Monday, February 28, 2011

Rallies Try to Save adultBasic

The state supported low-income health insurance known as “adult Basic” expires at midnight tonight and rallies across the state today called on the governor to restore spending. When the adultBasic program was launched in 2001 the state’s four Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies and money from the State’s tobacco settlement funded it. When the tobacco money ran out, the state covered the gap and now Governor Tom Corbett has decided to let the program expire.

In a rally in Pittsburgh's Market Square today, Pennsylvania Consumer Health Coalition Executive Director Beth Heeb says adultBasic was a lifeline for nearly 42-thousand Pennsylvanians. “People who work two and three jobs to support their families, people whose employers cannot afford to offer health care, people who are sick suffering from chronic illnesses and are priced out of the private insurance market due to their pre-existing medical conditions,” says Heeb.

Activists are asking for the governor to fund adultBasic through the end of the fiscal year and to find a way to preserve the program through 2014 when federal health care laws begin. They contend there are several options before the governor that he can choose if he wants to save the program.

Alison Zapata was on adultBasic. She was on the waiting list for more than three years before getting into the program less than a year ago. Zapata says two months after she learned she was pregnant, she learned the program was being eliminated. “[It] kind of sent me into a panic mode,” says Zapata. She says she cannot afford to go on her fiancées insurance and she thinks the other government-supported options, which cost more and cover less are, “scary.” video

1 in 7 PA Workers Belongs to a Union

Union membership is shrinking in Pennsylvania and across the country. A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that in 2010, the number of workers in Pennsylvania who belong to a union was 770,000 representing 14.7% of wage and salary employees. That's down from 15% in 2009.
The bureau's regional economist Kara Markley says the decline in Pennsylvania's union members hip rate is similar to the national rate which fell from12.3% in 2009 to 11.9% last year.
According to the bureau, in 1989, the first year for which state union data was available, the rate peaked at 20.9% in Pennsylvania and has been steadily dropping since. Markley says that half of the union members in the United States is concentrated in 6 states..."Those 6 states are California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey. However, the 6 states only accounted for one third of the wage and salary employment.
The state with the highest union percentage among workers is New York at 24.2% and North Carolina has the smallest rate...3.2%.

Statewide Analysis of Student Achievement Online

For the first time, a measure of student growth in all schools and districts in the state is available online through the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment Program, or PVAAS. Achievement tests in Pennsylvania, known as PSSAs, tell where students are. PVAAS analyzes and compares those tests for growth and progress to show what direction students are going.

Carey Harris, Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s A Plus Schools, says PVAAS helps a school look at teaching and learning within a building. Data can be broken down by race, gender, class, achievement level, etc., enabling targeted interventions. Kristen Lewald, PVAAS program project director for the Department of Education, says using achievement and progress data together tells educators where their allocation of resources is working and where a shift may be necessary.


Data might show that a low-performing school had significant growth over the year, or vice versa, according to Harris, who adds that this kind of data will probably be used more and more in the future to evaluate teacher effectiveness and to determine whether schools have reached No Child Left Behind goals.

Pittsburgh Public Schools have made PVAAS data available for the last three years, says Harris.


Achievement tests, PSSAs.
Progress data, PVAAS.

Legislation Introduced to Consolidate School Districts

Democratic State Senator John Wozniak, who represents Somerset and Fayette Counties, is introducing a school district merger bill based on the idea presented in 2009 by former Governor Ed Rendell to consolidate the state’s 501 districts into 100.

Wozniak’s new bill would require districts with fewer than 2,500 students to merge with nearby districts.

Jim Buckheit, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators says Wozniak’s new legislation is more strategic than the idea offered in 2009.

“The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators feels that if there is going to be any effort to consolidate school districts, then it needs to be done on a case-by-case basis, and that this is a movement in that direction,” Buckheit says.

Many school districts would prefer to voluntary merger if necessary instead of a state mandated merger for some districts. Some administrators have complained that students in larger districts are often overshadowed because there's more competition in the classroom, in sports, and in extracurricular activities.

Buckheit says tight budgets in some districts may cause consolidation even without a state mandate simply because it can be cost effective.

“As long as there are barriers removed, particularly the cost to local taxpayers to actually make the merger happen. As long as those barriers are taken out of the way then districts probably will be looking to voluntarily merge,” Buckheit says.

There was one consolidation that occurred in 2009 - Monaca and Center Area School Districts in Beaver county. According to the state Department of Education, this shows that consolidation can be a tax relief for the merging communities.

Proposed 3 Year Ban on New Drilling in PA Forests

A group of Democratic State Senators is trying to head off an end to the moratorium on new drilling permits in state forest land. This comes after Governor Tom Corbett last week repealed a 4 month old policy instituted by the Rendell Administration aimed at limiting any environmental damage caused by Marcellus Shale gas drilling in state parks.
Michael Krancer, acting Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, called the Rendell policy regarding state parks "unnecessary." He said the DEP would continue to review all comments from interested parties concerning drilling on state lands. The state owns the "surface rights" to the state parks but mineral rights are privately owned and court rulings have indicated that the mineral rights owners must be given reasonable access.
Governor Corbett indicated earlier that he also intends to end the moratorium, issued in October by then Governor Rendell,on awarding new leases for drilling in state forests. The state, which owns nearly 85% of the mineral rights in its forests, has leased about a third of the 2.1 million acres of forests for drilling.
State Senator Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny County) is co-sponsoring legislation that would enact a 3 year moratorium on additional drilling leases in the state forests...."We have to be concerned about the environment. We have to be concerned about our green spaces. We have to be concerned about our water, our water supply, our watersheds."
Fontana says they also have to think about the people..."We have residents of this state that are campers, that are hunters, that are fishermen that don't want to go out and pitch a tent and look out of their tent and see drilling rigs."

The legislation faces an uphill climb in the General Assembly and could quite likely be vetoed by Governor Corbett.

Liquor Clearance Not Linked to Privatization

About 400 liquor and wine labels will go on clearance at state stores, beginning March 1.
Liquor Control Board spokeswoman Stacey Witalec says the sell-off, known as delisting, is designed to get rid of unpopular items, so state stores can fill their shelf-space with other types of liquor.


"There are a number, for example, of vodkas that have a flavored vodka like raspberry. We necessarily don't need about five different companies selling the same thing if one of theirs isn't moving. So what we'll do is we'll de-list the one that isn't moving with consumers, and we'll list another product that the company brings forward to us in that place."

Witalec says the move has nothing to do with Republican lawmakers' plans to try and privatize state stores.
"Absolutely not. This is a process we go through very frequently to make sure we're bringing the most frequented and most asked-for products to our consumers in the way that they want to see them. This could be a change from a glass bottle to a plastic bottle for a various product."

Most of the delisted items are wines and flavored vodkas, and others are cheaper and smaller-sized liquor. About 12 percent of the spirits sold in state stores are getting the hook.
The new items will begin showing up on the shelves later this year.

Severe Weather in Southwestern PA

High winds and heavy rain are greeting southwester Pennsylvania residents this morning. The National Weather Service has issued a severe Thunderstorm warning for the region through 8:15 Monday morning, a Flood Warning for urban areas and small streams until 12:45 pm and a Tornado Watch until 1:00 pm. Commuters in the Pittsburgh area are finding areas of standing water on roadways and limited visibility during heavy downpours. Emergency services in various municipalities in Allegheny County are reporting a few downed trees. Officials in Mercer County are reporting some roads are cover with water this morning. Power companies in the region are reporting scattered outages but no major problems. Commuters should leave extra time for their ride into work.

UPDATE: The National Weather Service at 8:04 issued a Flash Flood Warning for all of Allegheny County until Noon Monday.

UPDATE: 8:28 AM... Girty's Run, Little Pine Creek and Deer Creek are reported to be rising quickly. Girty's Run rose 3 feet in the past 30 minutes. Ross Township and Deer Township are reporting flooded roads and basements.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

PA Workers Rally to Support Wisconsin Colleagues

Protesters turned out Saturday at state capitals, including Harrisburg, and other cities across the nation to support teachers and other public workers holding steady at the Wisconsin capitol in their fight against legislation aimed at stripping most of their collective bargaining rights. The protest in Madison is now 12 days old and it attracted more than 70,000 people Saturday, the largest crowd yet.
Hundreds of people including auto workers, teachers, electricians, postal workers and railroad workers gathered at Pennsylvania's state capital. They chanted and carried signs. Michael Morrill of the organizing group Keystone Progress said they wanted to "stand in solidarity with Wisconsin workers and American families everywhere." Morrill said they also hoped to deter Governor Tom Corbett from any such effort in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, several dozen people across the street sounded whistles and bullhorns in a counter protest.

