Monday, July 11, 2011

Emergency Homeowners Loan Program--Hurry!

More than 105 million federal dollars are available to Pennsylvanians in danger of mortgage foreclosure if they meet certain criteria, but there’s a race against the clock since applications must be submitted by September 30th.

The money is part of the $1 billion provided by HUD in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act signed into law in July 2010. Pennsylvania’s share was authorized in October, 2010, and the PA Housing Finance Agency administering the program started accepting applications on April 1st, 2011. Executive Director and CEO Brian Hudson says they’ve approved 700 applications of the 1400 received so far, and they’re looking for 8- to 10,000 more. Homeowners who are three months behind on a mortgage because of unemployment, underemployment or illness may be eligible for a maximum $50,000 declining balance loan for arrearages and 24 monthly mortgage payments.

United Way has launched a new helpline: 2-1-1 that will not only help people apply for the mortgage help but also connect them to other resources they may need, such as utility payment assistance, health care or employment resources.

Bill to Verify Legal Workers on Publicly-Funded Developments

Contractors working in developments funded by Allegheny County may soon be asked to verify that their laborers are cleared to work in the United States.

Allegheny County Council has passed a bill that would require contractors to run their employees’ names through a federal database, to make sure they’re working legally.

Sponsoring Councilman Ed Kress says the legislation is meant to make sure the County’s contractors don’t “cheat” by paying illegal workers less than the federal minimum wage.

The “E-Verify” bill only applies to projects using more than $100,000 in public funds.

Kress says the bill fits in with the county’s history of supporting the labor movement.

“Illegal immigration is diametrically opposed to the labor movement, because the labor movement was about improving the conditions of the workers, improving the wages. Illegal immigration doesn’t do that,” says Kress. “It suppresses the wages. It exploits the workers.”

Kress says while most employees are confirmed by the internet database within a day, anybody who isn’t has time to prove their legal working status.

Liquor Store Privatization Gains Support

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai is expected to restart his effort to privatize state liquor stores with new legislation this week, with an endorsement from Governor Tom Corbett.

Various estimates say selling liquor licenses to private companies would generate anywhere from $200 million to $2 billion for the state. Turzai says a private system with more outlets would give residents "better selection, lower prices and greater convenience."

But the Independent State Store Union (ISSU), which represents liquor store managers, says Pennsylvania would receive far less yearly revenue under Turzai's proposal.

The new plan would swap the current percentage-based taxes on liquor for a "gallonage tax," which would range in price depending on the type of alcohol being sold. ISSU Policy Director Ed Cloonan says Pennsylvania's percentage taxes generate more revenue per gallon for the state than any gallonage tax in the country.

"And it's not because we have the highest prices. It's because we control the whole ball of wax," says Cloonan. "We collect the 18% tax, which I say is uncollectable in a private system, because those private owners, on day one, would be arguing to the legislature that they can't compete with private stores in other states with that tax."

Cloonan says the state system employs about 2100 full-time employees and 1000 part-time workers, working at about 600 stores.

Turzai introduced a similar measure last year, but it failed in the Democratic-controlled House. This year, backing from the Republican governor and a GOP majority in the House and Senate may win more support for privatization.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Lt. Governor Highlights Marcellus Shale Benefits

As head of Governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee, Lt. Governor Jim Cawley visited the brand new U.S. headquarter of Talisman Energy in Warrendale, which he says illustrate how the Marcellus Shale industry benefits the state’s economy even in areas where drilling is not taking place.

Lt. Governor Cawley says 60% of the state’s population is in the one-third of the state that is not on top of the Marcellus shale, and they often don’t see the benefits but hear the industry is poisoning the water and not paying its fair share of taxes. Yet he says the Dept. of Revenue has found natural gas activity since 2006 responsible for $1 billion in tax revenues into the general fund
Cawley says even without a severance tax, Pennsylvania taxes are high compared to other states, so it would be possible to drive companies away.

