Monday, January 31, 2011

North Siders on West Park

Dozens of North Siders went to City Council chambers on Monday morning for a hearing on uses for West Park.

West Park is commonly referred to as the communal front yard for the North Side residents who live around it. But 29 disgruntled residents recently signed a petition asking for a hearing before City Council because they were unhappy with the events held in the park during the summer months. They said are too large for the park, event-goers make too much noise, their dogs can’t access the dog park, the trees are potentially harmed, litter is left behind and street parking is scarce. Carol Malakoff said the events impact her life.

"There is no parking in front of my building, my house," she said.

Those that signed the petition were all white.

"The people who have signed this petition will tell you its about dogs, trash and noise. I disagree. It is about race and it is about control," said Jennifer Russell, a supporter of the The Unity Gathering, the largest event held in the park.

The largest event held in the park is The Unity Gathering organized by the Pittsburgh Old Timers, a mostly African-American group. Intended to unite families from the North Side to combat neighborhood violence, it draws a few thousand people from all over the country.

Allen Turner runs the Old Timers and said this was a sad day for him because all he wanted was peace and love.

Council Members told the North Siders they would continue working with them to come up with a solution that works for everyone and reminded them that when you live in an urban area, certain things just come with the territory.

Transparency Bill Gains Big Backers

A measure to create an online database of all state expenditures is gathering support from some big names in Pennsylvania government.

Governor Tom Corbett and the legislature’s top Republicans are backing Representative Jim Christiana’s PennWATCH legislation, a $150,000 effort to list all of Pennsylvania’s expenses in great detail.

Christiana says he thinks his legislation will have bipartisan support, because opponents may find it difficult to denounce a bill promoting transparency.

“They do it in a subtle way. The opposition talks about the cost of building this site, the fact that Pennsylvania I.T. infrastructure is so outdated and it’s going to cost several million dollars to fix,” says Christiana. “But that’s really to disguise that you just don’t want transparency.”

The Beaver County Republican says 26 other states have implemented online databases of expenditures. He says Pennsylvanians have the right to know how their taxes are being spent.

Christiana says the website would give information about specific contracts and contractors. He says he’s hopeful that with swift passage, the site can be active by January 2012.

PNC Expands in Florida

Pittsburgh based PNC Bank has struck a deal with BankAtlantic Bancorp, Inc. to purchase BankAtlantic’s Tampa – St. Petersburg franchise. That includes 19 branches, two other facilities and the associated deposits of approximately $350 million. BankAtlantic put the properties on the block in 2010 as it looked concentrate its efforts in South Florida.

BankAtlantic says PNC has agreed to pay a premium for the deposits assumed in the transaction plus the net book value of the acquired real estate and fixed assets associated with the branches and facilities.

The deal is expected to be finalized some time in June. It must first get regulatory approval.

Not Treating Some Breast Cancer May Be Okay

Researchers at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh are arguing that doctors may want to step away from testing and treating very small amounts of breast cancer. For decades, there has been a raging debate among oncologists as to what to do when a women who has had breast cancer treatments is found to have no cancer in her sentinel lymph nodes through normal testing but is found to have very small amounts of cancer known as micro metastases upon more intensive analysis. Sentinel nodes are normally the first lymph nodes to receive cancer cells from the breast tumor and can be removed with a surgical procedure. AGH Breast Care Center Associate Director Thomas Julian says their study found that women who had aggressive treatment for cancers under 2 millimeters have a survival rate after 5 years that is just 1.2 percent better than those who are not treated. “When you look at that one to one-and-a-half percent difference, it’s kind of hard to improve on that by giving more intense chemotherapy, so why go chasing for these teeny tiny amounts if you’re not going to treat the patient,” says Julian.

The study randomly assigned 5,611 breast cancer patients with clinically negative auxiliary lymph nodes to undergo either a sentinel node biopsy alone, or a sentinel node biopsy plus auxiliary dissection. Julian says studies done in the past used to argue for more treatment were riddled with poor testing procedures. They did a poor job of detecting the cancer in the first round of testing, says Julian. He says this shows the power of doing good, scientific based research.

While the debate may never be over, Julian says this study and another like it will swing the pendulum toward non-treatment. “For most [Doctors] it will give them satisfactory information so they can treat their patient adequately and not have to pursue things,” says Julian, “There will always be somebody who says, ‘you know, I’m really worried you have this teeny tiny little bit of cancer in there and
I think you should get more treatment.’” Julian says by not testing or treating, doctors will save women the negative side effects associated with such procedures. It could also save money. He says he expects the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network to issue new treatment guidelines in the coming years reflecting the new information.

Another Attempt for the Castle Doctrine

A new legislative session means renewed hope for state lawmakers whose pet projects still haven’t become law.
Every two years, the General Assembly hits reset. So in the early weeks of the new session, a lot of familiar proposals are resurfacing.
That includes the so-called “Castle Doctrine” measure, which would expand a person’s right to deadly self-defense.
Senate sponsor Richard Alloway, a Republican, says last year’s debate focused too much on the criminal aspect of the argument, and not enough on its implications in lawsuits filed against people who defend themselves.

"What’s happening is, maybe you’re not getting charged with a crime, but the person who was the attacker ends up either suing you or his family sues you for some type of wrongful injury. And then they get a settlement. So they benefit from their wrongdoing."

Alloway was asked whether the Tucson shootings this month will impact this year’s Castle Doctrine debate.

"I think some of the anti-gun politicians in Pennsylvania will probably bring that up. I think it’s absolutely absurd. When you’re talking about guns, anything could be a weapon. What about knives? What about clubs, baseball bats?"

The Castle Doctrine passed the House and Senate by wide margins, but then Governor Ed Rendell vetoed it.
Other old but new proposals include a ban on texting or talking on a cell phone while driving, a push to mandate more medical treatment for high school football players who suffer concussions, and a call for a constitutional convention.

Another Push For Constitutional Convention in PA

A lot of politicians voiced their support for a constitutional convention during last year’s campaign.
Now, government reform advocates want the legislators to follow through on their promises.
A bill starting the process of overhauling state government has been introduced in the House.
Eric Epstein of reform group Rock The Capital voices some changes he’d want the convention to consider.

"Where we acquire a waiting period of at least 72 hours – preferably two weeks – between final amendment and final passage of legislation in each chamber. Obviously the perks, I think we can all agree, need to go or be curtailed."

Epstein says he’s encouraged by meetings he’s had with House leaders about their support for a convention, though Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican from Allegheny County, isn’t backing the idea.

"I’m not sure that we’re going to need it. I think it obviates the need because I think we’re going to move forward with the governor on a lot of the things we think will improve Pennsylvania."

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Governor Tom Corbett have both voiced support for a limited constitutional convention.

United Way Offers Tax Preparation

Families earning up to $40,000 and individuals making up to $20,000 are entitled to free tax preparation. United Way and The Money In Your Pocket Coalition have launched their third Free Tax Preparation Campaign to help workers claim maximum tax refunds.

Julie DeSeyn, a Program Manager for the United Way, says that volunteers come from various backgrounds. "We do get a number from major corporations in the area, people are students majoring in accounting, or people who are involved in finance some way but not directly in tax preparation. Or people that just, and I was amazed at the number of people out there that just really enjoy doing taxes."

She says that United Way held three weekend sessions for volunteers, each going through 18 hours of training in tax law and software.

The United Way and Money In Your Pocket Coalition have opened six locations in Pittsburgh. Taxpayers looking for help can call the United Way Helpline at 412-225-1155 to get information on the nearest tax location to them and appointment times.

Artist Profile

Kim Beck is interested in the urban details that are so obvious and mundane, they’re practically hidden in plain sight. DUQ's Larkin Page-Jacobs reports. Click here to listen to the story.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Rich Fitzgerald to run for County Executive

Allegheny County Council President and Squirrel Hill resident Rich Fitzgerald announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for County Executive this morning in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse, joining County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty, who announced earlier this month .

Fitzgerald has already lined up a lot of endorsements, including Congressman Mike Doyle, who emceed the event and says Fitzgerald has shown tremendous ability to work with others to accomplish good things for the region.

Other support came from members of the the state house and senate, city and county councils, labor unions, and more than 50 Democratic precinct chairmen.

Fitzgerald says Western Pennsylvania will be the energy capital of the world and he, a mechanical engineer, will make jobs a priority, along with responsible development of resources like the Marcellus Shale.

Fitzgerald will resign from County Council in a matter of weeks. This will be his first county-wide candidacy.

