Saturday, September 30, 2006

UPMC Global

Honestly, I have no reason to believe if this is anything new at all. As far as I know this has been going on for some time. But I was on an American Airlines flight originating from London-Heathrow over the the weekend and there was a full page advertisement in the airline magazine for UPMC. Because AA is not an airline with a big Pittsburgh presence, and this was not a magazine with any Pittsburgh specific ad pages, it was clearly an ad aimed for a national/global market. It was a sparse ad, focused a little on cardiac care but it more seemed to just be getting the UPMC brand name out there. In fact, other than for some fairly small type at the bottom, the reader would not know there was any connection to Pittsburgh. The brand being pushed is just UPMC. Sort of like how Pittsburgh National Bank eventually evolved into just PNC as it pushed beyond local borders. So it's not a big deal and not really surprising. It's just interesting and something I have not noticed before. I wonder how much extra-regional advertising UPMC has been doing. That and it being in a travel related publication.....makes you wonder if they are looking to focus on more medical tourism.


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Henry George and Homewood

I was reading the Elwin Greens journal/blog about Homewood on the PG web site the other day. He may not realize it, but his September 22 entry makes a very direct argument for the two-tiered property tax that used to be in place Pittsburgh. He discusses how some of the properties in his Homewood neighborhood have been sold and resold to out of city landlords who do not seem to show much interest in improving or using them. The historic reason for the land tax in Pittsburgh was to provide strong disincentives to this very type of speculative land holding. Given the low price of property in some areas of Pittsburgh, and the changes going on.. I could be convinced that there is the same type of behavior going on today. Could a split tax, or some variant thereof, be used to deal with the problem?

Elwin’s post is not the only thing that has prompted me to think more about Pittsburgh’s erstwhile split tax recently. Many have forgotten, probably more never realized, that the City of Pittsburgh had until recently a split property tax. A split tax taxes the value of land at a far greater rate than the value of the structures built on the land is taxed. Skipping the lecture that is probably required to explain why this was implemented, it basically is a straightforward way to induce higher density development on land. Other names for this type of split tax include the Two-Tier tax, the single tax or the Land Tax which probably describes the most extreme version of this type of tax where all of the tax is on land and none is on structures… or sometimes a George tax named for Henry George who propounded this type of tax in the late 19th/early 20th century. As hard as it is to believe, Pittsburgh was once a hub of progressive activity and implemented a split tax in 1916 and remained in place for the remainder of the century.

I personally think there are a lot of reasons to think about a new form of a split tax. Many dismissed the split tax after the mass reassessment in Allegheny County in 2001. Why that happened would take a tome in itself to discuss. I personally believe that by the 1990’s the split tax was de facto ineffective because of assessment practices. In Pittsburgh land was taxed at a rate 6 times that of structures. But I also think that most residential structures were assessed such that land was typically 1/6th of the value of the entire property. Thus the de facto difference between a split tax and a flat tax was virtually nil. What happened was that the mass reassessment put in place some more realistic values for the value of land which resulted in some pretty big changes in some tax bills. It was that 'sticker shock' that got some people legitimately upset.

Lest those same people get mad at me. I think there are some reasonable ways to reintroduce a split tax that does not impose undue burdens on current property owners. I am really partial to the abatement program put in place in Philadelphia which gives a nearly universal 10 year tax break on the value of any residential structure or improvement in the city. Some consider the program responsible for a lot of inner city revitalization in Philly and is really quite similar to a land tax. It has the advantage of not penalizing those who are long time homeowners in any way yet still gives incentives to improve and use land.

Anyway.. long enough for one post. I have some more thoughts I will save for later.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Council District #1

The news is that 6 people have successfully filed for the special election being held for City Council District #1. Just some trivia on the district:

Population in 2000: 36,846
Percentage African American: 27.1%
Percentage Hispanic: 1.1%
Total votes cast for President in 2004 General Election: 14,516
Total votes cast for Mayor in 2005 Primary Election: 5,494
Total votes cast for Mayor in 2005 General Election: 6,042
Percentage voting for Kerry in 2004 General Election: 67.5%


Monday, September 25, 2006

random gambling thought

It would be an easy prognostication to say that there will soon be a cottage industry studying the impacts of gambling in Pittsburgh...whenever it arrives that is. Most think about the big impacts that we expect are coming: jobs, taxes, etc.. but there are going to be a host of smaller impacts that arise that have not even been contemplated as yet.

