Friday, December 31, 2010

Winter Classic Time Changed

The National Hockey League has moved the start time for the NHL Winter Classic to 8 p.m. tomorrow. It had been set for 1 p.m. but concerns over rain and warm temperatures forced the move. Cooler and drier conditions are expected to move into the region lat in the day. Gates to Heinz Field will now open at 5:30 p.m. Pre-game entertainment will begin at 7:30 p.m. The NHL warns that there could still be delays throughout the game to work o the ice. The decision to stop play will be made by the Commissioner. To make sure poor ice conditions do not negatively impact either team, the clubs will switch ends at the 10:00 minute mark of the third period. The NHL says it will retain the ability to postpone the game at any time and play the game Sunday at Heinz Field. The game can also be called after two periods.

New Pension Plan Ok'd By Council

In meetings on Friday, Pittsburgh City Council have preliminary and final approval to a pension bailout that they hope will avoid a state takeover of the city's pension plan. Their deadline for it to become official is midnight on December 31st. After the mayor vetoes the plan, City Council will meet to override the veto and it will become official.

Bill Peduto says this is the best plan of all of the plans that have been proposed. "There is no way to not put money in when we're being told that we have to get to fifty percent so we tried to find the least impact way of doing that. We have also provided the funding for that which is the parking rate increases," he said.

The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority approved amendments to the city's 2011 budget and five-year spending plan that would allow parking tax money to be diverted to the pension bailout plan on Friday morning. $45 million from a trust fund was placed in the city's pension fund.

Council plans to put $735.7 million in parking tax revenue into the fund over 31 years.

Drugged Driving More Widespread than Drunk Driving

Pharmacists this holiday season are warning about the effects of drugged driving. They say that certain medications can impair perception, judgement and reaction time in people. Jan Engle, Pharmacy Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that there are many medications that people should not take before driving yet often do anyway. She says that drugged driving is often caused by people not taking time to read the labels of drugs or ask their pharmacist about the medications before taking them and getting behind the wheel.

Engle says that travelers should talk to their pharmacists about their medications before going places this holiday season. "It's really important to think about, when your traveling, what you need to do with your medicines, especially if if you're traveling over different timezones. You can talk to your pharmacist to determine whether or not you have to adjust the schedule you take your medicine. For example, in an extreme case, if you were flying to Asia where the time difference is 12 hours you may need to be taking your medicine at night versus in the morning."

According to the National Highway and Safety Administration 20% of accidents in the U.S. are a result of drugged driving. While over 16% of weekend and nighttime drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter medication.

Dem Senate Leader Stresses Budget Priorities

The new minority chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee says as the new governor and state legislature look to cut budget expenses, job creation and economic development programs are areas that should not get the axe.
Democratic Senator Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia says Pennsylvania is facing a serious budget shortfall and a fragile economy in 2011 so tough decisions on priorities will have to be made....

"We need to make sure all of our programs and all of our projects and the services that we provide at the Commonwealth level are operating at the greatest level of efficiency. We need to make sure we reduce redundancies that exist from various different programs. We need to operate with a thoughtful and compassionate philosophy as we go down this process."

Hughes says with Pennsylvania's jobless rate hovering between 9% and 9.5%, job creation and economic development programs should be a priority.....
“Creating jobs, balancing needs and stretching dollars are critical priorities that will require us all to come together and find common ground. "

In the first five months of the 2010-2011 budget year Pennsylvania’s general fund collections have totaled $9.2 billion, which is $14 million above estimates. Hughes says it’s anticipated that the state will finish the year with a balanced budget and maybe a slight surplus.

However, the state faces a possible $4 billion deficit mostly due to the loss of federal stimulus funds. Governor-elect Tom Corbett says he won’t raise taxes but will cut spending. The two largest areas of the state budget are education and services provided by the Department of Public Welfare which Hughes calls a favorite target....
"With the unemployment crisis that exists, with folks not working, with folks losing their homes, more and more folks are dependent upon the programs in the Department of Public Welfare just to make it through. So, we've got to be very careful when we say on one side 'cut a system and a series of programs', when the need and demand for those programs is increasing dramatically."

Governor-elect Corbett will deliver his budget proposal to legislature in early March.

Roddey: Onorato Would Still be Favorite if He Seeks 3rd Term

The head of the Allegheny County Republican Party believes the momentum the G-O-P generated in the November elections for governor and U.S. Senate can continue into 2011 and the race for Allegheny County Executive.
Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey says the volunteers are still energized "and as long as we present them with good candidates and we raise enough money to fund them properly, we'll have a lot of momentum going into this coming year."
Dan Onorato, who lost the gubernatorial race to Republican Tom Corbett 54.5% to 45.5%, has not decided whether to seek a third, and what would be final term under the County Home Rule Charter. Onorato failed to win Allegheny County in the governor's race despite a large Democratic voter registration edge.
"Conventional wisdom is that Dan is somewhat damaged now," says Roddey. He lost his own county, he lost the election by a fairly large margin and he would be the better candidate to run against for Republicans. I don't buy that."
Roddey says Onorato is a smart campaigner..."He's been able to raise a lot of money and he is the incumbent. So, I think that he would be the odds on favorite regardless of who was running."
Still, Roddey says from what he's hearing, he doesn't think Onorato will run for a third term. Roddey has been recruiting potential Republican candidates for county executive who can appeal to independents and Democrats...
"Someone that really talks about the right issues, getting the county on track fiscally and someone who is willing to work really hard. Running for county executive is a hard job."
Roddey should know. He was the first Allegheny County Executive form 2000-04 following adoption of the Home Rule Charter.
Roddey believes a successful candidate will have to raise at least $2 million. He expects the first candidates to declare this week or next.

Rendell: Gaming Helping Racing

As the Rendell Administration prepares to leave office, officials are touting casino gambling as a success, when it comes to boosting the Pennsylvania's horse racing industry.
Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding says 44-thousand racing jobs have been created, since the industry started getting 12 percent of slots revenue in 2006.
He notes Pennsylvania breeding is up 10 percent during a national downward trend, and says the racing benefits trickle down.

"The veterinary care provided, the fees provided, the buildings. And you get that long-term growth of the equine industry that everybody says they wanted. We're beginning to see the results now."

During last year's debate over legalizing table games, racing officials said they were worried poker and blackjack tables would take money away from slot machines, and hurt racing revenue.
But November and October's slot revenue was up from 2009 figures.
The state made 61 million dollars from gaming last month, compared to 56 million in November 2009.
Governor Ed Rendell says that has dramatically increased the purses commonwealth tracks can offer, which, in turn, has boosted Pennsylvania breeding.

"And now Pennsylvania's starting to get horses like Smarty Jones to stand in stud. The industry, with the jobs it produces, is on the road back."

The Agriculture Department says Pennsylvania breeding saw a 10 percent increase this year, when national figures were down.

First Night Meets Hockey Night

Annual First Night celebrations are set to begin at 6:00 this evening with the opening fireworks. The family friendly New Year’s Eve event in the Cultural District is run by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Saturday’s Winter Classic hockey game is expected to swell usual attendance by as many as 20,000 revilers. Cultural Trust President Kevin McMahon says they are embarrassing the hockey theme, “We have hockey penguins, we have hockey stick collages, we’re going to have in the children’s tent at First Night we’re going to have a lot of hockey oriented activities…. Instead of arguing that there is too much going on in Pittsburgh we think there is never too much going on in Pittsburgh.”

Kathryn Heidemann, Director of First Night Pittsburgh says it is a great opportunity for the city to once again show off what makes it great. “We’re thrilled to welcome… Winter Classic patrons, to the heart of the Cultural District,” says Heidemann.

First night will also feature the rising ball at midnight with another round of fireworks. In between there will be a parade at 8pm and more than 125 event at 50 different venues.

Among the headliners will be Squonk Opera at the Byham Theater, the Neo-Futurists at the O’Reilly Theater and Tower of Power on an outdoor stage.

Outdoor activities are free to the public but get access to the indoor events revilers must have a First night button that can be purchased for $8 in advance or $10 New Year’s Eve at The Box Office at Theater Square.

Some of the indoor performance will require a free General Admission Seating Voucher. A full schedule of event can be found online.

The first ‘First Night’ in Pittsburgh was held in 1984.

Builders Association Still Says No to Sprinklers

The Pennsylvania Builders Association had hoped the Pennsylvania House would follow the Senate’s lead and delay the January implementation of mandated sprinkler systems in all new one- and two-family homes, but that didn’t happen. The industry thinks the requirement may depress an already struggling construction sector.

According to Public Affairs Director Melissa Etshied, the PBA will promote new legislation in 2011 that calls for a permanent moratorium on mandated sprinklers and a change in the makeup of the Review Advisory Council.

Etshied says the council that mandated sprinklers did not include any proponents of affordable housing, so the PBA would like to see more people who understand the ramifications of code requirements.

With hard-wired smoke detectors already required, Etshied says the significant cost of a sprinkler system should be up to the consumer.

