Thursday, March 31, 2011

ICA Faces He Said - She Said on City Budget

The members of the Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority sat looking a bit befuddled this afternoon as City Councilman Bill Peduto read to them a letter he wrote to the mayor regarding parking revenue. The ICA requested that City Council Finance Committee Chairman Bill Peduto come before the board to explain why the city’s budget was sliding out of balance.

The mayor had recently brought up the issue of less than expected payments from the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. The money is expected to help make payments to the city’s pension fund. Peduto laid the issue squarely at the feet of the Parking Authority Board, which he says is the only body that can raise parking rates and install new parking meters as is required. Peduto says the budget does not anticipate the $1.3 million in payments in lieu of Taxes (PILOT) until the 4th quarter. The idea was to allow the Authority time to get the new rate structure in place and install new parking meters capable of collecting the higher charges.

During the pension and parking debate last year, the council set a new parking rate schedule that Peduto says more than covers the increased PILOT. “There is an additional amount that goes directly to the Parking Authority so they can afford things like maintenance and improvements. It’s not as if we are just raising the rates or proposing to raise the rate just to break neutral,” says Peduto.

Peduto says the board should act quickly so it can bring in much more than the 1.3 million anticipated.

At the same time, Ravenstahl Administration Budget Director and Parking Authority Chair Scott Kunka says the Authority cannot simple act on numbers that were part of an ongoing debate in council. “A prime architect of the council plan, Councilwomen Rudiak, is a member of the Parking Authority, now we’ve had three meetings already this year and she has not once brought this mater up to the Parking Authority Board,” says Kunka. Kunka says they need to hear directly from the council what the proposed rate structure should be.

ICA Board Chair Barbara McNees says, “ We are going to have to do some analysis on this, see where everybody is on this, talk to [Peduto] talk to the mayor and see where the division of responsibilities lie.” It is not the ICA’s job to determine parking rates but it is responsible for making sure that the budget stays in balance. “The budget as passed depends on the implementation of some of this,” says McNees, “If that s not going to occur, we don’t want a budget that’s out of balance… so those are the questions we need to ask.”

Download a copy of the letter Councilman Peduto read into the ICA record here.

ICA to Release Gaming Funds

The Pittsburgh Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority says it has more than $13 million dollars it will use to help pay for a new auditing system and new roads in the city. The money is cash the ICA received from gaming taxes in the last quarter of 2009 and all of 2010. $7.5 million of it will go to help the city to partner with the county on the purchase of upgrades to a soon-to-be shared financial management system. The remaining $5.8 million will be deposited into the city’s depleted capital budget to allow for “critical” street surfacing and public safety equipment purchases. Ravenstahl administration budget director Scott Kunka says he thinks the funds were divided appropriately. “There was a need that was identified, the funds needed to be gained from somewhere,” says Kunka.

The Ravenstahl administration had been waiting to purchase the new software until the state sold the old municipal courts building on Second Avenue and transferred 9 million dollars into the city's coffers.

Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb says he will be looking to the board in the coming weeks to help fund what he calls a “pre-conversion” study or audit of the city’s books. “Whether that be a survey or an audit of existing accounts and funds, recommendations moving forward with respect to how we will deal with issues that have plagued in the current system, issues with respect to closing out … funds,” says Lamb. The controller says it would be best if an outside third party were hired to do the books.

Gaming tax revenues that come in during 2011 will be reserved by the ICA board to pay city debt and pension obligations.

Pennsylvania State Police Carries Out Operation FracNet

As part of their regular regulating of commercial vehicles on state roads The Pennsylvania State Police has been operating a FracNet program where they regulate trucks used to haul wastewater that is used in the Marcellus Shale industry.

The most recent program was held on March 15 and 16. Their primary concern is making sure the vehicles are operating safely, meaning they have brakes that work and lights that turn on. In this last operation, 731 vehicles were inspected, 334 of them in Southwest Pennsylvania. 131 of the vehicles that were inspected statewide were placed out of service.

The owners of the truck are the ones fined.

Blue Lights Increase Autism Awareness

Pittsburghers will wonder why several local landmarks are shining bright blue tomorrow night. At least, that’s Mark Tallarico’s hope.

Tallarico is Executive Director of Autism Speaks of Greater Pittsburgh, and he’s hoping that literally shining blue lights on the skyline will shed light on and bring attention to the widespread mental disorder of autism.

He’s joined by 30 countries and all 50 U.S. states, where everything from homes to skyscrapers will be illuminated with blue light. That includes Australia’s Sydney Opera House, the Empire State Building, and Niagara Falls. In Pittsburgh, that means both inclines, the Highmark Building, and the Carnegie Library’s main campus.

“It goes [from] as simple as homes lighting up at the Perry Cuomo statue in Canonsburg, all the way up to some of the major structures around the world,” says Tallarico.

The “Light It Up Blue” campaign kicks off Autism Awareness Month. Tallarico says he hopes people will take the opportunity to wear blue on Autism Awareness Day (Saturday), or take part in Autism Speaks conferences and events.

Tallarico says autism diagnosis has increased to the point where 1 of 110 children is affected by the disorder.

“There are more children diagnosed with autism than there are with diabetes, cancer and AIDS combined, so it’s very important that we tackle this problem,” says Tallarico.

He says he hopes the month’s events can build excitement for the twelfth annual autism walk at Heinz Field on June 4. Tallarico says he expects “Walk Now for Autism Speaks” to attract about 12,000 people and raise as much as $1 million.

Federal Budget to Blame for Closing of Two Locks

Recreational boaters will no longer be able to access service to Locks 9 and 8 (Rimer and Templeton) along the Allegheny River. The two locks will be closed along with elimination of 24 hour service to Lock 2 near the Highland Park Bridge and Lock 4 in Natona. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was forced to close the locks after their budget for water navigation was cut to 4 million dollars, about 50% of their current allocation.

Richard Lockwood, Chief of Operations for the Pittsburgh division of the Corps , says that "Congress created the locks and only Congress can close them" in reference to the 2011-2012 federal budget prompting the cuts.

He says the Army Corps of Engineers worked with the community to compromise on which locks will close. "With the funding that is authorized for us for the Allegheny River, we actually went out and met with out commercial constituents, our commercial customers, our recreational customers, elected officials. We had a series of public meetings, and those conversations and those meetings shaped the plan that we're offering today."

Armstrong County Commissioner Richard Fink says that the locks provide tourism to the county and a loss of them would not be acceptable. "Theoretically what happens right now unless we can find a resolution in 8 and 9 locks, that turns into two lakes, two large lakes in the northern end of Armstrong County."

Fink says County Commissioners are trying to work out ways which would allow them to keeps locks open to recreational boaters and tourism.

The cuts to the locks are scheduled for October 1st when as many as 18 employees will be reassigned to other posts .

1 in 4 PA Bridges Structurally Deficient

A new report ranks Pennsylvania dead-last, when it comes to the percentage of bridges that are structurally deficient.

The Transportation for America study shows nearly 27 percent of its bridges – a total of nearly 6,000 – have problems. Oklahoma is the runner-up, at 22 percent.

Governor Corbett acknowledged it’s a problem, but said funding repairs needs to take a back seat to the budget, right now. “Are we trying to…find the funds for it? Yes. But I will go back, and you’ve heard me say it repeatedly: we inherited a $4.3 billion deficit that we have to resolve.” The Republican wants to fund efforts through privatization, and blamed his predecessors for not acting to fix infrastructure problems.

Governor Rendell disputed that take, saying he put a lot of effort into fixing roadways, beginning with 2007’s Act 44. “It was probably the most historic step in investment transportation funding in the history of the commonwealth,” he said Tuesday. “We had a $400 million bond issue that I pushed through for our bridges, as you recall. Even before that $400 million bridge initiative, I tripled the amount of spending on our bridges from $250 to $750 million, on an annual basis.” But the federal government rejected a key portion of Act 44’s funding plan when it denied a request to toll I-80. Rendell spent his final months in office urging lawmakers to pass a gas tax to fund infrastructure repair, but the initiative never gained momentum. He did, however, oversee over $1 billion in federal stimulus expenditures on roads and bridges in 2009 AND 2010.

Environmentalists Say Policy Shift Damages Regulating Drillers

The head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection will personally sign off on all actions taken against natural gas drillers, going forward.

A department email obtained by WDUQ, Pennsylvania Public Radio and other outlets spells out the change: “Effective immediately, any actions, [notices of violation] and such must get the approval of [Deputy Secretary] Dana [Aunkst] and I with the final clearance from [Acting DEP Secretary Michael] Krancer,” wrote Executive Deputy Secretary John Hines on March 23rd. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was first with the story.

Until now, the decision to cite drillers for violations was made by inspectors, and at the regional level. DEP spokeswoman Katie Gresh said the change was made to ensure across-the-board standards. “This effort to bring about consistency will ensure that enforcement actions levied against companies in one region for one activity will be levied against companies in every other region for the same activity,” she said.