Benchmark Study Looks At Pgh Region & 14 Others

The Pittsburgh region is doing better than most others in cost of living, unemployment and job growth. That's according to a new benchmarking study released today by the Regional Indicators at Pitsburghtoday.org. The study, Pittsburgh Today and Tomorrow," measures a 22 county Pittsburgh region that includes some of eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia against 14 other cities: Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Richmond and St. Louis....in 10 categories: demographics, arts, education, economy, environment, housing, health, public safety, government and transportation.
The study looks at how the region rebounded since the early 1980's when unemployment topped 17%. Now the jobless rate remains well below the national average.
"We have by no means perfected the region, says Douglas Heuck, director of the Regional Indicators at Pittsburghtoday.org, "but after 30 years, we are poised to consider our regional future, not with a measure of fear, but from a position of strength."
While the Pittsburgh area experienced a net gain of 1,144 residents in domestic migration in 2009, the overall population declined by 434 due to more deaths than births.
The study indicates that in the transportation category 20% of road miles are listed in "poor" condition. Only Kansas City, Baltimore and Philadelphia have a higher percentage of poor or mediocre road miles.
Heuck says that Pittsburgh remains an arts rich region and the arts continue to attract visitors to the area.
The full report will be published in Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine this week.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Report Says Agribusiness Blocks Clean Water Efforts

Penn Environment has released a report saying that agribusiness spends millions nationally and at the state level on campaign contributions and lobbying to block clean water efforts.

Clean Water Advocate Erika Staaf says agribusiness includes some of the biggest contributors to water pollution and is one of the most influential special interest lobbies, with one lobbyist for every 4 legislators in Washington.

Staaf says the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau used its influence with the legislature for a bill enabling farmers to appeal local ordinances directly to the attorney general. Since passage in 2005, then Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is now governor, filed more than 30 lawsuits against townships trying to regulate factory farm practices, facilitating the siting and operation of many factory farms.

According to Staaf, factory farms foul waterways if the large quantities of manure are not safely stored and when too much manure is applied to cropland and runs off into streams, so regulation is imperative.

Staaf says Representatives Kelly, Thompson, Gerlach, Meehan, Fitzpatrick, Shuster, Marino, Barletta, Dent, Pitts, Murphy and Platts voted recently to restrict the EPA and other agencies from enforcing existing clean water laws and cleanup efforts. Staaf thanked Representatives Brady, Fattah, Altmire, Critz, Schwartz, Doyle and Holden for "voting against this harmful bill."

Local Victims of Scud Attack Remembered

It was 20 years ago today when an Iraqi scud missile hit the barracks of the 14th Quartermaster Detachment in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 13 soldiers and wounding 43 others. The Hempfield-based detachment suffered the largest number of casualties of any allied unit. Most were from the Westmoreland County and Pittsburgh area or had family and friends in southwestern Pennsylvania. The 69 members of the Army Reserve water purification unit had arrived a few days before February 25, in 1991, and were relaxing in the barracks waiting to move forward when the missile hit. Along with the casualties from other units, a total of 15 were killed and 56 wounded.

Today at noon, there will be a memorial ceremony at the Greensburg Army Reserve Center to remember the fallen soldiers. Captain Sarah Weber, who commands what is now the 14th Quartermaster Company, says she remembers hearing about the scud missile attack when she was in junior high school. She says it had an impact on her because of the blow to the local community. She says today's memorial ceremony will honor the fallen soldiers and remember their service to their country during Operation Desert Storm, 20 years ago, when Coalition Forces launched the ground offensive to liberate Kuwait.

The members of the 14th Quartermaster killed during the attack were:
Spc. Steven Atherton of NuMine; Spc. John Bolivar of Monongahela; Spc. Joseph Bongiorni of Hickory; Sgt. John Boxler of Johnstown; Spc. Beverly Clark of Armagh; Sgt. Alan Craver of Penn Hills; Spc. Frank Keough of North Huntingdon; Spc. Anthony Madison of Monessen; Spc. Christine Mayes of Rochester Mills; Spc. Stephen Siko of Unity; Spc. Thomas Stone of Falconer, New York; Sgt. Frank Walls of Hawthorne and Spc. Richard Wolverton of Latrobe.

PUC Approves FirstEnergy Merger With Condition

FirstEnergy has cleared the last hurdle in its efforts to acquire rival power company Allegheny Energy. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission voted yesterday to approve the union, which means that four electric utilities operating in Pennsylvania will have the same parent company.

Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy announced last year that it was buying Greensburg based Allegheny Energy. The companies say this was the final regulatory approval needed to close the transaction. Federal, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia regulators have already given their approvals. Together, the merged company will include ten electric utilities serving 6 million customers in seven states including 2 million in Pennsylvania.

The vote by the PUC was 3-2 in favor of the deal. To get those votes the merger agreement had to include several stipulations. Among them was a deal to offer $10.7 million in Credits to residential customers of West Penn Power. FirstEnergy Spokesperson Ellen Raines says that money would be spread over 3 years and will amount to about 50-cents a month. FirstEnergy has also agreed to maintain at least 600 employees at a regional office in Greensburg for at least 5 years.

The PUC has also approved an investigation into the level of competition in the state’s electricity industry.

Toomey: Everything Open to Cuts But Social Security

Pennsylvania's Junior U-S Senator is crossing the Commonwealth trying to get a feel for what Pennsylvanians deem to be barriers to job creation.
Republican Pat Toomey is touring the state speaking with business owners.
On a stop at the Harrisburg Regional Chamber, he said they've expressed the same two concerns -- the nation's mounting deficit and having to deal with federal regulatory agencies...
"The EPA comes up frequently as a real problem for our farmers, a problem for municipalities, a problem for our coal industry, in some cases utilities. So that's an example, but you know, I was up in Erie and in Meadville, in Crawford County, and I was hearing from folks who have real problems with the USDA and in other contexts the FDA."

Toomey says the Obama Administration's 2012 budget is not helping....
"He proposed a budget that continues to run huge deficits. We continue to add to our nation's debt. Under his plan, over ten years, in fact, not only does our debt grow, but it even grows as a percentage of our economy. And if we don't get our spending and our fiscal picture under control, we are not going to have the strong economic growth and job creation that we need."

Toomey says the G-O-P should offer an alternative to Obama's spending plan. He's against making cuts to Social Security, saying it would not be fair "to pull the rug out from under folks."
But he says everything has to be on the table, including the defense budget.

Poll: Half of Respondents Want Harrisburg Mayor to Resign

Pennsylvania's capital city is on the verge of bankruptcy, and earlier this month, several hundred Harrisburg residents called on Mayor Linda Thompson to step down. Former aides telling reporters she frequently criticizes people's religion and sexuality.

Harrisburg's voters have little confidence in Mayor Thompson, according to a new poll commissioned by NPR affiliate WITF-FM and the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
When it comes to Thompson's job performance, just 12 percent of respondents say she's doing an "excellent" or "good" job, compared to 57 percent who rate her as "poor."
Terry Madonna of Terry Madonna Opinion Research, who conducted the poll, says that's unprecedented.

"In 20 years of polling I have never seen a job performance number in which only 12 percent of the people believe that the chief executive of a city - and I've polled in mayoral elections before - or in the case of a president of in the case of a governor, only 12 percent of the people say 'excellent' or 'good.'"


49 percent of respondents say Thompson should resign, though there's a sharp racial divide on that question.
73 percent of white respondents say the mayor should step down before her term ends, while just 20 percent of non-white voters feel that way.
About half of the people polled say City Council is doing a "fair" job, while 21 percent rate their performance as "good."
The poll surveyed 400 Harrisburg voters, and has a 4.9 percent margin of error.

Hospital Germs Spike Health Care Costs

The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council is releasing a report that looks at the rate of healthcare-associated infections and their great influence on healthcare costs and hospital readmission.

The study found that 29.8 percent of patients who acquired an HAI were readmitted to the hospital within 30 days while non-infected patients were only readmitted 6.2 percent of the time.

Stephanie Suran, spokesperson for PHC4, says this data shows their can be an improvement in Pennsylvania’s hospitals.

“These differences suggest that reducing these infections may present opportunities for improved patient care and restraining costs,” Suran says.

Another area the study focused on was Medicare costs to those patients 65 years or older who contracted an infection during their stay. For a Medicare patient with an HAI, healthcare costs skyrocketed from an average of $6,600 to $20,000. Also, 29.5 percent of those infected were readmitted while only 8.7 percent without an HAI were readmitted.

The data found that only 1.2 percent of patients hospitalized in 2009 contracted an HAI but Suran says the profound healthcare costs mean that quality care can still be improved.

“It’s important to point out from our data that we cannot tell with certainty how much of the initial infection contributes to their readmission,” Suran says. “But it does seem to present opportunities for quality improvement and it’s an area for hospitals to take a second look at.”