PNC Sees ‘Moderate and Stable’ Econ in 2011

After coming out of what he calls “frustratingly slow progress” in 2010, PNC economist Robert Dye says southwestern Pennsylvania’s economy will be “moderate and stable” in 2011. Dye says the slowdown in the summer now looks to have been a “soft patch” rather than the beginning of a double dip recession. He says the relatively good numbers seen in recent months should build momentum in 2011 with a little more growth, a slow drop in unemployment, and pickup of the housing market slack. However, Dye says, “it will not be a ‘snap back’ economy.”

Dye says the education and medical sectors will continue to lead the region’s economy and help to moderate bad economic news and he says the energy and banking sectors will also help to drive the economy. Dye says Marcellus Shale exploration and extraction will be a “game changer” going forward. He says as the world economy rebounds, demand for energy will grow and so will the value of the shale fields. He admits that there are still political hurdles to clear in Pennsylvania and in some municipalities but he says those will shrink as the potential for economic impact from Marcellus Shale drilling grows.

Dye believes southwestern Pennsylvania’s financial sector will benefit from the region’s better than average growth in 2011. “Being able to provide services to this wide variety of medical and educational, high-tech energy resources, and the growing service sector at large, is providing many opportunities or companies,” says Dye. Dye also feels companies in the region working with nuclear power will see growth in the long term. “We have a missing generation of nuclear power plants,” says Dye, and as the world gets more comfortable with the idea of nuclear power demand will start to grow.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pension Drama Drawn Out to the Last Second

On Thursday, City Council has revised the very pension they proposed on Wednesday after a veto from the mayor but still before the December 31st at midnight deadline to come up with a way to keep the city's pension from a state takeover. The city's actuaries uncovered a mathematical error with the pension bailout proposed on Wednesday so additional funds will be placed in with a plan in taking out additional debt in 2018.

Council Member Bill Peduto said this latest plan is the best of all of them and should have been initially proposed but council was given incomplete information by the state as to how they should have gone about proving they had the necessary 50 percent of the pension fund secured.

"The plan that is being pushed today has the least negative impact. There's a negative impact with all of them this one has the least negative impact with the amount of money that is being used out the budget. In other words, it has the least amount of taxpayer money involved with it," he said.

City Council will meet at 1pm on Friday to vote on the new plan. They will send it over to the mayor's office at which point he will be able to veto it again. City Council will then meet again at 11pm where they will override the mayor's veto.

Pgh Council's Pension Numbers Are Off

Instead of voting to override Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's veto of a their plan to bolster the pension fund and avert a state takeover, Pittsburgh Council this afternoon went behind closed doors to try to hash out a re-worked plan. That's because the numbers in the Council plan, approved on a 7-2 vote Wednesday, are off. That's according to Councilman Ricky Burgess and Joe King, president of the Firefighters' Union.
So now, Council has to devise a new proposal, pass it and send it to the Mayor, who will likely veto it because he still favors a leasing of city parking assets, and then override the anticipated veto....all before 12:00 a.m. Friday night. That's the deadline for the threatened state takeover of the pension fund unless it is at least at 50% of its obligation.

Borough Considers Selling Water for Fracking

A Somerset County municipality is considering selling water in bulk to a Marcellus Shale natural gas driller for use in hydraulic fracturing.

Somerset Borough Council has resolved to negotiate the sale of up to 100,000 gallons of water each day to Berkey Excavating, Inc. for an indefinite time period.

Borough Manager Ben Vinzani, Jr. says the two parties haven’t set a price yet, but all the revenue would go to Somerset’s water fund, which pays for municipal water services. Vinzani says the drilling company would actually pay more for water in bulk than regular customers because of costs associated with monitoring hydrants.

Vinzani says Berkey may have come to Somerset because they have wells nearby, but there are no Marcellus Shale gas wells in the borough itself.

The Borough Manager says Council “is aware” of the environmental controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing, and won’t do anything to inflame that debate.

If the deal is approved, Vinzani says the Borough’s daily water usage could jump from 1.6 million to 1.7 million gallons per day.

State: City Pension Bailout Not a Done Deal

Pittsburgh Council will vote this afternoon on whether to override Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's veto of the latest plan to bolster the city's pension fund and avert a state takeover of the fund January 1. But Pennsylvania Public Employees Retirement Commission Executive Director James McAneny says the plan still needs to be approved by the state.

If the city's pension fails to cover 50% of its obligation to workers and retirees by midnight Friday, the state will take control of the fund. The fund is currently at 29.3%. Council and the mayor have sought to avoid that outcome because it will mean a rigid payment schedule for the city that could spell higher taxes and reduced services for residents. Wednesday Council voted 7-2 to "irrevocably" dedicate $414.7 million in parking tax revenues over the next 31 years...or about 14 million a year... for the pension fund." Ravenstahl quickly vetoed that measure, saying it was flawed and risky. McAneny agrees that it's risky - "There's a very good chance of over-estimating the value of a future revenue stream. One thing that I've tried to warn the city about repeatedly is that they take care they don't dedicate a revenue stream for the next 30 years and then not have it be sufficient to get to the 50% funded ratio."

He says he has neither seen, nor approved city council's latest plan, "I've never been able to make a commitment as to what the value of a future revenue stream would be." McAneny says when the clock strikes midnight Friday the city can't do anything more to try and right the pension fund and the state will begin to analyze whether council's latest plan will in fact bail out the pension. In the rush to find a solution, McAneney says it should be noted that this problem was a long time in the making, and that the city should have been putting more money into the pension all along, "that's why they're in the position they're in."

Mayor Vetoes Pension Bailout Bill

Pittsburgh City Council is to vote this afternoon on whether to override Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's veto of the latest plan to bolster the city's pension fund and avert a state takeover of the fund January 1.
The State Public Employees Retirement Commission is set to manage the city's pension fund unless it is at 50% of its obligation to workers and retirees. The fund is currently at 29.3%.
Council Wednesday voted 7-2 to "irrevocably" dedicate $414.7 million in parking tax revenues over the next 31 years...or about 14 million a year... for the pension fund. Council members Ricky Burgess and Theresa Kail-Smith voted "no."
Earlier Wednesday, Council gave tentative approval to dedicating the Emergency Services Tax....the $52 annual commuter tax.....for the pension fund. But officials with the Public Employees Retirement Commission questioned the legality of that set aside. That's when Council okayed using the parking tax revenues instead.
Mayor Ravenstahl quickly vetoed that measure. The mayor had 10 days to sign the bill, let it become law without his approval or veto it, but by that time the state would have taken over management of the pension fund.
In vetoing the measure, Ravenstahl said the proposal contained "numerous potentially fatal flaws." The mayor says the plan represents "value" (future tax revenues) but doesn't have the immediate cash needed to bring the fund up to the 50% level.
Commission executive director James McAneny told the Post-Gazette that he approves the concept of infusing "value" into the fund but warned Council not to cut it too close to the 50% mark.

Sestak is on "Thank You" Tour

The election is over, but Democrat Joe Sestak is still in campaign mode.
Sestak, who didn't run for reelection to the U.S. House because of his bid for the Senate, is in the midst of a 67-county tour, which he plans to finish in January.
He insists the barnstorming is about saying "thank you" to supporters from the last election, rather than an early jump on his next campaign.
In fact, Sestak says he's "disappointed" people are only viewing his visits through the prism of another election. He says officials from both parties are only focused on campaigning and politics, rather than supporting good policies, and references a conversation he had during the Democratic primary.

"One of the leaders in the Democratic Party in Harrisburg said, it's not your turn. I think they've forgotten about people. They're so intent at times up, on which of the two parties is going to win so the other one loses?"

Sestak calls his loss to Republican Pat Toomey "a split decision."

"And the fact we came so very close was because of people who believed. And voices of reason can get through, even in a sea of anger. And so how can you not go around and say thank you?"

Sestak says he hasn't ruled another Senate run in or out, but does want to continue "some form" of public service.
But for the immediate future, he's returning to private life.

Push For Minimum Wage Boost in PA

A liberal-leaning Harrisburg think tank is urging lawmakers to increase the state's minimum wage next year.
Economist Mark Price of the Keystone Research Center says tying the rate to inflation would make a big difference for poorer Pennsylvanians.

"If you raise the minimum wage in Pennsylvania to account for inflation over the last year, that would work out to about a 12 cent increase. Which would be less than 300 dollars a year. So it's important to note we're not really talking about large sums for most people. But these are low-wage workers who make the order of about 15-thousand dollars a year. And even that small amount goes a long way."

Price says poorer Pennsylvanians are getting left behind, as the cost of living goes up...

"And a minimum wage increase that was, say, tied to the rate of inflation would help put a break on it. It's not going to end poverty in Pennsylvania, and it won't lift a lot of these workers out of poverty. But again, 300 dollars - that means a lot to a lot of low-income families."