On July 22nd, the Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Committee will present its final recommendations on how best to maximize benefits without compromising public health or the environment.

PA's New HIV Testing Law Praised

Getting tested for HIV has become a little easier in Pennsylvania .

Governor Tom Corbett has signed a bill that would eliminate the need for patients to provide written consent to getting tested for HIV. The new law also axes a state mandate that required doctors to give counseling to all patients who've been tested, regardless of whether they were HIV-positive or -negative.

The American Academy of HIV Medicine says the bill is an important first step to increasing HIV testing rates in the state.

AAHIVM Executive Director Jim Friedman says doctors in both routine and emergency settings must now make HIV testing a routine part of their practices.

He says about a quarter of HIV-positive people don't know they have the virus, and those people are three times more likely to infect others than those who know their status.

Friedman says Pennsylvania was the 46th state in the country to bring its standards in line with recommendations made five years ago by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Lemonade Stand to Protest Education Cuts

A new lemonade stand on the North Side will be selling cups for ten grand apiece tomorrow.

Activists from One Pittsburgh say they need to sell lemonade at those prices to make up for cuts to education. They say state-level drops in school funding forced Pittsburgh Public Schools to cut 217 jobs.

Kyndall Mason of One Pittsburgh says state leaders aren’t requiring corporations to pay enough in taxes; she says if big businesses contributed more to the state, education spending wouldn’t have been cut.

Mason says One Pittsburgh simply hopes to raise awareness of the education cuts, and she doubts that they’ll sell many of the $5,000 cookies or the $10,000 lemonade.

The group will set up shop in Allegheny West Commons Park at 11:00 a.m. Saturday.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Allegheny Co. Mulls Arguments Against Reassessment

Allegheny County officials say they’ll go to court to stop the countywide property value reassessment – and they may have new ammunition for their legal argument.

County Council President Jim Burn says the state legislature’s move to stop Washington County’s property reassessment may have infringed on the state Supreme Court’s right to impose such moratoriums.

Burn says the County Council Solicitor will look at that legal option and others in the coming weeks, as County leaders hope to get the reassessment halted before the process is completed.

The state legislature should create a statewide system of assessing property values, says Burn, so counties will be treated equally.

“You could have 67 different counties going in 67 different directions,” says Burn.

The County Manager’s office is slated to send out preliminary property values out in January, later than was originally ordered by Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick.

Lawmakers Could Push Shale Tax or Fee in Fall

Recent polls show the majority of Pennsylvanians support a fee or tax on natural gas drillers in the Marcellus Shale formation. But, is that enough to push the Legislature to muscle a bill through his fall? A good-government advocate says he believes lawmakers may pass a Shale tax to satisfy their constituents just in time for the campaign season next year. Tim Potts is with the non-partisan Democracy Rising Pennsylvania. He says an extraction impact fee or severance tax is inevitable. Just look at Alaska, Potts says - it collects $11 billion a year in leasing fees and extraction taxes. "Well that’s more than a third of the Pennsylvania state budget in a state that has less than the population of Philadelphia. More and more people are learning that we’re being played for chumps by not getting some money for the resources that we’re sending out of state," Potts says. He says the state’s tax revenue surplus, at more than $785 million, could have been a lot higher if there had been a natural gas driller fee in place. The large Republican majority means GOP lawmakers will have full ownership of bills that pass and fail, so he says they’ll have to answer to voters if there’s no fee or tax in the works come next year’s elections.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Private Companies Interested in Providing LED bulbs to the City

Pittsburgh’s plan to switch its incandescent streetlights to LED bulbs is generating interest among private companies.

Last week, the city sent out a request for proposals to install Phase 1 of the LED Streetlight Project, and about 25 businesses visited Pittsburgh today to express their interest.

Pittsburgh Energy & Utilities Manager Jim Sloss says he expects to decide from a pool of 50 to 70 proposals over the next few weeks; the city hopes to start the project October 1.