ATU Wants Transit Money Spent Now

The head of the Amalgamated Transit Union is not ready to give up his fight to convince the Port Authority of Allegheny County to stave off 15% service cuts in March. ATU Local 85 President Pat McMahon addressed the Port Authority Board this morning, and for the second month in a row he asked that it use up all of the money flexed to the authority by then governor Ed Rendell in this fiscal year rather than spreading it out over the next 18 months. By tripling the life of the funds, the authority will have to cut service by 15% as of March 27th. McMahon says the governor intended the authority to use all of the money up front to avoid any cuts. He says there should have been another round of public input before the decision was made last month. “Its too serious, there’s too many lives at stake, the public, we have taken the public out of this,” says McMahon, “I’m not going to get into legal issues, you have the moral responsibility to the public.”

In reaction, PAT CEO Steve Bland says the authority held extensive hearings on its plan to cut service by 35%. “At the point and time that we received [the flexed funds] there was not enough time to go through an exhaustive process,” says Bland, “all of the service reductions for March had already been covered.”

Bland believes putting off deeper cuts for an additional 12 months, gives lawmakers in Harrisburg a chance to find new revenues sources. McMahon says it takes the pressure off of those same lawmakers and sends a message that a smaller Port Authority is acceptable.

PA Republicans Charge Dems With Slowing the Process

So what, exactly, led to Wednesday’s Rules Committee blowup, and what does it mean for how the Pennsylvania House will operate over the next two years?

Over the objections of Democrats, who walked out during the vote, the committee approved a resolution changing the chamber’s rules so amendments can be set aside, and debate can continue on the bill in question. Under the current setup, passed in response to the 2005 pay raise, a bill is automatically tabled along with the amendment, after that type of vote. That wouldn’t be the case of the House approves HR 6. “The passage of a motion to lay an amendment on the table shall not case the subject bill or resolution and all other amendments to be laid on the table,” reads the document. In short, Republican leaders would have the power to swipe aside amendments they don’t want to deal with.

The resolution would also change the makeup of House committees so 15 Republicans and nine Democrats would sit on each panel. Right now, the minority party has 10 seats on each committee. 24 Democrats would suddenly get the boot from their committees if this passes.

Republican leaders said they’re doing this so the House can run more efficiently. They felt like Democrats reneged on an agreement and tried to gum up the process by offering dozens of amendments to the seven measures set for a House vote Wednesday. Speaker Sam Smith pointed out several of the measures had passed on near-unanimous votes in previous years. “They were bills that, by and large, everybody in the House supports,” he said. “And without any discussion they tried to load them up with amendments to delay action and create their own circus.”

Democrat Dan Frankel countered the amendments were all on-topic. “Every one of them, if you take a look at the substance of them, fills in gaps in those reform bills, and enhances their ability to accomplish what our intention is as a legislative body, in terms of bringing forth reform,” he said.

That’s true. some amendments expanded the scope of whistleblower laws. Others set limits on gifts from lobbyists. But many of the amendments were duplicative.
Frankel, for example, filed seven different amendments to a lobbying disclosure bill. Six of them were on the same topic: expanding definitions of families, so that long-term domestic partners were subject to the same disclosure scrutiny as spouses. Leader Frank Dermody attached 12 amendments to another bill. Democratic leaders explained they were only going to call for votes on a handful of the amendments. They filed redundant amendments on several of the bills to give themselves more options on the floor, like clubs in a golf bag, they said.

At last check, Republicans plan to push forward with the rules change, and hold a House vote on them Monday. The question is, how many Republican members will support the change? After all, they were in the minority just a month ago, and the GOP regularly tied down major bills with dozens of amendments. When Democrats found ways to avoid lengthy floor fights, like gutting and replacing bills in the Appropriations or Rules Committee, for example, Republican lawmakers cried foul. “The matter struck me as an over-reach,” tweeted Lancaster County Republican Gordon Denlinger today. “Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail on Monday,” replied Democrat Josh Shapiro.

Fundraiser and Cultural Event will Support Teaching Project in the Congo

The "Heart for Congo" will be held this Saturday (January 29th) in the Uptown District of Pittsburgh. The event will include a silent art auction, with pieces donated by local artists, as well as a performance by the Wacongo Dance Company (a traditional Congolese music and dance troop). All proceeds will go to the Congolese Advocacy Memorial Project (C.A.M.P.) initiative of the Fulton County Medical Center.

The C.A.M.P. Fund also hosts ongoing projects in Congo, collaborating with local institutions, Technical Medical Institute of Rwanguabe, and a medical aid organization AID Africa to operate a rural nursing school.

Saturday's event focuses on education in Congo. Event co-coordinator Jeff Cech says there is a big need for materials and teachers and the fundraiser will help the education of Congolese students.... "We're raising funds to specifically (support) a project, the Jitoe Project. Jitoe means 'to give of yourself' in Swahili. So the project is one that's hoping to send Rebecca (another coordinator) and myself to teach at University for two semesters."

Event Co-Coordinator Rebecca Cech says the idea is to educate a large number of people so that they will want to get involved in government and make peace sustainable...."Our entire goal is to put the power in the right hands of the people who are actually doing good. People who are professionals and in positions to break the cycles of violence.
She says that giving an education to Congolese students is a main way of providing leadership the country needs. The fundraiser will take place from five to nine p.m. in the former Paramount Studios Building (1727 Blvd. of the Allies).

Will Gaming License Be Rebid?

The head of Pennsylvania’s Gaming Control Board is warning lawmakers not to move too quickly on passing a law opening up a Philadelphia casino license to a statewide bid.
In December, the Gaming Control Board revoked the license of Philadelphia’s troubled Foxwoods casino, which never got up and running.
Its license is Philadelphia-specific, but the House Gaming Oversight Committee has now taken the first step toward changing the law, so anyone in the state could bid for the license.
During testimony, Board Chair Greg Fajt reminded the committee Foxwoods investors have challenged the revocation in court, and the case might take years to finish.
He warned against re-bidding the license before the matter is resolved.

"Again, who knows what somebody might do. But I think that somebody would have to get a lot of hard thought to spending a million dollars-plus to put together an application for a license that may not exist once this case has wound its way through the courts."

Committee Chair Curt Schroeder, a Chester County Republican, says the bill is a priority, but Republicans won’t rush it through the House.

"We’ll let the courts do their thing. We’ll work on it on our end in the legislature. And the timing will work itself out in the end, however that has to be."

He’s planning on taking a deliberative process, and holding several more hearings on the issue.

Carnegie Museums Gets New Director

A special meeting of the Carnegie Museums board yesterday made official what has been expected all week; John Wetenhall has been selected as the new president of the 116-year-old system. Wetenhall will oversee the Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, and The Andy Warhol Museum. He is the ninth person to hold the post. Wetenhall will succeed David Hillenbrand who spent five years in the position.

Wetenhall is currently the executive director of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. He also serves on the boards of the American Association of Museums and the U.S. National Committee of the International Council of Museums and has been museum director for the Cheekwood Gardens in Nashville, Tennessee and Miami Museum of Art in Florida.

Wetenhall says he will work to break down any silos that separate the four museums under his charge. “I look forward to encouraging collaboration across these four great museums—and even more, to opening our institution to partnerships with cultural, scientific, and educational institutions throughout Pittsburgh and beyond,” says Wetenhall

Board members say Wetenhall jumped to the front of the pack of potential candidates. “John immediately stood out to our committee, first on paper and then even more so in person,” says Lee Foster, chair of the Carnegie Museums board of trustees, who led the search. “He has devoted his career to museums and museum management—first as an art historian and curator, then as a museum director—and it’s obvious that he is passionate about his work. He also appreciates the complexities and the tremendous opportunities unique to an organization with multiple parts, and he led such an organization through significant growth and expansion.

Wetenhall says he is looking forward to funding new ways to get the collection outside of the museums’ walls by using the Internet and other new technologies.

"There are a lot of up front costs in those projects, but once materials are online they become very affordable," Wetenhall says.

Wetenhall will join Carnegie Museums on March 7.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Proposal To Abolish Position of Lt. Governor

State Senator Elder Vogel of the 47th Senatorial District announced he is introducing legislation that will abolish the office of the Lt. Governor.

The legislation would ammend the Pennsylvania constitution to remove references to the Lt. Governor's office and would make the Attorney General the new Chair of the Board of Pardons.

When taking into account housing, staff, security, Vogel says the position of Lt. Governor costs taxpayers 1.5 million dollars a year.

"1.5 million doesnt sound like a lot of money but if you find enough 1.5 million dollars and then all of a sudden you find 10 or 20 million dollars and all of a sudden that's enough to fund a line on the budget," he said.

Even if the proposal were to pass, it would be eight years before it would implemented.

WDUQ Buyer Looks for Comments

The entity chosen by Duquesne University to purchase its licenses to broadcast on 90.5 FM in Pittsburgh is looking for the region’s feedback. Earlier this month Duquesne University announced that it plans to sell the license currently used by WDUQ to a new group know as Essential Public Media. The group is a joint venture of the WYEP board and Public Media Company. Public Media Company is a nonprofit recently launched by Colorado based Public Radio Capital, which helps community groups buy public broadcast licenses. Essential Public Media has launched a website with links to news stories about the sale, a video of the sale agreement news conference and a place for the public to leave comments, ideas and suggestions. WYEP Board Chair Marco Cardamone says this is one of the first steps in the process. “ We wanted to follow up from the press release with some presence for anybody who heard about the name to log on and to give us, as we said there, any comments about anything that they think about related to this whole issue,” says Cardamone, “it’s really a listening post for us, our first attempt to start listening to others.”