For example I was reading this story in the Philadelphia inquirer about the impact of gambling in Chester, PA and the very last line got me thinking. Their mayor implies that the the city has recently regained a local taxi service that is attributed to the local gambling industry.

Whether that is true or not, it got me wondering: what will the impact of gambling be on local taxi service here. Taxi service has always been a little peculiar here. Unlike many large cities, it is nearly impossible to hail a cab and taxi stands are limited to only a few locations. The project to start a taxi service you can hail from the street seems to have ended long ago for the most part. Overall I am sure we have fewer cabs per capita than most other large cities with chronic complaints about limited service in some neighborhoods. The association of jitneys, which are essentially unlicensed taxis, with Pittsburgh is not accidental.

A local gambling industry will certainly induce a new level and type of demand for taxi service. Just wondering whether what that will mean for taxi service in general. Will it induce greater service that will provide spillover benefits to local residents, or will it soak up the limited taxi service there is now, leaving local users with even less service?

I realized I did not even know what taxi service is around these days. I checked the phone book and supposedly People's Cab is still around. I swear I have not seen a people's taxi in years or decades. What other taxi services are in town besides the ubiquitous Yellow Cab?


Saturday, September 23, 2006

regionalism and journalism

No map again.. I am a little far removed from my computer, but just an interesting blog-post from on the interaction of journalism and regionalism. It's worth a read, especially given that the Institute of Politics had its annual local elected officials retreat over the last couple of days.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

ditech calling

The city budget is out and deserves a tome of commentary, but we will start with just one blog-post. I am bandwidth challenged at the moment so I can't read any new budget documents.. are they online? But overall I worry that someone reading the news that there will be (maybe) $30-$40 million in the bank at the end of the year will misconstrue that to mean the city had turned a financial corner?

Well... there is this little matter that the city borrowed $50 million a few months ago and that is included in the projected cash reserve. It's a little hard to claim you have a structurally sound budget if you are only staying above water by significant borrowing, but it's a little worse than that.

When you think about it more, you have to also account for the fact that the city had an indeterminate surplus (somewhere between 10-20mil depending on how you look at the budget) from last year that rolled into this years balances. So the city has burned through that as well by end of this year. Also rememeber, the city refinanced $200 million in debt at the same time they borrowed that $50mil. Part of that deal restructured the city's debt payments in such a way that a significant amount (~$12mil) of 2006 debt payments were pushed into future years. Good for this years cash accounts but bad for the long term. Taken together it's a little like refinancing your house for a larger mortgage, which gives you some immediate chunk of cash, but then also taking an option to make no mortgage payments in the first year. Together it compounds your future payments that much more.

more later...


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Goodbye Mercy

The PG is reporting today that UPMC will acquire Mercy Hospital. I once said goodbye to St. Francis which technically went bankrupt in the end. The situation is not the same for Mercy. The intitial news is that Mercy will continue to operate much as it has in the past, but it reminds me of a question I would love to ask: What if (pick any nonprofit hospital system you wish) were to be sold to a private company? Or a corollary: could a non-profit hospital system IPO and if so, how much would it generate and who would get the $$ generated? It's not completely without precedent. Montefiore Hospital was sold to UPMC in the past, with the assets becoming what is now the Jewish Healthcare fund.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Looking back, looking forward

Whenever the next mayoral race is set, the inevitable prognostication will soon follow. Let's add some real data to the punditry to come. Since city council seems to be the nexus of city politics these days, here are the results of the last two mayoral primaries in the city with election returns recompiled by (currently defined) City Council District... Note the obvious that the incumbents listed are the current incumbents for each city council district. I assume everyone knows the initials for the various candidates.

Dist. Incumbent ML BO BP OTHER
1 Vacant 22.7% 55.0% 18.9% 3.5%
2 Deasy 33.1% 46.5% 18.1% 2.3%
3 Koch 24.2% 46.9% 24.8% 4.1%
4 Motznik 37.8% 45.3% 15.5% 1.4%
5 Shields 18.5% 56.6% 23.6% 1.3%
6 Payne 10.8% 59.3% 18.3% 11.6%
7 Bodack 16.7% 47.5% 32.5% 3.4%
8 Peduto 20.9% 29.0% 48.8% 1.2%
9 Carlisle 11.3% 55.0% 18.7% 14.9%

1 Vacant 53.9% 37.8% 2.6%
2 Deasy 46.6% 43.3% 2.7%
3 Koch 44.7% 45.3% 5.1%
4 Motznik 45.0% 46.1% 2.3%
5 Shields 34.8% 57.6% 2.8%
6 Payne 43.8% 43.5% 9.6%
7 Bodack 47.2% 44.9% 3.4%
8 Peduto 57.2% 31.6% 2.9%
9 Carlisle 42.9% 45.9% 8.8%


Monday, September 18, 2006

downtown on the mind...