This was the first year the PHC4 studied HAI’s but Suran says the council will continue to look at this data and continuing trends in the future.

Pittsburgh Gets New Auxiliary Bishop

Rev. William Walterseid, a 54 year old priest serving the Diocese of Harrisburg, has been appointed to the position of auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The decision was announced by Archbishop Pietro Sambi the apostolic nuncio to the United States.

Bishop-elect Walterseid an Ashland PA native, originally worked in health care field graduating from the Pottsville Hospital School of Nursing in 1983. He was accepted into seminary in 1985 studying at St. John Seminary College in Brighton, Massachusetts and later the Pontifical North American College in Rome. After serving in the Harrisburg priesthood for several years Walterseid moved back to Rome to teach at the Pontifical North American College. He currently serves on the Presbyteral Council, the Priests' Personal Board, the Deacon's Council, the Sister's Council, and as Censor Librorum.

Rev. Walterseid will be ordained as a bishop on Easter Monday in Saint Paul Cathedral, Oakland. He will assist Bishop Zubik who continues to recover from back surgery.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Aggressive Driving Targeted in SW PA

PennDOT is partnering with local law enforcement and State Police in cracking down on aggressive driving in southwestern Pennsylvania now through March 27. Jay Ofsanik of PennDOT says they've been doing these "aggressive driving enforcement waves" since 2006 to reduce crashes and fatalities.....
"Speeding, tailgating someone, improper passing, weaving in and out of traffic, people who run red lights, do 'boulevard' (rolling) stops at stop signs instead of coming to a complete stop, are the types of behaviors police are looking for."
Ofsanik says they look at particular crash records and then determine the roadways that have a high incident rate of aggressive driving and then have police specifically target those roads.
PennDOT uses grants from the Federal Highway Administration to reimburse local police departments and state police for any extra costs including overtime.
According to Ofsanik, over the next 5 weeks they will be targeting 83 roads in the Pittsburgh region including Route 51 in Westmoreland County, Route 30 near Greensburg, Route 22 in Murrysville, Route 19 in McCandless Township, Route 50 in Collier Township and the Interstates.
He says the program has been effective citing the example of a stretch of Route 51 between Fayette and Westmoreland Counties. Ofsanik says prior to the program starting in 2006, there were 6 fatalities in 5 years in that corridor. But since the crackdown, there have been no fatalities in the last 5 years.

Nonprofits Gather to Fight Federal Spending Cuts

The Women’s and Girls Foundation of Pittsburgh gathered a long list of nonprofits Thursday morning to outline how they would be impacted by the federal spending cuts contained in H.R. 1. The continuing resolution has been passed by the House and is awaiting Senate debate.

All of the groups at the event boast some sort of tie to the welfare of women and children. Among them was Adagio Health CEO Rick Baird. His group gets federal “Population Research and Voluntary Family Planning Programs” funding which is better known as Title X funding. He says cutting those funds is a bad choice socially because low income women will not be able to get the OB GYN and reproductive care they need and a bad choice economically as well. “For every dollar spent in Title X, $3.75 are saved in Medicaid dollars the next year,” says Baird. He says H.R. 1 will cut $317 million from Title X. “It’s stupid financially.”

Women and Girls Foundation CEO Heather Arnet says the budget cuts will come down harder on women and children, especially single working mothers. “The phrase ‘women and children first’ used to mean in an emergency these groups should be the ones first given the life boats to safety, it did not men in a crisis throw the women and children overboard,” says Arnet.

The heads of each group took their turn behind the lectern to outline how the cuts would impact them financial and in terms of service. Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children Executive Director Michelle Figler warned of massive cuts the Head Start and Early Head Start. “In Pennsylvania 7,000 Head Start children will lose services. Locally more than 30 class rooms will be cut,” says Figler. She says that means more than 300 children will no longer have a classroom to sit in and more than 50 teachers will no longer have jobs if the cuts go through.

“We have a two year sort of waiting list for many of the subsidized housing that’s available to us,” says Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh Director of Enforcement Jay Drowin, “by cutting these programs is keep people is keep people on the streets for longer periods of time. Is this the kind of country we want to be?”

Also speaking at the event was Maggie Jensen of the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh says the senate needs to think about the message the cuts will send to the world. She quoted Vice President Hubert Humphrey who said, “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Dems Say Plan Could Generate 30,000 Jobs

State Senate Democrats are introducing a package of new bills they say could spur the Pennsylvania's economy.
The Democrats say their economic plan would create nearly 30-thousand new jobs, by consolidating Pennsylvania's job training programs so they're all under one agency, and expanding tax credits to small businesses.
Minority Leader Jay Costa says he thinks the package can become law, even though Democrats are in the minority.

"When it comes to matters, I think one of my colleagues says this is about jobs. It's not about Democrats and Republicans. When they're good ideas, I think they're good ideas to everyone. And I think that's what we've put together here: a series of good ideas to allow us to work closely with them. We've provided the governor and some other folks copies of this. We will be sharing it with our Republican colleagues."

Caucus leaders want to use unspent state grant money to generate more private investment in new projects, like infrastructure repairs.
Senator Vince Hughes of Philadelphia says the recent gas explosion in Allentown is the latest sign the state's roads, bridges and pipe lines need to be fixed.

"In many respects they're miles and miles and miles of steel-cast systems running beneath our cities and towns and communities, driving out natural gas. And they're old, and they're breaking down, and unfortunately they're causing tragic accidents."

The Democrats also want to close tax loopholes and adjust corporate tax rates, to provide additional funding for the initiative.
Many of their proposals have failed in previous sessions, but the Democrats and the Corbett Administration agree on a few points, like privatizing more state-owned resources to fund infrastructure repairs.

African American History Contest in 19th Year

Contributions of African American pioneers in medicine and healthcare is the focus of the 2011 African American History Essay Contest. Students from the Pittsburgh Area from the ages of 6 to 18 are invited to submit an essay for a chance to win $500.

Russell Bynum, spokesman for the contest, says students do not need to be African Americans to enter their essay. He says that along with essays, students can submit poetry, videos, music and artwork. "We had one young lady. She won first prize in her category, but she also did a song. And we actually created some CD's and that kind of thing for her."

Bynum says once essays are submitted they are divided into age groups and then go to a panel of judges provided by the contest's sponsors. He says the judges and participation levels changes every year with the subject of the essay.

Essays are due by March 31st to the question "What African American healthcare worker, or supporter, do you admire, and why? How has that person impacted society?" Entry forms can be found online.

Gas Well Blast Injures Three

State officials say an explosion and fire at a Marcellus Shale gas well in Washington County sent three workers to the hospital. Emergency officials say the blast in Avella, Independence Township was reported shortly before 6:30 last night. Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Katy Gresh says workers were transferring water used in the hydraulic fracturing process into five tanks at the time of the blast. Several tanks caught fire and crews battled the blaze for hours. Two of the injured workers were taken to the hospital by helicopter and the other was taken by ambulance. Gresh says the three wells at the site appear unaffected and a spokesperson for Chesapeake Appalachia LLC Powers says there was no danger to the public.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

U.S. Attorney General Speaks at Duquesne

Focusing on the importance of public service in legal practice, United States Attorney General Eric Holder gave the keynote address at the Duquesne University School of Law’s centennial anniversary today.

Holder says every law school graduate should have the opportunity to work in the public sector for at least part of his or her career. He says that would help America adhere even more faithfully to its “founding documents.”

The Attorney General also spoke about his tenure leading the Department of Justice, highlighting the emphasis on national security.

“The Department [of Justice] has responsibility as a civil division, an environmental and natural resources division, an anti-trust division, a criminal division, a tax division,” says Holder, “but I think I spend probably maybe 60 or 70% of my time on national security, whether it’s dealing with threats from al-Qaeda [or] dealing with problems in Mexico with the drug cartels.”

Holder says the main funding source for those drug cartels is the sale of marijuana in the U.S., which is the major reason he’s against legalizing the drug. However, Holder says he won’t use his Department’s limited resources trying to fight medical marijuana use.

Holder didn’t comment on the Obama administration’s decision to drop support for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.

Listen to Holder's Address here.

Listen to the Q and A following the address here.

PA Revamps Megan’s Law Web

Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law website has been upgraded by the PA State Police to now include what they believe is a more user-friendly interface. The website list information about registered sex offenders living in Pennsylvania. In the past, individuals have been able to search for offenders by community name or zip code. The site now allows users to enter an address and then search for offenders within a given radius. “It also has a Sondex feature that takes the name entered by the user and provides a list of individuals with that name and similar sounding names,” says PA State Police Spokesperson Jack Lewis.