Cardamone says they have not yet advertised the website and he has not checked the page to see how many comments have been left. He says he expects there will be new information released sometime in the early spring. “Within the next 60 to 90 days we plan to have another announcement and press conference perhaps,” says Cardamone.

Mediation Tried in G20 Lawsuits

Lawyers have agreed to try mediating a lawsuit in which 25 plaintiffs are seeking damages from the City of Pittsburgh for alleged rights violations during the G20 economic summit of September 2009.

Attorney Sara Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union says both her clients and the city want a settlement to resolve the case. She says a jury could only award monetary settlements, rather than change the City Code, because many law enforcement regulations during the summit were temporary.

Rose says state law requires both sides to choose between arbitration, mediation, or early neutral evaluation before the court case can begin. The ACLU lawyer says the mediation is tentatively scheduled for May.

CCAC Part of Effort to Evaluate Community Colleges

Community colleges across the country have long complained that there is not a good way to measure the success or failure of their institutions but the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) thinks it may be close. AACC Associate Vice President for research Kent Phillippe says most of the tools used to evaluate institutes of higher education look at graduation rates for full-time students over a period if time but he says earning a degree is only the tip of the iceberg at a community college. “For many community colleges students may come in for a short term certificate degree, they may come in for some workforce training and not even intending to get a degree, they may come and do some educational experience at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution,” says Phillippe.

The Community College of Allegheny County is among those trying to help build what is known as the “Voluntary Framework of Accountability.” (VFA) CCAC President Alex Johnson says, “CCAC is very pleased to be among the pioneering institutions to help develop this important framework. The VFA is a natural compliment to our ongoing efforts to improve student success.”

Phillippe says the VFA will look at variety of measurements, “how many students that started transfer, we are also going to try to look at career and technical education students and see what happens to them after they leave to see if there has been a wage gain, did the college provide them career technical education experiences that are valuable in the market place.”

Thirty-seven institutions will spend the next few months evaluating the tool to see if they agree that it measures everything that is important and to make sure they can provide the AACC with the needed data. Phillippe says the hope is to have the VFA finalized by August. Phase three will look to build a system to collect and display the data. “We need to make sure this is something that our colleges would be willing to voluntarily participate in because it does not make sense to build something if our colleges don’t want to do it,” says Phillippe.

Meeting to Discuss LGBT Issues in PA

Members and supporters of Pittsburgh’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community will meet tonight to discuss the status and future of LGBT rights in Pennsylvania.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Equality Pennsylvania have already held five of such sessions across the state, discussing possible legislation affecting LGBT rights during this legislative session.

ACLU of PA Legislative Director Andy Hoover says the LGBT community has faced adversity in the state legislature for several sessions and he doesn’t expect that to change.

“For this coming session, I certainly expect that the anti-gay side will again try to pass a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage,” says Hoover. “We’ve defeated that three times and I’m confident we can defeat it again.”
However, Hoover says pro-LGBT legislation, such as an anti-discrimination bill, has also failed in the past.

Hoover says there are many “swing voters” from Western Pennsylvania, so he hopes the local LGBT population can convince them to pass such a measure.

The meeting is open to the public and will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

County Jail Exceeds Overtime Budget

Allegheny County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty says the County Jail spent $2.1 million more than it should have on overtime pay in 2008 and 2009.

Flaherty says the problem stems from an insufficient amount of officers, suggesting that the jail could actually save money by hiring new full-time and part-time employees.

Officers who abuse the Family Medical Leave Act also force their coworkers into overtime hours, says Flaherty. He says jail management should amend its FMLA policies to be stricter.

The Controller says cutting down on the number of inmates could also reduce the number of shifts and posts needed. He says to reduce the jail population, eligible inmates should be sent to alternate housing as soon as possible. Flaherty notes that individuals living in alternate housing cost the county less than those in the jail itself.

Reintroduced Legislation Can Fine Drivers for Snow

People who do not clean the snow and ice from the roof of their cars might find themselves with a fine if re-introduced legislation passes. State Senator Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton/Lehigh/Monroe) proposed the measure that would require all drivers to clear snow and ice off their cars before getting on the road. This would be a tightening of the current law, which fines drivers for snow and ice only if it causes death or serious injury.

Boscola says the bill has the power to prevent accidents on the road. "Most people know that you should remove snow and ice from vehicles. Cause anybody traveling highways has witnessed that snow and ice come flying off of vehicles and those maneuvers that you have to make to try and avoid those types of circumstances. So my bill would you can get fined if the police think you're dangerous on that highway."

Boscola says that she introduced the bill years ago but had to settle for the current law because of the commercial driving industry. She says that at the time they pointed out that it was dangerous to climb up onto trucks to clear off of snow, but since legislation like hers has passed in New Jersey truck and port stations have worked to install devices designed to remove snow and ice.

Political Civility Short-lived in Harrisburg

A Pennsylvania House committee meeting devolved into a shouting match after Republican leaders tried to change the House rules and restrict Democrats’ ability to offer amendments.
Republicans were planning on voting a package of reform bills, but Democrats attached 43 amendments to the measures.

That angered Majority Leader Mike Turzai.

"We’re not going to be having people doing this nuclear stuff. So if that’s how it’s going to be done, we’re going to make the needed changes in rules, bring it out to the floor next Monday and get it done. And then we can begin a disciplined and professional approach. "

“Disciplined” and “professional” aren’t the best way to describe what happened next in the Rules Committee, when Turzai introduced language limiting the ability to offer amendments, and taking a Democrat off each House Committee. Democratic leader Frank Dermody said the GOP was trying to disenfranchise them...

"On a day when we’re supposed to be running reform bills, and reforming what we do and how we operate in government, here we are – they’re taking an attempt to punish the minority, and make sure they disenfranchise the minority. Stifle the minority and silence. It’s wrong."

Democrats then walked out of the meeting.

Turzai says the full House will vote on the changes Monday.

Security Guard Pay and Training Aired

Security guards for decades have been complaining that they are under paid and over worked and they had a chance to air their concerns Wednesday afternoon. Pittsburgh City Council carved a few minutes out of its afternoon to hold a public hearing on improving wages and training standards for security guards in the city. The hearing was scheduled after a petition was circulated requesting the time before council. The Service Employees International Union local 32 BJ organized the effort. Local 32 BJ Organizer Sam Williamson says it is a growing safety concern. “Privatized security companies pay people so little that turnover really rivals what it is in the fast food industry,” says Williamson, “the workers expected to be the first line of defense in case of an emergency don’t have the training necessary to be able to protect the public.”

Sam Williamson is a guard at a downtown building. He says there needs to be standardized training for security guards. “On the job training is not enough to really allow us to be the most effective first responders, if we had standardized training we could do more to make the right calls,” says Kelly. Pittsburgh Fire fighter Darrin Kelly agrees, he says the best asset a fire fighter responding to a call in a high-rise building can have is a well-trained security guard that meets them at the door. “It allows us to prepare for the situation at hand,” says Kelly, “a building that does not have well trained security personnel allows us to walk into a hornets nest.”

No legislation has been introduced in council to deal with training or wages of security guards. Williams says he hopes the hearing will “make the public take note of the situation and bring it out of the shadows.” Council President Darlene Harris says she plans to form a special commission to look into the issue. County Council President Rich Fitzgerald says he will work on legislation at the county level and hopes to work closely with the city council. In the Meantime, Williams says he will work to unionize more security guards in the hopes that it will increase pay, benefits and training for all guards.

Group Educates Public on Drilling from Industry's Perspective

The Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania (API) and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA) have created the Keystone Energy Forum (KES) to educate residents and organizations about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The Forum will serve as an educational arm of the drilling industry, and Bill Stewart, director of the Forum says KES represents the interests of 95% of the drilling companies working in the Marcellus Shale. Stewart and API Executive Director Rolf Hanson are quick to point out that this is not an advocacy group, Rolf says it's purely educational "there's such a thirst for information out there from these groups that haven't had an industry source to turn to in the past." He says they'll also help demystify controversial areas like hydraulic fracturing and water quality and highlight the regulations that come with drilling in Pennsylvania. More information can be found at

Power Plants Emitting Mercury Pollution, Says New Report

Coal-fired power plants in Southwestern Pennsylvania emit some of the highest quantities of mercury in the country, according to a report.

Advocacy group Penn Environment released a report highlighting the public health and environmental threats posed by mercury pollution from power plants.