Pennsylvania's minimum wage is $7.25 - the same as the federal rate.
A 2006 state law gradually increased the minimum wage by more than a dollar between 2007 and July 2009, when it was last increased.
The governor and legislators' salaries are tied to inflation rates, as are cabinet officials' and state judges' pay rates.

Lane Set to Take Superintendent Post

Pittsburgh Public Schools Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, Assessment and Accountability, Linda Lane, takes over as Superintendent Monday and she knows she has a lot of work to do. Lane says she will be making sure many of the programs implemented by outgoing Superintendent Mark Roosevelt continue on the right course. She says that includes the Empowering Effective Teachers Program. “There is a lot of work to do around that,” says Lane, “we’ve got multiple initiatives, some of them are highly complex… execution of that at a high level is going to take a lot of time and attention from everyone.”

The 60-year-old Lane was given a three-year contract and she says they will be “critical” years for the district. “We are mid-stream here’” says Lane. She says she wants to find new ways to make contact with parents. “If you go to a city league basketball game you are going to have families jamming the gym. They are already there, so are there ways we can engage people at things they are already there for instead of expecting that they are going to come in for meetings that we just send home a flyer saying ‘please come on Thursday night at 6:00,’” says Lane. “My strategy has always be to go where they are.”

Lane says another goal will be to get all students ready to take advantage of the Pittsburgh Promise, which offers scholarship money to students going on to higher education or career training. To do that she says she needs the help of the entire community. Lane says, “Our students need the support of everyone in the community not just their families. So for any organization, agency and individual in the city of Pittsburgh, I just would ask for their support and encouragement for our students to let them know, yes, they can dream big and work hard and be promise ready.”

Lane succeeds Mark Roosevelt who has been superintendent for just more than five years. He is leaving Pittsburgh to become president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Roosevelt hired Lane in 2007. Her new contract will pay her $200,000 a year first year, with the possibility of $15,000 more in the second and third years based on performance.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pension Drama Continues

After a lengthy meeting on Thursday that followed a year of lengthy meetings surrounding the topic, Pittsburgh City Council members voted for a pension bailout proposal that would devote the city's commuter tax to the existing fund so the city can avoid the December 31st deadline for a state takeover. The city will not be able to touch $13 million dollars they make from a commuter tax annually for the next 31 years and will have to raise that money from parking increases.

Ravenstahl said the plan was slated to fail and would only lead to higher taxes and service reductions and repeatedly stated that he would not approve it. In an effort to work along with city council, he agreed to veto the proposal so council could override it and meet the deadline. All council members voted in favor of the plan except for Ricky Burgess who abstained from voting.

"I don't want state takeover but council has put us in this position by not doing the plans that are workable. At the ninth hour without any due diligence, without any research, plans we are putting something to the wind that we don't even know will work. Its jumping off the cliff blindfolded with the hands tied behind the back. I don't like state takeover but at least I want to protect the city's resources," he said to reporters after the vote.

PA Bridge Repairs Ahead of Schedule

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has exceeded its goal for repairing bridges over the past three years, but funding uncertainty could slow down the agency in the years to come.

PennDOT has repaired more than 1500 bridges since the start of the Accelerated Bridge Program in 2008, exceeding its expectations by about 450.

PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick says in 2010, the agency awarded 611 bridge contracts totaling $900 million. He says that reduced the total number of needy bridges from the 2008 high of 6,034 to almost 5,400 now.

But Kirkpatrick says despite reversing the growth of ‘structurally deficient’ bridges in the state, PennDOT still has plenty of work to do. And he says that won’t be easy, given the murky outlook for PennDOT funding.

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds provided an extra boost of over a billion dollars for the state highway and bridge network, and that money is running out,” says Kirkpatrick.

The state’s Transportation Advisory Committee says the state is underfunding its transportation system by about $3.5 billion each year.

The PennDOT spokesman says the vast majority of ‘structurally deficient’ bridges are not unsafe, but he says PennDOT studies each bridge to determine which ones need repairs most urgently.

SADD Warns Against Holiday Drunk Driving

The Pennsylvania chief of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) says parents should take steps to prevent their teenage children from driving drunk over the holidays.

State SADD Coordinator Felicity Debacco-Ernie says teens are often exposed to alcohol at holiday parties, increasing their chances of consuming booze before getting on the roadways.

Debacco-Ernie says parents should talk to their teenage children about drunk driving during the holidays.

“Especially when they become teenagers, let them know that there are laws out there that are there to protect young people who are under 21,” says Debacco-Ernie, “but also that teens can call their parents as a resort if they find themselves in a situation where they need somebody who is not impaired to drive them home.”

According to the Allegheny County Health Department, drug- or alcohol-impaired driving causes more Pennsylvania teen deaths than all other causes combined.

Debacco-Ernie says if a family is going to a holiday party with alcohol, there should be a designated driver.

Synthetic Marijuana to be Targeted Again

A top Pennsylvania House Democrat says she will take another stab at banning synthetic marijuana. Lehigh County representative Jennifer Mann's bill passed the House on a near-unanimous vote this year, but the Senate never voted on it. She says she will start the process again in the new year when the General Assembly gavels into session. Mann says teenagers are getting sick from the synthetic weed. “The scary thing to me is that young people feel this is a safe alternative to smoking marijuana. Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's safe. The law just hasn't caught up to it yet,” says Mann. The product is sold as incense, under several brand names. The most popular is K2. Mann says she does not believe people are buying the product to make their homes smell nice, “Those who sell it tell you that, well it's ok because we're telling you not to smoke it. But I don't know who would pay 60, 80, 100 dollars for small packet - something smaller than a t-bag -- for the purpose of burning it, and the smell it's going to give. Let's be real.” Mann says it's caused a lot of emergency room trips for Pennsylvania teenagers.

Child Welfare Workers in PA Graded A-F

A national social workers’ advocacy group has given a mixed bag of grades to Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. The study by the National Association of Social Workers looked at the education levels of child welfare workers. Overall More than 80% of caseworkers in the state meet the standards set by the Council on Accreditation even though the state has a much lower standard. The council looks for a bachelor degree in human services but Pennsylvania calls for just 12 hours of college level social service credits. Jenna Mehnert is with the executive director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. She says eight counties, including Butler and Lebanon, have received ‘A’ grades because all social workers in those areas have bachelor degrees in human services. Meantime seven counties, including Mifflin, Somerset, and Wayne, got failing grades with about 70% of caseworkers holding human services degrees. “We are a county-based child welfare system, which means each county can set their own standards. Counties like Philadelphia have a standard of a college degree, but other counties don't,” says Mehnert. She is advocating for increased education standards for social workers.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ravenstahl Won't Veto Bill to Fund Pension

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says although he doesn’t like it, he won’t veto Council’s plan to fund the city’s pension to 50% of its obligation by using money from scheduled parking rate increases. Council approved the plan today.

Pennsylvania threatened to take over the pension system if it wasn’t half-full by January.

Ravenstahl says he has four problems with Council’s plan: it doesn’t use any revenue from the parking rate increases to fund the Pittsburgh Parking Authority; it has no revenue source other than the city and taxpayers; it doesn’t give a long-term solution to the pension fund problem; and it wouldn’t prevent a state takeover if parking revenue is less than expected.

Ravenstahl says it’s likely that Council’s revenue projections were too high because it assumes all revenue from the rate increases will go to the pension fund.

“We shouldn’t expect the Parking Authority to give every last red cent that they receive in parking increases to the city. That’s not going to happen. That’s not realistic,” says Ravenstahl. “Once again, I’ll advocate for them to be helpful, as helpful as they can be, while still fulfilling their mission.”

Ravenstahl adds the Parking Authority cannot legally meet before the end of the year, and it’s required to commission a study before it increases any parking rates.

Ravenstahl says he won’t stand in Council’s way by vetoing the bill if Council Members think this plan will work. However, he says he will not sign the measure.

New Meth Law Will Limit Sale of Some Drugs

A new state law aimed at making methamphetamine production more difficult will take effect in mid-January of 2011.

Representative Matt Baker says his law will prohibit the over-the-counter sale of cold medications commonly used to concoct methamphetamine, or “meth.” The Bradford County Republican says those medications, such as Sudafed and Claritin, will be sold in limited numbers from a counter or locked cabinet effective January 23.

Baker says now that the new regulations will match standing federal law, Pennsylvania won’t have to rely on federal law enforcement alone when dealing with meth production.

Baker says the measure was partly inspired by a 2004 incident in Bradford County.

“Two deputy sheriffs were serving warrants on individuals suspected of production and illegal activity of methamphetamine, and they were actually murdered. So I felt compelled to do something in their name to try to restrict the illegal manufacture and distribution of meth.”

The representative says meth production mostly affects rural areas, where there’s plenty of room to build a laboratory for producing the drug. Baker says as Pennsylvania has the highest rural population in America, he hopes the law can lessen the burden on law enforcement agencies across the countryside.