The site continues to offer visitors a chance to submit a tip and it list sex offenders whose whereabouts are unknown. For each sex offender the site includes a picture, an address and the offense for which they were found guilty. Lewis says it also notes if they are considered to be “sexual offenders” or a “sexually violent predator.” It also lists if they are required to be registered for life or if they are only required to let the state know where they are for the next 10 years.

Lewis says State Police would like to add even more functionality. “We would like to be able to add an electronic community notification feature that would allow users to receive notifications about Megan’s Law offenders via email or text messages but in order for that to happen we would have to have some changes in the law by the state legislature,” says Lewis

Visitors to the website are forced to accept terms of use. “We certainly are concerned that people will misuse the site by locating a sex offender and then harassing them in some way,” says Lewis, “That would be a violation of the law.”

State police officials say the site gets about 7,000 hits a day.

Multicultural Diversity Symposium

The Western Pennsylvania Diversity Initiative hosted a workshop this morning at the City-County Building to provide guidelines on how to communicate successfully in the ever more common multicultural workplace.

Linda Stucky is president of ClearlySpeaking, employed by corporations to work one-on-one with non-native employees. She says native speakers have more than a passive role to play and can enhance understanding with compassion and patience.

People coming here to work or study are dealing not only with a new language, but with cultural differences, says Stucky.

Helping non-native speakers encompasses the rhythm, rate and melody of English, says Stucky, as well as pronunciation of sounds and overcoming accents that are hard to understand.

The goal of the Western Pennsylvania Diversity Initiative is to attract, retain and hire a diverse workforce.

Pittsburgh Unemployment Down

The US Department of Labor’s, Bureau of Labor Statistics, says the unemployment rate in the seven-county Pittsburgh region came in at 7.1% in December of 2010. That was lower than the national average of 9.1% and the state average of 8.1%. None of the numbers are seasonally adjusted. All of those numbers are lower than they were in December of 2010 when national unemployment stood at 9.7%, and unemployment in the Pittsburgh Region was at 7.8%.

Within the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area, the city of Pittsburgh notched a 7.5% unemployment rate in December 2010, while Allegheny and Butler counties lead the way at 7.1%. Fayette and Armstrong counties in the region were the only counties in the region with rates higher than the national average. They posted 10.2% and 9.5% respectively. Bureau of Labor Statistics Mid-Atlantic Spokesperson Shelia Watkins says it is not a surprise to see higher rates in the more rural counties. “Pretty typical is that in your more rural counties, there has been a reduction, a lot, in the Retail Services and Trades areas, so you will see a reduction in employment for those reasons.”

Westmoreland County posted 8.0% unemployment, Washington County saw 7.7% and Beaver posted a 7.4% rate. While all of the rates were better than they were a year ago, Watkins points out that they all lag the rates seen in December of 2008.

Watkins says among the sectors leading the region in job gains was Mining and Logging, Construction, Education and Health Services and Professional and Business services. Work in the Marcellus Shale formation has been linked to pushing rates in all of those categories other than Education and Health Services.

Watkins says like the nation as a whole, the recession in the Pittsburgh region began in December of 2007 and unemployment hit its trough in June of 2009.

Jewish Youth to Convene In Pgh

About 140 Jewish teens will arrive in Pittsburgh this week for a multiple-state convention that includes volunteer work and education on special needs.

Hailing from Ohio and its surrounding states, the youths of the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth will gather at the Beth Shalom synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

Beth Shalom Youth Director Carolyn Gerecht says the teens will volunteer with Ronald McDonald House, several food pantries, and Thriftique, a Swissvale thrift store run by the National Council of Jewish Women.

Gerecht says the theme of the convention’s workshops will be “viewing special needs through a Jewish lens.”

“For example, they’ll talk about what it’s like to do some of the different prayers or different rituals that are associated with holidays … what it’s like to experience that if you have a physical or mental disability.”

Gerecht says the teens will also experience the “excited” Pittsburgh Jewish community by staying overnight with Beth Shalom families.

“Not all of these kids are coming from a community like that. Some of them are the only Jew in their high school, and I think it will be exciting for them to see what this kind of community looks like.”

Because United Synagogue Youth is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Beth Shalom is also seeking past USY members to speak with the group about what the organization has done over time.

Governor Salutes African-American Newspaper Execs

Governor Tom Corbett singled out four African-American Pennsylvanians during a Black History Month celebration at the Capitol Tuesday.
Two of the honorees were Rod Doss and Robert Bogle, executives from the Pittsburgh Courier and Philadelphia Tribune.
Referencing an article a black reporter recently wrote about how black and white people tend to avoid each other on the bus, Corbett said the two African-American newspapers are carrying out important work, and trying to bridge racial divides.
“Let’s make sure that in the days to come, even when luncheon isn’t served, that we don’t leave one another alone on that big bus we call Pennsylvania. We can’t get anywhere together if we don’t travel side-by-side.”

Doss said the two African-American newspapers are charged with the same mission.
“Both publications share a credo that goes back to 1827, and the first editorial written by John B. Russwurm, that said, “for too long, others have spoken for us. Today we plead our own cause.”
Corbett said racial tension still exists, and the two papers play an important role, by providing a voice for the black community.
The governor also presented awards to Renee Amoore, who runs a Philadelphia-based health care group, and Fred Clark, who runs a Harrisburg consulting firm.
The Pennsylvania Governors Office has held similar Black History Month celebrations for nine years now.

Can Jordan Miles Incident Lead to Improved Relationships and Policing?

In this second report on policing and community relations vis-a-vis a controversial beating and arrest last year, WDUQ looks at some elements that contribute to trust, cooperation and accountability.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has mechanisms for holding officers accountable, but University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris says a lack of communication leads some people to think no discipline takes place.

Former Chief Robert McNeilly says it's important to train police officers annually in ethics, communications and diversity. Some officers should be removed from the ranks, but too often, arbitrators re-instate them even after serious misconduct. David Harris says this is a problem around the country.

A more diverse police force would enhance relations between the police and the community, but attracting minority applicants is a nationwide problem, according to Chief McNeilly and Prof. Harris. While the reasons for this may be several, distrust can be both cause and effect.

Prof. Harris says the Citizen Police Review Board could play a big role in restoring community confidence because it is so well designed and objective, but both city government and the police department have always opposed its operations.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thousands To Lose Health Insurance in PA

A state-run health insurance program for 40,000 low-income Pennsylvanians will expire Monday, but the Corbett Administration won’t step in to extend adultBasic.
Republican Governor Tom Corbett blames his Democratic predecessor for adultBasic’s demise.
Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley says Governor Rendell shouldn’t have extended the program’s rolls, knowing its funding agreement was expiring.

"It’s unfortunate that Governor Rendell never lived up to his commitment. But the fact is, it’s unsustainable, and there’s no money in the budget for it."

adultBasic supporters aren’t giving up hope. At a Capitol rally, Reverend Amy Reumann of the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry urged Corbett to step in and save the program.

"We don’t accept it at this point. We still think there is room. And if he could simply function in the role to bring all the players to the table, where there could be some negotiation around, how can we continue it? Do the blues still have a charitable obligation, and if so, what form is that going to take? What could be the role of other insurance agencies out there?
I think there are still solutions and possibilities out there, if there’s a will. And we look to him to give that moral leadership."

Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services has threatened to sue over Corbett’s decision to end the program. Harley brushed off the threat, saying, “the state gets sued about 70 times a week.”

Council Mulls Spay Neuter Law

Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris has introduced legislation that would provide free spay and neutering for any dog or cat owned by a city resident. Over the last three years, Harris has been able to set aside $170,000 in capital improvement money and animal care and control funds to bankroll the effort. She says spaying or neutering one animal can result in 55 dogs or cats not being born.

City residents will be able to begin applying for the service March 1st. There is a limit of 5 per household, which is also the limit on the number of animals allowed by city code in one home. Harris says she expects there to be a waiting list that will be handled on a first-come-first-served basis. She contends the money will eventually turn into a cost savings for the city when the population of stray dogs and cats falls. She say it costs the city $197.00 every time it has to pickup a stray dog or cat. “It took time to get like this without a spay or neutering program but this is the only way, 100 percent, to be able to stop these unwanted births,” says Harris.

By way of example, Harris tells of a feral cat colony on the Northside where animal control collected and then spayed and neutered more than 70 cats. She says the workers realized that the stray cats all resembled a pet cat that lived in the neighborhood. The animal care and control crews were able to convince the owner of that pet to have that cat neutered. She says that helped to greatly control the neighborhoods cat problem.

The city has negotiated deals with area vets and groups such as Animal Friends to do the work for less than they would normally charge. Harris hopes to be able to spay or neuter 3,925 dogs or cats through the program this year. She says she will look for a way to continue to fund the spay and neuter program in the 2012 budget.