So you think we obsess thinking about downtown development. Anyone with any interest at all in the future of downtown's anywhere ought to read this blog entry by UCLA's Michael Manville:

Three hypotheses are put forward to explain why there is so much emphasis on redeveloping downtowns: 1) The fiscal base explanation. The downtown has traditionally been the most valuable land in the city, and as it atrophies the city’s ability to collect tax revenues falls, and therefore so does its ability to provide services. 2) The public psyche explanation. The downtown’s importance is larger than its contribution to employment or population. and 3) The public choice explanation. In this interpretation downtowns are obsolete regimes lacking in market power but strong in political power.

Do all/some/any of these explanations apply to what is going on in Pittsburgh?


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Inconvenient Precedents II

The Pennsylvania Law Weekly has an article just out on the legal morass the city is entering as it attempts to figure out when the next mayoral race will be. I think somebody mentioned several weeks ago the two important precendents that are probably going do decide this: Watson v. Witkin 343 PA 1, 22 A.2d 17 (1941)and Cali v. Philadelphia 406 Pa. 290; 177 A.2d 824; 1962. Local media still does not seem to want to get near this issue yet.

The problem really is that whenever the games begin, you know it will take some time to resolve as it works its way through the courts. And it will start eventually. I think any taxpayer has standing to sue to stop an election. Probably any registered voter has standing to try and force an election. That's not to say a judge would agree, but anyone can bring the case.

by the way, has the city found judge to rule on this whole situation yet? Is anyone asking about it? While I agree that events are still pretty recent, remember there is not much time to figure this out. Forget just campaigning, for there to be a May election, it must be set 60 days prior just for the election machinery to make that happen. So any legal wranglings might need to be settled by March you would think. What is that 5-6 months at most, in practicality it must be a lot less.


Friday, September 15, 2006

How now brown town.....

Part of me feels bad for continuing to pick on ol' Border Guard Bob. I guess I am just fearful that the logic which spawned Bob might someday come back. Lest we forget. What am I talking about? Catch this weeks edition of the Economist Magazine for a story on Pittsburgh's revitalization which takes a lead from Bob's role in the region's history of marketing itself. Unfortunately, only a short blurb from the article is available online.

but LR on Letterman, Pittsburgh written up in the Economist. Not a bad week on the marketing front.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

skilled workers

The current issue of Area Development Magazine has this article about the importance of a skilled workforce in site selection. It's main point is that its the high school dropout rate that is one of the more important factors that firms should consider. For all educational attainment metrics you just have to adjust for Pittsburgh's age demographic to get a meaninful comparision between us and other regions. The fact that we have more elderly in the region means we have more of a generation that typically did not get as much formal education as younger generations. But since most elderly are out of the workforce, that does matter as much to current recruiting. You need to look at educational attainment within the working age population, probably the young working age population which is the main recruiting pool for new hires.

So.. of course one should usually look at regional educational attainment data, but I have a table of city data from 2000. For the population 25-34, the young working age population, if you look at the nation's 60 largest cities you get this top ten list of the % of population with a high school degree or higher:

94.0% VA, Virginia Beach
93.2% WA, Seattle
92.1% HI, Honolulu
91.9% CO, Colorado Springs
91.3% PA, Pittsburgh
91.2% CA, San Francisco
89.6% OH, Columbus
88.5% MA, Boston
88.4% OR, Portland
88.1% MN, Minneapolis

The few that are higher than Pittsburgh include some predominently military places. A high school degree was a requirement for most service recruits in the 1990's so I would say those are not fair comparisons in this context. but what are the lowest ranked cities:

72.2% TX, Fort Worth
71.7% AZ, Phoenix
70.5% CA, Long Beach
69.4% TX, Houston
69.0% CA, Fresno
68.4% TX, Dallas
65.9% FL, Miami
65.3% CA, Los Angeles
63.7% CA, Anaheim
42.9% CA, Santa Ana