That’s not how environmental advocates feel. Former DEP Secretary John Hanger said when he first got wind of the change, he dismissed it as a rumor. “Somebody had called me about three days ago saying that there was this directive that was out there – this memo out there. I said I just can’t believe it. I cannot believe that would be the directive,” he said. “This would be the equivalent of a trooper being told that he can’t issue a final ticket until the head of the State Police reviews it. It makes no sense. It is going to chill the activity. It’s going to be corrosive to public confidence in the inspection process.”

Hanger called the top-down approach “extraordinary and unprecedented.” Jan Jarrett, the president and CEO of PennFuture, agreed. “This memo effectively makes a joke out of inspections of Marcellus Shale drilling operations. What this does is it undercuts the independence and professionalism of inspectors out in the field,” she said. “Rather than to make a formal notice that there’s a problem on the site and start the process of getting it fixed - before they can even issue a notice of violation, they’ve got to kick it up the bureaucratic ladder, all the way to the secretary, Secretary Krancer. And they can’t issue a notice of violation until the secretary approves that.”

Environmentalists have been wary of Governor Corbett since day one, due to the large amount of money drilling companies donated to the Republican’s campaign. In fact, anti-drilling activists picketed his inauguration. Corbett has steadfastly opposed to a natural gas severance tax, and made news earlier this month with budget language appearing to give the Department of Community and Economic Development input into the drilling process. “They just made [drilling] more controversial,” said Hanger. “This is going to send a message to inspectors: be careful issuing notices of violation.”

PA Lawmaker Introduces Severance Tax

Despite facing a major uphill battle, Democratic Pennsylvania State Senator John Yudichak of Luzerne County has moved a bill that would tax natural gas as it comes out of the ground. The bill calls for a tax on the gross value of the gas.

In the first three years of production, a well would be taxed at 2% and then jump up to 5% in year four. It would stay at that level until production fell below 150 MCF of natural gas per day. Once that threshold is reached, the tax would slip back to 2% as long as it stays above 60 MCF per day. Any well below 60 MCF would be exempt from the tax.

Yudichak says the tax would bring in $125 million in the first year and as much as $400 million a year after five years.

The measure is unlikely to win approval despite having Republican State Senator Edwin Erickson of Delaware County as a co-sponsor. Most Republicans in Harrisburg are against such a tax and the GOP holds a 30-20 majority in the PA senate. Yudichak says it is time to listen to the residents not the party, “The need to enact a natural gas severance tax is obvious to more than 60% of Pennsylvanians.” Yudichak was sighting recent polls that show public support for such a tax. “Gas drilling can potentially impact us all, in every corner of Pennsylvania,” says Yudichak.

Republicans have argued that such a tax will kill the young Marcellus Shale industry before it has a chance to grow. Yudichak disagrees, “We can have a thriving natural gas industry in Pennsylvania but it must be responsibly regulated and taxed to protect our communities, our land and our water.”

Even if it gets past the Republican controlled legislature, it would most likely face a veto from Governor Tom Corbett who made it a campaign pledge to not tax shale gas extraction. However, in recent weeks the governor and much of the rest of the party have begun to indicate that they may be willing to enact an impact fee that would stay with a host municipality.

In an effort to appeal to the Republicans, a third of the tax under Yudichak’s bill would be set aside for water supply and waste water issues, a third would go to an environmental stewardship fund and the rest would stay with local governments.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

County Council Hears Both PAT and Local 85

Members of the two sides in disagreement over labor negotiations between Port Authority Transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 met in Allegheny County Courthouse’s Gold Room Wednesday evening under a special meeting called for by Allegheny Council President Jim Burn.

Burn and his fellow council members asked each representative if they were willing to go back to the negotiating table after heated but closed talks ended on Saturday afternoon. The following day, the Port Authority went through with a 15 percent service cut. Steve Bland, CEO of PAT and Patrick McMahon, union President for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 both agreed in principle to continuing negotiations.

According to reports from both sides, management and the union were close to reaching an agreement after “historic” concessions were made by the union regarding legacy funds and health care for retirees.

County Manager Jim Flynn said a “cooling off” period was necessary and four days between talks is helpful for each side to reset before negotiating again.

Many councilmen questioned the representatives to help educate themselves on where each side stands and to encourage immediate negotiations. Councilmen explained that the lack of state funding has driven the problems that lead to service cuts and further cuts expected in June of 2012. Councilman Michael Finnerty says the blame game between sides is unnecessary when there is a bigger issue.

“When we look at the situation be realistic about it in saying what the problem is, and the state is one of the problems, it’s not just legacy cuts, it’s not just healthcare, it’s dedicated funding, too.”

Bland agreed with Finnerty’s sentiments saying until there is a source of dedicated funding, these meetings will come up every few months as PAT finds itself in financial trouble again.

“We have to move away from these one-day, one-week, one-month, one-year Band-Aids, limp-alongs, bailouts, you-name-it and get to a point where public transportation in Pittsburgh is sustainable on an ongoing basis and frankly where derivative bodies like this one can move onto issues of other significant public policy interests.”

McMahon says negotiations can and will continue, but constant ultimatums from the Port Authority won’t be the fix.

“As far as we are concerned, Local 85, we have never left the negotiating table but we need someone that we can negotiate with,” McMahon says. “Take it or leave it proposals will not get it done, it will get a mutually agreeable solution.”

UPMC Performs Less-invasive Aortic Valve Replacement

UPMC surgeons performed the first round of procedures that replaces patent's aortic heart valve without having to perform open heart surgery. The hospital is one of 40 hospitals nation-wide participating in the Medtronic CoreValve® Clinical Trial evaluating a non-surgical procedure as an alternate to open-heart surgery for aortic stenosis patients. The procedure requires doctors to channel a catheter through a small opening in the femoral artery to reach the patent's heart, then the CoreValve is guided to the aortic valve where it self-expands to replace the diseased valve.

William Anderson, director of Interventional Cardiology at UPMC, says that this procedure is different than other methods. "The gold standard of therapy for aortic valve replacement is to do it through open heart surgery, and that's an operation that we've done for a long time and we're very familiar with. The disadvantage to it is that it is maximally invasive and it has a relatively long recuperation period."

Anderson says that the procedure has yet to show whether or not t will be a commercial success. He says that there are two other valve replacements being made available commercially relatively soon and we should see in the next 12 months if either is successful.

Aortic stenosis prevents the heart's aortic valve from properly opening which leads to less healthy blood flow from the aorta to the rest of the body. Approximately 300,000 people suffer from aortic stenosis worldwide, one third being deemed too high risk for open heart surgery.

The CorevValve System will be available commercially until the end of its clinical trial and approval of the FDA.

Corbett Gets Rid of Bus

Governor Tom Corbett is kicking “Commonwealth One” to the curb. He’s auctioning off the tour bus Governor Ed Rendell used to travel the state, pitching his budget plans, transportation initiatives and other legislative priorities. “It has required $66,000 just to maintain this bus,” said Corbett at a Tuesday morning Harrisburg press conference. “In 2008, this bus cost taxpayers $18.84 per mile. In 2009, it cost $19.93 per mile. Last year this bust cost us $25.99 per mile. …It has cost us $1,336 for batteries. We spent $550 dollars having it towed. The taxpayers paid to have its windows tinted. This is one bus we can do without.”

Speaking on an unrelated conference call, Rendell declined to weigh in on the sale, but pointed out the bus was donated, and not purchased, in 2003. “I hope it will make money, because it didn’t cost us anything to purchase it, so it will be a net gain,” he said. While Rendell didn’t leap to Commonwealth One’s defense – after three or four bus questions, he told reporters he refused to answer any more -- some of his former staffers were quick to support the coach. “I think you have to keep this in context,” said former Rendell spokesman and self-described “bus-keteer” Chuck Ardo. “Was it expensive? Sure it was expensive. Does the governor have a responsibility to go out there and be seen, and listen to the people of the commonwealth? I think that’s clearly a responsibility the governor has. … [Rendell] went to more places that no other governor had gone before. They should have called the bus the Enterprise.”

Corbett’s office claims Commonwealth One traveled just 26,000 miles during its eight-year lifespan. “This…represents everything wrong with state government,” he said. “It’s out-dated, inefficient and broken down.” Rendell’s top policy advisor, Donna Cooper, disagreed. “I don’t think it represents what’s wrong with government. Because that bus took Ed Rendell and many members of his cabinet to every one of the 67 counties nearly every year,” she said. “Particularly in the rural counties, that bus represented the first time a governor or a cabinet secretary had ever been to their county and worked with them on those problems. So if Corbett thinks that represents a bad way to govern, then I think a lot of Pennsylvania’s counties are going to be more disappointed in this administration than they already are.”

The bus goes to auction in May or June.

City Streetlights Could Change

Pittsburgh City Council has taken the first step toward creating the city’s first-ever lighting code and at the same time moved down the path toward installing new LED streetlights in every business district.

In May of 2008, the city launched a test project to install LED streetlights on half of Walnut Street in Shadyside. The experiment was well received by most and since then, various council members have been pushing for more. The city is sitting on an $800 thousand state grant to help put new lights in all of the city’s approximately 30 business districts and councilman Bill Peduto says the grant expires if the work is not put out to bid this spring. “Our goal is to get this lighting code passed, be able to then to go forward in April with Carnegie Mellon University, who we have hired as part of that grant, to map out what that new lighting system would look like for all of our business districts and by June to issue the first [request for proposal] to begin the installation of those lights,” says Peduto.