Applications to have a pet spayed or neutered will be available on the city’s web page. Harris says they are still looking for more veterinarians to help perform the work.

High Court Rules Against Mt. Lebanon Family

A Pittsburgh area family has lost its case before the U.S. Supreme Court over the side-effects from a childhood vaccine.. Russell and Robalee Bruesewitz of Mt. Lebanon sued the drug maker Wyeth in a state court over the health problems they claim their daughter Hannah, who is now 19, suffered as a result of Wyeth's Tri Immunol diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus vaccine.
The couple says their daughter experienced seizures after receiving the 3rd of 5 doses of the vaccine as a baby. The Bruesewitz's say Wyeth should have sold a safer vaccine that was available.
By a 6-2 vote today, the high court ruled that a 1986 law preempts such claims. Under that law, vaccine makers fund a limited compensation program for vaccine injuries. In return, the manufacturers cannot be sued.
The Bruesewitz's challenged that law saying the vaccine was defective and a safer one was available. The family says Hannah will need care her entire life.
Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the law sets up a special vaccine court to provide compensation without driving drug manufacturers from the vaccine market. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the ruling.
This decision seems to block lawsuits from families who claim that vaccines are to blame for autism in their children.

Council Sends Support to Wisconsin

Pittsburgh City Council has taken up the cause of the mass of protesting union members in Wisconsin. Council passed a resolution this morning proclaiming today, “Service Workers Day” in Pittsburgh. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has proposed legislation that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers for any benefits other than base pay. It would also prevent state and local governments from automatically collecting union dues.

Resolution sponsor Natalia Rudiak says the governor is stripping the workers of their fundamental rights and in the process he is shattering the middle class. “It is a bridge too far, it is a reactionary agenda that will endanger the livelihoods of thousands of working Americans and it must be stopped before this type of thinking endangers the livelihood of millions,” says Rudiak. The resolution praises union workers in the city and recognizes their work in keeping the city and the region running.

“Workers rights are not a budget line item,” says Council Member Bruce Kraus, “you cannot just wipe away with the stroke of a pen decades and decades of work that has stabilized a middle class.” Kraus says the middle class is essential to the health and wellbeing of the nation.

In a news conference before Council’s meeting, Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea jumped onto the same theme, saying this is not just an issue of concern to union members; it is an issue of concern for all workers. “Everybody knows when unions are able to bargain a fair and a decent contract and conditions of employment, it gets passed on to the non-union workforce,” says Shea.

Last week, Democrats in Wisconsin's state Senate walked out rather than vote on the bill. They fled to Illinois and other boarding states to keep from being forced back into the chamber. “We support your heroic effort to protect the futures of so many working families,” says Rudiak, “we know that you cannot go home so if you need a gathering place in your struggle to protect workers rights you are welcome to come to Pittsburgh.”

Private Sector Disaster Preparedness

The University of Pittsburgh is hosting a lecture today on disaster preparedness for businesses, nonprofits and other institutions.

Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Foundation President Brent Woodworth is an organizer for several disaster responses such as the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, the September 11 World Trade Center attack, and Hurricane Katrina.

Woodworth says he hopes to share several ideas to improve Pittsburgh’s disaster resiliency, which includes increasing communication and cooperation between city government and private sector entities.

He says for example, although Starbucks usually charges for its wireless Internet service in Southern California, the company allows free access in times of emergency.

Technology is always improving, says Woodworth, and keeping up-to-date with communication systems is also very important for a disaster response.

The talk, titled “Metropolitan Regions at Risk: The Role and Responsibility of the Private Sector in Disaster Risk Reduction,” is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. at Pitt’s Posvar Hall.

Local Telecommunications Company Being Bought

A San Francisco based private equity firm, Golden Gate Capital, has acquired Tollgrade Communications for $137 million. Located in Cheswick, Tollgrade has 109 employees and is the second Pittsburgh area tech firm to be bought in several months. Wilkins based Vocollect, a voice product firm, was acquired by Intermec, a Washington based firm that said it will keep Vocollect's employees and operations in the Pittsburgh region.

Financial Advisor for Janney, Montgomery Scott, Pete Schlict, says that there are reasons Golden Gate Capital may choose to keep Tollgrade local. "The installed base of intellectual property is here in Western Pennsylvania, and so it wold be reasonable to say that that would be compelling reason in order to remain in Western Pennsylvania."

Golden Gate Capital works with management teams to invest in potential growth areas. If shareholders approve the acquisition they will be paid out $10.10 per common share, then Tollgrade will close in the second quarter of 2011 taking it of the New York Stock Exchange.

Jordan Miles Controversy Affects Police/Community Relations

Many in the African American community think police were the ones breaking the law in January, 2010 when they beat and arrested Jordan Miles in Homewood. There are allegations of racial profiling and excessive force.

Police union leaders have decried the dismissal of charges against the young honor student and the ongoing federal investigation of police for possible criminal civil rights violations.

In this report, WDUQ explores the effects this incident has had on the relationship between the community and police--and what impact that relationship may have on crime fighting. If community members think police are not lawful and fair, they do not cooperate with police.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, says police must have "reasonable suspicion" to stop someone on the street. Brandi Fisher, who heads the Alliance for Police Accountability, thinks some police officers practice racial profiling, stopping any young male in a black neighborhood, whether or not there's an indication of wrongdoing.

Fisher says Miles was flourishing--doing well in school, never getting in trouble--in spite of living in a neighborhood with high poverty and crime, yet he was still beaten severely by police for no reason. She says the community is getting impatient for the results of the federal investigation, but it was reassuring to hear that U.S. Attorney David Hickton is aware of the case.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris says it's very hard to prove a federal civil rights violation, and it's also hard in general to convict police officers. Whatever comes of the federal investigation or possible local action, he believes the community needs a full explanation of what happened that night.

Snow Slows Region

More than 8 inches of snow fell on the Pittsburgh region in the span of about 12 hours and that has transportation officials scrambling. The Port Authority of Allegheny County suspended service around 10:00 Monday night when conditions became unsafe or impassable on nearly every route. PAT spokesperson Jim Ritchie says managers began sending out buses again around 5 am this morning and by 6 am had buses on all but 25 routes. Service to the remaining routes is slowly being restored. Anyone planning to take the bus this morning should head to a main route if it seems like other traffic is having a hard time getting down the street where they normally catch the bus. Ritchie says the T is running well.

Callers to the Port Authority’s service center are experiencing long delays and PAT’s main web page has been crippled. Ritchie says the best way to get information this morning is to go to the Port Authority’s twitter page at twitter.com/pghtransit.

Pittsburgh Public works crews hit the street last night using trucks and salt stationed at eight different locations throughout the city. As of 6:30, Pittsburgh Public Works Director Rob Kaczorowski says about 90% of the city 800 miles of main road had been treated more than once. He says they are now doing touchup work on the main routes and have shifted focused to the secondary streets. He is asking residents on those streets to be patient. He says it will take 12-24 hours to get to every street in the city. Many of those streets have a layer of ice below the snow. In the meantime, he is asking residents to stay off the secondary streets if possible. He also reminds those who are digging out and brushing off cars parked on the streets, to not put the snow into the travel lanes. He says car owners need to move that snow to the side of the road or place it in front or behind their cars.

State Crews are also fighting the snow. PennDOT Spokesperson Jim Struzzi says they are “In the midst of a big battle here.” Struzzi says most of the interstates are just wet in the main traffic lanes but have various amounts of snow in the passing lanes and on the shoulders. Crews continue to work on the ramps to and from the highways and on the bridges. Work on the Parkway North was hindered last night when people abandon their vehicles. The off ramp to McKnight Road had the most problems after a series of accidents forced the state to close the ramp. Several abandon cars are still on the side of I-279. Struzzi says plows and salt trucks are now turning their attentions to the secondary state maintained roads. He reminds drivers to expect varying conditions as the travel and he says all drivers need to remember to clear off their cars of all snow and ice before starting their commute.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Regional Home Sales Up in January

There were more homes sold in the region this January than in January 2010, despite the expiration of a homebuyer tax credit. RealSTATS Vice President Dan Murrer says the nearly 1,500 homes sold in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland Counties last month represented a 3% jump from the January 2010 rate. Murrer says existing home sales were flat, but a large increase in new home sales “carried the flag” so far this year. He says the average price of a new home fell about $60,000 since January 2010. "By virtue of dropping that much, it opened up the new home market to more buyers,” says Murrer. “More people can afford a $280,000 house as opposed to, say, a $360,000 house." Murrer says areas like the Strip District and Moon sold particularly well this January, even though the federal Home Buyer Tax Credit expired last April. The stimulus program had given $8,000 in tax credits to new homebuyers and $6,500 to repeat homebuyers. Murrer says it’s still too early in the year to predict how 2011 will turn out for regional real estate, but January’s numbers are encouraging.

