorato’s tenure as county executive. While the figure is correct, the spot leaves out the context that Allegheny County’s unemployment rate has stayed below the state and national average. The latest figures on the federal Department of Labor’s website show an 8.0% unemployment rate here, compared to Pennsylvania’s 8.9% figure and the national 9.5% unemployment rate. The ad goes on to say, “Who ran on a promise of cutting property taxes ten percent, and broke his promise? Dan Onorato.” That’s true, but property taxes haven’t gone up during Onorato’s two terms, either. And as the Democrat is quick to point out at every opportunity, he fought against a court-ordered property reassessment, which would have likely increased property taxes for county residents. The woman in the ad also says Onorato supports a “massive energy tax.” She’s referring to a tax on natural gas extraction – not a cap-and-trade measure.

On the other side, a new ad from Democrat Dan Onorato warns senior citizens that Republican Tom Corbett could eliminate state health services, if he becomes governor. In truth, Corbett has never voiced support for any of the positions the commercial warns about – so the ad is misleading. Onorato’s new spot cuts right to the chase saying, “Corbett’s plan could slash meals on wheels. Cut home health care services. Stop Alzheimer’s outreach. And limit funding for senior centers.” The ad is entirely hypothetical. Corbett has never talked about cutting any of these health care programs. Onorato’s campaign justifies the attack by pointing out the Republican has said, “everything is on the table,” when it comes to cutting state spending. The ad does accurately point out Corbett has joined a lawsuit aimed at overturning the new federal health care law – but frames the challenge as suing to “stop seniors from getting health coverage,” which isn’t true. Corbett has argued the new health care law violates the constitution by mandating the purchase of health care. He says he’s in favor of expanding health care and reducing the cost of coverage – he just doesn’t support the new federal law.

Student Loan Grace Period Ends in November

The six-month grace period for student loans of those who graduated in May ends in November. The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency encourages borrowers to seek advice on how to pay off their loans. Most college loans include a grace period after graduation to stall repayment until the graduates are financially stable and settled into jobs. PHEAA spokesperson Keith New says that even in the current struggling job market, there are repayment plans that can fit each unique case.

“There are hardship and unemployment deferments and forbearances that are available there are Graduated Repayment Plans, and Income Sensitive Repayment plans,” New says. “So there are a variety of tools out there that are intended to help them should they encounter any difficulties.”

New says that although the repayment defaults have risen in the struggling economy, borrowers are being more proactive in communicating with the loan provider that they need help.

“It benefits everybody to make sure we have our borrowers staying in good repayment standings,” New says. “Our default rate still is very low compared with most parts of the country and we think that’s because of our activity to prevent that from happening.”

New says the PHEAA works proactively with borrowers to prevent defaults but borrowers in trouble must make the first move.

“The trick is to get everybody to call their loan service,” New says. “We need them to run towards the problem not run away from the problem. Too often people encounter difficulties paying a bill and they hope it’s going to go away and as with other things it won’t, but there are tools here to help you.”

The PHEAA customer service staff’s role is to help borrowers discuss the payment plans that fit them best, and New says they encourage graduates to take advantage of free resources that help graduates or soon-to-be graduates to plan for their financial future responsibly.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Pitt Romps Rutgers, 41-21

Pitt scored two straight touchdowns to pass Rutgers 14-7 in the first half, but the Scarlet Knights blocked a punt and converted just before halftime to tie the game at 14.

After Pitt recovered a Rutgers fumble to start the second half, quarterback Tino Sunseri found tight end Mike Cruz in the corner of the end zone and the Panthers went up 21-14. From there, Pitt dominated the game. While Rutgers’ offense managed 7 points at the end of the game, Pitt added 3 touchdowns and 2 field goals in the second half to win it 41-21.

Sunseri went 21 of 27 for 307 yards and three touchdowns.

The Panthers are now 2-0 in conference play and 4-3 overall. Pitt plays Big East rival Louisville at Heinz Field next Saturday.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Mayor Condemns Council's Pension/Parking Plan

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl today rejected city council's plan to sell Pittsburgh's parking assets to the Parking Authority in order to pay down a portion of the city's pension debt. "I have no intention whatsoever of supporting this plan and I think if the residents of the city saw it they would support that position as well." Ravenstahl cited the lack of public airing of council's plan and the parking rate hikes that it would implement as two of his chief concerns, as well as the still unknown financial burden that a state takeover by the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System would require. One of council's issues with the mayor's plan to privatize the city's parking garages and meters was the steep hikes it would mean for residents. Today, Ravenstahl called their concern disingenuous, while comparing the rates council would implement to help pay down the 30 year bond the Parking Authority would float to purchase the parking assets for $225 million. Legislation will be presented to the Parking Authority Board on Wednesday to buy the parking assets and Ravenstahl says he won't seek to influence their decision though he hopes they'll reject it. He plans to hold a meeting on Monday at 1 p.m. in council chambers to compare his recently rejected plan for a private takeover of the parking assets, to city council's plan.  His plan would have leased parking assets to LAZ Parking and JP Morgan Asset Management for $452 million dollars for 50 years - council panned his proposal 7-1. Ravenstahl says if some other action isn't worked out he will veto council's plan and prepare for state takeover.