Council gave preliminary approval to the bill this morning and will hold a post agenda meeting with CMU representatives to discuss the lighting code and the initial project.

Peduto says part of the code must address what he calls “equity of lighting.” “In certain neighborhoods you see street lights at every telephone poll, in other neighborhoods you only see one street light at the intersection,” says Peduto. The councilman believes some neighborhoods are overly lit while some neighborhoods are too dark. The plan would take into account the type of activity in a neighborhood when setting lighting standard.

Two years ago the university of Pittsburgh took a look at what types of lighting is best, “cradle to grave,” from an environmental standpoint. At the time, LEDs were deemed to be the best and Peduto says it was determined that the city could trim 50% from its streetlight electricity bill by installing LED fixtures. “Today those estimates are over 70%,” says Peduto. He says maintenance costs can be cut by 75%, “Where we replace light bulbs every other year, we wont have to for about 8-10 years” with LED.

The goal is to start installing the lights in the fall and then begin looking for grants to outfit residential neighborhoods. A portion of the business district lighting will be paid for through a city budget fund filled through savings from other energy efficiency efforts.

Audit: City Property Tax Division Doing Well, Room for Improvement

Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb's latest audit focuses on the Department of Finance, Real Estate Division, Property Acquisition and Disposition. The department functions as the enforcement arm for property taxes in Pittsburgh, which includes maintaining and selling property. If property taxes are delinquent for a year, the site is eligible for take over by the city. In June 2010, 20,732 properties were listed as tax delinquent and during the audit period, Pittsburgh had 3,108 properties that were eligible for sale. Lamb says the city is doing a good job of selling properties that are marketable, but falls short when it comes to maintaining properties that aren't as appealing. He acknowledges that maintaining all those properties is not a small task, "and that's one of the reasons we created the Redd Up Crew...and what we're seeing is that the Redd Up Crew is not really spreading itself across the city." Lamb says there are uses for abandoned property and vacant lots, "like urban farming, community gardens - these properties are ripe for that kind of opportunity." He says the city should be offering those properties to the community or trying to lease them. Neighborhoods that are particularly impacted by abandoned or tax delinquent properties include: Larimer, Garfield, Perry South, Homewood North and South, Beltzhoover, Hazelwood, Middle Hill and California-Kirkbride.

Hearing on DNA Backlog Finds Progress

When Pennsylvania State Representative Larry Farnese (D- Philadelphia) learned that a serial rapist in his hometown might have been able to continue his crime spree because police did not have DNA evidence that could have linked him to multiple crimes, he called for a hearing to find out what was going on with the system. Police records show they had the DNA of the accused rapist in hand for nearly three months before it was added to the database where it could be matched to the other crimes.

What Farnese found was that at one time the state DNA lab was working with an 80-day backlog, which has been whittled down to 60 days in recent months. Farnese says the goal is to get it down to 14 days in the near future. However, he notes that in many European countries a one-week backlog is considered to be unacceptable.

Farnese says during the hearing it became clear to him that the employees in the lab are working as hard as they can. He says the number of employees and the equipment available limits the lab’s workload.

While funding levels were not specifically part of the hearing, Farnese says there was discussion on how to best use the state’s assets, including privatization options. “We determined based upon the hearing that it would cost more to box, protect and ship, then get them back and upload those samples, than it would to do it in house,” says Farnese. “So it is actually more inefficient to ship these to a third party testing lab.” Farnese says last year the state lab processed DNA samples from 1,924 active crime cases and uploaded 23,938 DNA profiles to the database.

The hearing comes as legislation that would increase the number of crimes for which DNA testing is done is making its way through the state legislature. Some believe that bill could increase the number of DNA samples processed by the lab by 400%.

Allegheny: 42nd Healthiest County in PA

What's billed as the most comprehensive report of its kind ranks the overall health of nearly every county in all 50 states. The second annual "County Health Rankings" report from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is intended to give communities a roadmap to improve health.
The report looks at health outcomes: the rate of people dying before age 75; the percent of people who report being in fair or poor health; the number of days people report being in poor physical or mental health; and, the rate of low-birthweight babies.
The rankings also look at 4 categories of factors that impact health: health behavior (including smoking, drinking, teen birth rates), clinical care (including uninsured adults, primary care providers and diabetic screening) , social and economic factors (including unemployment, children in poverty, crime rate) and physical environment (air pollution and access to recreational facilities).

In Pennsylvania, Union County has the healthiest residents and Philadelphia is the least healthy county in the state. Allegheny County is 42nd among the 67 counties, an improvement from the 2010 report when it ranked 48th.
Bridget Booske is a senior scientist with the institute and deputy director of the County Health Rankings project...."When I look at Allegheny County, there's a high percentage of low-birthweight babies (8.6% compared to the national benchmark of 6%) than elsewhere. Other factors, like smoking and obesity, Allegheny is pretty much running about average, but average in Pennsylvania doesn't necessarily mean there's not a whole lot of improvement that can take place there."

Booske says that set a national benchmark of a 90th percentile where only 10% of the counties had healthier numbers in those categories because they believe improvement to reach that top 10% "is attainable."

Allegheny County exceeds the national benchmark in the category of health coverage with 11% of uninsured adults compared to the national figure of 13%.
Booske says it's not unusual to have neighboring counties with wide-ranging rankings. While Allegheny County is number 42, Fayette is 63rd, Greene-65th and Cambria is 64th; while Butler is number 11, Indiana is 17 and Westmoreland is 20th...
"Where we live, learn, work and play does really matter across the state."

Booske adds that improvements can be made through policy, through community programs and in individual homes..."Health is everyone's business. There is something we each can do. It's good for all of us to live in healthier economies. It's good for the economy to be healthy."

State Police Commissioner: New DNA Testing Would Swamp Dept.

A new bill expanding Pennsylvania’s DNA testing is raising logistical concerns for the Commonwealth’s acting State Police Commissioner.

The measure, authored by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, would collect DNA samples from people arrested for felonies and eight misdemeanors. The legislation broadens the scope of crimes leading to automatic DNA tests. It also shifts the timing of the swabbing, from after a conviction to after arrest. The bill would require the destruction of DNA samples for people found “not guilty.”

Governor Tom Corbett , Pennsylvania's former Attorney General, hasn't decided if he would sign the measure if it's passed.

"I don’t have a problem with a database of somebody who has been arrested and convicted. I think they have to be convicted. I haven’t read the bill so give me fair comment, but my personal opinion: if somebody is arrested, if you’re going to take DNA it has to be -- arrested, take the DNA, but it goes in a database after conviction."

At a recent budget hearing, Acting Commissioner Frank Noonan said the legislation would increase Pennsylvania’s DNA processing caseloads by 400 percent. “We will need about 35 analysts. The equipment’s very expensive. We would have to consume other equipment, as well as a facility,” he said. “And the one thing – I would just like to caution it is not something that people could say, ‘ok, go and do it,’ and we could just flip a switch. … It would take at least a year for us to get ready. It takes at least a year to train these analysts. So it’s something that – if we do decide to do it it has to be planned, there has to be a planned growth to our DNA laboratory.”

Noonan says the increase could cost more than $13 million dollars. A Pileggi spokesman is skeptical of the estimate, saying other states have made similar transitions at a cost of less than $2 million.

Education Sec Defends Budget Cuts

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s top education official argues his boss was right to not replace expiring stimulus money with state dollars in his budget.

Corbett’s budget cuts about $1 billion from basic education spending. Acting Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis told the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday the administration didn’t have a choice. “He inherited a four billion dollar hole. We can think to make that whole bigger and bigger and bigger, which will end up on the backs of the taxpayer and the economy and the commonwealth.” The other option, Tomalis said, was to not replace expiring stimulus money, which he argued was irresponsibly utilized by Governor Rendell. “If you were told again and again that this was a funding cliff coming in two years, and you were advised not to make an expenditure that’s going to lock you in for five, ten years down the road, it does matter.”

Disappearing federal funds account for the proposed $550 million dollar reduction in the subsidy the state sends to school districts.

Tomalis also defended eliminating the $260 million Accountability Block Grant program, which many schools use to fund early childhood education. “I looked at the Accountability Block Grant program. My first question was, where’s the accountability in the Accountability Block Grant program? The school districts are allowed to use 16 different things – do 16 different things – with the Accountability Block Grant programs. It is a block grant program. So then the question is, why wasn’t it folded directly into the Basic Ed Formula?” He said doing away with the program helped minimize the basic education subsidy’s reduction.

Legislation to Trim House

Pennsylvania House Speaker Sam Smith is hoping for a vote by the end of this year on his bill to eliminate 50 legislative seats.

Smith’s measure would shrink the House from 203 to 153 members, and take effect in 2022. His primary motivation, he said, isn’t ideological, but rather practical: a smaller chamber would be easier to manage, and more efficient. “To be totally candid, [a smaller size] is one of the reasons the Senate as an institution seems to be able to kind of build their consensus and move more quickly when they decide to,” he said during a Capitol press conference.