Pittsburgh Hosts Eurasians for Business Conference

The City of Pittsburgh is hosting 18 executives and professionals from many former Soviet satellite nations as part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s "Special American Business Internship Training" (SABIT) Program. Each year the Commerce Department selects cities to host these delegates, and Philip Cynar, spokesman for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, says this time Pittsburgh was picked for its global attention the past couple of years.

President of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce Barbara McNees says Pittsburgh was a good choice “because of the [city’s] economic transformation story,” along with “similarities to these countries being industrial and having to make some transformation around their economy.”

The SABIT program builds relationships between foreign not-for-profit businessmen and helps teach American business and management practices.

“What they are really looking for from us is to hear about our public/private partnership, how we put our organization together, how we function,” McNees says. “They’re really looking at organization structure so that they can go back to their communities as business leaders and make that model work for them.”

As part of the trip, delegates from Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine also met in Washington, D.C. and Raleigh. The delegates arrived in Pittsburgh yesterday and remain until Thursday. McNees says they will learn business practices from the Pittsburgh Executives Association, Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.

Mentor Program Aims to Prevent Violence

The Black Political Empowerment Project’s Coalition Against Violence and Carnegie Mellon University will partner to have CMU athletes mentor local high school students.

B-PEP Community Liaison Kenneth Huston says his “Five for Five” initiative will pair up students from five local school districts with CMU basketball players in an effort to prevent violence.

Huston says the students, who hail from West Mifflin, Gateway, Brashear, Clayton Academy and Pittsburgh Public Schools, will be able to communicate better with mentors closer to their own age. He says in addition to attending basketball games, the pairs will talk about college life and attend summits involving regional businesses and nonprofits.

Huston says he was inspired to create the program after giving an anti-violence speech at a local high school.

“Young people that walked up to me said, ‘Mr. Huston, all that is well and good, but we’re always being talked at, and we’re not being talked to, and we’re not getting a chance to voice our concerns.’ And so I thought about that long and hard and said, ‘How can we come up with a way to give these young people a chance to really voice their feelings?’” says Huston.

The result is the Five for Five program, which Huston says stands as a challenge for other local universities to take part in.

Five for Five’s first mentoring event was February 20, when the CMU men’s and women’s basketball teams played Emory University.

Smart Phone App May Save Lives

A new smart phone application that connects first responders to doctors at the West Penn Allegheny Health System and also links to life flight helicopters and Google Maps is the first of its kind in the U.S.

Jeffrey Polana, Director of Pre-Hospital Operations at Alle-Kiski Medical Center, worked on the app with a German friend. There is a triage system to help emergency personnel determine what the patient is experiencing and, for example, get an EKG to a doctor in 15 seconds. The closest hospital to treat the specific problem is identified and driving directions given.

There is a pre-alert function that sends coordinates from an accident scene to a helicopter dispatch center, according to Polana, that can save up to ten minutes in getting a patient to the hospital. Saving time can save lives, says Polana.

Anyone can download the app free through the Apple Store and use some of the functions, but approval is needed to contact West Penn Allegheny Health System doctors or a dispatch center. There have already been 500 downloads and 140 approvals in the Pittsburgh area, says Polana.

Proposal to Cut PA House by Nearly 25%

Pennsylvania House Speaker Sam Smith is drafting a bill to shrink the size of his chamber.

Smith’s bill would reduce the state House by 50 seats, to 153 members.

Political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College says it’s “unusual” for a legislative leader to back this sort of reform bill, adding Smith’s support suggests the measure has a good chance of passing the House.

"Now the Senate, in a sense, doesn’t have a horse in the race, because it only talks about reducing the size of the House. But we’ll still have to see if the Senate is willing to take it up. And then it has to pass two sessions and go directly to the voters."

The voter approval via a ballot question is necessary because changing the size of the legislature requires an amendment to the state constitution.

Madonna says polls have shown consistent voter support for a smaller House or Senate.

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country.

Smith’s bill is still in the early stages of drafting, so it’s not clear what the time frame for reducing seats would be.

Opponents of a reduction argue rural voters would suffer, since their districts would become larger and more spread out, if seats are eliminated.

DeWeese: Prison Cancellation Will Cost 700 Jobs

Democratic State Representative Bill DeWeese contends the Corbett Administration's decision to cancel a planned 200-million dollar state prison was politically motivated.
DeWeese says Governor Tom Corbett's cancellation of the Fayette County facility isn't about cost-savings and need, but has more to do with the fact Corbett charged the lawmaker with theft and conspiracy in December 2009, for allegedly campaigning with state resources.
The prison would have been located within DeWeese's district.

"He and I have had some challenges, to be polite and euphemistic, relative to the past. But that's in another arena. He's the chief executive of 12.6 million people. My 60-thousand folks elected me to go to Harrisburg and serve, and this is an aggressive slap in the face."

DeWeese says construction on the prison would have begun in a matter of weeks, and the cancelation will cost the district more than 700 jobs.
In the press release announcing the move, Acting Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the 200-million dollar facility isn't needed, and that other prisons are under-utilized.
DeWeese questions the argument, pointing out Pennsylvania is still exporting prisoners to Michigan and Virginia.
Corbett's spokesman did not respond to calls for comment.

Pgh., N. Ireland to Share Sustainability Ideas

A delegation of business and government representatives from Northern Ireland will come to Pittsburgh to discuss sustainable environmental practices Monday to Thursday .

President Jim Lamb of the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh says his organization is hosting several seminars to spark discussion between the regions on sustainable environmental practices in business and government.

Lamb says Northern Ireland wants to become a leading European region in terms of sustainable business development and renewable energy.

“I think they identify Pittsburgh, for a number of reasons, as a similar kind of region that it might make sense to partner [with],” says Lamb.

In addition to talks between businesses and government, ten graduate students from Northern Ireland who came to Pittsburgh last year will share their sustainable practices studies with the delegation.

Lamb says talks on sustainable technology between Pittsburgh and Northern Ireland began shortly after the September 2009 G-20 Summit of world leaders.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Candidates' Guide to Allegheny County

Allegheny Institute, the conservative Mt. Lebanon based think tank, has released a candidates' guide to issues facing the county. Democratic County Executive Dan Onorato recently announced that he would not seek a third term and since then a number of contenders announced or indicated that they will run for the office. AI Senior Policy Analyst Eric Montarti says the guide touches on the Institute's perspective on a range of issues, from funding the Port Authority, to revisiting the home charter rule, to the best use of Pittsburgh International airport and property reassessment. He says "our guide would be somewhere where a prospective candidate could look at, think about some of the issues -- maybe think about an issue a little bit differently than they may have and then hopefully go for some plan of action from there." On the democratic side County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty and County Council President Rich Fitzgerald have joined the race for County Executive. On the conservative end, Tea Party activist Patti Weaver and County Councilman Chuck McCullough formally announced their candidacy last week, businessman and Mt. Lebanon Commissioner D. Raja stepped into the race yesterday. A Candidates' Guide to Crucial Issues Facing Allegheny County can be found at alleghenyinstitute.org.

McCullough Wants Time Out on Reassessment

Allegheny County Councilman Chuck McCullough is calling for a time out on reassessment because of ill communication over the implementation of 2010 reassessment between Council members and County Solicitor and Executive.

McCullough, along with other Council members, Matt Drozd, Vince Gastgeb, and Jan Rea all say that they were unaware or not involved of the court order for the 2012 assessment and do not believe that there was money in the 2010 budget to do the reassessment work.

"I challenge anybody to go through the 2010 budgets, which we already approved three days before, and find anything about property reassessments," McCullough says.

McCullough says that Council should have been consulted.

"We're going to ask the court to call a time out on this. We had a lot of problems eight years ago when we did a reassessment, he had a lot of problems nine years ago when we did a reassessment. We can't afford another round of disaster here."

This afternoon, the four members of Council are going to asked County Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick for a "time out" on reassessments until they can better understand the issue, and McCullough says that if they are denied a time out he might appeal.

Could PA Be In For A Budget Backlash?

Thousands of protestors are storming Wisconsin’s state Capitol in response to a budget proposal. That plan put forward by Wisconsin’s governor has literally sent the state’s Senate Democrats into hiding, in an attempt to block a vote on the measure from taking place.
Republican Scott Walker wants to increase public employees’ pension and health care costs, and take away most of their collective bargaining rights.
Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale says he’s worried the plan is part of a national trend from Republican leaders.