Erika Staaf, from Penn Environment says one of the worst offenders is in Armstrong County.

"RRI Energy’s Keystone Power Plant, now called Gennon Energy in Shelockta, just about an hour from here emits more than 2,100 pounds of mercury every year. That’s the most in Pennsylvania and the second most in the country," she said.

Using federal emissions data, they found that two plants in Indiana and Cambria county are ranked fourth and eighth.

Power plants in Pennsylvania emitted 15,000 pounds of mercury pollution in 2009, the last year for which data was available.

Mercury, a neurotoxin can result in learning disabilities, developmental disorders and reproductive failure.

The EPA is set to propose a standard to limit mercury and other toxic air pollutions from power plants in March.

Lawmakers Rally in Support of Student Choice

Lawmakers and students gathered in the State Capitol's rotunda to rally in support of National School Choice Week, with Senator Anthony Williams drawing cheers for his support of Senate Bill 1. The bill, supported by Governor Corbett in his inaugural address, would pull money from the state’s basic education subsidy to provide vouchers to underprivileged students in the state’s worst public schools.

The scholarship’s offered in the bill would provide low-income students the chance to attend a public, private, parochial, or public charter school of their choice.

Senator Anthony Williams of Philadelphia who co-sponsors the bill spoke at the rally saying it’s time we accept the failures of our public education system.

“They’re going to tell you, ‘If you take this money the building will close.’ Guess what? Failing buildings should close,” Williams says.

Senator Williams says time has run out on feeding public schools funds only to see them fail to provide the education students need to excel.

“They’re going say to you that, ‘We don’t need choice, we just need more time.’ Fifty years apparently is not enough time to fix education,” Williams says. “They’re going to say, ‘We don’t need anything else, we just need some more money.’ I guess $26 billion is not enough money.”

An opponent of the bill, Timothy Allwein of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, has come out against the proposal. He says the private schools still maintain the real choice of who is accepted, so the right of choice is in fact, not in the children or parent’s hands. Allwein also says that even removing 25 kids from a struggling school district will not reduce the cost to run the school. He says public schools will still pay the same overhead costs and a decrease in funding would continue to hurt education efforts.

Senate Bill 1 is set in three phases and would be implemented over three years. The first phase would provide only low income students who have no other choice but to attend public schools that are consistently low-scoring in state tests.

The second phase would allow provision for any low-income student who lives in the “area of a persistently low-achieving school, whether they attend that school or not.”

The third and final phase would allow any low-income student in the state of Pennsylvania to attend the school of their choice.

PA Congressmen React to State of Union

President Barack Obama urged better cooperation between Democrats and Republicans in dealing with the country's economic troubles and soaring debt.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Mr. Obama talked about spending in core areas like infrastructure while also working to rein in the debt.
The president called for a 5 year freeze on spending at current levels while some Republicans want to roll back to 2008 levels and then freeze spending.
The President called for speeding up the economic recovery through greater
infrastructure spending. He called for a six-year plan to repair or improve bridges, roads and mass transit.
He says the plan should be paid for, not increase the deficit, and not include Congressional pet projects. He vowed to veto any bill that included earmarks.
The president said he knows there is opposition to health care overhaul legislation which House Republicans voted to repeal, but he said he's not willing to go back to the days when insurance companies could deny coverage.

In responding to the State of the Union address, Pittsburgh area Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA-18) said Americans are eager for a job growth agenda but are also eager for less government spending.
" Tonight, we heard that America's competitiveness is suffering from a case of sluggishness and the need to get back on track. But I am cautious of a solution that sounds like more government spending out of Washington. American families need jobs, but jobs and prosperity will not come from more government growth and deficit spending."
Congressman Jason Altmire (D-PA-04) said it's critical to work together to cut government spending and reduce the deficit.
" I support the president’s proposal to freeze non-security discretionary spending for the next five years. In the coming weeks, I look forward to seeing additional bipartisan proposals to further cut spending and get our fiscal house back in order. "
Altmire said he hoped the spirit of civility and bipartisanship that was visibly evident throughout the House chamber last night, with some Democrats and Republicans sitting with each other, "will remain with us as we move forward."

House GOP Leader Questions 2-Year Budget Cycle

A week after he was sworn into office, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett released his state government reform package.
The three-page document includes a call for a ten-percent cut in administrative spending, and an improved online database documenting the state’s finances.
Corbett’s plan emphasizes an idea he campaigned on: shifting from a one-year to two-year budget cycle.

Right now, 20 other states across the country are on a two-year budget cycle. I believe Pennsylvania needs to do the same. A biennial budget allows for a more focused and long-term analysis of government programs and the use of tax dollars. It makes it easier to control costs.

Corbett’s office released video and audio sound bites along with the reform press release.
He didn’t unveil the plan at a public event.
House Republican Majority Leader Mike Turzai says he’s open to considering Corbett’s two-year budget proposal, but he’s skeptical of the idea.

"It’s difficult enough budgeting a year at a time. I think if you do a two-year budget it’s hard to take into account what your sales and personal income tax revenues are going to be, such that you can appropriately prioritize them."

Legislation to amend the state constitution to allow for a biennial budget was introduced in the House and Senate Tuesday.

Gibsonia Gets a Goodwill

Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania is opening a new store in Gibsonia Wednesday.

Goodwill Vice President of Retail Sales Robert Stape says the nonprofit is applying the same aesthetic to the store it’s already given its 26 other locations: brighter paint colors, a cleaner atmosphere, and finer products.

Stape says the new strategy is helping to attract more customers while not alienating the stores’ current customer base. He says Goodwill hasn’t and won’t raise prices to pay for the renovations; most of the funding is coming from the stores’ property owners.

Stape says more customers means more revenue, which gives Goodwill a greater ability to fulfill its mission of placing disadvantaged and disabled people in employment.

The Gibsonia store opened at 9 this morning with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The store is located at 4101 Gibsonia Road.

Controversial Drilling Documentary Up for Oscar

A documentary focused on natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania and other states has been nominated for an Academy Award.

Josh Fox’s movie, “Gasland,” has become a rallying point for anti-drilling activists. The film raises questions about the safety of hydraulic fracturing, and features Dimock, Susquehanna County residents whose water was contaminated by drilling.

In an interview shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced, Fox said he’s hoping the nod will boost momentum for increased oversight and drilling moratoriums. “These contamination cases and violations match the intensity of drilling in every single area the industry goes. So where you have a lot of drilling, you have a lot of violations. You have a lot of contamination,” he said. “I don’t see how that story is going to be kept out. And the people who are opposed to this, who are trying to advocate for a little bit of truth on this, will not be kept out either.” Fox pointed to the anti-drilling protesters at Governor Corbett’s inauguration as an example of increasing activism on the issue.

The drilling industry has set up a website challenging Fox’s movie, and former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger has called him “fundamentally dishonest” and a “propagandist.” Fox stands by the film, and maintained he’s “appalled” drillers are challenging its facts, rather than working to increase safety.

What will he say in his speech if he wins? Fox laughed and said he’s just starting to think about that. “This is about all the grassroots organizations across America that have been fighting this to make a very clear statement. Natural gas is not clean.”

“Gasland” will go up against four other films for best documentary feature: “Exit through the Gift Shop,” “Inside Job,” “Restrepo” and “Waste Land.” “Inside Job” and “Restrepo,” which focus on the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and the war in Afghanistan, respectively, have each received as much – if not more – media attention as “Gasland” has this year.

The nomination comes on the same day DEP made public a January 17th “incident” at a well on Tioga County state forest land. “During the well control incident, which began during hydraulic fracturing of the well, fracking fluids and sand discharged from the well into the air. It does not appear that any significant amount of natural gas was released and there was no fire or explosion,” reads the DEP release. Inspectors determined the well’s pad liner retained all the fluid that spilled. The investigation is continuing.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Corbett Says Reforms Will Mean More Efficient Government

During his campaign for governor, Tom Corbett said he would unveil a package of reforms on "day one." A week after his inauguration, Governor Corbett today unveiled a series of proposed reforms that he says are intended to "end waste, fraud and abuse in state government. “I am committed to provide an open, transparent, accountable and trustworthy government that puts our taxpayers first and gets the commonwealth back on track.’’
The proposals generally reflect Corbett's campaign promises and do not break new ground.
They include:
** ending per diems and requiring state employees to submit receipts before they can be reimbursed for food, travel and lodging;
**expanding an online database of state finances,
**urging legislative leaders to reduce a legislative surplus that currently totals nearly $190 million
**eliminating discretionary funds known as WAMS (walking around money) that are used to finance pet projects in legislative districts
**encourage members of the legislature to make the same financial contributions to their health insurance as other state employees do (currently lawmakers pay nothing)

But at the top of Corbett's list of reforms is moving to a biennial budget. Corbett says currently 20 other states use a 2 year budget cycle and he believes this would provide agencies and programs a chance to better control costs and develop more predictable budgets. Switching to a biennial budget would require amending the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Task Force to Deal With Noise.

Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris says nearly half of her fellow council members were investigating the need for a new noise ordinance so she decided to gather them up into a taskforce. Today, Harris appointed council members Bruce Kraus and Patrick Dowd as co-chairs of the Noise Ordinance Task Force. Also on the task force will be council members Daniel Lavelle and Theresa Kail-Smith. Harris says she first found out that Kraus and Dowd were working on noise bills and then when she started to do some more investigating she learned that Smith and Lavelle were also interested. She says the members should be able to get better results working together than alone. Harris was worried that four different pieces of legislation may have been introduced if the taskforce had not been formed.

No timetable has been created for the group but Harris says since the council members were already into the process, “it should not take long.” She says, “The task force will work to develop legislation that will address excessive or intrusive noise as unwanted pollution. The goal of the legislation will be clear definition, distinctive regulations, and detailed enforcement where necessary.” She says she hopes the task force will reexamine current laws, simplify the City Code where necessary, and clearly set the standards for what citizens expect of each other in Pittsburgh.

Harris will serve as an ex-officio member of the Task Force but will be represented by her staff in order to avoid a quorum.

Gettysburg Monument on a Coin

A well-known monument at Gettysburg National Military Park is now also on a US Quarter. The United States Mint released the 6th coin in its America the Beautiful Quarters Program today with a ceremony at the park. The coin (as seen to the left) features George Washington on the front and a depiction of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Monument on the reverse. The monument stands on the battle line of the Union Army at Cemetery Ridge. Inscribed on the back are the words GETTYSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA, 2011 and E PLURIBUS UNUM. The coin's reverse was designed by United States Mint Artistic Infusion Program Master Designer Joel Iskowitz and sculpted by United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Phebe Hemphill.

US Mint Associate Coordinator for sales and marketing says the process of selecting the 56 designs began back in 2009 when the mint reached out to the governors of all 50 states to get their input on what should be featured. Also to be released this year; Glacier National Park MT, Olympic National Park WA, Vicksburg National Military Park MS, Chickasaw National Recreation Area Site OK.

The United States Mint is also offering free lesson plans based on the America the Beautiful Quarters Program, which are available at the US Mint’s website.

US Steel Reports 4Q Loss

United States Steel Corporation says it had a net loss of $249 million, or $1.74 per diluted share in the fourth quarter of 2011. That is worse than the third quarter 2010 net loss of $51 million but better than the fourth quarter of 2009 when the Pittsburgh based company reported a net loss of $267 million, or $1.86 per diluted share.

For full-year 2010, U. S. Steel reported a net loss of $482 million, or $3.36 per diluted share, compared with a full-year 2009 net loss of $1,401 million, or $10.42 per diluted share. The loss comes as sales rose 28 percent over last year’s fourth quarter to $4.3 billion while shipments rose 18 percent to 5.5 million tons. The company says market conditions were "soft" during most of the quarter, and the price it received for its steel products dropped from the third quarter. The results missed Wall Street expectations of a loss of $1.11 per share on revenue of $4.2 billion.

U. S. Steel Chairman and CEO John P. Surma says he is looking forward to a better 2011 first quarter, “Order rates for most customer groups and publicly reported spot market prices began to increase later in the fourth quarter and we remain cautiously optimistic that global economic conditions will continue to improve in the first quarter."

Group Aims to Diversify Workforce

The Western Pennsylvania Diversity Initiative held their monthly meeting on Tuesday. The non-profit organization works to diversify the workforce in the region.

The meeting, titled, Riveting Diversity, attracted a few dozen people. They listened to Paul Hawkins, a consultant speak about how diversity can make companies more profitable.

Neal Homles, president of the group says a diverse community doesn't necessarily equate a diverse workforce. He says he works with a few dozen companies in making sure their workforces represent the diversity of the region- including racial, religious, age, gender and socio-economic class.

He added that diversity growth is an ongoing process.

"I would never lead any company or organization to think this is something that's a one-quick fix solution. Diversity will continue to evolve," he said.

Turzai: Liquor Store Workers Will Find Jobs

The state House’s top Republican says he’s confident Pennsylvania’s liquor store employees would find well-paying jobs if state stores are privatized, but a union official says the claim is “delusional.” Privatization of liquor stores is expected to be one of the hot topics in Harrisburg over the next few months.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of McCandless predicts state store workers would make “significantly more money” in the private sector, and says a privatization bill would include incentives for stores to hire the former state employees. “We’d provide tax credits to those employers that hire them, and we’d give vouchers to state and state-related schools if they want to go for additional training,” says Turzai, “we’d give them preferential points on available civil service positions available in state government.” Turzai says many of the state store employees will not need the extra help, “Particularly those that have real skills in the industry. I think the private sector’s going to gobble them up. I think they’re going to want them.”

Wendell Young, the president of Pennsylvania’s UFCW union, which represents the state store workers, says the offer of additional points on civil service lists is not going to be of much help. He says Turzai and other Republicans want to shrink the state budget by billions of dollars and if that happens there wouldn’t be any openings for new state jobs.

And young is worried that the sale of the state stores will reduce employment in the state. He fears many of the liquor licenses would be purchased by existing stores that wouldn’t need to hire new workers to sell wine and liquor.

Debate Over adultBasic Builds

Governor Tom Corbett is asking the federal government to step in and help solve Pennsylvania’s adultBasic funding problem.

The program offers health insurance for 41,000 low-income Pennsylvanians, but it’s set to expire at the end of February. Corbett has already offered enrollees a spot in the “Special Care” program offered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurers, which offers less coverage for more money. Democratic lawmakers and health care advocates have dismissed the alternative as inadequate. “They call adultBasic – I read in the paper – they call it bare-bones insurance,” said Jerry Kaufman of Erie, who recently came to the Capitol to protest the end of adultBasic. “So if adultBasic is bare-bones insurance, then Special Care is no-bones. In other words, it’s not even worth having.” Kaufman is battling prostate cancer, and said he’s worried Special Care won’t cover his upcoming radiation treatment.

Corbett is now trying to offer another option to adultBasic enrollees: space in Pennsylvania’s new state-run – but federally-funded – high-risk health insurance pool, called PA Fair Care. The federally-mandated guidelines would need to be tweaked for adultBasic users to join the plan, since people are only eligible to apply if they’ve been uninsured for more than six months. Corbett is also asking the Department of Health and Human Services for more money, so Pennsylvania can expand Fair Care beyond its current 3,500-person limit. As of right now, the state has $160 million to run the program through 2014.

Fair Care was created by President Obama’s federal health care law, which makes the whole episode a bit awkward for Corbett. Last spring, when Corbett was Attorney General and running in the Republican gubernatorial primary, he joined a lawsuit challenging the measure’s constitutionality. Now, he wants more money from it. Spokesman Kevin Harley insisted the two stances are consistent, explaining Corbett had a problem with a specific portion of the law: its language requiring people to purchase health insurance. “He never said that he opposed all of the elements of Obamacare. And unfortunately, the authors of Obamacare did not put in what’s known as a severability clause, which is if one part of the bill is found to be unconstitutional, the rest of it would be unconstitutional. They failed to do that when they wrote this bill,” he said.

Even if Washington officials change the eligibility requirements and increase funding, Fair Care may not be the best solution for adultBasic enrollees. Its $283 a month premium is much more expensive than the current program’s $36 fee, and double the most expensive Special Care premium of $140. “It’s certainly not the perfect solution, but unfortunately, adultBasic is unsustainable,” said Harley. “There’s no money for it.”

State Senator Wants to Combat Human Trafficking

Signs with a hotline to report human trafficking will be placed in many establishments if a bill by Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware) is passed. Leach is introducing two measures on human trafficking this year. Under the first, a hotline number will be placed in massage parlors, spas, and hotels, liquor stores, adult entertainment clubs, transit hubs, and hotels deemed to be a "nuisance" in the state.

Leach says that human trafficking is a huge problem in Pennsylvania. "To give you some sense of it. It's the second most pervasive crime in the world, after drug trafficking. And Pennsylvania is one of the major states for human trafficking because it's a crossroads for a lot of different areas. So we have a lot of different human trafficking."

Leach's second bill would allow victims of human trafficking to use their situation, if proven, as a defense for prostitution charges. Past victims could also have their records expunged if they prove they were victims.

Leach says the bill failed to make it through committee last year, but is hopeful that it will become law soon. He says that he has the support of many organizations representing establishments that could be effected by it.

Rep. Murphy Hopes to Hear Bipartisan Talk in Obama's Address

President Obama will address the nation tonight at 9:00 from the chamber of the House of Representatives. In his State of the Union Address, Obama will likely look back on his first two years in office, citing accomplishments and shortcomings, and look forward to the next two years of his term.

Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy hopes that the President will speak of moving more towards the center to cooperate with a congress that has become much more conservative following the mid-term elections in November. Murphy has been critical of the nation’s continued spending and the growing national deficit. He fears that the growing national deficit hurts our foreign negotiating powers.

“If we are going to be working for the good of our country, good of our jobs, we’ve got to be standing up for fair trade and be able to enforce that and not find ourselves in a situation where we have to turn back with our tail between our legs because another nation says you can’t enforce this because we have your money,” Murphy says.

He admits however, that the mission to reduce federal spending is not just on the President, but rather cooperation between all members of congress and the President.

“It’s up to congress to put forth a budget and work with the president on that, one that is going to not continue to increase spending,” Murphy says. “You know the President at one point said he wanted to reduce spending, in fact he campaigned saying he wanted to reduce spending, but it has increased drastically, by the trillions."

Murphy hopes the President speaks on allowing the private sector to create jobs, rather than government regulation, along with agreeing to a review of the health care bill that Murphy thinks was pushed through too quickly.

For NPR’s complete coverage of the State of the Union Address, tune into WDUQ tonight at 9:00.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pennsylvania Gets "F" Grade in Cessation Coverage

Pennsylvania might not provide enough protection against tobacco use. The American Lung Association released an annual scorecard that tracks tobacco control policies at state and federal levels. Pennsylvania received an "F" in Tobacco Prevention and Control. The state's grade in Cessation was also downgraded from a "C" last year, to an "F".

Deb Brown, President of the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania, says the state should provide more money for cessation and prevention. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has best practices that they recommend 155 million dollars be spent on prevention and cessation in Pennsylvania, and we only spend 14.7 million."

Brown says that although the state received money in the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) made with the tobacco companies, funding has dwindled over the years. She says that originally 12% of the MSA was legislated to cessation and prevention, but in 2010 there was a 45% decrease in spending.

No state in the scorecard earned straight "A"s while the federal government drew an "A" for FDA regulation of tobacco, a "C" for cession coverage, and a "D" for the federal cigarette tax.

Health Insurance for Low Income To End in 5 Weeks

Democratic leaders in the State Senate are trying to come up with a plan to prevent AdultBasic, a health insurance program for low income Pennsylvanians from running out.
AdultBasic is funded through tobacco settlement money, and contributions from Pennsylvania’s four Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance companies.
The Blues’ agreement with the state has expired and the state has failed to negotiate a renewal so the program is likely to stop at the end of February.
Governor Tom Corbett plans to offer AdultBasic enrollees a spot in the providers’ “Special Care” program, but health care advocates say that program is more expensive and allows just 4 doctor's visits a year.

AdultBasic was created in 2001 to provide health insurance for state residents ages 19 through 64 who meet income-eligibility requirements, with a monthly premium of $36 per person. Special Care’s rates start at 80.
Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County says he' sent a letter to legislative leaders and the Corbett Administration asking for a meeting to discuss alternatives....
"We don't think we are out of policy options and we need more substantive discussion with legislators on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers, to resolve the AdultBasic funding crisis. The impact of failing to look at all alternatives will be devastating to those families who rely on this insurance."

The AdultBasic program currently covers 41,953 state residents, and there is a waiting list of 478,735. That waiting list more than doubled between January 2009 and January 2010, creating an estimated three-year wait.

Legislative Investigations into Clinic

A grand jury report on the arrest of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell is prompting hearings and new bills in Harrisburg.
The report paints a picture of a dingy corner abortion clinic, filled with stray cats, dirty medical equipment and the remains of fetuses.
The Department of Health hadn’t inspected the site since 1993, and allegedly failed to act on complaints about the clinic.
In a response to what the grand jury calls a “total abdication” of the department’s responsibilities, Republican State Senator Pat Vance, who chairs the Public Health and Welfare Committee, is drafting a new bill.

"It would just make it mandatory for the Department of Health to immediately respond to any complaints, in addition to doing much more timely inspections, and just closer closer watch on those."

Vance says she’s equally appalled by allegations the Department of State never acted on complaints about Gosnell filed by other Philadelphia doctors.
Her committee will hold hearings on the matter this year.
Vance’s House Counterpart, Republican Health Committee Chair Matthew Baker, says he’d support her measure.

"It’s really not about the issue of the traditional debate about whether you support abortions or not. What this is about is public health safety for anyone going into such a clinic, and that public health safety protocols be adhered to."

Baker says he’ll draft additional bills of his own.

Artist Profile

Drawing from politics, pop culture, off-beat humor, and well honed techniques, Rick Bach spurns labels while making wild, innovative art. Larkin Page-Jacobs reports. Click here to listen to the story.

Wine Kiosks Start Trial Run

Five self-serve wine kiosks went back online this week after thirty kiosks were shut down. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB) closed the kiosks after they started experiencing mechanical trouble before the holidays.

Stacy Kriedeman, spokeswoman for the LCB, says that the kiosks were not operating up to standards. "There were some systemic problems. Mostly they had to do with people not getting the product that they paid for. And that may have been because the turn style didn't turn, or the door didn't lock, perhaps the screen froze up, but most of the issues that we saw had to do with people not getting the bottle that they paid for."

Kriedman says that there are currently three operating kiosks in the Pittsburgh area and two in the Philadelphia area. The remaining machines might go online in the next few weeks.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Governor Calls Grand Jury Findings "Horrific"

Governor Tom Corbett has ordered his acting Secretaries of Health and State to investigate why neither department acted on numerous complaints about a Philadelphia abortion clinic.
In a special report, the grand jury that indicted abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell on murder and other charges said there was a “total abdication” of the Health Department’s duties.
Inspectors visited Gosnell’s clinic just three times between 1979 and 2010, and neither Health nor State officials followed up on complaints about infected and injured women, or squalid conditions.
The clinic head, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who was not certified to perform abortions, was charged with criminal homicide in the deaths of 7 babies who were born alive but then had their spinal cords cut with scissors. Gosnell is also charged in the death of a woman who received a lethal dose of painkillers during a 2009 procedure. Gosnell's aide Steven Massoff of Mount Lebanon was also charged with homicide and other counts.
Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley says after reading the report, the governor met with acting Health Secretary Eli Avila and acting Secretary of State Carol Aichele.

"And asked them to do an investigation of what went wrong, based on the findings of a grand jury. And to develop a plan – recommendations – of how this type of activity, behavior by a doctor – can be prevented."

Corbett will wait until the investigations are complete before deciding whether to back any specific legislative reform, according to Harley, who says the governor found the case’s details “horrific.”

Former Governor Ed Rendell says he was "flabbergasted" by regulators' inadequate inspections of that abortion clinic. Rendell said he ordered increased inspections after a raid last year on Gosnell's clinic yielded gruesome accounts of conditions there.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Summit Against Racism To be Held

The 13th Annual Summit Against Racism will be held Saturday at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
The summit will be sponsored by The Black and White Reunion.

The Black and White reunion was formed in 1995 after the death of Jonny Gammage, a black driver who died at the hands of police during a traffic stop. Organizers say the event focuses on community building.

"Racism as a whole, in the city of Pittsburgh, in the United States is something that will always be present, just because of our history. But the Summit against Racism is a driving force that emphasizes racial unity and educating the community against racial divides," said organizer Brittany McBryde.

This year, the summit will include workshops on police accountability public transit and minority labor participation.

The summit costs $25. Between 300 to 500 people are expected to attend.

Carnegie Library Approves Funding Strategies

Recommendations by the public-private task force charged with finding sustainable funding solutions for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh have been approved by the Board of Trustees. The report recommends a multi-pronged approach to ensuring the stability and growth of the library. The plan also integrates recommendations made by the public during last year's Community Conversation workshops. Task Force Chair Frank Lucchino says the library's budget has been "squeezed" as much as possible, so now the Board must look at income. "We have reduced the hours of operation, we have cut the number of materials that we buy, we have reduced the staff, we have frozen salaries.... We've done everything the public has the right to expect us to do to tighten our belts, and if we're not going to close branches, we need to find funding sources that are sustainable to carry us forward." Two primary strategies will be implemented to increase income: first, protect and grow current library funding, and second, initiate new funding streams. Under the first strategy, the library will improve advocacy and increase individual giving, secure annual increases from the Allegheny County Regional Asset District, seek more corporate contributions and work with local and state entities to develop incentive programs for donors. In terms of new funding streams, the library would launch an endowment campaign and give the public a chance to vote on whether increased dedicated funding should go to the library system. Lucchino says Pittsburgh's annual contribution to the library has not increased from its original $40,000 over the library's 115 years in the city.