The legislation is a constitutional amendment, so it would need to be passed into law in two consecutive sessions, and then clear a statewide voter referendum. If all that happens, the House would shrink during the next redistricting period. “You do a constitutional amendment, you’re already like four or five years into the next 10-year cycle,” Smith said. “And I also felt that [the delay] might take away some of the kind of parochial – are you giving up your seat? – mentality by saying it’s a little farther off.”

Major opposition to a reduction typically comes from rural lawmakers, who worry constituents in their larger districts would go underserved in even bigger boundaries. Smith represents Jefferson County, and conceded he felt that way for a long time, but that his view has evolved during his time in leadership. “To some of the people that those of us in rural Pennsylvania represent, that say this would – a smaller legislature would take away from the rural community representation, I would say that no, that really happened in the mid-60s,” he said. That’s when the House eliminated its county-based seat structure in response to a United States Supreme Court ruling mandating every state lawmaker represent roughly the same amount of constituents.

Smith doesn’t expect a hearing or vote before this year’s budget passes, but he wants the House to consider his measure this fall.

Bill Would Reconfigure PAT Board

A second state lawmaker from Allegheny County is proposing legislation to change the makeup of the board of the Port Authority of Allegheny County.
Democratic State Senator Wayne Fontana of Brookline says reconfiguring the PAT board would ensure better representation of those impacted by the panel's decisions.
Last week Democratic State Representative Chelsa Wagner of Beechview introduced a bill that would have each of the 4 state legislative caucuses appoint one member to the PAT board.

Fontana's bill would require the County Chief Executive to appoint members to the board that would represent specific segments of the population: a member of the House and Senate from Allegheny County, a member of the Transit Council, and a member that would represent labor.

“The Commonwealth currently provides 63% of the Port Authority’s budget, yet has absolutely no say in the decisions made by the board in regard to service or other issues. This has to change,” Fontana said. “Ensuring that the users (Transit Council) and labor are also at the table is important to provide a full understanding of the issues before the board.”

Currently, the nine-member board is appointed by the Chief Executive and confirmed by County Council. The only requirement is that members must be residents of the county and citizens of the United States and that one member must be a member of County Council.

Fontana's legislation would not put such restrictions on the boards of other public transit agencies that also receive significant state funding. For example, the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) receives $555 million in state subsidies which is about half of its operating budget.

Fontana says the state was counting on tolling Interstate 80, which would have meant an additional $30 million a year for PAT, and when the federal government rejected that proposal it "blew a hole" in the Act 44 transportation funding plan...

“Designating members of the board will, hopefully, provide a clearer picture of the state’s responsibility and capability to address funding and to identify options available locally.

The senator said this bill is not aimed at anyone in particular but the PAT board is not getting a state perspective..."If the state's going to provide funding, which it does obviously, it should be sitting at the table when we talk about solutions and plans to move forward and keep the Port Authority intact."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Washington County Tourism: There's an App for that

The Washington County Tourism Agency (WCTPA) has launched a free app for smartphone users that includes three megabytes of information regarding sites, attractions, hotels, restaurants, festivals and more.

Agency Executive Director J.R. Shaw says that this app kicks off their mobile marketing campaign.

"More and more people are getting their information and are researching their travel destinations online and electronically," he says. He also adds that 25% of cell phone users have smartphones.

Shaw explains that they have "tailored" their website to be accessible from a smartphone. Users can download the Washington County Tourism app from that website or iTunes, and it will offer tourist destination suggestions in Washington County. The app includes a "What's Nearby" feature, which operates via GPS to determine the sites the smartphone user is closest to. The app is available for the Android, Blackberry, and iPhone.

Shaw believes the app is the first of its kind in the region, if not the state, and that he hopes other regions catch on because future generations will all have smartphones.

"[The younger generation] demographic is much more savvy on the smartphones and they might not be the target market for travel right now, but they soon will be. We know that our future customers are going to be using smartphones," Shaw said.

The county's heritage sites include Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village, Duncan and Miller Glass Museum, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum and 22 covered bridges.

Riverlife to Open Park Memorial Day

With crews still working on the new section of riverfront park near the SouthSide Works, Riverlife took a few people on a tour to show of its creation. A piazza at street level overlooks the park and an amphitheater that flows 30 feet down to a stage. Cutting through the entire 790-foot length of the park is the riverfront hiking and biking trail. Along with views of the river and the Pittsburgh skyline, the stage will be backed by a steel and fabric sculpture.

Riverlife civil engineer Edward Patton says the $12.5 million dollar park will incorporate artifacts found on the site including a 160 thousand pound ladle and an old pump house. “Inside here were all the major pumps that provided water to the steel mill, says Patton. “There is an old discharge pipe where there is actually going to be a lenses put on there and the inside is going to be lit so you can actually walk up and look inside and see what was inside the pump house.” The top of the pump house will be used as an overlook.

Five rusty steel ingots were also found on the site during construction and will be set upright at the down-river entrance to the park. “It is unusual to have these kinds of ingots laying around and primarily why you would find then on a steel mill is that perhaps somebody perished in an accident and may have been cast in one of the ingots,” says Patton. The smaller ingots weigh about 10 thousand pounds and the larger are twice that.

The final phase of the project is still under design and will include boat docks for private and commercial craft.

Rendering by EPD, image courtesy of Riverlife

Watch an audio tour and slideshow of the park here.

Group Protests Marcellus Shale Summit

Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling protesters picketed outside of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh Tuesday. Inside, industry executives from upstream and midstream companies met to discuss environmental challenges, policy and regulations. Stephen Cleghorn, an organic farmer based in Jefferson County tried to crash the summit and deliver a "Bill of Indictment" outlining what the protesters allege are false claims by industry about the safety of shale fracturing. Cleghorn says millions of tons of chemicals are being pumped into the ground "and they don't know what's going to be on the other side of that in terms of how much of that ever gets up into our aquifers."  The Marcellus Shale Gas Environmental Conference runs through Wednesday, March 30.

More MegaBus

Pittsburgh will be the jumping off point for nine cities as the discount busline extends to the north and west of the city. already operates lines to 15 cities from Pittsburgh and lines to the latest destinations will start running May 11. But the "hub" will be virtual since Megabus does not have a bus station and most tickets are purchased over the internet. Because the company doesn't maintain bus stations, it's able to offer low cost tickets - some for only $1.

In Pittsburgh travelers board the bus at 11th Street beneath the convention center. is an arm of Coach USA. "Hey with rising gas prices, rising air fare, high unemployment, coming out of a recession- potentially people are looking for value, they want to save money they want to have more money in their pocket and its all about spending the money when you get to a destination," said Dale Moser, Chief Operating Officer of Coach USA.

The new cities served by the Pittsburgh hub include: Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Detroit, Toronto, Erie and Buffalo. currently links Pittsburgh to Sate College, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C. and Camden, N.J.

Community Colleges Oppose Cuts

CCAC President Alex Johnson and other community college leaders will appear before the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee in Harrisburg on Wednesday, March 30 to avert a 10% funding cut in Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed budget--$23 million statewide and $3.6 million for CCAC. Dr. Johnson says although it's a small portion of CCAC's overall $116 million annual budget, there would be an impact on direct instruction and on support services necessary to help students be successful. He says community colleges actually need more funding because of increasing enrollment and the commonwealth’s need for a skilled labor force.

Along with seeking to restore the funding, CCAC will also look at raising additional revenue from Allegheny County, foundations and corporations and may even have to turn to students, which Johnson says he and the trustees have not wanted to do.

On April 5th at least fifteen CCAC students will help Johnson convey the importance of community colleges in meetings with legislators in Harrisburg. Johnson says the Western Pennsylvania legislative delegation has traditionally supported community colleges, but this year they have to deal with proposed cuts of many great programs at all levels.

28% of Small PA Businesses Expect to Hire

A survey of Pennsylvania small business owners indicates they are cautiously optimistic about the future.

According to the poll by the trade association, SMC Business Councils, 28% of respondents expect to increase employment while 65% anticipate no change in their workforce levels, and 6% will lay off employees. Tom Henschke, president of the organization, says 56% expect revenues to grow; 30% see revenues remaining the same, and 14% think their revenues will drop.
"This survey shows some increased optimism from small business in the form of same or slightly increasing sales, same or slightly better profit margin. However, it's not necessarily leading to new hiring, capital investments, expansion. It's still a sign to us that there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty."

The small business owners indicated the cost of the Affordable Health Care Act as far and away the top business challenge. 88% of SMC members listed it as one of their top business challenges, including the cost of complying with the taxes, new benefits and mandates that go along with it. Nearly six in 10 -- 58% -- consider the health laws to be a severe challenge to their businesses.

However, a report issued last week by Families USA, a national organization for health care consumers, indicates 161,000 small businesses in Pennsylvania, 4 million nationwide, with fewer than 25 employees are eligible for a tax credit to help cover the cost of health insurance premiums for their workers.

Business owners also listed the economy (34%), the cost of doing business (27%), taxes (38%), regulations (34%), and the cost of energy (23%) as other challenges to their success and ability to add workers.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Free PNC Programs Help Retain Tax Refunds

Pittsburgh-based bank PNC is offering two free programs to help low-income taxpayers access their tax return money this year.