"There seems to be this extremist group that’s decided that workers are the problem. Not Wall Street, not all the folks who ran our economy into the ground. That workers are the problem. That somehow we’ve caused all these issues because, you know, we make a decent wage. "

But Bloomingdale says he’d be surprised if Corbett makes a similar proposal in his March 8 budget address.
However, House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin says several GOP lawmakers are taking a serious look at Walker’s idea.

"As Pennsylvanians are worried about whether or not they’re keeping their jobs, whether they’re going to not get an increase in pay but they’re getting decreases in cut and benefits. The public sector unions have continued at taxpayer expense to get increases."

Corbett’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Senate Republican spokesman Erik Arneson says he’s “not aware of any discussions” of a similar proposal in Pennsylvania.
Walker is trying to close a three billion-dollar budget gap.
Pennsylvania’s is expected to be at least a billion dollars more expensive.

On-Line Regional News Project

Using grants totaling $578,000, the Pittsburgh Foundation this summer will launch an on-line initiative "to preserve and strengthen the delivery of local news and information." Foundation President and CEO Grant Oliphant says the initiative will offer in-depth reports on "key issues impacting the Pittsburgh region and cultivating broad community involvement."

The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided a $253,000 grant and the Pittsburgh Foundation is adding $325,000. Oliphant says management of the initiative is being transferred to the Pittsburgh Filmmakers group.

“Independence and impartiality are critical requirements for the successful and credible operation of our on-line news service and Pittsburgh Filmmakers is an ideal partner, providing a resourceful base from which this initiative will continue to develop and grow."

He said historically the place where people went to get the most information about substantive issues has been newspapers, but surveys today about where people get news show they go to television, online resources and radio.

According to Oliphant, this venture will seek to work closely with regional partners in the mainstream broadcasting and print media, and initially will use a core of independent freelance journalists. He says when you think of news, Pittsburgh is doing better at least superficially than a lot of counterpart communities across the country....


"We still have WDUQ, we still have 2 newspapers. We've got some robust news presence in the community still. But I think the leaders of all of those organizations will admit that in Pittsburgh what we're experiencing is a hollowing out of our ability to go deep on substantive issues."


He says this initiative is not intended as a replacement for existing media. The project will begin with 2 full-time employees--an editor and a web content manager.

Cold Weather (the film) Comes to Pittsburgh


Two men with Pittsburgh ties will be on hand tonight for the Pittsburgh début of their third film “Cold Weather.” DUQ’s Mark Nootbaar had a chance to sit down with them this week.

Listen to the story as Aired on 90.5FM WDUQ here.

Listen to an edited interview with Director/Writer/Editor Aaron Katz and Brandon Mcfadden.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

3rd GOP Candidate for Allegheny County Executive

Businessman and Mt. Lebanon Commissioner D. Raja has declared his candidacy for the Republican Nomination for Chief Executive for Allegheny County. Raja is the co-founder of the I-T company, Computer Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) and is native of Bangalore, India, and became a U.S. citizen after coming to Pittsburgh in 1988.
Raja says he sees tremendous potential in Allegheny County and he brings a fresh perspective and not "old political alliances and political baggage. What I'm going to bring as county executive is a sense of fairness where merit is going to take precedence above all. Whether it's contacts or services, we would do it in the best interests of the taxpayer."

Raja says what says him apart from his Republican opponents is that "he's created hundreds of jobs in the private sector and cut taxes in the public sector."

Pittsburgh area Tea Party founder Patti Weaver of Fox Chapel and attorney and County Councilman Charles McCullough declared their candidacies earlier this month.

PennDOT Works to Fix Bridges

The number of structurally deficient bridges in PennDOT District 11 (Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence County) is at its lowest in recent years. Last year District 11 opened construction bids for improvements on 81 bridges, 54 of which were deficient. Since 2007 the number of deficient bridges have decreased from 605 to 484, about 26 percent of the districts bridges.

District Executive Dan Cessna, says that PennDOT has worked hard to keep up with deficient bridges. "We've more than doubled our bridge program over the last three years due to having additional funding. We've made significant progress, but as everyone knows, our infrastructure around the region is very old and it continues to age, and new bridges become structurally deficient every several weeks."

Cessna says that improvement on deficient bridges will continue into 2011. The upcoming construction season will see bids opened for more than $150 million in projects to repair, replace, preserve, and maintain 71 bridges, 42 of which are rated structurally deficient. He says that the improvement of bridges will continue beyond the 2012 season, but an end to stimulus money might reduce the number of projects the district will move into construction.

Health Care Providers Urge City to Regulate Diesel Emissions

A number of physicians, health care professionals and organizations are sending a letter to Pittsburgh Council asking it adopt the "Clean Construction" Diesel emission regulation ordinance. Diesel emissions have been linked to heart attacks, asthma, lung cancer and premature deaths and the Pittsburgh Clean Air Act currently before council would require contractors working on large, publicly funded projects to retrofit their equipment and use cleaner fuels. Dr. Bernard Goldstein, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh says diesel emissions have been on the radar of health professionals for a long time, but it's been difficult to regulate because emissions come from so many small, local sources. Goldstein says he's happy to see a construction boom in the Pittsburgh region, "because it means we're coming out of our economic problems. As we do, we're going to have even more sources (of diesel emissions) -- the time to control them is now, the time to put in new controls to be sure people are using the most effective controls for their diesel sources is now."

Full Leaves for PEMA

Allegheny County's Emergency Management Chief is resigning to take a state job. Bob Full has been named as Chief Deputy Director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in Harrisburg. PEMA's new director is Glenn Cannon who is the former head of the Pittsburgh Public Safety Department and former Allegheny County Manager.
Full worked for 23 years in the city's Public Safety Department before becoming the county's emergency services chief in 1998..
Council President Rich Fitzgerald thanked Full for his work...... "I have appreciated his expertise in emergency response, which he acquired from over 30 years as a firefighter and over 20 years as a public safety professional. Because of him, the County rebounded from many emergencies and improved the infrastructure of our emergency response protocols. He helped make the County a safer place, and I am glad he’ll share his knowledge and inimitable experiences at the state level."

Council Member Jim Burn said Full's skills within the field are unmatched...."His resume is replete with evidence of his capabilities and the esteem of his peers: thirty-plus years of experience as a volunteer firefighter, 23 years of experience with the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety, tenure as a former President of the PA State Association of Hazardous Material Technicians, Chairmanship of the Regional All Government Joint Terrorism Task Force, and innumerable other achievements speak volumes about his dedication to protecting the public’s safety."

County Executive Dan Onorato says he will appoint an interim Emergency Services Chief while a search for a permanent replacement is conducted.

Urban Pathways Charter Okayed

The Pittsburgh Board of Education voted last night to approve 1 of 4 applications to operate charter schools in the city of Pittsburgh. Board members gave "qualified approval" to the Urban Pathways K-5 College Charter School. That "qualified approval" means that it will be re-evaluated before the start of the school year. The district is requesting that Urban Pathways produce a professional development plan that provides on-going training on implementation of the school's core knowledge curriculum. Urban Pathways already operates a 6-12 charter school.
“The District supports quality options for families that spur student achievement,” said Superintendent Linda Lane.

The Board rejected charter applications for Propel Charter School – Northside, Three Rivers Charter School for Public Service and Leadership Academy for Math and Science Charter.
The Board did acknowledge the success of existing charter schools operated by Propel in other locations but the Charter Review Team did not recommend approval saying this application lacked a comprehensive curriculum for all grade levels and comprehensive long range goals for students.

The Board voted against the Three Rivers Charter School for Public Service application saying it failed to provide a complete curriculum plan and didn't provide parents with choices that aren't already offered by the school district.

According to the review team, the Leadership Academy for Math and Science Charter School application lacked current community support and a proposed location.
The rejected applicants can appeal the decision.

Voucher Debate Continues with PSEA Input

Given the way Senators Jeff Piccola and Anthony Williams have torn into the Pennsylvania State Education Association – Piccola sneered that PSEA was a “four-letter word” during a recent Capitol rally – observers expected some fireworks from PSEA Vice President Michael Crossey’s appearance before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday afternoon. After all, Piccola tore into Baruch Kintisch of the Education Law Center during his morning testimony on Senate Bill 1, which would create a school vouchers program. "All you ask for is more money, more time. You've been doing that for [decades] and it doesn’t work," snapped Piccola after Kintisch questioned whether vouchers were the best way to fix failing schools.

Aside from a few contentious moments during Williams’ questioning period, however, Crossey’s testimony passed without incident. He laid out PSEA’s basic argument against the program: that it would harm public schools by taking money away from them; and raise accountability questions by providing funding to non-government institutions. “Our public schools have to account for every dime,” he said. “And Senate Bill 1 – it moves all of that money over to private, parochial schools. But none of the same accountability provisions are there. One, for the finances, and two, for the educational achievement.”