Phase 1 of the project only applies to 40 of the city’s business districts, such as areas in Downtown, Oakland, and Shadyside. The first part of the five-phase installation is expected to cost about $2.5 million, while the total project is tentatively priced at about $20 million.

Sloss says the price of LED bulbs has been dropping fairly steadily, though, and the total price tag could fall as time goes on.

Economic Benefits of Shale Gas Touted

The American Petroleum Institute outlined the economics of domestic shale gas production today, which it says may result in a world where no one region of the world will dominate the energy supply, and the United States may not only meet its own needs but even export natural gas.

API Chief Economist John Felmy says the Marcellus Shale has the potential to be one of the largest natural gas fields in the world, and he says hydraulic fracturing can be done safely, with not one confirmed case of underground water supply contamination in the country.

People who live near drilling sites and can no longer use the water from their wells might disagree.

Felmy says a 2009 study by the Manhattan Institute found that shale gas development added more than 44,000 jobs, $389 million in state and local taxes, and nearly $4 billion in value to Pennsylvania’s economy.

Articles in the New York Times recently questioned the true scale of shale gas in the U.S., but Felmy says shale gas production tripled between 2006 and 2010 and will make up 40% of domestic production by 2020. The Department of Energy says shale gas was 15% of domestic production in 2009 and may be 25% by 2035.

Penn State Professor Terry Engelder is a member of Governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Commission, which will issue its recommendations on or about July 22nd. He says members were astounded by the scale of economic activity in Williamsport over the last three years due to Marcellus Shale development. To critics who say the energy companies are not making money on Marcellus Shale gas wells, Engelder says the industry knows they’re making long-term investments that will not pay off for eight to ten years because of high up-front costs for drilling and infrastructure.

Pgh Council Endorses Clean Air Act

The air in Pittsburgh may be a little cleaner in the future.

Pittsburgh Council has given preliminary approval to a bill that would require developers to put filters on diesel engines used in projects funded with more than $250,000 in tax revenue.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Councilman Bill Peduto, says that would cut down on particles in diesel exhaust which are linked to asthma, cancer, and other health problems. The legislation has been in the works for about two years, as Peduto sat down with environmental organizations and labor unions to craft a bill that appeased both groups.

Labor raised concerns that the retrofits would be too expensive for small developers, so Peduto helped create a fund to help them buy the filters. There’s also a cap on how much can be spent on retrofits.

Councilman Ricky Burgess says the bill will have little effect on the city’s air quality because it only concerns publicly-funded projects. But Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak says there’s more to it than that.

“Yes, we are retrofitting construction vehicles for public projects, but it’s not like that retrofit is going to come off as soon as that vehicle’s done on this public project,” says Rudiak. “These vehicles, from here on in, are going to be working on private projects across the region.”

Last week, the bill was held an extra seven days so Peduto could address a final concern from the operating engineers’ union about the cost of retrofits. The amended bill cleared its committee unanimously and final passage is expected next Tuesday.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bald Eagle Rebounds in PA

In 1983 there were 3 bald eagle nests in the Commonwealth. This year the count stands at 203 in 50 of Pennsylvania's counties. State Gaming Control Spokesman Jerry Feaser says people have a greater opportunity today of seeing a bald eagle nest than since the before the Civil War. He says while they're proud of this accomplishment, they will continue monitoring the population "to see when and if we can ever remove the bald eagle from the state's threatened species list." He says they count the nests through Game Control employees and volunteers. Feaser attributes the come back to pollution controls and in 1983 the Commission and a number of other states partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to repopulate the species by bringing in chicks from Canada. Allegheny County only has one nest, while Crawford and Pike Counties both have 19. And while they don't give the specific locations of many nests because they're on private property, Feaser says they are working on an eagle watching guide which is posted on their website, so people can find nests on public lands.