Click here for more information on council's pension/parking plan.

Durbin: Dems Will Hold Senate

While making a few campaign stops in Eastern Pennsylvania, the number two Democrat in the US Senate predicted his party will maintain control of Congress’ upper chamber next year. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois says he’s confident his party will keep its Senate majority, but he concedes Democrats will likely lose several seats. With a much slimmer margin, Durbin says Republicans and Democrats will need to reach across the aisle, in order pass bills. “The issues are substantial. Far and away the biggest issue is creating jobs in America. I mean, we’ve got to turn this economy around and put people back to work. Not only good for their families, but good for our nation, when it comes to the deficit. But secondly, when you take a look at the issues that we face, we still have to deal with the issue of clean energy jobs for our future,” says Durbin. Durbin was in Pennsylvania to campaign for Congressman Joe Sestak and several southeastern congressional candidates. He says Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey is wrong to call for scaled back government spending, “I hope that they’ll take a look at history. Back in the 1930s we went through the same experience. People said, hit the breaks. Let’s talk about the deficit. And the next thing you know, the unemployment rate went skyrocketing again, didn’t come down until World War II. I don’t want to see history repeating itself.”

Durbin made a few more predictions while in the state. He says he won’t be Majority Leader next year. That means he is predicting a win by embattled Democrat Harry Reid, who’s facing a tough campaign in Nevada. Durbin also predicts a November Senate vote on ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” He says, “I believe it’s time to put this policy aside. I believe the military leadership has had an opportunity to consider how to reach that goal. And I think the courts – as Admiral Sestak has said – the courts are moving in the right direction. But because of uncertainty about the next court decision, Congress needs to act.”

Halloween at Phipps Conservatory

On Halloween weekend, Phipps Conservatory will be displaying its spooky plants, including the newly acquired corpse flower plant--a rare giant native to the rain forests of Sumatra.

Phipps purchased a 21-pound corpse flower bulb for a thousand dollars, and it has produced an 8-foot leaf. Assistant Curator Ben Dunigan says the bulb probably won't produce a flower until it's about 30 pounds in a couple of years. The bloom will smell like rotting flesh because flies, not bees, are corpse flower pollinators.

The plant will produce a single deep purple flower about six feet high and six feet wide, according to Dunigan--not a likely boutonniere. The corpse flower is related to the calla lily, jack-in-the-pulpit, and skunk cabbage.

Group Takes Old Drugs Saturday

Flushing or throwing away unwanted or expired medications are not viable options according to a local environmental official. However, but many local residents are unsure of how to get rid of their old drugs.

In an effort to help and educate the public, the Southwestern PA Household Hazardous Waste task force will be hosting a collection for expired or unwanted pharmaceuticals this weekend. The goal of this collection is to avoid continued pollution of the region's waterway when these drugs are flushed down the toilet. Pennsylvania Resource Council Director Dave Mazza says the pollution of water from pharmaceuticals has increased.

“Recently testing has been going on, a lot of water quality testing around the country, and a lot of these pharmaceuticals are showing up in water testing samples,” Mazza says. “We know that more people today are taking prescription medications than at any other time in recent history.”

Mazza says that the water treatment plants lack the ability to recognize these substances and cannot purify them either.

The collection, held Saturday, October 23 from 9 am to 1 pm, provides an opportunity to residents to dispose of prescription, over-the-counter, and veterinary medications in the proper way for a $3.00 registration fee. The task force will be collecting both prescription and non-prescription pharmaceuticals at the Mt. Lebanon Municipal Building, in order to dispose of them properly. Law enforcement will be on hand to ensure the proper handling of any controlled medications.

“You do not want to have these medications laying around the home or dispose of them improperly,” Mazza says. “This event gives people the opportunity to safely and conveniently dispose of these pharmaceuticals.”

Registration must be done ahead of time either online or by calling 412-488-7452.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Penn. Bar Association Starts Education Campaign

Thirty three local bar associations, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Bar Association have launched a Credit Rights education campaign. The campaign comes after the Federal Reserve put into effect new rules designed to protect credit card users from late payment and penalty fees. The Pennsylvania Bar Association is giving away a free brochure and posting new information to their website.

Gretchen Mundorff, the president of the PA Bar Association, says the effort is focused on informing the public about debt-settlement companies. She says they often promise too much to costumers and misguide them into paying more fees instead of helping. Mundorff suggested that rather than dealing with the companies, credit card users should look to lawyers, many of whom are offering debt relief services as a volunteer effort.

Mundorff also says the longer a credit card user stays in debt the worse the problem gets and the harder it is to fix in the future. She suggested that rather then wait to ask for help, do it sooner so the problem is easier to solve.