Council to Vote on Pension Funding Plan

Pittsburgh City Council has reached a deal that it feels will keep the City’s pension program from being taken over by the state while at the same time not issuing any new debt or leasing any city assets. The plan calls for an increase in parking rates at garages and meters and then promises that increased revenue over the next 30 years to the pension fund. City Controller Michael Lamb says he has spoken to the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Public Employee Retirement Commission and has received approval for the plan. PERC is the body required by law to set the value of all municipal pension funds. If the PERC sets a value of the Pittsburgh Pension Plan below the 50% funded level the state will force a takeover of the pension fund, if it exceeds the 50% mark, Pittsburgh will be allowed to continue to manage its own fund.

Lamb estimates the higher rates would generate about $880 million dollars over the next 30 years and he says it should have a present-day value of more than $220 million. That is roughly the amount needed by the end of the year to bring the pension fund up to the 50% level. Controller Michael Lamb is to meet with a representative of the public employee retirement commission later today to come up with an exact value that can be added into the pension fund.

The plan needs the support of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. Mayor Ravenstahl has not yet taken a stance on the bill. Mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven says, "The Mayor today will be meeting with legal and financial experts with the City and the Parking Authority to discuss the viability of the plan. After all facts are discovered, the Mayor will comment further."

The Mayor has appointed all of the members of the Parking Authority Board. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak is a member of the Authority Board and says the package of bills includes a payment plan that gives the Authority enough money to do its job.

Council members stress that the rate increase that will be phased in over the next several years are much lower than the rate increases that would have been seen if the city would have leased the parking assets as had been proposed by Mayor Ravenstahl.

Councilman Bill Peduto says this is a much better deal than issuing a bond or leasing assets. “There is nobody who is making money off of it, there is no interest to be paid, this is the least expensive plan for the people of Pittsburgh,” says Peduto. The councilman estimates that the city would have had to pay $500-600 million in interest under the Council/Controller plan and would have allowed the leasing company to take $2.4 billion out of the city under the Mayor's.

PA Sen. O’Pake Dies

Pennsylvania’s longest-serving legislator has died. State Sen. Michael O'Pake was 70. He died Monday morning at Reading Hospital and Medical Center of complications from heart-bypass surgery, which he underwent on Nov. 22. The Democrat from Berks County, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1968 and to the state Senate four years later. He was the first chairman of the Senate Aging and Youth Committee, he helped write the Child Protective Services law that helps victims of child abuse and was a leading advocate of the state's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). He also fought for legislation that created the state Department of Aging and separate offices of aging in every county.

State Senator Jay Costa of Forest Hills says, “Senator Mike O’Pake committed his life to public service and making life better for all the citizens of Pennsylvania and his beloved Berks County. Senator O’Pake was a fighter for those in need. From seniors who needed help in paying for life-saving prescription drugs to children that benefitted from his work in creating the state’s children’s health insurance program, Senator O’Pake was a leader who made a difference.”

PA Governor Ed Rendell spokesperson Gary Tuma says Governor Rendell was, “shocked and saddened by the senator’s death. He was smart enough to understand the most complex issues but he never lost touch with the people of his district. He also tried to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats at a time when partisanship has seemed to overtake Harrisburg. And because of that, especially, his loss will be felt even more deeply.”

Photo from O'Pake's website

City and County Will Recycle Christmas Trees

The City of Pittsburgh is once again offering to recycle your Christmas trees at four locations across the city.

From Jan. 3 to 29, you can drop off your tree with all ornaments and lights removed at on of four locations Monday through Saturday. The recyclers ask that trees not be brought in bags and will take them from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. next month.

"If you put them out for trash they end up in the landfill," Public Works Director Bob Kaczorowski says. "What we do with them if we get them at the recycling center, we put them in a special dumpster with leaves or yard debris and that is recycled into mulch or something to be reused in yard programs."

City residents have four drop-off locations to choose from. For those who live in the East End of the city, the drop-off is located at North Dallas Avenue at Hamilton Avenue. For Hazelwood residents, the site is at Melanchton Avenue off the 5200 block of 2nd Avenue. For residents of the West End, you can drop off trees at 1330 Hassler St. off of Hershel and Steuben. The fourth drop-off is in the Strip District at 3001 Railroad Street.

Allegheny County is also offering a recycling service through Dec. 26 through Jan. 22. The drop-off locations are the swimming pool parking lots in Boyce, North, Settler’s Cabin and South parks and will be open from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily. Similar to the city’s request, trees must be free of additional adornments.

"Any tree should have all the ornaments, lights and stands removed. We do not want the trees in plastic bags we just want the trees as they are or as they were in nature," Kaczorowski says.

End Of Year Shale Wrap-Up

The Department of Environmental Protection says there have been many achievements in regulating the natural gas industry this year.

In a year that saw a major blowout of a Marcellus Shale gas well in Clearfield County and opposition to drilling in Allegheny County, John Hanger, Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection says there were a number of achievements in regulating the industry this year.

Among the acts – charging oil and gas companies more for drilling permits and using that revenue to hire additional inspectors to regulate the industry.

“We need to work hard at minimizing the environmental impacts from natural gas drilling. We can never get those impacts to zero but you can in fact reduce those impacts if the industry gets tightly regulated as it should be,” said Hanger.

There is also a mandatory 150 foot buffer from all development for streams that are considered high quality and a rewrite of drilling regulations governing the design of wells and the materials used in the wells. Hanger said despite those changes, there’s one major disappointment.

“It’s really a disgrace that we don’t have a tax on these drilling companies,“ Hanger said incoming Governor Tom Corbett could repeal the acts or choose to make them stronger.

Altmire Sees Bipartisanship in 2011

As control of the house moves from one party to the other, US Congressman Jason Altmire of Beaver says he hopes bipartisanship will be the rule for the next two years. Altmire says he thinks the two parties will be able to build on the cooperation seen during the debate to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. He says he knows there are some newly elected congressmen who feel they did not get sent to Washington to be bipartisan but he hopes he will be able to work on changing their minds. “I have always has a pretty good relationship with Republicans. I’m somebody in the middle who likes to work with both sides. I enjoy bipartisanship and getting people involved from across the political spectrum,” says Altmire, “I’ve garnered some respect on the Republican side and I feel I’m going to be able to work pretty well with the new congressional leadership.” Altmire says the only way Congress is going to get anything done is if the members work together.

Altmire says budget issues will be the focus for the foreseeable future in Washington.

The Democrat says he hopes to be able to find time among all of the budget debate to help veterans, “I think we need to make sure that we treat the folks who are coming back from the field of battle and keep the promises that we have made them and treat them as well as we possibly can and I think there is work to be done on that,” says Altmire.

Public Can Vote for River of the Year

For the 28th annual selection of the Pennsylvania River of the Year, the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources has opened nomination’s and voting up to the public. There are six waterways nominated for 2011’s selection; the Conewango Creek, Clarion River, Pine Creek, Delaware River, Kiskiminetas River, and Stonycreek River. Christina Novak, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation for Natural Resources, says the first year of public voting should help garner more attention.

“We decided to open the selection process to a public vote because it helps us highlight the many great rivers that we do have in Pennsylvania,” Novak says, “It’s also a way for us to rally community support for their important natural assets.”

Those interested can vote now through Monday, Jan. 3 at the DCNR website.

Winning waterways are celebrated by their local communities organizing activities throughout the year including an extended paddling trip known as a sojourn. According to Novak, the sojourn does many things for the river and the canoeists, kayakers and others who enjoy it.

“[The sojourn] raises awareness of the various value of rivers including environmental, recreational, tourism, and also sort of the heritage connection,” Novak says.

2010’s River of the Year was the Lackawaxen River which flows for 25 miles in Eastern Pennsylvania before emptying into the Delaware River on the state’s border.

“It’s important to have citizens and the general public understand that our rivers are valuable to us and that’s why it’s important for us to protect them,” Novak says.

Monday, December 27, 2010

GOP: Phila. Doesn't Need Another Casino

Top Republicans say they want to amend Pennsylvania's gaming laws, and take the revoked Foxwoods casino license away from Philadelphia.

The incoming head of the House Gaming Oversight Committee says he'll introduce a bill next year reopening the Philadelphia-specific casino license to a statewide bid.

Senate Republican leaders indicate they'd seriously consider the measure, if it passes the lower chamber.

When asked about the movement, Governor Rendell said it's not his call, since he's leaving office - but he said he could buy the argument Philadelphia's gaming market might be oversaturated.

"Bucks County - Parx - Harrah's in Chester, SugarHouse in Philadelphia. And it's likely that the Valley Forge license will be granted. So they might decide Philadelphia's got too much. On the other hand, they might look at the state, take a look and say, where is there part of the state that needs another?"

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi's spokesman, Erik Arneson, says Republicans would also be open to disbanding the license altogether.

"We have a lot of experience now with casinos in Pennsylvania. And there could be the argument made the casino market in our state is saturated. And Senator Pileggi would be very willing to listen to those kinds of arguments as well."

A measure reopening the Foxwoods license for bid passed a Senate committee this session, but never saw a floor vote.