Court Orders Gaming Board to Let McCord In

Calling it a “win” for government accountability and transparency, Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord praised a Commonwealth Court ruling that the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s executive sessions should be open to ex-officio (non-voting) members like the treasurer
The Court ruled the board was wrong to exclude the treasurer and enjoined the board from “taking any action preventing or otherwise inhibiting the [Treasurer] or his designee(s) from attending and participating in all sessions of the Board (public and private)…”
McCord filed a lawsuit in May to force the board to allow him or his designees to attend the closed door meetings...."The court's decision today is clear, the board's actions were unlawful and without justification."

The board and McCord have been battling over this issue for 18 months.
Senior Judge Keith Quigley wrote in the order that the court was “persuaded by the clear wording of the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act…” and the the Board’s arguments at a hearing January 19, 2011, did not convince it otherwise.

As part of the Commonwealth Court order McCord and his designees must sign a confidentiality agreement and a Code of Ethics Statement.

McCord says the would sign those documents. Earlier, Gaming Board Chair Greg Fajt said McCord was barred from the executive sessions because he had not signed the confidentiality and ethics documents. Fajt also criticized McCord for not attending the public sessions like his predecessors did.

Redistricting Chair Sought

Looking for a job? Pennsylvania’s top lawmakers are seeking applicants for a spot as the head of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.

If you’re good at math, love geography and want to dive into what can, at times, be an intensely partisan and complicated process, the gig could be for you. The Commission is made up of the top Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate, as well as an outsider who isn’t a current officeholder. The five members will determine the boundaries for Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate districts over the coming year.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi spelled out what he’s looking for in a chair: “Someone with a proven track record of integrity and success at a high level. Preferably someone who has a good working knowledge of Pennsylvania government, of the laws that regulate Pennsylvania government, and of the political geography of Pennsylvania,” he said.

Barry Kauffman of Common Cause Pennsylvania, who had called for a more open redistricting process, says the bid for applications could be a step in the right direction. “This is something new and very promising that they’re suggesting they’re actually going to take applications for people to serve as the fifth member of the commission,” he said. “So reaching out like this to a much broader community might get us a person who’s truly nonbiased and nonpartisan. So let’s hope for the best.”

Still, the press release announcing the effort says leaders won’t necessarily select one of the applicants for the job. If you’re interested in applying, send a resume and cover letter to

Progressive Summit in Pittsburgh

Civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson will speak at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit this weekend, along with several current and former elected officials.

Keystone Progress Executive Director Michael Morrill says Jackson is speaking both to honor Pennsylvania’s progressive movement and to encourage local progressives to do more. Morrill says that’s especially necessary after many conservative candidates routed their liberal challengers in both state and national elections last November.

Morrill says although those elections were disappointing to many progressives, they’re also a motivation to work harder for the progressive agenda. He says that means improving public education, reexamining the state budget, and supporting the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

He says the summit will have 72 different workshops, not just on those issues but also on how to become an effective progressive campaigner. He says it’s a sort of “progressive training” track for would-be activists.

A Pennsylvania Progressive Awards Dinner will recognize leading activists, and progressive musicians will play at the Sheraton Station Square.

Leaders Discuss Energy Saving Strategies

Allegheny County officials wrap up 2 days of meetings today at the National Energy Efficiency Forum in Los Angeles. The event is sponsored by the National Association of Counties.
County Executive Dan Onorato and Sustainability Manager Jeaneen Zappa joined other county leaders from across the nation to discuss energy efficiency and renewable energy as well as strategies for energy management.
Zappa says they discussed how Allegheny County used an $8.1 million federal grant.....
"We've evaluated our buildings and split it into 2 phases and now were implementing energy efficiency measures and water saving measures at the jail and the Kane Regional facilities (nursing homes). We'll move into other buildings in phase 2 as soon as we get that approved."

Zappa says they set aside $2.1 million to help all communities in Allegheny County to conduct an energy audit of their primary municipal building and 104 of them took the county up on its offer. She said people were excited that the county used some of the grant for its own buildings and a portion to help the region.

Zappa says she's heard a lot of innovative ideas. She says the county hopes to create a fund to help retrofit homes and commercial buildings to save energy.

In phase 1 of the retrofits at the jail and the Kane facilities, they anticipate an annual savings of $2 million in energy costs. Zappa says if those savings are not realized, the contract will owe the county money. She says the whole project will be paid back through savings in a little more than 6 and a half years.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

UPMC Hopes for a Vaccine Factory

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hopes to put a vaccine factory that is partially federally funded in a 30 acre brownfield site in Hazelwood.

First, they would have to go through a selective process through the Department of Health and Human Services. If the facility were to be built in Pittsburgh, it would cost about $600 to $800 million dollars, with about half of that cost coming from UPMC and the other half coming from the government.

Last year the Department of Health and Human Services, which has set aside more than $12 billion to improve vaccine production asked for comments prior to requesting the Request for Proposal. UPMC submitted as did other institutions.

UPMC has established a non-profit arm to prepare for the facility called 21CB. It has partnerships with IBM, Merck and Co. and GE Healthcare.

If selected, Robert Cindrich, Special Advisor to UPMC's President Jeffrey Romoff, said it would be several years before the facility would be up and running. It would focus on flu vaccines and medical countermeasures for bio-terrorism. It's estimated the facility would employ thousands.

There are no other vaccine factories in Pittsburgh.

"That's one of the reasons why we're so interested in this. This is a new industry for Pittsburgh, it fits our high tech and health care face that we're putting on the region and we have the talent for it and this would be, we hope, the precursor for other businesses in the vaccine field," said Cindrich.

State Senator Introduces Legislation to Lower Drink Tax

The drink tax in Allegheny County might be lowered if legislation by State Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny County) passes. Ferlo is planning on introducing a bill aimed at lowering the drink tax permitted from the current 7 to a maximum 5 percent. His plan will also include the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County dividing the revenue of the tax.

Ferlo says that the tax is important because taverns and bar make up a large proportion of the local economy in the county. "I think a lot of folks, even those who live outside the city, will see the revitalization of some of our neighborhood business corridors. And a lot of that rests on the viability of taverns and restaurants. They're a mainstay in community redevelopment and main street implementation and preservation of historic structures on neighborhood levels."

Funds collected by the County under the plan would continue to go towards transportation. While revenue collected by the city would go to a trust fund for police , fire and public safety protection. The legislation would continue to entrust the county Treasurer with collection.

Late Mayor's Son Running for City Council

Corey O'Connor announced Wednesday that he will be running for the Pittsburgh Council seat once held by his father, the late Mayor Bob O'Connor. Bob O'Connor represented the city's 5th District on Council before going to work for Governor Ed Rendell. He won the mayoral election in 2005, took the oath of office ind January 2006 before being hospitalized with cancer and dying 8 months later.

Corey O'Connor says that he has a passion to serve the city's residents. "To make our city an even better,safer, and cleaner place to live and work. I have experience and ability to bring people together, and that's what I want to do with my relationships and to bring new resources to the table. To bring people together to discuss our issues that hit us hard in the neighborhood."

O'Connor may come up against Councilman Doug Shields, a former aide to then Councilman Bob O'Connor. Shields has planned to relinquish his seat and run for a district judge seat, but there is uncertainty over whether the seat will be eliminated due to budget restraints. If the seat is cut Shields has expressed that he might run for reelection to council.
O'Connor, who has been an aide to Congressman Mike Doyle for the last 4 years, says that even though he may have to run against a family friend, he made a promise to run. "It's unfortunate what's going on with the councilman's situation, but he's a good friend of ours and he was the one that encouraged me to run. So if things changed I cant help it because I gave my word that I'm running. I am a man of my word and am going to stay in this race."

He says that the main focus on his run is to serve the people of Pittsburgh. O'Connor says that the people of Pittsburgh have been there for him and his family through good times and tragedy and have always bee there for him. He says he only wishes to give back to them.

Dermody: Dems "Will be More than Warm Bodies"

The theme of this week’s inauguration was Republicans taking control of Pennsylvania government.
But Democratic leaders insist they’ll still have a voice during legislative debates.
Republicans hold sizable majorities in the House and Senate, but House Minority Leader Frank Dermody of Allegheny County says Democrats will be more than warm bodies over the next two years.

"We are going to be their conscience. We’ll be the loyal minority. We’re going to fight hard, and obviously we want to work with them, too. We have – the people expect us to work together to accomplish some things for the commonwealth. We intend to do that the best we can."

One issue that will test Democrats right away is the AdultBasic health insurance plan, which covers 41-thousand low-income Pennsylvanians, but will run out of money at the end of February.
The Senate’s top Democrat, Jay Costa, wants to keep the program running through July, so lawmakers can create a replacement program during this year’s budget negotiations.
The Corbett Administration has proposed shifting AdultBasic enrollees to a more expensive health care plan that offers less coverage.
Costa says he also plans to mount an aggressive opposition to Republicans’ plan to sell off state-owned liquor stores.