City to Get Help in Financial Management Transition

Pittsburgh's financial oversight board has hired an accountant to review all of the city’s open accounts. The analysis is in preparation for Pittsburgh joining Allegheny County’s computerized fiscal management system.

The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority says Pittsburgh-based firm Gleason & Associates will work with city government to smooth the financial transition.

The firm will likely close out several inactive or empty accounts, and ICA Executive Director Henry Sciortino says Gleason may even find some extra money in old projects that went under-budget. The accounts range from those opened in the current administration to funds earmarked decades ago.

Sciortino says the firm will also examine both the capital budget and the operating budget to help the city understand its current standing.

But Sciortino says the real goal of the project is to make sure all of Pittsburgh’s finances are ready for the conversion by the end of the summer.

“In that conversion, we want the city to be able to go through all of its accounts, and then match up with the accounts in a way that they fit into the County system,” says Sciortino.

Gleason & Associates was hired in a $35,000 contract that was paid for by the ICA. Sciortino says the financial review will probably take four to six weeks to finish.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fireworks Cap Regatta

Pittsburghers love their fireworks and the folks at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta know it. A 25-minute fireworks display will cap off the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta tonight at 9:00. The show will launch from four barges moored in the Ohio River just off the Point.

“It’s a ‘pyromusical,’” said Pyrotecnico show designer Ralph Piacquadio, “For me downtown is great [for viewing] Mount Washington is supper, but here at Point State Park, the North Shore, the South Shore, great places to see it, make sure you listen to the music because it does tell a story.”

Pyrotecnico has been working on the show for months. “On the design side it takes about two hours a minute, that just sitting saying OK we’ve got the effects and now we are going to insert them into the audio.” The team also logs hundreds of hours traveling to find the right shells, building the effects and loading the barges. “We usually do that to the end,” said Piacquadio, “someone will call and say, you know what I was thinking about this last night, lets put this in too.” Piacquadio said the show can be tweaked right down to the last minute because the company’s home is just up river in New Castle.

However being so close add different pressures. “We live here, my family, my friends my neighbors are here, we’re going to bring it, there’s no doubt.”

(Photo courtesy Pyrotecnico)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Regatta Taking Over Water, Land, and Air

Pittsburgh is gearing up to host the 34th Three Rivers Regatta - complete with a massive sand sculpture, air acrobatics and boat racing. The festival takes over Point State Park downtown from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The event includes a Kids' Zone, Drumline and acrobatics on the main stage. A flight show and skydiving takes place above, including a "sky-yak" jumper plunging 6,000 in a kayak into the Allegheny River (with a parachute). Regatta organizer Michael Dongilli says spectators will be able to see the action from both sides of the river - including water skiers, and "anything that floats" race and the Powerboat Superleague North American Championships. More information is available at Also, expect portions of the city's rivers to be closed intermittently to boaters Sunday and Monday for the Regatta and fireworks. Specific areas and hours can be found on the Post-Gazette's website.

Study: Wind Turbines Kill Bats

A recent study confirms the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s fears that wind turbines kill a significant amount of bats every year.

Game Commission Wildlife Biologist Tracey Librandi Mumma says the turbines kill more than 10,000 bats and about 1,700 birds each year.

While songbirds are dying by colliding with the windmills, Librandi Mumma says the bats, mostly the high-flying migratory species, are dying in a different way.

“A lot of the bats that we’re finding underneath turbines have no visible lacerations, broken bones, anything like that,” says Librandi Mumma. “They’re actually dying of barrow trauma, which I equate to getting ‘the bends’ when you scuba-dive, when you come up too fast. There’s a pressure difference when the blades are moving on a wind turbine, and that pressure difference is causing the bats’ lungs to explode.”

She says most energy companies with turbines in the state are now voluntarily seeking input from the Game Commission, to better decide where to place them.

Librandi Mumma says it's possible turbines will be equipped to emit high-frequency sounds that would deter bats from coming near them.