As of September this year, the FTC put rules into effect to regulate over-the-phone debt-settlement companies. These new rules include debt-settlement companies disclosing: how long it will take the company to get results, how much it charges for service, and the consequences for seeking relief. Additional rules make it illegal for companies, over the phone, to charge upfront fees.

Rendell: Severance Tax "Clearly Dead" This Year

Governor Ed Rendell has given up hope a natural gas severance tax will be passed into law while he’s still in office.
Rendell says the tax on natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania is “clearly dead” in 2010, since Senate and House leaders have failed to make any headway in negotiations.
Press Secretary Gary Tuma faults Senate Republican leaders for sticking to a tax rate of 1.5 percent, which would eventually increase to five percent after five years.
Tuma says the Republicans’ rate is unacceptable.

"They simply came back and reiterated their same position. They did not budge from that position at all. So that makes it clear that they are not negotiating in good faith. They are not negotiating at all. They are simply saying it’s our way or the highway."

Senate Republicans are also insisting the House re-pass a severance tax bill before the election – an action House Democratic leaders have ruled out.
Erik Arneson, a spokeman for Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati says they didn't expect this announcement...

"It took us by surprise, and we hope he will reconsider it. We are certainly willing to negotiate Marcellus Shale issues, and thought our letter made it clear the framework from which we wanted to do that."
If the bill doesn’t pass this year, the Rendell Administration will need to cut an additional 70 million dollars from the state budget.
Democrat Dan Onorato would support a severance tax next year if he becomes governor, but Republican Tom Corbett says the issue is off the table.

Marshall Fellows Come to Pittsburgh

Four European professionals are visiting Pittsburgh this week as part of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. The program sends the fellows to the U.S. for a month to visit several cities. While they're in Pittsburgh they'll spend time learning about economic development, education, arts and culture. They stopped by WDUQ to get a first-hand look at the business of public radio. In addition to WDUQ, Dobrina Cheshmedjieva of Bulgaria, Tamas Bodoky of Hungary, Pedro Rodrigues of Portugal, and Florian Toncar of Germany are scheduled to visit the Heinz History Center; meet with a PNC executive to learn about the financial crisis and banking regulations; ride on the Duquesne Incline; talk with the chief health officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation; and talk about American politics with a candidate who's running for Congress.


PNC Earnings Up

PNC Financial Services Group is reporting third quarter income of $1.1 billion. That works out to $2.07 per diluted common share. The numbers come on a net income of $803 million. The company earned net income of $2.6 billion, or $4.24 per diluted common share, for the first nine months of 2010 compared with $1.3 billion for the first nine months of 2009. In a written statement PNC CEO James Rohr says the bank did well in a “challenging operating environment.” Rohr says, “Our disciplined focus on execution resulted in improved credit quality, record capital levels and an overall higher quality balance sheet." “While the outlook for the economy remains uncertain, I am confident that our business model will continue to deliver differentiated results," says Rohr. PNC continued its effort to move to a more “moderate risk profile” and Rohr says that helped the company’s bottom line.

PA Civil Service Law Amended

Governor Rendell recently signed a package of bills that will tweak Pennsylvania’s process of hiring civil servants.

The bills amend Pennsylvania’s Civil Service Law to more closely it align with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Sponsoring Representative Chris Ross says the state law was drafted before the ADA, forcing some municipalities to violate one law or the other.

Ross says the affected municipalities brought the issue to the state legislature. The Chester County Republican says all kinds of Pennsylvania municipalities will be affected by several changes.

“While you’re allowed to stop someone from being hired if they’re drug-addicted or fail a drug test, you’re not allowed to inquire about whether they previously had been treated for drug or alcohol addiction,” says Ross. “Also, the physical limitations have to be job-related.”

Ross says the new laws were written so hiring civil servants like police and firefighters would still be based on competency.

Toomey, Sestak Agree on Little

The two candidates vying for Pennsylvania's open Senate seat faced off at a debate at the Constitution Center in downtown Philadelphia Wednesday night. The two did not agree on much, but each said the other belongs to the extreme fringe of his political party. Both sides lobbed accusations of extremism. Democrat Joe Sestak even took a shot at who Republican Pat Toomey has in his corner. "Look I know he won the very coveted award of the endorsement by Sarah Palin. And I understand the anger of the Tea Party. What I'm most concerned about are those extreme candidates that are taking advantage of the extreme fringe of the Tea Party," says Sestak. Toomey fired back, painting Sestak as an extreme liberal. He says, "It's very clear, the person who is the extreme candidate who is out of touch with Pennsylvania is Joe Sestak. Look at this agenda. He voted for all the bailouts and then introduced his own bill to create a new bailout." Toomey and Sestak also traded barbs on abortion, healthcare, and foreign policy. On the question of abortion, Pat Toomey says he wants to ban the practice unless it's a case of rape, incest or health of the mother. He says his views are in step with the majority of Pennsylvanians. "Joe Sestak is the one who is extreme on this issue. He is in that fringe of members, very liberal, who believe in tax payer funded abortions on demand, and no restrictions at all, well outside the mainstream of Pennsylvania." Joe Sestak responded by saying Toomey is extreme. "Palin, Toomey, O'Donnell they would all like to overturn Roe versus Wade. I believe that those life decisions of a family should be made within the family." Sestak said he never voted in favor of taxpayer-funded abortions. With less than two weeks left before election day, Sestak has come from behind in the polls.