PA Looks For Federal Housing Dollars

Affordable housing advocates are praising a new state law establishing a fund to help low-income renters and home buyers, but the account won’t have much money, unless federal lawmakers act. The fund relies on a law pending in Congress that would provide $1 Billion nation wide. Between $40 and $50 million is expected to be allocated to Pennsylvania. The fund would go toward Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency efforts. Executive director Brian Hudson says the money would be especially helpful in rural areas whose economies are changing due to natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. “Rentals literally have gone through the roof. Where properties were renting for $500, they’re getting 15-hundred dollars. And they’re displacing the tenants, the renters, who were from that community, “ says Hudson. Hudson says even if Congress doesn’t approve funding, he’ll work to solicit private contributions from individuals and companies, including natural gas drillers. However, he says they need the money now, “So we can go in and build where the community needs rental housing. Be that soft money to get it started. If it needs a Laundromat, a grocery store, a bakery – those are the pieces we found that turn communities around.”

Artist Profile

Atticus Adams is sculptor of metal mesh, a two-dimensional raw material that's shapeless and ready to be formed. DUQ's Larkin Page-Jacobs sat down with Adams who says he experiments to see what he can learn from the material as it provides a creative direction of its own.

Rep. Murphy Interested In Maintaining Bipartisan Talks

Pittsburgh area Congressman Tim Murphy, recently elected for his fifth two-year term hopes that bipartisan compromise will continue in future negotiations between the Republican House and the Democrat Senate and White House.

The health care bill is an issue that remains for the House Republicans who took majority control after the mid-term elections Nov. 2. Murphy believes the bill which he says was forced through Congress still has serious flaws that may need to be reviewed.

“I do not see it as a bill that fundamentally reforms health care and reduces costs but one that massively expands the cost and requires everybody to pay for it,” Murphy says. “I don’t like the idea of having a mandate. To require people to buy something but give them no choices in purchasing is not good.”

He doesn't believe citizens, if they are required to have insurance, should be restricted to the options within their state.
Murphy predicts the GOP-controlled House will vote to repeal the health care bill, but it will surely fail in the Senate and be rejected by the President. Murphy says the idea is to get it on the record to show that the American public is not satisfied with the current law as it was put together. He does expect more bipartisan efforts in Congress and with the President to ensure that health care for seniors becomes an issue that can be made better.

“It’s something that Democrats and Republicans can come together on and look and say, ‘How do we improve this system that otherwise is just bleeding money and not taking better care of patients?’” Murphy says.

To Murphy, bipartisan efforts in Congress and with the President are the only solution to these issues.

“I believe if we listen to what the American people are saying, ‘Roll up your sleeves, work together and get the job done,’ then my hope is the President will continue to work with us,” Murphy says.

Pittsburgh Moves Forward in Entertainment Tech Field

The Next Three Days, Unstoppable, and Love and Other Drugs were just some of 2010’s box office hits filmed in the Pittsburgh region, which is growing in the entertainment field. Inspired by that growth and interest in the entertainment field, the Pittsburgh Entertainment Technology (PET) Project is to launch January 27.

PET’s goal is to bring together all of the region’s entertainment technology companies under one banner.

“We’re going to hope to get all of the entertainment companies together, and all of the people interested in entertainment technology, film, and all the innovative things we’re trying to do together, in one room,” Organizer Kim Chestney Harvey said of the launch, which will be hosted at the Entertainment Technology Center by Don Marinelli.

Chestney Harvey says along with bringing all these people together as part of one group, creating a database for filmmakers who come to the region is another objective of the PET.

“We will put the contents of this database into a nationwide directory for the filmmakers to use and access,” Chestney Harvey says. “When they come here regionally to work they can look and see what assets they have here to choose from.”

The PET is a project put together by four groups including the Pittsburgh Technology Council, the Idea Foundry, the Pittsburgh Film Office, and Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. Some of the technologies that the region’s companies have produced for filmmakers include music compostion, 3-D computer graphics and visual effects, and branded gaming among other things.

“We realize that we have a really robust culture and a lot of really interesting things happening here and we kind of wanted to show our support for that and come up with some way to support what all of our local companies are doing,” Chestney Harvey says.

Winter Classic is More Than Just a Game

When the Penguins played in the first NHL Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008 there were very few activities surrounding the game but that will be very different this time around. Public skating on the rink built outside of Heinz Field opened Christmas Eve and a full schedule of youth and minor league hockey games on the same ice began Sunday. Winter Classic themed events will be part of the First night celebration, college hockey will take center stage at the CONSOL Energy Center Thursday and on the ice inside Heinz Field, an old timers game featuring the likes of Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis and Bill Guerin will face off Friday morning.

Penguins CEO David Morehouse says Pittsburgh had a lot of stuff going on already and the team wanted to be part of it. “With the location of the stadium being downtown kind of adjacent to all of these other activities, it was important to tie them all together. So you have a lot of cultural things happening in the cultural district between Christmas and New Year’s, you have the First Night Celebration New Year’s Eve and we have a great expansion of hockey interest in the region so its not just about the Penguins,” says Morehouse.

Morehouse says the idea of having a Winter Classic in Pittsburgh was born on the day of the first classic. He says during the game he went down from his box to talk to NHL Commissioner Gary Betman about bringing the game to Pittsburgh. “The first thing he said was he thought it would be interesting,” says Morehouse, “but neither one of us knew it was going to be the great success it was, so after that first game in Buffalo everyone else wanted it and it became impossible to get it right away.” Morehouse says he continued to “bug” Betman and finally got the game.

Morehouse says the event will not disappoint, “It’s a great matchup to have Washington and us play in the Winter Classic, Pittsburgh is a great city to host it in, the Steelers with their great traditions and history, it’s a great venue.”

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Funeral Services Set for John Warhola

The older brother of the late artist Andy Warhol has died. 85 year old John Warhola of New Sewickley in Beaver County died Friday in Allegheny General Hospital due to complications from pneumonia....13 years after his pop artist brother died. John Warhola was one of the three founding members of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts which helped create the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Funeral services for John Warhola are scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church on Pittsburgh's North Side.

More Museum Visitors Benefiting From ACCESS

The Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History are reporting a dramatic increase in the use of the ACCESS EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card admission program. That program allows individuals on government assistance, including foster children and their caregivers, low-income residents, the elderly and disabled people, to come to the museum for drastically reduced price....$1.
Lynn Zelevansky, the director of the Carnegie Museum of Art , says in 2007, before the program was widely marketed 171 visitors took part in the program and this year they expect 11,000 people will benefit from the ACCESS discount.... 

"All visitors have to do is show up, present their ACCESS EBT card and pay just $1 to visit. The program is special in that it eliminates price as a barrier year-round and allows people to visit at their convenience, not just on one or two free days a year when the museum is packed and the experience is not always ideal."

The $1 ACCESS admission is accepted at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Carnegie Science Center and the Andy Warhol Museum. The museums accept ACCESS cards from all states.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

State Water Plan

A new state water act requires the Department of Environmental Protection to look at petitions organizations file concerning watersheds and the use of water within a watershed. One example is Chestnut Ridge Trout Unlimited in Somerset County. They asked for the Laurel Hill Creek to be designated a critical water plan and it was in November. There have been three other watersheds designated recently as critical water planning areas in Fayette, Somerset and Montgomery counties. Back Creek in Fayette County and Marsh Creek and Rock Run, both in Montgomery County were the other designated waterways. Laurel Hill and Back creeks are in the Ohio River Basin and two are in the Potomac River Basin. The Laurel Hill Creek plan was approved in January of this year. Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection John Hanger says the purpose of a critical water planning area designation is to make sure that the withdrawal and uses of water in an area are sustainable and "so that some of the most important watersheds in the state don't see deterioration in quality because of unwise or unsustainable uses of local waters."

Friday, December 24, 2010

IDs for Health Care Workers

A new state law will require health care workers to wear uniform ID's with their name, title and a photo in 2011. The Home Health Care Worker ID Act will was proposed by state Representative Jennifer Mann, a Democrat from Lehigh County. The law applies to health care workers who are delivering direct care to patients. "The idea actually stemmed from a home bound constituent of mine who had called with concerns to the fact that daily health care workers were coming to his door and he sometimes wondered if they really were who they said they were," said Mann. "What it really ultimately became was something much more expansive than that to include all health care workers whether they are in a physicians office, in a medical facility, in a hospital." The program will be implemented over a 5 year period.

Pitt Researcher Creates Database for Pregnancy Complications

Dr. James Watson, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, is spearheading a project to research prevention and treatment for preeclampsia along with creating a database for future studies. “We’re trying to bring together groups of individuals who have data and biological samples that have studied preeclampsia in the past with the idea that we can maybe pull sources to answer questions pretty quicky,” Watson says. The database method has been successful in other research, including cancer and heart disease. Watson is the senior advisor to PRE-EMPT or PRE-Eclampsia Monitoring, Prevention, and Treatment, a group that is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through a $7 million grant over four years. His goal is to create a research database filled with blood, urine, and other biological samples from ethnically diverse women across the globe. This database will facilitate the first goal of finding a specific marker of the disease, but can also be used in future pregnancy research. “We’re hoping that we can move pretty quickly. It’s our initial goal to find something along the line of a predictor,” Watson says. Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication that involves high blood pressure in the mother and affects five to ten percent of pregnancies. It is the second leading cause of maternal death worldwide.