PNC says people without a bank account can opt for either a tax refund debit card or free refund check cashing when they use one of eight local Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs in the area. Neither requires the creation of a PNC account and both are free of charge.

PNC Community Development Program Manager John Florio says the programs are meant to help people avoid “high-fee financial services” at tax return time.

“They’re legitimate businesses, but because of their proximity, because of the way they do business, they tend to charge higher fees,” says Florio. “The ones that we’re talking about are the check-cashers and the payday lenders.”

Florio says these businesses usually charge 3-5% fees to people cashing their refund checks, often resulting in a loss of $50 and more from the total refund.

He says the VITA programs in the region are run by United Way and its partners to help people file for tax refunds, and help them avoid fees once the refund checks come back to them.

Florio says for low-income families, it’s often better to use VITA services than a tax preparer.

PA Students Protest Planned Education Cuts

Students from state-owned and state-related universities across Pennsylvania hopped on buses this morning to attend a rally at the Capitol to protest Governor Tom Corbett's budget proposal that would cut state funding for higher education by 50%. Hundreds of sign-waving students stoop on the steps of the Capitol while leaders of some of the universities testified before the House Appropriations Committee.

Representative Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny County), is a trustee of the University of Pittsburgh, and told the students that lawmakers will not them down....

"Governor Corbett emphasized the concept of 'shared sacrifice' in his budget address. Apparently, he meant 'shared sacrifice' from students, their families, faculty, staff and the communities that rely and thrive on the economic vitality generated by your schools. "He clearly does not believe that Big Oil and gas companies who extract our natural resources have to share in the sacrifice. He clearly does not believe that tobacco companies who produce smokeless tobacco products and cigars have to share in our sacrifice."

Representative Mike Hanna of Clinton and Centre Counties says the governor's priorities are wrong, and asked why Corbett is choosing incarceration over education. The Department of Corrections is one of the few that is scheduled to receive a funding increase in the governor's budget.

Onorato Stands on PAT Budget Plan

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato says he is still offering up two plans to save the Port Authority of Allegheny County but the union does not seem to be interested in accepting either of them. The Port Authority implemented 15% service cuts and laid off 180 workers Sunday in an effort to balance its budget through the end of June, 2012. Onorato says a little more than a week ago he began crunching the numbers. “I had my finance department, CPA’s and accountants at the county, not the Port Authority, not the union, verify every number before I put my two options together because I did not want to be pulled in either direction or biased by either side,” says Onorato. He says his options trim $20 million from the budget annually and will deal with the cost of providing retirees with healthcare.

Both plans call for the union to forego a 3% wage increase set for January of 2012, change overtime and job bidding rules, and increase employee payments into the retirement fund. Plan One then calls for employees to increase their healthcare costs to cover 20-percent of the premiums. Plan Two, calls for all future retirees to get a maximum of three years of full health insurance benefits. Currently those benefits are available to them for life. “These are real options that deal with the legacy costs of the Port Authority,” says Onorato.

Onorato says the offers put on the table by the union last week fell short of the $20 million mark and did not deal with legacy costs. “It has to be real, it has to deal with legacy costs, it cant be a promise,” says Onorato.

There are currently 2,700 union members on the PAT payroll and 3,200 retired union members receiving pension payments and health care benefits. Onorato says that number needs to be reversed. He points to the health insurance costs associated with county and the retirees of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia. He says PAT and the county both spend $69 million a year on healthcare and the county has more than twice as many active employees. SEPTA is three and a half time the size of PAT but is spends $8 million on post retirement healthcare while PAT spends $32 million.

Onorato says he is not suggesting that PAT enter into bankruptcy and change the benefits for current retirees because, “that is not the right way to handle this.” But he says that is where PAT is headed. As he holds up his thumb and for finger before his eyes he says, “They are this far from going over the cliff.”

Onorato says he will continue to look for ways to find more state funding but he says knowing the climate in Harrisburg he does not think there is much hope of doing that.

When asked why it was not the Port Authority Executive Director or Board President making the offer Onorato responded that they have already offered their plan, the 15% cut, and now he is offering his plan.

Proposed Fees For Towns That Rely On State Police

As municipalities across Pennsylvania trim or eliminate their police departments due to budget cuts, the State Police say they’re being spread thin.
Colonel Frank Noonan, acting State Police Commissioner, says more troopers are needed. He says State Police cover about 27 percent of Pennsylvania's population as the sole law enforcement department.

"They’re small populations. So that doesn’t look like, well, that’s not that many people. But they’re spread out so far. So it increases our response time to do things in a safe manner, and things like that. So that’s a problem. But another issue is now some of the larger communities that are facing reductions, not eliminations, of their police departments.

Governor Tom Corbett has included training money in his budget for 230 new state troopers, but Noonan, says the agency is about 400 officers below a full compliment.

"It’s my understanding that over the last, about, three years, there’s been about 58 municipalities that have either eliminated or reduced their police departments. I mean, State Police stands ready. We are the last resort. If you don’t have police, obviously, we are the ones who have to go in there and do it. But it does stretch us thin sometimes."

Bills in front of both the House and Senate would charge fees to municipalities relying on State Police protection. Similar measures have been introduced in previous years, but have never been passed into law.

Low Radiation Levels in PA Rain Water

Radioactive material from Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant has traveled around the world, and been detected in Pennsylvania rainwater.

State and federal officials insist the low levels of Iodine-131 don’t pose a public health threat, but nevertheless, Department of Environmental Protection inspectors spent the weekend testing drinking water. “Public water samples were taken from facilities in Norristown, East Straudsburg, Harrisburg, Williamsport, Greenville and Pittsburgh,” said Governor Corbett at a Capitol press conference. “After repeated testing throughout the weekend, results were within normal levels, in the single digits, and below the federal level. The bottom line is our public drinking water is safe.”

The radioactive element was discovered in Massachusetts, California and Washington rainwater, as well. In Pennsylvania, the Iodine-131 was 25 times below the federally-set “level of concern.” “Taking potassium iodide is absolutely unnecessary under these circumstances, and could cause harmful side effects,” Corbett said. “Although usually harmless, it can present a danger to people with allergies to iodine or shellfish, or those who have thyroid problems.” Pharmacies across the country have reported increased sales of the emergency pills since Japan’s nuclear crisis began.

An Environmental Protection Agency statement on the rainwater test reads, “While short-term elevations such as these do not raise public health concerns – and the levels seen in rainwater are expected to be relatively short in duration – the U.S. EPA has taken steps to increase the level of nationwide monitoring of precipitation, drinking water, and other potential exposure routes to continue to verify that. EPA’s only recommendation to state and local governments is to continue to coordinate closely with EPA, CDC and FDA – EPA will continue to communicate our nationwide sampling results as they come in.” Corbett said the state will stay in contact with the EPA, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other federal agencies, as water tests continue.

Corbett noted the radiation announcement came on the 32nd anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear accident. “The lessons we learned from that incident and the safeguards that were installed, including constant monitoring, have made us better prepared for situations like this,” he said.

Urban League to Fight for Jobs at Capitol Hill

Jobs, jobs, jobs is the focus of this year's annual National Urban League's summit. Esther Bush, Greater Pittsburgh Urban League CEO and President says that they are going to present a ten-point plan to the legislators during the conference regarding jobs for African Americans.

"The plan is really how we can create jobs. It's about making sure that green jobs are offered, and training is offered in the inner city," she says.

The 2011 Legislative Policy Conference marks the 34th release of the League's annual publication, "The State of Black America," (SOBA). This year's literature will concentrate undoubtedly on jobs, and particularly on Black unemployment in the nation which is at 15.3 percent according to the US Labor Department's February report.

On top of that, the National Urban League's Equality Index will also be announced. The annual report compares social, political, and economic status of African Americans and Latinos to that of Caucasians.

However, the summit is only the beginning, and Bush explains her plans for afterwards in the Pittsburgh area.

"When we come back, I am looking to work with partnerships to follow up on the recommendations that the Senators and Congresspeople have made regarding what they can do to assist African Americans."

The event will be held at Capitol Hill and Howard University's Crampton Auditorium from March 29-31. To view a webcast from the event, www.visit

Turnpike Commission Updates Public on Construction

Residents of Hampton, West Deer, Indiana and Harmar Townships are invited to an open house to update them on a 200 million dollar reconstruction and widening project for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Residents will be presented with project plans, bridge replacement information and future detours. Project-team members will also be on hand to present and discuss information about noise analysis and impact to property owners.

Tom Fox, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, says that the road will have an effect on current homeowners in the area. "We've informed residents who's property could be effected by this, inviting them to come and to talk with our property acquisition people if their property might be effected in some way, shape, or form and to give them general information about the studies we'll be conducting."

Fox says that the project is part of a six year 700 million dollar effort to rebuild the turnpike. He says that all of the finds were from the Turnpike and that much of it is toll money going back to the community.

The project will begin with the construction of six bridges over the turnpike and will begin in early 2012. It involves widening the existing roadway from four lanes with a 10 foot median to six lanes with a 26 foot median and constructing new storm-water facilities and wetland and stream mitigation.