Corbett: Privatize Liquor Stores

Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett wants to privatize the state-run liquor stores. The Republican says he will make that happen during his first year as governor. The idea comes up every few years in Harrisburg but has always been shot down by an unusual marriage of union supporters and for right social conservatives. Corbett argues Pennsylvania’s dire financial circumstances will give the plan momentum, much like a multi-billion dollar deficit paved the way for legalized table games at casinos this year. “You have to keep in mind that I don’t think the last seven governors have faced an economic crisis the likes of which Pennsylvania is looking at right now,” says Corbett, “I think there is a much greater willingness in the general populace, that wants it. The voters, I think, want it. “ A Republican lawmaker who’s long pushed for privatization estimates Pennsylvania could generate two billion dollars by selling off state stores. Opponents of the idea, including Governor Rendell, say the one-time profit isn’t worth the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Corbett disagrees, “I believe he’s wrong, because we’re still going to have a tax on alcohol. We would receive income from that. What we’re looking at is selling a system off to other people. To privatize that system. And to be able to put it on the free market, where it’s going to help the citizens of Pennsylvania in a much more effective way. “ Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato says he is not rejecting the idea of selling the stores, but would be hesitant to lose the annual revenue. At the same time Corbett says he is hesitant to change the beer sales laws. “In many cases those are small mom and pop stores that have been in existence for a long time, and great value in those licenses. And you would want to ensure that their value is maintained. And the same with the small bars that sell – as you know they can sell two six-packs,” says Corbett. Onorato is also against change the beer laws.

The gubernatorial debate held in Pittsburgh October 16th can be heard at the bottom of the post at this link.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Council Moves Forward on a Pension Plan

Pittsburgh council approved a preliminary plan today that would sell the city's parking assets to the Parking Authority for $220 million, float a 30 year bond to buy those assets and increase parking fees to pay down the debt. Under the plan, that payment would lift the city's pension fund to the 50% funded level; currently it hovers below the 30% funded mark. The 50% level means state takeover would no longer be mandatory. But a number of question marks remain. The Parking Authority still has to approve the deal and councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who also serves on the Authority's Board, plans to introduce legislation to the Authority next week. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would also have to approve the deal and he has said he's not interested in allowing the city to take on any more debt. Yet another scenario would allow the city to bring the pension fund to 50% percent funded by selling assets to the Parking Authority and then turning the fund over to state control voluntarily. Everyone is still waiting on the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System to give hard numbers on how much the city would have to pay into the pension fund annually to bring it to the fully funded level. Council also discussed the need improve the technology used at meters and garages and in collection to move the city's parking into the 21st century. Councilman Ricky Burgess--who favored he mayor's plan to privatize parking assets and a voluntary take over by the state--was the lone no vote on all of the parking/pension legislation.

Dealing With Blight

The Pennsylvania House Urban Affairs Committee held a public hearing this morning at Point Park University on the status of a fairly new law to deal with blighted and abandoned properties. Yesterday, there was a summit with workshops on tools available for municipalities and elected officials.

Andrew Menchyk, solicitor with the Redevelopment Authority of Butler County, says his group has filed six actions under the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, which took effect in early 2009 to allow petitioners in the Court of Common Pleas to take control of problem properties that meet certain criteria, e.g., have not been occupied, have not paid taxes, and constitute a danger in terms of fire or illicit activity.

Irene McLaughlin, consultant to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, says most new laws are tested in the courts and may need further legislative work before they can be implemented as lawmakers intended, so it is important that the House Urban Affairs Committee keeps reviewing the status of the law.

Wuerl Chosen as Cardinal

The man who led the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese for 18 years has been selected by Pope Benedict XVI to join the College of Cardinals. Cardinal-designate Donald Wuerl will receive his red hat in an elevation ceremony Saturday November 20th and will receive his ring from the Pope in a Mass the following day. The 69-year old will continue to serve as the head of the Archdiocese of Washington. Bishop David Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese served with Wuerl in Pittsburgh back in the 1980’s and 90’s. He says he is “thrilled” by the announcement, but he was not surprised. “I think we could all see this honor was coming because Cardinal Designate Wuerl has been asked to do a number of things on behalf of the Pope even without the title of Cardinal,” says Zubik. Zubik says Wuerl will approach matters as a cardinal the same way he tackled tough issues as a bishop in Pittsburgh, very thoughtfully and methodically. “He will stand up for what is right,” says Zubik. Zubik also points to Wuerl’s ability to bring together people of all faiths as an asset that he will bring to the College of Cardinals.