Allegheny Earns Respected Land Trust Accreditation

The Allegheny Land Trust was recently awarded accredited status by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, becoming one of 113 land trusts nationally, a very exclusive group. Allegheny’s is one of only 10 accredited trusts in the state.

“It gives us a sense of confidence that what we’re doing here at Allegheny Land Trust we’re doing at a high professional level and we’re doing everything we need to do to make sure the land that we protect is protected forever,” Executive Director Roy Kraynyk says.

The Trust took part in a rigorous examination in which they met with consultants to determine if they were meeting national standards. The accreditation commission looks for excellence in upholding the public trust and ensuring that conservation efforts are permanent.

“If someone knocks on our door and says, ‘Hey I have some land here that I would like to preserve,’ we need to be able to look at that person in the eye and say with confidence and sincerity that ‘Yes, we can do that for you,’” Kraynyk says.

The process involves an extensive review of the management of the organization and the systems it uses to conduct its functions. Kraynyk mentioned that the Allegheny Land Trust updated it’s file keeping system along with its servers in an attempt to create a more sound and efficient workplace.

“One benefit of going through this process would be that now we’ve got procedures and policies and structure and methodology in place that makes our work a little easier,” Kraynyk says.

Commodities, Performers and Birds Drive Christmas Price Index

The national economy may have been sluggish in 2010 but the Christmas Price Index, produced every year by PNC, surged 9.2%. The index looks at the price of the items mentioned in the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’

The price tag for the gifts comes in this year at $23,439. That is $1,974 more than last year. PNC Wealth Management managing executive Jim Dunigan says it was the second highest jump ever. Usually the rate of increase is very close to the National Consumer Price Index, which grew just 1.1 percent over the year. Dunigan says there is precedence for the jump. He says over the 27-year history of the index you seen times when the nation is just coming out of a recession and the Christmas Price Index jumps back faster than the Consumer Price Index. In 2003 the index rose more than 15 percent. “So I think coming out of a recession you start to see different baskets of goods, certainly the Christmas Price Index is a unique basket, that may in fact have larger increases,” Says Dunigan.

The Christmas Price Index inched up a modest 1.8% in 2009.

“This year’s jump in the PNC CPI can be attributed to rising gold commodity prices, represented by the Five Gold Rings which went up by 30 percent, in addition to higher costs for wages and benefits impacting some entertainers,” says Dunigan. Among the 12 gifts in the PNC CPI, only four items (Pear Tree, Four Calling Birds, Six Geese a–Laying and the Eight Maids-a-Milking) were the same price from last year.
The 11 Pipers Piping and 12 Drummers Drumming saw modest increases of 3.1%. The biggest dollar increase this year was for the Nine Ladies Dancing, up $820, (up 15%)

The “True Cost of Christmas,” which is the total cost of items as they are repeated, is also calculated annually. If your True Love went that route, he or she would be facing a $96,824 bill. That is a 10.8% increase compared to last year.

PNC also looks at the price of gathering the gifts on-line. The Internet cost this year went up 9.2% and was $11,000 more than this year’s traditional index. “In general, Internet prices are higher than their non-Internet counterparts because of shipping costs for birds and the convenience factor of shopping online,” says Dunigan.

All of the data and a graphic presentation can be found online. Lesson plans for teachers and projects to do at home can also be found on the site.

Holiday Travel Likely to Increase This Year

AAA predicts a 3.1% increase in national holiday travel this year over last year. That estimate includes 70,000 more Pennsylvanians who may travel this year due to a brighter economic outlook.

AAA East-Central Director of Travel Ruth Nagy says many people postponed or canceled their holiday trips last year, so there is pent-up demand for vacations more than 50 miles.

Nagy says the travel industry has slowly been gaining speed since a large travel decrease in 2009.

“We saw double-digit drops in travel, so although we’ve had increases for the holidays in 2010, we still aren’t matching the 2008 travel numbers, because in 2009 we dropped so drastically,” says Nagy.

Nagy says modest economic improvements have also allowed the average distance and spending of trips to increase as well.

As usual, most of this year’s travelers are predicted to go by car, with airline travel coming in a distant second place.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

PA Ranks High in Economic Development Disclosure But.....

A new report on all 50 states' online disclosure of companies receiving tax breaks, grants and other job creation subsidies indicates Pennsylvania ranks 10th but has "a great deal of room for further improvement."

Stephen Herzenberg, economist and executive director of the Keystone Research Center, says this new report from Washington, D.C.-based Good Jobs First, reinforces his organization's study earlier this year of economic development disclosure. Herzenberg says both reports come to the same conclusion that Pennsylvania is better than most states in providing public information on what companies get subsidies from the state to create jobs....

"But we can do a lot better, building on a platform that was created in the (Governor Tom) Ridge Administration, an online site where you can get a lot of information like...'did companies actually create jobs, what did they pay.' We have a real opportunity to build on strength and have disclosure and transparency that is a model for the nation."

Herzenberg says this is a natural issue for the new governor...."this administration has a chance to create a second generation transparency database and really deliver the accountability that candidate Corbett promised and again that Pennsylvanians want."

Herzenberg says this type of information is especially important now when tough budget decisions are being made......
"We're in a situation where there are going to be cuts in economic development programs. This is the time to take a hard look at the ways the state tries to create jobs."

He says citizens have a right to know whether the companies that get taxpayer-financed subsidies actually deliver in job creation.

Turnpike Studying Conversion to All-Electronic Toll Collection

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has hired a consultant to conduct a year long study in which they will access whether they think a move towards an all-electronic toll collection system.

They will pay the Philadelphia and South Carolina-based firms around 1.5 to 2 million dollars. The firms will put together a report documenting tolling options, system requirements, estimated costs, traffic and revenue impacts and implementation schedule.

Carl DeFabo, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission called electronic tolling safer, more convenient and more energy efficient because cars aren't idling at toll booths.

There are 620 toll collectors in Pennsylvania. DeFabo said they are simply studying how efficient this electronic system would be.

Call Center Employee Under Investigation

An Allegheny County call center employee is under investigation for an incident that occurred earlier this month on December 11th. A call regarding a fire came in on Overlook Street. Using the electronic software that was installed in the county call center in August, she typed in Overlook and picked the first of the auto-fill-ins that popped up - for Overlook Court. The firefighters were dispatched to Washington's Landing although the fire was in Fineview. The employee realized her mistake and the firetrucks never made it to the mistaken location.

Chef Bob Full, head of the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services said there are three streets with the Overlook prefix in the city and eight in the county. This is the second time such an incident with a street name with the Overlook prefix has occurred.

The employee has worked with the call center for more than ten years and is under investigation.

"This has no bearing on the new computerized dispatch system that has been installed since August of this year. There's over 521,000 calls that have been loaded unto that system. This is clearly, whether it had been the new system or this employee back in her days with the city of Pittsburgh 911 center, it would have happened no different," said Full.

City Responds to G20 Suit

The city of Pittsburgh has filed a response in court denying that police violated the civil rights of people when they made about 100 arrests at Schenley Plaza hours after the G20 Summit ended September 25th of last year.
25 plaintiffs are included in the lawsuit against the city claiming they were roughed up by police or wrongly arrested. In its response, the city says the arrests were made with probable cause and denies that people were prevented from dispersing. The court filing said if the plaintiffs were injured, it was "caused by their own willful, malicious and criminal conduct" or by their own negligence.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has made a U-turn and voided a decision to stop printing the tolls on the tickets in January when higher fees take effect. The commission had said by not printing the new tolls, it would save about $100,000.
Commission CEO Joe Brimmeier said staff had ordered new toll tickets for 2011 without the fares as part of the agency's ongoing efforts to save costs.

"Our staff made the decision not to print fares on tickets to cut costs, in particular as more people sign up for E-ZPass and fewer people take tickets." However, we heard loud and clear from our customers that we got ahead of ourselves on the decision, so the commissioners directed us to order a new batch of toll tickets with fares shown."

However, that will take until March or April. In the meantime, the tickets without the new fares (a 10 percent increase for cash-paying motorists and a 3 percent increase for E-ZPass users) will be issued to cash-paying customers at entry beginning Jan. 2, 2011, the effective date of the toll increase. You'll still have to pay the higher tolls, they just won't be reflected on the tickets.

Brimmeier says they will have printed schedules available at interchanges that customers can obtain by asking the toll collector at exit. Turnpike travelers can also see the new fare schedule by visiting and selecting the "Toll-Info" menu item on the left or by calling the toll-free, hands-free TRIP line, 1-866-976-8747 (TRIP).