The open house is scheduled for March 29th from 6-9 p.m. in the Great Room of the Hampton Township Community Center.

PA Exports Rise 22.5% from 2009

Pennsylvania exporters shipped out $34.8 billion in goods and services in 2010, indicating a big jump in the state’s economy.

Pennsylvania followed the national trend of increased exports, but posted especially impressive numbers, according to Tony Ceballos, Director of the U.S. Commerical Service Office in Philadelphia.

Ceballos says state’s top exports were chemicals, machinery, and metals – items used by other countries for production of their own goods.

Canada remained Pennsylvania’s top trading partner, accounting for almost a third of the state’s exports. However, exports to China also boomed, increasing 73% to eclipse Mexico as Pennsylvania’s second largest export market.

Ceballos says not only is the increase in exports a good indicator of economic health, but exporters also create good jobs.

“Exporters tend to hire more, they tend to pay their employees more and tend to have a higher rate of growth,” says Ceballos. "A lot of companies we work with have said that if it wasn't for exports, they would've had to lay off a lot of people and in some cases would've gone under."

Ceballos says the nation's exports increased 17% to $1.8 trillion, the largest yearly uptick in more than 20 years.

PAT Riders Deal With Cuts

It's the first work day that commuters are having to deal with 15% service cuts by the Port Authority of Allegheny County. Effective Sunday PAT eliminated 29 routes and reduced operations on 37 others. Last minute efforts to eliminate the cuts or postpone them for a week while negotiations continued on union concessions failed.
Pat McMahon, president of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, said the service cuts would likely cause confusion and inconvenience for transit riders.

"The Port Authority workers who are members of ATU Local 85 are reliable, responsible and professional transit employees committed to going above and beyond what is required of them to help the transit riders we serve during this challenging transition resulting from the unnecessary cuts ordered by the Port Authority Board of Directors and Chief Executive Onorato."

County Council President Jim Burn has called a special meeting of Council on Wednesday, March 30 at 5:00 P.M. in the County Courthouse. Burn says PAT CEO Steve Bland and ATU Local 85 President Pat McMahon will be invited to the meeting and it's imperative discussions between management and the union continue in hopes of restoring the eliminated routes.

“At this time I cannot provide any assurance that routes will be restored as a result of this meeting, however, it is apparent that the union and management are at a point where meaningful negotiations can occur. County Council will continue to do our best to help facilitate a resolution to this issue.”

McMahon warned county and PAT officials that the protests will increase...

"If Executives Onorato and Bland and the Port Authority Board of Directors thought the Stop the Cuts campaign has been heated and intense, wait until they get a taste of our Restore the Cuts campaign which begins now."

Information about the transit cuts can be found at the Port Authority's blog

Lt. Gov.: "Severance Tax is Off the Table"

A panel formed to study natural gas drilling policy for Pennsylvania has 120 days to deliver a report to Governor Tom Corbett.
The 30-member Marcellus Shale Commission will spend the next four months thinking up economic and regulatory policies to suggest to the governor. It held its first meeting in Harrisburg on Friday.

Addressing the most high-profile drilling issue, Lieutenant Governor and commission chair Jim Cawley said a severance tax is “off the table,” but noted the group will weigh the need for some sort of impact fee to address infrastructure damage. “If identifiable impacts to local government are enumerated, and there is costs that go with that, the governor has charged us with seeing ways in which we could help local governments meet those impacts,” he said.

A public comment period at the end of Friday’s meeting highlighted how divisive the drilling issue has become. Some of the speakers praised drilling’s economic impact on rural communities. Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko, a Republican, said drilling has contributed to “climate change” in his county. “The climate is, family farms are being saved. Shops – mom and pops are seeing so much prosperity that they’ve never seen before. You know, there’s the local impacts. There’s good and bad with everything, but as far as job creation, we led the state,” he said.

Nathan Sooy of Clean Water Action said drilling’s potential dangers, including water contamination, has caused environmental groups to beef up, as well. “You guys are creating jobs in my industry. There are more and more jobs to keep track of you guys. And I just wanted to let you know that,” he said. Other speakers questioned the panel’s pro-drilling makeup – a third of its members have ties to the energy industry – with one woman calling its members “cheerleaders” for extraction.

The day’s most emotional comments came from Wyoming County resident Joanne Fiorito, who told the commission drilling has “taken my American dream and ripped it apart.” “You haven’t seen the last of [me],” she said.

The commission holds its next meeting April 27th.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

PAT Route Cuts Coming Sunday

The Port Authority Board is to meet at 3 o'clock this afternoon, but it won't be to vote on wage concessions offered by the union representing PAT drivers. Pat McMahon, president of local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, says they offered to eliminate a scheduled 3% pay hike, and trim current pay by 10%, a total of $18.6 million in savings. Port Authority CEO Steve Bland called the concessions offer "historic," but County Executive Dan Onorato rejected the offer, demanding health care and pension givebacks as well, plus changes to overtime rules.
The PAT board is to vote this afternoon on a proposal by private bus company, Lenzner, to operate 2 routes from Marshall and Franklin Park in the North Hills to downtown Pittsburgh which are among those to be cut. Starting tomorrow, PAT plans to eliminate 29 bus routes and reduce service on 37 others. 180 workers will be laid off.

Earth Hour Calls Attention to Climate Change

Tonight from 8:30–9:30 the City of Pittsburgh will officially participate in the global event, “Earth Hour,” during which hundreds of millions of people, organizations, corporations and governments around the world will come together and turn off their lights to demonstrate a concern for climate change.
In 2007, the first Earth Hour occurred in Sydney, Australia with 2.2 million people turning off their lights in a show of support for efforts to fight climate change. Pittsburgh began participating the following year and in 2010, 128 countries took part in Earth Hour. That included 90 million Americans and iconic American landmarks, such as, Seattle’s Space Needle, the Las Vegas Strip, St Louis’ Gateway Arch, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

This evening Carlow, Carnegie Mellon, Chatham, Duquesne, Point Park and the University of Pittsburgh will all have buildings go dark for one hour.
Since 2008, Councilman William Peduto has led the effort to have Pittsburgh be a partner in this global event.
“I am proud of Pittsburgh’s continued environmental leadership. Pittsburgh’s universities have long been leaders of the region and it is only appropriate that they lead Pittsburgh’s Earth Hour efforts.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

Union Offers Concessions to Prevent Transit Cuts

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 has offered to forego a 3% pay raise due to take effect in January, 2012 and to increase employee pension contributions by 10%, which President Pat McMahon says amounts to concessions worth $18.6 million if the Port Authority board will cancel the 15% cuts due to take effect Sunday.

The union also says it will engage in immediate discussions to change retiree health care to reduce legacy costs, with any savings used to reduce the additional 10% pension contributions.

Port Authority CEO Steve Bland says the county will consider the union's written proposal and convey a decision to union leadership by 5 pm today. If the answer is yes and union members ratify the agreement by 3 pm tomorrow, cuts would be canceled.

If the Board refuses the union’s offer, there are two other options put forth by Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato that would allow cancellation of cuts if accepted by the union. Union president Pat McMahon has said he doesn’t think membership would approve either of them because they are “too painful”.

When McMahon arrived at the Heinz 57 Center before the Port Authority board meeting this morning, he said Dan Onorato had just refused the union’s offer. McMahon says if the Port Authority board accepts the union’s offer, voting will start early tomorrow morning and continue until the 3 pm deadline.

If the Port Authority board refuses the offer of concessions, the union will have to decide whether to put Onorato’s options, details of which are unknown at this time, to a vote by its membership.

Transit Union Offering Concessions

After apparently being rejected by Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, the head of the local Amalgamated Transit Union in Pittsburgh is finding a more sympathetic ear in the PAT board.

Union President Pat McMahon says he offered a proposal to cut union pay by 10% and forego an upcoming 3% raise if the Port Authority of Allegheny County would put an end to 15% service cuts and 180 layoffs set to go into effect this Sunday and reject a plan to allow a private company to begin shuttling riders from two stops in the North Hills to downtown. The County Executive reportedly rejected the plan but when the PAT Board heard of the offer it recessed its monthly meeting and is now awaiting a written version of the offer. McMahon says he thinks he can have that document in the board’s hands this morning.

If the PAT board approves the concessions the deal would still have to be approved by the union membership. McMahon says the union is looking to book a hall Sunday that is big enough to hold all of the members.

McMahon says the deal is worth $18.6 million. That is still short of what PAT says it needs to keep its budget balanced.

Importance of Reading to Kids Touted

Education scholars and practitioners gathered at Duquesne University today to explore ways to combat illiteracy. Dr. Julia Williams, coordinator of the event and assistant professor Duquesne's Department of Instruction and Leadership in Education says the symposium the event is all about collaboration not competition. “We're all in this together. We have different philosophies, yes..." says Williams, "but we all have one charge: to have a safe, healthy, educational, stimulating environment for young children."

Many researchers believe that the key to education success is early literacy. "We're focusing in on infants, toddlers, pre-k children, so that they can be better prepared to work in their classrooms. Not only looking at the issue of literacy for the children but also recognizing the importance of the teachers, the community, and the families all working together to make an impact on the lives of children,” says Williams.