Wuerl was born in Pittsburgh and was ordained to the priesthood on December 17, 1966. Pope John Paul II ordained him a bishop on January 6, 1986 in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome. He served as Auxiliary Bishop in Seattle until 1987 and then as Bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years until his appointment to the Archdiocese of Washington on June 22, 2006.

Zubik says this is the third time that a Pittsburgh native has been named cardinal (Adam Maida, Daniel DiNardo) and the 4th bishop to be elevated to the position (John Dearden, John Wright, Anthony Bevilacqua). The Pittsburgh Dioceses has had 12 Bishops in all.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

U.S. Attorney Reorganizes Office

David Hickton announced that he is restructuring the U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh in an effort to better distribute crimes the office handles throughout the staff. Hickton, the U.S. Attorney for Western PA, will reorganize the Criminal Division into four new sections: Civil Rights and Exploitation, National Security, Violent Crimes and Fraud and Corruption. He also established an Executive Committee of attorneys that will meet with office leadership to address training, planning, diversity, and case review. The changes will take effect on October 24th.

Hickton says the new Civil Rights section will show the office's obligation to addressing hate crimes. "It will send a message inside and outside this office, to the community at large, that we believe that civil rights violations and hate crimes are unacceptable...and that we intend to make it a priority to stop them."

He also says that, although he has created two new positions to make sure his office meets ethical obligations, he has not seen any misconduct from his staff. Hickton says that the posts are mainly to help improve the already high professionalism he has experienced.

The office currently employs 51 assistant attorneys and 60 support staff. And prosecutes civil and criminal cases on behalf of the U.S. in the western part of Pennsylvania.

ICA Rejects 2011 Budget

The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority rejected the City’s 2011 budget today saying it cannot approve the spending plan until the city knows what it is doing about its pension program. City Council and the Mayor’s office are locked in a fight over how to fund the pension plan. The Mayor had submitted a budget that leased the parking assets for the next 50-year and used the proceeds to shore up the underfunded pension plan. Council rejected that plan and members are exploring other options. ICA Chair Barbara McNees says by statute the ICA had to vote on the budget today. By voting no, a second clock begins ticking. The mayor now has 15 days to submit a second budget. The ICA will then have 15 days to respond. McNees says other than the pension issue, the budget is in order. What ever they choose, if it is fiscally sound and balanced we would not send it back, “ says McNees. She says she will not take sides in the ongoing debate, “ we have been very specific with everybody that it is up to the mayor and city council to pick a plan that they feel is best for the city.”
City budget director Scott Kunka says the Mayor’s office will begin working on the budget even though it does not know exactly what the council will approve. One option is to allow the state to take over the pension plan. That is expected to result in higher minimum payments in to the pension plan. The state has yet to let the city know exactly what that payment will be but Kunka says by consulting with a private actuary he has a good guess as to what the payment will be. “It would be difficult for their actuary to come back with anything other,” says Kunka, “it’s a fairly arcane but fairly exact science.” Kunka says they will keep an eye on council’s actions in the coming days in an effort to figure out how much money they will have to cut from the budget.

Tiny Trains Roll Through Phipps

Phipps Conservatory has debuted a first in the botanical world this fall: a Garden Railroad with N-scale model trains.

N-scale models are 160 times smaller than actual trains, the third-smallest scale of model trains. Phipps’ two N-scale trains will have engines about six inches long, with one depicting an historic 1880s locomotive and another representing a modern train.

Phipps Director of Horticulture Margie Radebaugh says one challenge is managing a living landscape at such tiny scales.

“You’d use ... things like almost tree seedlings, sedums, baby tears, baby mosses, things that have very small leaves.”

Radebaugh says the entire landscape will be alive, with tree forms six to eight inches tall.

Phipps’ Garden Railroad exhibit also features three larger G-scale trains: a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train, a freight train running crops through farmland, and a logging train rolling through a forest.

The Garden Railroad runs through March 13.

Council Rejects Parking Lease, Angers Firefighters

On a 7 to one vote with one abstention today, Pittsburgh City Council officially rejected Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposal to lease parking authority assets to a private company in an effort to shore up the underfunded pension fund. The 50-year lease would have resulted in more than $450 million dollars for the city. $220 million of it would have been used to raise the pension program above the 50% funded level to avoid a state takeover. After the vote the firefighters who had packed the council chambers gathered in the hall to listen to their president Joe King. King rallied his members by painting a picture of a city budget that he says will be 25-32 million dollars in the red. “All of this debt is going to fall on the
Home owners and the employees and the businesses of this city, “ says King, “ and I’ll tell you who should be held accountable, those nine people in there.” King says the firefighters will remember the vote when they go to the poles next year. He then called on council to reduce the city’s budget by reducing the size of city council. King warned his members that he believes the city will begin to “brown out” the department. He says the city cannot layoff firefighters so it will selectively, temporarily close firehouses to save on overtime. King says, “this is not about safety, this is about money.”