So a fairly wide range with Pittsburgh near the top. Yes.. I would quibble with the ranking of cities and not regions, but it's still useful to look at any metric where Pittsburgh stands out so far. It also says something about the concentration of these workers and students within the region as well.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hal meets Bill Cowher

I like the idea of using data and analytical tools for decisionmaking.. but I will also be the first to tell you that it's easy to overinterpret numbers or analysis. Here is a football analogy. Computers and sports are now forever embedded with each other. One of the more advanced attempts to model coaching decisions with software tools has come from the computer guru's of . According to them, Miami could have greatly increased their chances of beating the Steelers last week if Nick Saban had actually tossed out that challnege flag Heath's long reception and run to the endzone. Here are their numbers in precise bayesian detail. I have to admit that I am not convinced.

A little more interesting is their analysis of Superbowl XL.. but again, without knowing the details of their model, I am not so sure about the information added by these results. I really wonder if anyone at CMU has tried to build a model to similar ends.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

bus fares

Joe Grata at the PG is reporting that there is a plan to increase Port Authority fares to $2.50. Port Authority fares already rank near the top in the country for bus transit. According to this data from the American Public Transit Association, the highest base fares for motorbus transit are in these cities (of 225 they list with fares for bus transit):

6.00 Loudoun County Transit VA
5.50 Potomac & Rappahannock TC VT
3.25 Golden Gate Bridge, Hwy & TD CA
3.00 Eagle County Reg TA CO
2.25 San Diego Metrop Tr System CA
2.25 San Diego Transit Corp CA
2.00 Williamsport Bureau of Trp PA
2.00 Southeastern Pennsylvania TA PA
2.00 New York City DOT NY
2.00 City & County of Honolulu DOTS HI
2.00 Community Action of So. KY KY
2.00 Monterey-Salinas Transit CA
2.00 MTA Long Island Bus NY
2.00 MTA Metro-North Railroad NY
2.00 MTA New York City Transit NY
2.00 Triangle Transit Auth NC
1.75 Milwaukee County Tr System WI
1.75 North County Tr Dist CA
1.75 Bee-Line System NY
1.75 Chicago Transit Authority IL
1.75 Metro Atlanta Rapid Tr Auth GA
1.75 Port Auth of Allegheny County PA
1.75 Santa Clara Valley TA CA
1.75 Southwest Metro TC MN
1.60 Mass Transit Admin of MD MD

So $2.50 would put us ahead of all but a few systems including Loudon county, which must be long distance commuter runs into DC, and uber-expensive San Francisco. The lowest base fare they report, 25 cents to ride the Glendale, CA Beeline. Among large systems, one of the lowest remains Boston which, unless there are recent changes, has a base fare of 90 cents.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Judicial help is on the way.. or is it?

The mayor made a statement yesterday saying that he has directed the city's law department to get a judge to rule on when there will be a mayoral election. The problem is.. can the city get a judge to make that type of decision without a complaint being filed or a cause of action pending in court? Does there not need to be a case for a judge to make a decision or can the city just go petition the court for some such ruling. Judges typically do not go spouting off on their own. There needs to be a plaintiff of some sort doesn't there? It seems to me that the Mayor has basically told the City Law Department to sue itself in opposition to its own legal opinion. Not quite sure how that would work. I have to admit that I am a little curious that the media has not asked a few basic questions. If you just read, heard or watched the news coverage on this, you must now believe that this is all a done deal that a judge is going to resolve the issue. I wonder.

here are some basic questions someone ought to ask: Which judge? for that matter which court? Common pleas? Commonwealth? Who will pose the question for this judge to address? Who will make arguments for or against any particular date? when will these proceedings take place?


Friday, September 08, 2006

9/11 references

just a few 9/11 compendiums you may not have seen: one from the BBC another from the Library of Congress, and this from the Librarians Internet Index.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

transportation factoid: kids on the bus

The gnomes at the census are compiling data in ever new ways. Here is a table that has not been easy to generate in the past. Just released data allows one to compute the prevalence of commuters using public transportation by age group which I have put into the picture below for the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh MSA in 2005. I was a little surprised that the numbers were as high as they were for some groups and as low as they are for others. For workers under 25 in the city, 30% are commuting via public transportation.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

armchair lawyering

Is this legal quotation something in our future?
An ambiguous statute or ordinance is a dangerous thing. It is like a doctor's prescription which is half blurred, and, if an attempt is made to carry out its obscure directions, the haphazard cure may produce more havoc than the original illness. All the eminent counsel who argued the matter before us assumed that the Charter meant to say that the vacancy would be filled at the next election, municipal or general, whichever came first after the vacancy occurred, but the Charter does not say that.
no, this is from the PA supreme court and is Justice Musmanno's opinion in the case of Cali v. Philadelphia in 1962. He was commenting on confusing provisions in the Philadelphia City charter pertaining to when elections would be held when there is a vacancy in the office of the mayor (sound familiar). Then in Philly as now in Pittsburgh, there was confusion and consternation over when the election for mayors office would take place following the resignation of Richardson Dilworth in 1962.