Upcoming Battle Over Vouchers

Opponents of a school vouchers program are honing their arguments against a measure that’s been pegged as a top priority for Governor Tom Corbett and Pennsylvania’s other Republican leaders.
Senate Bill 1 would use money from the state’s basic education subsidy to fund vouchers for low-income students, and in his inaugural address, Corbett voiced support for the idea.
But Timothy Allwein of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and other vouchers opponents say the plan cedes control to private schools.

"As far as we know, neither Senate Bill 1 nor any other voucher proposal that we heard about would require a school to take a student who has a student voucher. So really what it boils down to is the school making the choice, not necessarily the parents of the student making the choice, which is what supporters of the legislation are always touting."

Allwein says the legislation will hurt public schools’ bottom line.

"Just because you take maybe 25 or 30 kids out of a district, or even out of a specific school, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve reduced the cost in that district or school. You still have to pay the teachers, you still have to pay the utility bills, etc, etc, etc."

The bill’s co-sponsor, Democratic Senator Anthony Williams, argues public schools are saving money when students go to private institutions instead.
Allwein counters districts and schools would still have the same overhead costs and bills to pay, and the decrease in funding would hurt education efforts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Fareboxes to Introduce ConnectCards

The Port Authority of Allegheny County has resolved issues with new fareboxes being installed at Collier Township Garage and is moving ahead with a smart card system. Installation of the new fareboxes was halted because the dollar bills kept getting jammed in the machines. The new smart cards will be named ConnectCards and will fully be launched in March 2012.

Jim Richie, spokesperson for the Port Authority, says the smart card system is a break from the outdated fare collection systems they have in place now. "You'll be able to go onto your home computer, recharge your card by adding more money using your credit card;or going to a local T-station or the downtown service center and putting more money on your card there."

Richie says that all buses and light rail vehicles will be retrofitted with the new system. He also says the new fareboxes also take cash for those not using ConnectCards.

Major Sporting Events Bring Cash to Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh raked in more than another AFC Championship berth when the Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens Sunday. The city will also see a cash benefit as it plays host to its third major sporting event this month.

Combined with the Winter Classic, the Steelers’ two home playoff games are expected to generate about $60 million in direct spending, says VisitPittsburgh Vice President of Sales and Marketing Craig Davis.

Davis says spending on tickets, hotel rooms, food and souvenirs will add up to millions of dollars in city tax revenue.

Westin Convention Center Hotel Manager Tom Martini says the additional high-profile game against the Jets helps a hotel industry that would normally be sluggish in January.

Davis says the three January sporting events also suggest that Pittsburgh is lively at a time when most northeastern cities are slow.

Duquesne Light Offers Storm Update Texts

Duquesne Light Company has introduced a new alert system that sends text messages to customers when a storm knocks out electricity to their homes and businesses.

Duquesne Light spokesman Joseph Vallarian says the texts will provide the same information the company gives news media in cases of power outages. He says the difference is while televisions and computers may not work at that time of the power outage, mobile phones are usually still on.

Vallarian says it's a free service ..."text messaging is one of the most commonly used communication vehicles today, so this is the next logical step in communicating with our customers."

Vallarian says the alert system will also send texts telling customers of energy-saving tips, notices of free appliance recycling and free online energy audits. Customers can receive the information by texting DUQLIGHT to 94253.

Study Ranks Cities for Online Philanthropy

Pittsburgh is the 12th most generous city per capita in terms of online giving. For the last 3 years, Convio, which provides technologies to help non-profits raise funds more effectively, has ranked 273 cities with populations of at least 100,000.
Convio's Patrick Hansen says for the second straight year Alexandria, Virginia; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and, Arlington, Virginia have topped the most generous large cities list.
Hansen says Pittsburgh has been in the top 15 in each of the three years of study, and the number of donations online by Pittsburghers has increased 35% from 2009 to 2010 and the dollar amount rose by 42%....
"That's a great trend to see for any city. That's something that everyone in Pittsburgh should feel good about."

Hansen says online in all 273 cities, $389 million was contributed in 2010...up 27% from the previous year. The average gift online went from $62 to $65. "People are definitely getting more comfortable contributing online. So, we are seeing some shift from other channels to the online channel and that's been a long-term trend over the last 10 years."

Hansen says this information can be helpful to non-profits "that they can use to their advantage, can inform the way they're pointing themselves and connecting with their donors and supporters."

While Pittsburgh was 12th nationwide, the next most generous Pennsylvania city is Philadelphia, ranked 139th.

Allegheny County Home Price Paradox

As home prices fell across the nation, Allegheny County saw a 23% increase in both median and average prices from December 2008 to December 2010. On the other hand, prices were down in Butler and Westmoreland counties; stagnant in Beaver; and up just 6% in Washington.

The first-time homebuyer tax credit is NOT the reason for the significant increase—it hadn’t started in December 2008 and was over by December 2010. Daniel Murrer, Vice President of RealSTATS, says the reasons for the rise and why it’s confined to Allegheny County are not yet fully understood. He notes that density is higher—60% of the five-county market—and rising gas prices may push buyers to Allegheny County, increasing demand and prices.

Murrer says sales over the next few months will be down compared to 2010 figures when the tax credit was in effect, so it will be fairer to compare to prices two years ago.

Murrer says, theoretically, property reassessment in Allegheny County should have zero impact because taxing authorities will adjust their rates to keep taxes from going up.

Meanwhile, housing starts across the country for December were fewer than expected

Carnegie Museums Hires Head of New Ecosystem Center

Dr. John Wenzel, currently a biology professor at Ohio State University will be heading a new Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Wenzel says he'll have a duel role -- bringing the Powdermill Nature Reserve in Laurel Highlands in closer alignment with the Natural History Museum in Oakland and spearheading a new public education initiative that has scientists working across disciplines to encourage topical work instead of specialized areas. Wenzel says "usually the way research is executed is that the scholar and scientist who are doing the work pick a topic, then having executed the research somebody goes to the public education's probably more effective if you were to embrace the ultimate education goal from the beginning." While working in Columbus Wenzel became known for creating the annual Insect Fairs at the Columbus Zoo, attracting thousands of people. He says making the public a part of the process is important not just from an educational standpoint, but also to compete with what's on television. "You can pick up your TV-clicker and see these spectacular natural history shows that were produced at the cost of millions of dollars, so this creates a's much more difficult for a museum to compete." The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh still has some leadership roles to fill -- Museums president David Hillenbrand is retiring and the head of the Andy Warhol Museum director Tom Sokolowski resigned last month.

Corbett Gets Down To Work

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett vowed to shrink and reform state government during his inaugural address yesterday.
As DUQ's Scott Detrow has more from the state Capitol, those won’t be easy tasks.
Corbett didn’t dive into too many specifics during his inaugural address, but he laid out his administration’s basic goal.
More details of Corbett’s legislative reform package are expected to emerge over the coming days. Corbett said he isn’t fazed by all the challenges he’ll face.

Listen to Scott Detrow's story.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Korbe Sentenced

The woman accused of killing an FBI agent pleaded guilty and was sentenced on Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry sentenced Christina Korbe to 15 years in jail on charges of voluntary manslaughter and discharging a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence. In 2008 Korbe shot Sam Hicks, an FBI agent who came to her house to arrest her husband on drug trafficking charges.

Korbe pled guilty on Tuesday morning in front of a packed courtroom. She read a tearful apology in which she asked for forgiveness from the Hicks family and blamed the FBI for what occurred.

After the plea and sentencing, Sam Hick’s widow Brooke said that the most important thing was that Christina Korbe took responsibility for her actions. She said listening to Korbe’s apology was difficult.

“I would say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. To sit there and listen to the person who took him from me talk about how she feels. I just kept thinking about my son and what he’s missing and what he will never get. And it was extremely hard,” she said.

Judge McVerry suggested Korbe be placed in a prison close to Pittsburgh so her two young children can pay her regular visits.

Former Attorney General Becomes PA Governor

Republican Tom Corbett has been sworn in as Pennsylvania’s 46th governor. Corbett took the oath of office a few minutes after noon, in front of a soggy and cold crowd of supporters and legislators, and four former governors.
He promised to push for reform measures, and to shrink the size of government.

"A government that has the courage to find fiscal strength in restraint. A government that shows compassion for those most in need, and recognizes its citizens great investment. A government that must yield them a hopeful, realistic return."

Corbett acknowledged the challenges he’ll face, including a likely multi-billion dollar budget deficit this year.

"You will never hear me say impossible. To say it – or worse, to believe it – would accomplish nothing. I see the possible. I see the possible, and I see a promising future for Pennsylvania."

Corbett also vowed to improve Pennsylvania’s education system, saying school “choice” needs to be part of a solution.
At times, it was hard to hear Corbett over the din of demonstrators a few hundred yards away.
They were there to protest natural gas drilling, and the amount of money energy companies donated to Corbett’s campaign.
The governor is expected to release more details from a legislative reform package in the coming days. He’ll present his budget plan to lawmakers in early March.