Council still has several options before it. A plan created by city controller Michael Lamb and sponsored by Council members Darlene Harris, Natalia Rudiak and Patrick Dowd calls for the city to sell the parking garage lots and meters it owns to the Parking Authority for $220 million dollars. That money would then be used to shore up the pension fund. The Authority would have to issue a bond to cover the cost. The proposal also gives the authority the ability to set rates without council approval. Dowd admits that it will lead to hire parking rates but he says the increase will be much less than if the assets were leased to a private company. “Given the choice between handing over the assets to a private company or a public authority, I’ll take the authority every time,” says Dowd.

Councilman Doug Shields says he will listen to the details of the controller’s pan at a meeting and debate it in council tomorrow but for now he still likes the idea of a state take over of the pension plan. He notes it is the only option that puts the pension plan on a 30-year path to being fully funded.

Voting for the lease deal was Ricky Burgess. Theresa Kail-Smith abstained.

LAZ Parking issued a written statement following council’s no vote expressing its disappointment. It reads in part, “Our expertise in operating, investing in and managing parking systems around the country would have provided great benefits to the City, its residents, visitors and downtown commuters…. Over the past several weeks we have had the opportunity to speak with members of Council and made several suggested amendments to be sensitive to the matters raised by Council Members.” The company says it will have other opportunities in other cities looking to better manage their parking assets and tackle fiscal challenges. The statement ends, “Our hope is that the City of Pittsburgh and other municipalities and government agencies around the country learn how important it is in a process like this one to have alignment between City Council Members, the Office of the Mayor and other important stakeholders.”

PA Court to Admit African American Application for 1847

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will try to right a 160-year-old wrong Wednesday morning when it admits George Vashon to the bar posthumously. After graduating from Oberlin College and then reading law with a prominent member of the Pittsburgh legal community, African American George Vashon applied in 1847 to be admitted to the Allegheny County bar. Longtime Pittsburgh Lawyer Wendell Freeland says that was before there was a standard test to become a member of the bar. Freeland says the lawyer under whom Vashon studied supported his application to the bar but Vashon was denied access because the judges decided that since freed slaves did not have the right to vote they could not be admitted to the bar. Vashon then left for New York where he was admitted to the bar. After the civil war, Vashon returned to Pittsburgh and in 1868 he again applied and was denied admission to the Allegheny County bar. Freeland notes that Vashon was admitted to the bar of the US Supreme Court just a few months later. “It shows how far behind Pennsylvania was at the time,” says Freeland.

After learning of Vashon’s story, Freeland asked the Pennsylvania Board of Law examiners to grant Vashon admission to the bar posthumously. The Board denied the request in 2007 saying it might set a president. Freeland then took his case directly to the PA Supreme Court and the fruits of his labor will be seen Wednesday morning when Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille will sign and present a Certificate of Admission on
behalf of the Court to the Vashon family, confirming Mr. Vashon's credentials, competency and good character to practice law in Pennsylvania. Freeland says he was trying to right a wrong. “This will be a great moment for Western Pennsylvania and all of Pennsylvania,” says Freeland. Freeland says he feels the court is in a unique position to hand out this type of justice. He says he knows of no others that were treated in the same manner as Vashon but he suspects there were others who have been swallowed up by history. Freeland says it is likely that there are similar stories in other states. In a written statement Chief Justice Castille says, “There is no question that denying George Vashon’s admission to the Bar in 1847 and again in 1868 was blatantly discriminatory. By granting this petition, our Court recognizes, and is sensitive to the fact, that those prior practices in the Commonwealth’s earlier history had a real effect on real people.”

The Supreme Court’s May 4th order admitted Vashon to the Pennsylvania Bar, stating that, “George B. Vashon possessed the necessary credentials, competency, and good character to practice law in Pennsylvania in 1847 based upon his bachelor and masters degrees from Oberlin College, his mentorship with the Honorable Walter Forward of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas and his subsequent admissions to practice law in the State of New York and before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

A small group of Vashon’s decedents are to be in the courtroom and the judge will allow Freeland to introduce them. Freeland says he thinks the formality of the court will break down a bit at that time and he expects it will become a celebratory event.

State House Passes Bill to Protect Students With Allergies

Parents of children with food allergies can begin to feel a peace of mind as a bill that would force school districts to create a policy allowing children to carry epinephrine medication awaits the governor's signature. Passing the bill on a bipartisan vote of 180-19, the House was persuaded by the dangers of an allergic reaction without medication.

Bill sponsor Matthew Smith, a Democrat from Allegheny County, says it’s essential for children to be able to self-medicate themselves after an allergic reaction.

“It can strike a child at any moment and it’s imperative that they have these EpiPens on their person at the time they suffer from the food allergy attack. It will help prevent them from going into anaphylactic shock.”

If a child has an allergic reaction to something they ate, often nut-based, the child has only a few seconds to medicate themselves. Students are currently prohibited from carrying epinephrine medication such as EpiPen injectors in school and this legislation would allow those medications to be carried on the person at all times.

Smith says the bill is as much about ensuring peace of mind for parents as it is about the protection of students.