Crossey warned the vouchers program could cost more than $1 billion a year, once it’s fully expanded. Piccola, called that figure “grossly exaggerated,” but conceded the Senate doesn’t know how much the initiative would cost after its first year, when it would be limited to low-income students in failing schools. (Year 1, Piccola said in a statement, would cost less than $50 million.) “The cost of the second and third years continues to be studied and refined and will ultimately be determined by the Senate Appropriations Committee via a fiscal note,” read a statement from Piccola’s office.

Crossey suggested an alternative to vouchers would be full funding of public schools. Williams countered, ”I’ve heard the rhetoric since I arrived in the legislature. Full funding is a term – a term of art – you know what? I don’t even know what it means. Guess what? When I talk to people, when I ask them, factually, in my office, privately, what is that number? They don’t have one. They just keep coming up and asking for more money. So we don’t want to have that conversation. Let’s just have this conversation.” The Democrat also pressed Crossey on how funding reductions would harm schools, if they’re dealing with fewer students, asking, “If they don’t have the same number of students, why would they get the same amount of money?” Crossey responded, “Well Senator, if we take in my class – let’s say that we take one child out of my classroom, that doesn’t reduce the cost of my classroom.”

After the Crossey’s testimony ended, Piccola dismissed PSEA’s opposition to the vouchers plan, putting out a statement arguing Crossey’s cost warnings were “another example of [PSEA’s] shameless commitment to protect union jobs at any expense.”

Disclosure: PSEA provides funding for WDUQ's coverage of state government issues.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nonprofit: Don't Allow Electronic Billboards in Pgh.

A national group against billboards has come to Pittsburgh to advocate a ban on electronic billboards in the city, about a week before City Planning Commission takes up a measure to regulate the signs.

The nonprofit Scenic America argues electronic billboards are intrusive to landscapes and dangerous to drivers, as well as harmful to property values. Executive Director Mary Tracy says each digital sign also uses the same amount of electricity as about 30 houses.

Tracy says the billboards simply aren’t worth the problems they bring up.

“ You have traffic safety issues, you have environmental issues, you have aesthetic issues, and you have to kind of look at it and say, ‘What are we really gaining here?’” says Tracy.

Tracy says the advertising industry often argues this is a free speech matter, but she says it’s not. She argues that because the signs can be dangerous to drivers and lower property values, they should be open to regulation. Tracy says four states and more than 1,000 municipalities have already forbidden the billboards.

The Scenic America leader says the proliferation of electronic billboards is an example of political lobbying trumping the public interest.

The Planning Commission will look at an ordinance regulating the size, brightness and placement of the billboards next Tuesday.

Scenic America is holding a public meeting on the issue at two o'clock today, at the Conservation Consultants, Inc. Center on 14th Street in the South Side.

City Councilman Hears from Community on Police Accountability

A Tuesday night hearing at the Shiloh Community Missionary Baptist Church in Homewood addressed upcoming legislation for more police transparency. Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess' bill would establish policy for off-duty police, and compel the Pittsburgh Police Bureau to produce an annual report on the make-up of the police force; any legal action against police officers; average response times; arrests by charge, race and gender by zone and specialized units; conviction rates and traffic stops as well as recruitment and retention.

Burgess says that a lot of people are interested in the duties and requirements of off-duty police officers. "I think there needs to be a clear policy that states what off duty police officers should and should not do, and what is the responsibility and the city's commitment to them so that both sides are clear. I think that recent events have lead us to need to have that process clarified."

He says that the majority of his constituents are behind him and that he has not yet heard from the opposition directly. Burgess is willing to make compromises to his legislation but believes that the conversation and public discussion is incredibly important.

Councilman Burgess' legislation was proposed after allegations of police brutality against 18 year old Jordan Miles, who was allegedly beaten by 3 plain clothed officers while walking to his grandmother's house in Homewood.

"Watson" Goes for Win

The language-computing computer Watson will attempt to hold on to its lead tonight in the final episode of a three-part Jeopardy! series pitting the computer versus two of the shows greatest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Eric Nyberg is a contributor in the creation of Watson, and says he will watch with excitement, though he already knows the result.

Nyberg along with CMU students Nico Schlaefer and Hideki Shima work with IBM on the development of the computer which has earnings of $35,734 after 2 rounds of Jeopardy compared to $10,400 for Rutter and $4,800 for Jennings. The 3 episodes were filmed last month, so Nyberg and other contributors to the computer’s creation know the results. Nyberg was surprised by Watson’s success on the second day.

“I think my expectation was really that it would be like what you saw on day one where it was sort of a neck and neck kind of thing where Watson did very well in some categories and didn’t really answer anything in some of the other categories,” Nyberg says. “That’s actually quite characteristic of Watson’s performance overall.”

The language computing computer processes the clues using a vast knowledge of the English language, programmed by people like Nyberg. Watson then calculates a confidence level for the answers it’s considering and buzzes in if it seems sure.

Nyberg says the research has been great for the field of language computing technology and he says CMU has already implemented improvements to the model idea.

“One of the things we’re working on at Carnegie Mellon is a technique that basically helps Watson to study for a particular topic,” Nyberg says. “You can give Watson documents that are on topics that you want him to learn about and then we have another tech that will go out and find other relevant texts that are available.”

However if Nyberg wants viewers to know anything, he jokes that Watson’s intelligence is nothing to fear.

“It’s not going to take over the world, it’s not dangerous and nobody’s going to give any launch codes to Watson when it thinks that grasshoppers eat kosher and Toronto is a U.S. city.”

School Vouchers Debated

Pennsylvania’s Senate Education Committee is in the midst of a day-long hearing on a high-profile school vouchers bill.
The measure would divert state education money to private school vouchers for low-income students in failing school districts.
Republican sponsor Jeff Piccola has aggressively challenged opponents of the measure, at times comparing them to supporters of communism. Democrat Anthony Williams co-authored the bill and defended the rhetoric he’s used comparing public education to Jim Crow-style segregation.

"Those who chastise me by injecting the civil rights comments that I do on occasion: separate but unequal is what we have. And it’s not simply urban schools. Rural schools. This country is in crisis, when it comes to delivery of education.
or segregation."

Early in the hearing, Democrat Daylin Leach pushed back, saying he and others have legitimate concerns about the voucher system.

"That we’re creating a huge new entitlement. A government entitlement in a time of recession. We’re taking money from the poorest schools, and leaving those still there with even fewer resources to try and make their education a little better."

Governor Corbett’s nominee for Education Secretary, Ronald Tomalis, testified in favor of a vouchers program, though he stayed away from wading into the specifics of Piccola’s measure.
The legislation, labeled Senate Bill 1, would gradually expand the voucher program over a three-year period.

“One Book” Takes up “Charity and Kindness”

Every year for the last nine years, the Allegheny County Library Association has chosen a single book as a focal point for a community-wide discussion on a given topic. This year’s theme for the “One Book, One Community” effort is “Charity and Kindness” and the book chosen to represent that theme is Cami Walker’s ’29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving can Change Your Life.” At the age of 33 Walker was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and a friend gave her a “prescription” to give away 29 gifts in 29 days. She took on the challenge and wrote the book as a result of her life-changing experience.

Allegheny County Library Association (ACLA) Community Partnership Coordinator Charity Leonetti says this is not just a story of giving away things. “What begins to emerge is how Cami’s interaction and attentiveness to other people in her life really changed her perspective,” says Leonetti.

Libraries throughout the county will be launching their own One Book, One Community events and the ACLA will sponsor events April 6th and 7th with the author. The association will also be partnering with Leadership Pittsburgh for a community discussion. Details on all the events can be found Online. Several libraries in the system have purchased extra copies of the book for their patrons. To help local libraries the ACLA has built book club kits that can be checked out for up to five weeks.

The book has spawned an international movement with people taking their own 29-day challenge. “In the end of the book there are some comments and testimonies from people who have taken on the 29-day challenge themselves and how it has made a difference in their lives,” says Leonetti.

Poll: 53% Think Tax Hike Needed to Balance PA Budget

A new survey indicates support is growing for Tom Corbett who became Pennsylvania's new governor a month ago.

A Quinnipiac University poll shows 65% of those questioned are optimistic about the state, up from 59% in December, a month before he took office.

A month into the Corbett Administration, half of the poll participants said they had no opinion yet of Corbett's performance. But of those who have formed an opinion, the job approval rating is 3-1 in favor.

The governor is to release his budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and has said he would not raise taxes. However, Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, says by a 53% to 33% margin those surveyed don't believe Corbett will be able to balance the budget without a tax increase. That's a slight change (55% to 31%) from December's poll.

The sampling error margin is plus or minus 2.7 %.