1st Phase of Regional Visioning Completed

Regional visioning project Power of 32 has finished the public comment phase of its initiative to build a long-term agenda for 32 counties surrounding Pittsburgh.

After extending the public comment phase for more than a month due to demand, Power of 32 will now examine the data it’s gathered to find out which issues are most important to the citizens of the region.

Power of 32 Executive Director Selena Schmidt says many demographics were represented among the 3,000 participants, but she thinks many of them were focused on the same concerns.

“They may not have the same language that the public policy experts or the elected officials have, but they understand that when they’re talking about having jobs and making sure that there are opportunities for our young, educated people in the region, it’s not just about a job. It’s about jobs that reflect quality of life. People asking about having diversity of professional opportunities,” says Schmidt.

Schmidt says after her organization categorizes the issues people are talking about the most, the group will go to policy makers with their suggestions.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Transit Workers Oppose "Stringing Out" Flex Funds

The leader of the local transit workers union says the Port Authority of Allegheny County should spend the emergency state funding it received this December over a 12-month period, rather than over 18 months.

President Pat McMahon of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 wrote to County Executive Dan Onorato saying the funding should be used as Governor Ed Rendell intended. McMahon says that means the $45 million in “flex” funding would cover only the Port Authority’s 2011 budget deficit in order to prevent service cuts.

McMahon says spending the money in 2011 would also keep pressure on the state legislature to come up with a permanent funding solution for both PAT and SEPTA, Philadelphia’s ailing bus service.

The union president says under Onorato’s plan to spend the money over 18 months, the Port Authority will make cuts.

“Their plan is to have a 15% service-hour cut, effective date in March, the 27th actually,” says McMahon. “There would definitely be some layoffs. They don’t know the numbers yet. And their plan absolutely includes closing the Harmar division.”

McMahon says these transit cuts would kill jobs for people who depend on bus and rail services, particularly low-wage workers. McMahon says he hasn’t heard back from Onorato yet.

Jobs In The Region

The Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board released their labor market information comparing data from this past October to October of last year.

Non-farm jobs grew by 4,500, mostly in the sectors of health care, retail, administrative, and computer operations. There was a slight decrease in the construction sector. Although it was higher than last year, it was a decline from recent months.

"The growth between August and September was about 10,000 new jobs so in comparing to that 4,500 new jobs between September and October seems slower," said
Vera Krekanova, Research Manager at the organization.

She added that there are about 45,000 online job postings in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area. Although they take into account eight counties, the majority of those jobs are in Allegheny County and within that, most are in the city of Pittsburgh.

Wagner: Keep Turnpike Toll Notifications

Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner says the Turnpike Commission’s plan to stop printing toll amounts on tickets should be reversed.

Wagner says because tolls will increase 10% on January 1, removing the prices from the tickets on January 2 is dishonest to the public.

Wagner says drivers also wouldn’t know if a tollbooth operator was charging them too much or too little for their trip, and tollbooth transactions would take longer and increase Turnpike congestion. He adds that the tickets themselves would still need to be printed, so tollbooth operators know how much to charge.

The Auditor General wrote to the Turnpike Commission, saying the $100,000 it can save each year is not enough to justify the confusion and lack of transparency caused by omitting the prices.

However, Wagner says he received an “encouraging” email from the Commission saying it would probably nix the plan to stop printing prices. He says he is still waiting for a formal reply.

PA Wine Kiosks Closed Temporarily

Technical difficulties will close the 30 wine kiosks installed statewide by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. The closings could last through the first weeks of the coming year.

The most significant issue with the kiosks is the failure to actually dispense wine after a customer buys it.

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman says while not all of the kiosks have experienced the malfunctions, all will be closed for several weeks until the developer, Simple Brands, can fix them.

Kriedeman says the closings will also slow the spread of more kiosks across the state. The Liquor Control Board plans to install 70 additional machines next year, but Kriedeman says those plans are being pushed back until all the issues are resolved.

Kriedeman says aside from the mechanical issues, the kiosks have garnered good reviews from consumers. She says the L.C.B. hopes to have them running again sometime in January.

Pennsylvania's Independent State Store Union, which has long criticized the kiosks, says it filed a legal request for records of all the machines' malfunctions December 1. After a legal review kept the union from getting the records, ISSU President David Wanamaker called the kiosk initiative "a deliberate sabotage of the state store system."

He says since the kiosks were implemented with public dollars, the union and the public should have full access to their malfunction reports. "Information concerning the wine vending machine boondoggle warrants further investigation," says Wanamaker.

PAT Provides Free Transit For Jan. 1

Penguin fans can enjoy free public transit across the county and to Heinz Field for the Winter Classic New Year's Day. Pepsi MAX is covering the day’s transit fares for all Port Authority Transit services around the city.

“The free rides are valid on any Port Authority service that is running on New Year’s Day,” PAT spokeswoman Heather Pharo says. “That includes any bus route, T route and also the [Monongahela] Incline.”

Port Authority will also be running a shuttle to the stadium on a schedule similar to a Sunday Steelers game. The schedule is available on the Port Authority website. All transit routes will run on a holiday schedule, which Pharo says is similar to a Sunday schedule.

“In most cases if a route runs on a Sunday, it will run on a holiday,” Pharo says.

Pharo says the PAT isn’t concerned with too much usage causing problems because the day is still a holiday and the majority of the traffic will be heading towards the game.

PA Pop Grows But Congressional Delegation Falls

For the ninth straight census, Pennsylvania is losing at least one Congressional seat. The state gained population in the 2010 census, but other states grew at quicker rates, so instead of 19, the commonwealth will have 18 representatives, beginning in 2013. That puts the focus once again on the redistricting to be done in the coming year.

State Senate Republican spokesman Erik Arneson says the loss fits into a 90-year trend. “You have to go back to 1920 to find a year where we didn't lose at least one. 1910 we had 36, 1920 we had 36. Every ten years since then we have lost at least one, and most often 2 or 3, members of the US House,” says Arneson. The House and Senate will draw the new districts through the regular legislative process, as opposed to General Assembly redistricting, which is accomplished through a special committee. Arneson says redistricting won't begin until the summer or fall. “Although we have statewide numbers right now, and we know what Pennsylvania's statewide population is, we don't have county, municipal or even precinct-level data. And we need those things to be able to draw Congressional districts.” That work will begin in the fall. Arneson says, “There is no legal deadline for completing the redistricting process, either for Congress or for the state legislative seats. The practical deadline, though, is January of 2012, when people will be circulating petitions to announce that they're going to run for various seats.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mayor: First Night Will be Safe

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl says people should not be afraid to come downtown for the First Night celebrations. In an effort to set aside some public concerns that big events in downtown Pittsburgh are no longer safe, Mayor Ravenstahl says there will be beefed up patrols in the golden triangle New Year’s Eve. He says the gunfire during Light Up Night was an isolated event. “We, as a city, can’t let a few idiots get in the way of a wonderful event,” says Ravenstahl, ”We are determined from a police department prospective and a public safety prospective not to let that happen.”

Ravenstahl says there will be additional officers downtown and they will be keeping an eye out for groups of people like those that gathered on light up night and eventually caused problems. “What I can tell the people of Pittsburgh today is you will be safe, come downtown experience this wonderful event and you should not let a few bad apples ruin your experience with your family on this New Year’s holiday,” says Ravenstahl.

First night usually draws about 35 thousand revelers. The Cultural Trust says there could be another 20-30 thousand on the streets December 31st thanks an influx of visitors in town for the winter classic hockey game on the north shore the next day. Visit Pittsburgh says every hotel room downtown is booked for New Year’s Eve.

Specter Ends 30 Years in Senate

Democrat Arlen Specter took on the Supreme Court and increasingly partisan politics during his farewell speech to the Senate.
Specter played a high-profile role in the confirmation process of every sitting Supreme Court Justice, and warned the court has gotten more and more aggressive during his 30 years in Washington.

"The Supreme Court has been eating Congress' lunch by invalidating legislation with judicial activism after nominees commit under oath in confirmation proceedings to respect Congressional fact-finding and precedent. "

Specter said Chief Justice John Roberts promised to "call balls and strikes" as a judge, but ended up "moving the bases."
He says one thing Congress can do is pass a law requiring the Court to allow cameras into hearings.
Specter also argued against increased ideological polarization in politics, saying parties' push to eliminate moderates from their ranks amounts to "sophisticated cannibalism."
Specter says one way to reduce Senate gridlock is to let lawmakers offer more amendments on the floor. He warned reducing that right has led to more and more filibusters.

The five term Senator was defeated in the May Primary by Congressman Joe Sestak who subsequently lost the general election to Republican Pat Toomey.

Listen to the entire speech of Senator Specter.

Homeless Vigil

For the twentieth consecutive year, Operation Safety Net, which provides free health care and social services to homeless people will hold a candlelight vigil as the sunsets in downtown Pittsburgh to commemorate homeless people who died on the streets this year.