”It gives the parents the peace of mind that if their son or daughter has a food allergy they’ll have the EpiPen on their person at school to administer the medication that literally needs to be administered in a matter of seconds,” Smith says.

Concerns about the maturity of students carrying the medication and their knowledge of how to use it were considered in the legislation and the bill includes safeguards to ensure that the child knows how to use it along with physician and parental consent.

Council Hears Experts on Marcellus Shale

Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields brought together environmental and legal experts in Council Chambers Monday for a Marcellus Shale information-gathering session.

The discussion centered on public health concerns related to drilling and the legal issues the city may meet when trying to ban Shale gas wells.

Shields recently introduced a moratorium on Shale drilling within city limits. However, the ban might not be legal because it contradicts Pennsylvania's Oil and Gas Act.

University of Pittsburgh constitutional law Professor Jules Lobel says while the Oil and Gas Act preempts local zoning laws, the city could argue that the ban is an emergency measure to protect its natural resources. Lobel says Pittsburgh could also argue that gas drilling, like nuclear power, is too dangerous an industry for an urban area.

Pitt environmental law professor Emily Collins says if the moratorium is challenged, the city could face three problems: Pittsburgh's limited zoning authority, the precedence of the Oil and Gas Act, and the time and money needed for litigation.

Cornell University environmental engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea says environmental accidents occur at one in every 150 wells, which is unacceptable when compared to the far smaller incident rates in other industries like bridge-building and air travel.

Lobel says while Pittsburgh may lose a court battle with the state, persistent lawsuits can change the opinion of the courts over time.

Final Gubernatorial Debate Before Election

Democrat Dan Onorato and Republican Tom Corbett made their closing arguments to Pennsylvania voters, during their third and final debate last night.
During his closing statement, Corbett told voters he’s the only candidate who will lower taxes and government spending.

"If you want four more years of increased spending, of taxes. If you want four more years of unemployment. If you want four more years of trying to be all things to all people – if you want four more years of Ed Rendell-like policies, then I would select my opponent."

Onorato, in turn, said he’s had more practical experience than Corbett, when it comes to growing the economy and working with the private sector. He continued to argue Corbett is a flip-flopper.

"I stood at the first debate, and I heard clear as day – Tom said he would help to pay back a three billion dollar debt to the federal government by putting a tax on the workers. At the last debate, he said he wouldn’t. Now I just find it ironic that the first debate was in front of a chamber audience. The second debate wasn’t. You can’t change your answer depending on what audience you’re talking to."

The Democrat is also vowing to shrink government spending and keep taxes level.
The majority of the debate focused on issues the two candidates have been arguing about for months.
A few new topics did come up, though.
On gay rights, Onorato said he’d support a measure banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Corbett said Pennsylvania has the laws it needs to fight anti-gay bias.

Damaged I-70 Bridge to Come Down

PennDOT will bring down a bridge over I-70 in Washington County this morning. The emergency work comes a day after a truck carrying an oversize load struck the bridge in
Somerset Township. PennDOT inspectors who checked the bridge yesterday say it needs to come down immediately. The Interstate is closed for the near future. Vehicles are getting off at the McIlvaine Road exit, then immediately back on to avoid going under the damaged overpass. As 40,000 vehicles use that stretch of Interstate 70 each day. State police are looking for the rig that damaged the bridge. Witnesses say the truck hit the overpass and then sped away.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mayor Expects State Takeover of Pension

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl responded to City Council's preliminary vote against his proposed plan to solve the city's pension problem by saying he is done lobbying them and expects a state takeover of the city pension fund.

Council voted down the plan last week and is expected to take a second vote on Tuesday.

Ravenstahl said he and his staff have come up with a plan that would parlay proceeds from a leasing parking facilities to a private operator into a pension fund bailout.

He said the plan would be a viable alternative to the state takeover that would lead to dramatically higher pension payments that the city could make only by raising taxes or cutting services.

His staff has begun preparations for a state takeover of the pension fund.

By state law, the state will take over the fund if the city is unable to raise the level of funding from about 27 percent of the requirement to at least 50 percent by the end of this year.

Ravenstahl said he now intends to devote his attention to other issues. Private industries had bid about $452 million to lease the parking facilities. He said, in the future, turning down his plan will be looked at as "a golden opportunity" that was missed.

Back From Asia, Mayor Calls Trip Successful

After a 10 day trip to China and Korea, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called the trip a success and said it was laid the groundwork for attracting new businesses to settle in the region.

The mayor went with a delegation that included Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference and Joe McGrath, CEO of Visit Pittsburgh.

Yablonsky said the trip was a success. The delegation met with companies they were already courting and with new companies. The companies are in the sectors the region is trying to grow: advanced manufacturing, financial services, energy, life sciences, health care and information and communication technology.

Yablonsky credits the G-20 Conference, held in Pittsburgh in September of 2009, for bringing attention to the "transformation" of the region. Ravenstahl said the G-20 summit "put Pittsburgh back into the global game." He said the trip did not cost taxpayers anything. He said he was not sure who paid for the trip.