According to national studies, two-thirds of the nation’s fourth graders are not reading at proficient levels. Williams suggests that parents go to the library, read, and tell stories to their children to boost their vocabulary. She says it is also important to encourage interaction about those trips and stories in the classroom.

Battle for State System $ Grows

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing back against Governor Corbett’s proposal to cut 50 percent of the State System of Higher Education’s funding.

When Chancellor John Cavanaugh testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, nearly every member of the panel voiced opposition to the cuts. According to the Allentown Morning Call, Democrat John Wozniak told Cavanaugh, "It's obvious that you have a sympathetic [committee] here… We'll redouble our efforts to see what we can do for these schools." Republican Tommy Tomlinson made similar comments, according to the paper, saying, “There are some departments that are not getting hit as hard as higher education. Our job now is to go into the expenditures and find out where to get the money."

Privately, top Democrats and Republicans say the decrease from $503 million to $232 million goes too far, and that they expect the final budget to reduce higher ed funding by 10 to 20 percent, instead of the current 50 percent level.

Corbett has indicated he’s willing to restore more college and university funding, as long as the total budget stays below $27.3 billion. “We have to see where – what the legislature would propose, and how they would propose it. So – this is the opening round. As I think I have said to many of you before, the first quarter’s over,” he recently said. “We’re in the second quarter. And we will be talking to the legislature.” He told reporters he recommended the cuts because, “[Higher ed] is a place where there was money. That’s number one. It is a place to start a discussion as to what should be our role. And certainly there has been some outward discussion about that.”

Detailed negotiations are expected to begin in May, once Pennsylvania’s April revenue figures are in.

Cavanaugh said State System schools have done their part to keep costs in line. “Over the last 7 or 8 years we have reduced our costs by over $200 million dollars,” he said. “We’ve done personnel reductions. We’ve held positions vacant. We’ve increased class size. We’ve done retirement incentive programs.” The 14 schools have also done their best to keep tuition hikes in line with inflation, he said. 2011 in-stat tuition is, on average, $5,804 at the schools.

Shale ‘Fee’ Building Momentum in PA

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett says he’d be willing to “listen to” a natural gas drilling impact fee, as long as it doesn’t send money into Pennsylvania’s General Fund. The slight shift in stance comes as the governor’s commission on Marcellus is set to hold its first meeting later today. Top Democrats in the PA Senate say they are also favorable to the type of fee being floated by lawmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa says it is “sinful” drillers aren’t paying a tax or fee for natural gas extraction. He wants money from a levy to go toward local impact costs, environmental protection efforts and infrastructure repair. “We’ll go along with not [putting money in the general fund],” says Costa. “If we’re going to impose a tax, which I think we should, it should be back to the local communities, it should be to the environmental community, and also further infrastructure investments.”

Costa is pushing for the environmental component of the fee to be placed in an “environmental stewardship fund or some other program” such as Growing Greener III. “That allows us the opportunity to drive it out, to do the regulatory piece, the policing, the enforcement and the monitoring that needs to take place,” says Costa.

Costa seems to be roughly on the same page as his Republican counterparts, who want a low-level impact fee to fund local governments and environmental protection. Corbett says he “understands” there’s a local impact, but he wants to wait for a final report from his Marcellus Shale commission, before committing to a specific plan.

Committee Looks to Make Govt More Cost Effective

A newly-created State Senate panel has begun its task of trying to streamline state government. The Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee held its first in a series of public hearings as it analyzes a long list of state agencies, bureaus, commissions, and departments and determine which ones should be kept, consolidated, or eliminated. The panel heard from representatives of the the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Pennsylvania Civil Service Commission, Harrisburg-based
Budget and Policy Center, and the Mercatus Center which helps governments (such as Virginia and Louisiana most recently) establish a program for evaluating their state agencies, bureaus, commissions and departments.

Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna) says the committee wants to make recommendations to
the state legislature that will result in a more efficient and more cost-effective state government operation..."Finding out for instance if there are old commissions that may have out lived their utility; taking a very close look at really some streamlining and decisions we can make that might render state government a little bit more cost effective."

He says, however, the process must be thorough and not about making change for teh sake of change. "Sometimes our best intentions about being cost effective sometimes don't render the best results for the taxpayers, and sometime even have hidden costs if we're not careful about it could add up later. So we need to be very careful, very deliberative to take up this process of change in the most thoughtful manner we can."

Blake says the last thing he wants to do is make recommendations that have unintended consequences, such as shifting the cost of certain state services to local governments and local non-profit agencies. Streamlining state government, especially at a time when state
finances are tight is important, but he says eliminating or merging programs that affect Pennsylvania’s economy and job growth have to be looked at carefully, so that the state doesn’t end up curbing economic development.
Blake says it will be a long process.

Gay Marriage Proponent to Speak at ACLU Event

Pittsburgh native Evan Wolfson will return to the city this Sunday for a discussion on gay marriage legislation. Wolfson earned his JD at Harvard Law School and went on to work for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund before founding Freedom to Marry. The lecture is sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and takes place Sunday evening at the University of Pittsburgh. Wolfson says that being "for" gay marriage is not enough to help people that are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. He says it's important that supporters speak out about the issue and not sit quietly on the sidelines. For those opposed to gay marriage, Wolfson says it's still possible to find common ground because everyone understands the desire for love, family and commitment - "people of every party affiliation and every outlook should be able to agree that we don't want the law discriminating in a free country. And we want to do what's right for other people and their families - even if we don't agree with them them. People don't have to dance at my wedding, but they shouldn't be using the government as a weapon to keep me from getting married." He says Pennsylvania excludes gay people from marriage and doesn't provide protection for gay couples or their children. The talk takes place at 7 p.m. at the Teplitz Moot Courtroom at Pitt on March 27.

Protesters to March and Rally Against War

Members of the Antiwar Committee of the Thomas Merton Center are hoping to see “several hundred” protesters turn out Saturday for a march and rally to protest US involvement in all wars. Committee Co-chair Pete Shell says this is the first major anti war march in the city since the Pittsburgh G20 Summit. The organization used to hold regular marches but Shell says they have recently been more focused on joining national events.

The event will begin with a rally at the corner of 47th and Butler Streets at noon Saturday with speeches and a performance by Mike Stout. From there they will march down Butler Street to Doughboy Square for a second rally. Shell says there is a reason why they chose to hold the event in Lawrenceville. “We really wanted to highlight the impact that wars have on the economy at home and the fact that we could really revitalize our economy if we did not have to spend dollars on wars and occupations abroad,” says Shell.

Shell says along with protesting war, the rallies will focus on “speaking out against Arabs and Muslims being scapegoated and harassed.”

PAT Cuts Looming

The Port Authority of Allegheny County will cut service to many of its bus lines throughout the county this Sunday.

29 bus routes will be slashed and service will be reduced for 37 more. The Port Authority Board voted to cut service in January, pointing to a loss of state funding as the main reason for its $47 million budget shortfall.

Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie says reducing service will also have a “ripple effect” on the buses that remain.

“We’re going to have a lot of transit users looking for alternatives after March 27th, and that is going to touch on many of the routes that continue to exist. We’re expecting situations where those buses, those vehicles are going to be more crowded than normal,” says Ritchie. “You’re going to have standing conditions on some of those routes.”

Pennsylvania gave the Port Authority the $47 million needed to fill its budget gap, but the Board decided to use that money over an 18-month period instead. That angered the local transit union, which wanted to use the money over one year to prevent job losses. Ritchie says PAT is trying to sustain the most routes it can as long as possible.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

VisitPittsburgh: Convention Bis Is Up

Visit Pittsburgh says it booked 472 meetings in 2010 and beyond representing an estimated $286 million in spending. The numbers were released at the group’s annual meeting this morning. VisitPittsburgh Vice President for Sales and Marketing, Craig Davis says that is an increase of nearly 15% from 2009. The organization also reported the convention center was used 205 days last year, up from 191 the year before.

Davis says it is getting easier to market the city to convention planers. “The city is bigger, brighter, cleaner and our convention hotels that have come on board in the last five or six years have been incredible quality hotels and that has helped us sell tremendously,” says Davis. He says VisitPittsburgh also got a great deal of help from the “Bring it Home” campaign that calls on Pittsburghers who serve on national or international boards to push for their group’s conventions to be held in the city. “Because Pittsburghers are so proud of their city we get no problem getting people to help us.”

Looking out to the future, Davis notes several large conventions have been booked including the NRA convention in April of this year and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW) and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) conventions in 2015. The VFW convention is expected to bring in 12,000 visitors.
And the FOP event will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the organization in Pittsburgh.

Davis says the tourism marketing focus last year was on Cleveland. Pittsburgh and Cleveland cross-marketed in each other’s region and Davis says visits from the Cleveland area jumped 51%. The 2011 focus will be on the Great Allegheny Passage, which is a biking and hiking trail that connects Pittsburgh to Washington DC.

Hosting the NHL Winter Classic also helped to boost tourism numbers. Davis says the event is believed to be responsible for 15,789 room nights and $22.3 million in spending.