In 2010, three people died on the streets, a lower number than years past, but still three too many, said Linda Sheets, Program Director of Operation Safety Net.

"It is a considerable decrease than we've seen in years before," said Sheets, "We don't know why, we think the severe weather shelter that we've been conducting almost every night this month, which is a historic high as well as the housing options that we have been able to give a lot of individuals."

In 2009, there were 11 people that died on the streets. In previous years, the number fluctuated between six and nine.

Council to Review Water Subsidies in New Year

The Pittsburgh City Council will hold a pair of Post Agenda meetings in January to hear from the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the Pennsylvania American Water Company on the merits of ending the water rate subsidy for city residents served by Penn American. For more than 50 years the city has been making payments to various water companies serving areas of the city to the south and west of the Mon River. The subsidies lowered rates in those neighborhoods to equal the rates paid by city water customers. Councilman Patrick Dowd, who serves on the PWSA board, has introduced legislation in City Council to end the subsidy. “There is absolutely no reason why [a public entity] should be providing dollars to a private company,” says Dowd.

Council members whose districts are served by Penn American quickly came out against the idea saying many of their constituents cannot afford the higher rates. Dowd counters that his goal is not to raise rates, “I want to see those rates come down and I think first and foremost they should come down by the PWSA providing that water.” Dowd admits that there is no way to force Penn American Water Company to sell its system in the city to the PWSA. He says he hopes that ending the subsidy will be the first step to getting a deal done and he hopes those issues will be addressed in the hearings.

Council will hold two hearings on the bill. “We want to make sure that the company, Penn American, has an opportunity to talk unencumbered,” says Dowd, “I’m trying to be fair so I want to give them a chance to come in and say here is our story.” He says that should give council members a chance to think about all the issues involved. Pennsylvania American Water Company will go before the council January 11th at 1:30p.m. and the PWSA will go before council January 18th at 1:30p.m.

The contract between the PWSA and Pennsylvania American Water Company is up for its yearly renewal in February. Dowd says he is in favor of renewing the contract in 2011 but not in 2012. The legislation calls for the Mayor’s office to give notice to Penn American in August of 2011 that the city will not renew the contact in 2012. “We have a lot of time to think about that, we have a lot of time to talk to the private company, to talk to the PWSA, we have a lot of time to work on this. Its not like we are on a fast track here. We are trying to solve the problem long term.”

Penn American officials have said they look forward to serving the residents of the city for decades to come.

Pgh Tech Council Will Do Business in China

The Pittsburgh Technology Council plans to lead a business mission to China in May of 2011.

Technology Council President Audrey Russo says the group will probably be only about 15 people, so the Council can focus on forging relationships between specific businesses.

Russo says given the United States’ current investment levels in technology companies and China’s position in the world economy, now is a great time to visit the country on a business mission.

But Russo says China isn’t the only place of interest for the Technology Council...

"We've talked about India. We've been approached about doing business in South Africa. We get a lot of people with interests in the Middle East. We have the Middle East Institute here that has helped in establishing relationships in Amman, Abu Dhabi, places like that. This is really our first attempt to sort of get on the ground."

The PTC President says after the 2009 G20 Summit and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s October 2010 visit to China, Pittsburgh is beginning to capitalize on the global exposure it’s received.

NHL Classic Lures Fans to Pittsburgh

Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, will be turned into an outdoor hockey rink. It's for the NHL Winter Classic on January 1, 2011. Joe McGrath, President and CEO of visitpittsburgh, expects a positive impact from the game between the Penguins and Washington Capitals. "We're estimating that the economy should have a punch of about $22.7 million from the event itself."

McGrath says in addition to the number of avid hockey fans from around the country who will be attending the game, they are expecting about 30,000 people visiting from the Washington, D.C. area alone. He says many people are making it a weekend getaway.

Apart from the Winter Classic, locals and visitors from other cities can celebrate at the annual First Night Pittsburgh New Year's eve celebration. There will be many hockey-themed activities. McGrath also notes that the "Hockey Hall of Fame" will be on display at the Carnegie Science Center Sportsworks from December 27th to December 31st. Due to all of the activities, McGrath suggests people who want to come to Pittsburgh to check ahead for accommodations. The Winter Classic game is a sell out. McGrath says Heinz Field holds "60,000 plus" and exceeds some of the other stadiums that hosted the game.

Rendell: Stop "Demonizing" Welfare Dept

Citing a new federal study, Governor Ed Rendell argues reports of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s (DPW) waste are greatly exaggerated.
Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Democrat, has issued report after report criticizing DPW’s error rates.
Republican lawmakers have latched onto the findings, saying eliminating wasted and misappropriated payments could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Rendell says a new report from a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is proof the nay-sayers are wrong.
The study found the welfare department's error rate is a bit more than four percent, which is less than half of the national average.

"The rhetoric that goes on in this building doesn’t match the facts. And the facts are given to us by the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration. And it’s just rhetoric because this is a convenient whipping boy. And nobody in this building, when it comes to DPW, cares about the facts or cares about the truth."

Rendell says its figures are legitimate.

"Politicians – and it doesn’t matter to me anymore – but politicians should stop demonizing the Department of Public Welfare. It’s done a great job. It’s staffed by professionals at every level - most of whom were here before I became governor, and most of whom will continue to be here after I’m no longer governor."

The Auditor General’s office has said the error rate is as high as 15 percent. They haven’t responded to a call for comment on the discrepancy.

Marcellus Environmental Fund Launched

The Colcom Foundation says it has set aside $1 million to fund local projects “designed to address the accelerating environmental impact of shale drilling in western Pennsylvania through public education, community engagement, best practices, baseline data collection, on-going monitoring, land owner guidance, and collaborative projects.” Foundation Vice President of Philanthropy John Rohe says the goal is to instill a higher level of integrity and trustworthiness in shale drilling. “There are a lot of mixed messages out there,” says Rohe, “it seems that one side will say one thing and the other side will say another thing and there is a great deal of debate. Maybe we just need a better way to gather the reliable information that is needed to assess these risks.”

Rohe says he hopes the nonprofit organizations that get the grants will help landowners and the general public understands the ethical issues and risks involved in Marcellus drilling. But he says it is not a fund with an assumption that drilling is bad or an anti drilling company fund. “If we can devise the best practices to create a safe way to conduct drilling, the drillers would be the beneficiaries of that because they probable never have to confront the daunting prospect of an environmental hazard that threatens their financial well being,” says Rohe.

Applicants in the first round of grant will have until January 14th to submit the needed information. A second round of grants will use a March 14th deadline.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Firefighters Get Court Delay

The Pittsburgh Firefighters Union has asked a judge to postpone a hearing on its request to stop the state from taking over the city’s pension fund. Union attorney Joshua Bloom says now that the City Council has rejected what looks like the last opportunity to fund the pension up to the 50% level by the end of the year, the union is looking to take up the issue in the new year.

Pennsylvania Act 44 requires the city to turn its pension fund over to the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System if it does not make a payment of approximately $220 million by year’s end. The suit asked the judge to force the city to raise taxes enough to keep the fund under local control. The union says local control is required under the union’s contact.

Bloom says the union no longer wants to take that tack. However, Bloom says the union still believes act 44 is unconstitutional as it applies to the pension fund, “Also Act 44 is unconstitutional in that they singled out the city of Pittsburgh. The city of Pittsburgh is the only municipality across the commonwealth that is required on a mandatory basis to turn their pensions over to the state and there was absolutely no reasonable basis to single out our city.”

Bloom says the hope is that the city can find a way to avoid the take over some time in 2011. “We are asking the mayor and City Council to save our city,” says Bloom, “and what I mean by that is if the pensions are not adequately funded by the end of the year and the state takes over the pensions the payment schedule that will be mandated by the state will cause looming bankruptcy and we believe this city will suffer the same fate as Detroit.”

Upcoming Battle Over State Store Privatization

Union groups are beginning to mobilize against a plan to sell off Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores.
Incoming Republican leaders say privatizing Pennsylvania’s 600-plus stores is an early priority, and predict the sale would generate more than two billion dollars.
Wendell Young, who heads the United Federation of Commercial Workers’ Pennsylvania chapter, says their numbers are wrong.

"I think it’s a hard sell to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania to say that we know we can go to 2 billion. They know they can’t. There’s not a shred of evidence. Do the math. Take our your own calculator. Go talk to people in other states and ask what they pay for licenses. Nobody gets that kind of money. Why’s Pennsylvania going to be any different?"

Young says lawmakers would also be giving up future tax revenue by selling the state-owned system, as well as jeopardizing the jobs of liquor store employees.
Incoming Majority Leader Mike Turzai says liquor sales would still generate 500 million dollars in taxes each year, under his plan.

Artist Profile

The Carrie Furnace was one of Andrew Carnegie’s original steel mills and sits on more than a hundred acres in Pittsburgh’s industrial heartland. The sculptor Tim Kaulen and a group of covert artists erected a sculpture in the abandoned mill…so Larkin Page-Jacobs set out to find it. Click here to listen to the story.