You do have to love lawyers though. All last week Bill Green the Republican uber-pundit for political matters in town was telling the world that there would be a special election for mayor in the spring. I am sure he was not spouting that off without first hearing from some high powered lawyers in town. Aparently the lawyers in the City Law Department didn't get Bill's memo and have said not only that there will not be a special election in the spring, but that there will not be an election until 2009. Just a slight disconnect there.

For all those who are sure that the courts will clearly come down in favor of an election sooner rather than later. That same court decision basically nullified the inconsistent sections of the Philadelphia City Charter that specified when there would be an election. Once nullified, there was no provision for an election and Dilworth's successor went on to serve the full term. Hey, don't shoot the messenger... but it is a warning for those who think this is all best left to the courts to decide... they may get what they are asking for, yet not like the result.


Monday, September 04, 2006

That piano is not playing itself just yet.... some Labor Day musings

some myths in the region I attribute to a persistence of memory. i.e. they are things that were once true, but people just do not realize just big a shift has happened here in recent decades. You will still hear people talk about how heavily unionized Pittsburgh is. Yet, private sector unionization in the Pittsburgh region has dropped below 10% of the workforce, lower than many regions across the country, and dropping. Unions are having a hard time everywhere. The Pittsburgh trend is just another piece of how we are looking more and more like the nation as time goes by. Even within the region's manufacturing, or other traditionally unionized industries, the percentage of the workforce that belongs to a union is an ever smaller percentage each year that is not out of line with what is typical elsewhere.

Does that mean unions are dead? Certainly times are tough, but there are some ideas out there that might revitalize the role of unions in the economy. See the efforts by the Heartland Network based right here that is trying to leverage the capital controlled by workers pensions. That is a very different role of labor, but it may be the way of the future. Unions have been slow to organize in many big box retail operations, but there are signs that is changing (egads.. China is leading the way). and at the peak of the 1990's, I heard more than a few people start to talk about new guild-like professional unions for software programmers. I am a little less clear how feasible that would be, but it's not as improbable an idea as you would think.

Some people think, or used to think, that ever increasing productivity gains would marginalize the role of workers. In recent years there have indeed been some historic increases in labor force productivity. Yet, the idea that capital would displace workers in importance presupposes a lot of excess labor in the workforce. That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Vonnegut's vision of a dysfunctional superfluous workforce was in many ways a simplistic extrapolation of trends in the 1950's.


Saturday, September 02, 2006

lawyers love precedents

just for those who are interested:

Watson v. Witkin 343 PA 1, 22 A.2d 17 (1941)


Cali v. Philadelphia 406 Pa. 290; 177 A.2d 824; 1962


Friday, September 01, 2006

where would we be?

no map today.. no time. I will take suggestions if there is a map that people want to see which has relatively accessible data to use.

but it is with trepidation that I even bring up as serious a subject as 9/11. If it is not obvious by now, the 5 year anniversary is building to a crescendo of retrospective, memorializing, gnashing and pontificating on what it meant. I don't claim any special insight, but just as a disclaimer point out that I once (long before 9/11) worked at the World Financial Center which is adjacent to the WTC. In a post 9/11 pilgrimage of sorts I saw there was a surreal chunk taken out of floor I worked on which must have resulted from some falling debris. My subway stop was on the other side of the WTC's vast underground concourse which I would need to walk though everyday. A couple months ago I flew into JFK airport and my flight took an atypical southern approach which provided that breathtaking view of NY harbor and southern Manhattan. To see it without the WTC towers still brought a few people to tears.

That is all just a long lead in introducing some essays in New York Magazine worth scanning: "What if 9/11 never happened". Some long, some short, some insightful, some not. My one comment is that even though most things seem the same: our communities look the same, our jobs are the same, etc, etc..... things just are not the same as before. As I think was popularized by the deposed Aaron Brown, there really is a new normal.