Volunteers on Ropes to Clean Mt. Washington

For the 19th year, members of the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh have been enlisted to help cleanup the steep Mt. Washington hillside. Cleanup Co-Organizer Ginette Walker Vinski says 60-70 volunteers will help do the work. “We are going to have at least five stations set up along Grandview avenue where we will have people repelling along the side,” says Vinski, “We will also have volunteers patrolling up and down the sidewalk on Grandview to assist with picking up the bags of litter.” Crews will be on the hillside from 9 am to noon Saturday.

Climbers will place the trash in bags and buckets to be hauled to the top of Mt. Washington where the recyclables will be sorted out of the mix. Vinski says in past years they have filled a pickup truck with trash and 20-30 more bags have been filled with recyclables. They have also found a few unusual items. “We’ve found a Lay-Z-Boy recliner, we’ve found bicycles, we’ve found a vacuum cleaner,” says Vinski. The big items require some special care. “Usually what it takes is multiple volunteers repelling down to that particular location and embarking on a team effort to haul up the material,” says Vinski.

Also helping with the cleanup will be the Mt. Washington Community Development Corp., Pennsylvania Resources Council, Allegheny CleanWays and REI. Vinski says no roads will be closed for the work.

Field Hearing on Healthcare Leans Right

A year after the federal health care overhaul was signed into law, the measure remains a partisan lighting rod. On the legislation’s one-year anniversary, Republican Congressman Joe Pitts held a Harrisburg field hearing on the measure’s impact. The press release announcing the event included phrases like “broken promises” and “Obamacare” and the first few questions of the event followed suit. An early question from Republican G.T. Thompson was directed at acting Pennsylvania Public Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander. “Mr. Secretary, the new law creates a trillion dollar entitlement program, expands Medicaid, imposes new taxes and regulatory burdens on American employers and workers. In your view, does the new law control and reduce the trend of increasing public health care expenditures in Pennsylvania?” Sec. Alexander’s response, “Absolutely not.”

On the other side of the spectrum was the Democratic group Organizing for America. The group is holding several events across Pennsylvania celebrating the law’s passage. Organizing for America argues the measure has already expanded coverage options by letting people stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, and barring companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions. OFA’s PA Director, Elizabeth Lucas says, “It includes free preventative care, that can change things down the road for them significantly. It also lowers the cost of prescription drugs that they have to pay, the Medicare they can count on.”

In the meantime, Governor Corbett is asking President Obama to speed up legal challenges, so the Supreme Court can rule on the case. “Pennsylvania and all states need clarity. Our businesses, our health care providers and our citizens deserve quick action, and frankly, we need to know what our options and obligations will be.” says Corbett.

Major Storm Wreaks Havoc in Westmoreland

A funnel cloud that may have been a tornado tore through Westmoreland County yesterday, damaging homes and businesses in its path. No major injuries or deaths have been reported.

The storm hit hardest in Hempfield Township, where the Hempfield Area School District announced an emergency closure after the high school sustained heavy damage to its stadium and auditorium. Many homes in the Greensburg-area community had their roofs ripped off by the high-speed wind, and several were totally destroyed.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Balya says about 30 homes total were damaged, 20 being in Hempfield and 10 in Sewickley Township.

The storm also pelted large hailstones and heavy rain throughout the region.

Westmoreland County Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Dan Stevens says the storm caused millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses. Stevens says it's amazing nobody was killed or severely injured.

"24 years working for Westmoreland County Emergency Services, and this is the worst storm I've ever seen here in Westmoreland County,” says Stevens. “This is definitely what I’ve coined the ‘March Miracle’ with regard to this storm: nobody injured, nobody killed, and we can replace all the stuff that was damaged and broken.”

Red Cross of Westmoreland County Executive Director Donna Pacella says her team of about 50 responders was able to give food and shelter to several people last night.

“We anticipate more today, simply because we’re going out into the neighborhoods today to do noble feedings with our emergency response vehicles around lunchtime today,” says Pacella. “We also have a shelter available for people at Hempfield Municipal Building in Hempfield Township.”

The National Weather Service is investigating the damage and will decide today if the storm was a tornado.

CMU to Unveil Converted Honda Civic

This week Carnegie Mellon University Researchers will unveil a 2002 Honda Civic that has been converted from gas to all-electric. The Civic is the prototype for the university’s ChargeCar Electric Vehicle Conversion Project. The Civic's powertrain has been replaced with a 35-horsepower electric motor and 33 lithium-iron-phosphate batteries. It's estimated to be able to travel more than 40 miles at a peak speed of 70 miles per hour. Ben Brown, a Project Scientist with the Robotics Institute, says the car travels a sufficient distance for most drivers. "The Department of Transportation statistics suggest that somewhere around a 40 mile range is quite adequate." An open house showcasing the car takes place March 25 at 3p.m. in the Electric Garage located at 4621 Forbes Avenue in Oakland. At the unveiling, researchers will be taking names of those who want their car to be converted. Attendees will also have the opportunity to take a ride in an electric car. "One of the goals of this project is actually to get some vehicles out into the public and into the hands of the public in the Pittsburgh area to send a message that electric vehicles really are here and are practical," Brown says. Researchers are working with local mechanics and garages to expand use of the technology, and researchers will be available at the event for questions regarding issues and expenses involved with the conversion process.

Corbett Willing to Listen to Impact Fee Proposal

Governor Tom Corbett is showing a bit of flexibility on the issue of whether he’d support imposing an impact fee on natural gas drillers.
Corbett’s answer to a hypothetical question at a Capitol press conference wasn’t exactly the sound of concrete cracking around his feet, but it was the most public sign to-date the anti-tax Republican might be open to a fee designating money for local governments. “I would have to see what they would propose, and where the money would go,” he said. “Money just to the general fund? No. Money to the locals? Money to the county? I’d sit down and listen to them.”

While Corbett’s campaign position papers support dedicating fee money for communities impacted by drilling, he’s been dead-set against any sort of severance tax directing money to state government since taking office. This month, Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley told the Post Gazette “no means no,” when asked whether the Marcellus Shale Commission would take a look at a fee.

Senate Republicans want to pay for infrastructure costs and environmental protection efforts through a fee, though a specific bill has yet to be introduced. Drew Crompton, the chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, says the caucus is “encouraged” by Corbett’s recent comments, and looks forward to discussions with the administration on what the fee could look like.

Corbett said he “understands there’s an impact,” and that it needs to be addressed. “Many of the companies are already doing that. Many of the companies are out there rebuilding the roads. And they’re doing it – from what I’m hearing anecdotally – better than the local communities or PennDOT would rebuild the road,” he said. “That would be one consideration of how that’s done through the private sector. I do think we need to address the impact. I want to see what the Marcellus Commission comes up with first.”

One potential roadblock: Corbett said he won’t support a fee directing any money into the state’s coffers, but some of the efforts Senate Republicans want to fund through the fee are, in fact, state programs. “We…believe that a portion of the money should be used for Growing Greener, for cleanup projects, perhaps for hazardous site cleanups,” said Crompton. “There’s a variety of environmental concerns that could be very important recipient – or important recipients of any local impact fee.”

What happens next? Corbett’s commission holds its first hearing Friday. Crompton doesn’t expect a Senate bill to be introduced anytime soon. Instead, work on a fee will continue, for now, behind closed doors. “At this point the burden is on us to develop a model that we think is an appropriate model, a sensible model, and one that we can then present not just to the governor’s office but to the other caucuses for their consideration,” he said.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

School Voucher Legislation Discussed

The House Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing today on the Pitt Campus to hear from supporters and opponents of Senate Bill 1, which would provide vouchers to some low income children now attending 144 Pennsylvania schools designated as failing. A private, religious, charter or a different public school would get the state portion of an accepted student’s funding.

Data from voucher programs in other parts of the country are used by both sides to prove their points. Matthew Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation says nine out of ten studies show benefits both to the children who use vouchers AND the schools they leave. John Tarka, President of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, says studies show promised benefits are not there. Tarka says while the governor’s budget is cutting funds for preschool and after school programs known to help disadvantaged kids, it’s a terrible time to institute a billion dollar voucher program.

Sean McAleer says Catholic schools are eager to provide a good education to students in low-performing schools. He says the vouchers would be more than current tuition.

Ira Weiss, Solicitor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, says the district is already addressing problems with teacher effectiveness programs and other initiatives funded by the Gates Foundation.

Dawn Chavous is Executive Director of Students First. She says vouchers could help parents with unequal opportunities to secure the best education for their children.

Matthew Brouillette says the public school system is a monopoly in which the customers, parents, have no choice, and the providers, schools, have no competition. He sees no conflict with the federal or state constitutions because vouchers are funding children, not schools. He expects the Pennsylvania house to take up the legislation after it passes in the Senate--perhaps in a month.

Sandra Zelno of the Education Law Center says the legislation is a ruse that would not really help disadvantaged children in failing schools, who would be only a small percentage of those using vouchers once they are available to low-income private school students in the second year and low-income students from any school in the third year. She says there is no accountability for teacher qualification or meeting students' needs in the schools where vouchers might be used.