The next step is for the companies to visit Pittsburgh and see all that the city has to offer.

"Women of Steel" Meet in Pittsburgh

The United Steelworkers International Women's Conference is underway at the Convention Center through Wednesday. U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will address the group this afternoon. President Leo Gerard delivered the keynote address this morning.

Gerard says there's no doubt that electing Democrats is in the interest of ordinary working people. He says there was a bill in the Senate to give a tax break to companies that bring jobs back and to remove the tax incentive for moving jobs offshore--legislation he says would be good for the country and create jobs for Americans, yet not a single Republican voted for it. Gerard says Republicans want Obama to fail so they can win the presidency in 2012.

Saying labor has no better friend than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gerard cited victorious votes in the House that she brought to the table, like a public option in the health care bill, the Employee Free Choice Act to simplify union organizing, funding for jobs, and extension of unemployment benefits.

Gerard says members of the local Chamber of Commerce in Erie support Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper, but the national Chamber of Commerce funds ads against her, saying she cost jobs and bailed out Wall Street, when in fact George W. Bush was in office for the Wall Street bailout and the Wall Street collapse.

Environmentalists Remind PA Lawmakers of Promise

With the Pennsylvania Senate likely gone for the year, environmental advocates are losing hope a natural gas severance tax will become law.
Senate Republican leaders have said they’re willing to come back and pass a measure but only if House Democratic leaders agree to a specific set of demands on the tax rate, revenue distribution, drilling safety issues, and other provisions.
Jan Jarrett, the president and CEO of PennFuture, is urging the upper chamber to come back before the election.

"They have the opportunity to come back. There’s no excuse for them not to come back and finish up their business. And come back to work, essentially, and get unfinished business done. All of us who have jobs have to come to work. We have to finish what we started."

She reminds House and Senate leaders they legally pledged to pass a severance tax, with language in this year’s fiscal code.

"And if they don’t, Pennsylvania taxpayers should be as angry as they were over the midnight pay raise in 2005. This is serious business."

Work is continuing behind the scenes. Top Republican and Democratic staffers met for two hours on Friday. They’re scheduled to continue talks today.

Carnegie Museum of Art opens “Ordinary Madness”

For some it may seem like a trip down memory lane, for others it will be a gallery full of new discoveries but CMOA Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Dan Byers says for him it is look at the everyday and finding it laced with the surreal, the uncanny and the extraordinary. The show “Ordinary Madness” highlights those juxtapositions by using pieces in the museum’s archives. “Some of them have not been on display for years,” says Byers. However, he says visitors may recognize some of the works from past internationals and from the rotating contemporary art collection housed in the Scaif Galleries. Byers says the show grew out of an interest in finding ways to sustain the city’s energy and engagement with contemporary art outside of the internationals. To put together the show Byers says he was able to “dig deep into the holdings.” Some of that was done by looking at pictures saved on computers but at other times he had to go down into the bowels of the museum to look at the works first hand. Byers says he found enough material to do the show “two or three times over” and he may launch a similar show some time in the future. Like many museums, CMOA is looking for new ways to use its archives and Byers says this is a great way to depart from the chronological perspective taken in the Scaif gallery. This show looks at works from 1945 to the present and includes paintings, sculpture, photography and video.

The show, which runs through January 9, will include two evenings of film screenings. The first runs from 6pm to 7:30pm October 22 and brings together works that focus on the irrational, ambivalent, and chaotic aspects of everyday experience and pop-culture phenomena. The second runs November 10, 6–7:30 p.m. and will highlight the junction between art and life and investigate the divide between reality and its distortion in myth, desire, and individual perception.

To help visitors through the exhibition, the museum has produced a fully illustrated, free “pocket guide,” containing color reproductions of many of the artworks on view and essays by Byers and other museum employees.

Listen to an interview with Dan Byers here.

Sestak. Toomey Agree On "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak says he’s disappointed the Obama Administration is appealing a federal court order halting the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.
Sestak, a retired three-star admiral, estimates he had to discharge about a dozen service members during his career, because of the policy barring gays from openly serving in the military.
He says he’s frustrated by the amount of time it’s taken to overturn the guidelines.

"We were able to pivot and get our troops over to Afghanistan on short notice. We’re able to -- we have lessons learned from the integration of women into combat. Why do we have to wait a year for something that has to do with our integrity? We’re asking people and the institution to live a lie."

The House has voted to end “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” once a Pentagon review is complete, but a Senate vote has been held up.
The military has announced it will follow the federal court order, even though the Obama Administration is appealing the decision, and has asked the judge to stay the ruling.
Repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is the rare issue where Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey see eye-to-eye.
Toomey says he’d “welcome” a policy change, if military leaders gave their approval.

"That’s what this should be all about. Not various people’s preferred social policy. So if our military leadership says we can execute our mission as well or better in the absence of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” then I’m in favor of repealing it."

The Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both said they’d support a change.