Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Marcellus Mysteries

Former PEL head here (and former UCSUR employee I should probably disclose) Kathy Klaber in the news in the Inky over a spat with the governor on proposed Marcellus Shale taxes

It's a good point to bring up one of the great mysteries out there in the state and region's economy.  Let's say I accept there is all this Marcellus drilling activity going on.  You can't quite miss it and I first noticed it some time ago. I know some of the folks with new jobs as well. Anecdotal, but real.  But here is the thing I have brought up before.  yet I keep hearing politcians saying there are 50K new jobs in Pennsylvania because of Marcellus shale drilling.  One on tv the other day sadi we were already +50K in jobs and heading toward +80K.

So here is all the relevant history for the state's entire mining employment over the last decade through February and you would be hard pressed to see all that much net new employment.   50K would dwarf the entire sector by more than a factor of 2..... so it's not like that level of employment is just going to go missing from the data. That and some of the highest unemployment rates in the state are in the core of what is the drilling footprint for all of this. 

What is going on?... some different things.  Some employment may not be captured in the data as yet.  There are some administrative things that may explain a little bit, but not enough to get us a real answer.   I'm not so sure coal mining has been doing so great and so that nets out of the employment data.  What I still think is happening is that a lot of the drilling is folks who are not tecnically employed here.  Still lots of workers being brought in temporarily to staff the work going on... and whether they stay after the rigs are set remains to be seen. So if the workers are here, a lot of their economic impact is here at least while they are here... but if their permanent home is elsewhere then we lose a lot of it.  These folks may be here for extendend assignments, or I've even been told of more weekly workers who fly in and out each week.   I would love to see detailed time series data on point to point air traffic between Pittsburgh and Texas over the last few years.

Now if you do just doubt the data then there is a big pot of employment in the region that is not showing up in the data and things are an awfully lot better then even our relatively good numbers these days show.  You would have to have some seriously rose colored glasses to believe that too much, but at the margin there might be some truth to that.  It is fundamentally what some folks must believe when they say we are looking at 50-80K new jobs out there already.   

Beyond the data issue itself, the fundamental factors are out there.  Natural gas prices are plummeting and lots of natgas producers are idling rigs. It's a weird market these days for natural gas, especially compared to oil prices which is diverging more than it has in a long time from natgas.... More on that from Seekingalpha. Around the world some natgas producers are finding the current price unsustainable.  Funny thought is...  OPEC tries to control the price of oil right?  So if there is ever a similar cartel attempted to impact natgas prices, would Pennsylvania have to be a member?   a de facto member of course.

Bottom line.... somebody better start mass producing natgas cars again to use up some of this stuff or we are going to have a real storage problem pretty soon.

and btw.... here come the .......  Norwegians?


Still population 'loser'

before the obligatory population note...  Trib looks at the city's pension issues.  We will imminently learn the next biennial set of numbers which are in reality already dated. Why will we learn them? City is legally required to report these numbers today to the state. Could they have told the public months ago. You bet. Today somebody will learn the state of the pension system as of January 1, 2009.   If you want to see what we know so far see my iPension page.  In past cycles few noticed and the city would not even consider giving out this data, but now with everyone geared up to push the sale of parking assets they may go out of their way to tell us how bad the situation is.  Funny that.  

Remember when I first threw out the billion number?  Let's just say the city didn't like that at all and disputed it. In fact it was just 15 months ago the city had quotes in the public record saying things like: "The city is legally required to fully fund the pension and is on track to do so", and that was without any talk at all of a parking asset sale.  Funnier that.   Realize that the number we learn today is now already 15 months old and the trends are pretty clear that by now any total liability number to be reported is already higher. 

anyway...  CNN has us ranked up there as one of the top population 'losers' to be documented by the census.   This one sentence is has all sorts of screweyness in it. :
Though the recession has recently forced some of Pittsburgh's residents to stay put until an economic rebound, the city's net population loss has been 76,000 since the last census tally.

Like everyone else, the article conflates 'city' or the 'region'. It keeps saying city but the numbers it cites are all the region.  Note how it presumes even the migration story is presumed to not have an in-migration piece.  That comes from jumping from a national story (migration rates are down) to what is happening in Pittsburgh which is a leap. I'll take the small victory I guess that the expert quote in the piece notes the impact of natural population change and does not jump to presuming it's all because of migration.

Not much love for Youngstown either in their list.


In other news....   Real Clear Politics talks of Pennsylvania as the most competitive state in the 2010 election cycle   and not much notice here but Ohio is abuzz with talk of possible expansion of US Steel over the border.   Use of 'steel' and 'expanding' or 'investment' may prove to be too much cognitive dissonance for folks here to accept.  What is up with the Clairton Coke Works $billion+ investment US Steel had been planning but deferred as the recession set in?  and in the completely misc category.  KDKA editor Olga George gets a big tech shout out in USAToday.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Harrisburg is Broken

or an alternative title:  Where Act 47 fears to tread.....Big news in municipal finance world.  Businessweek is reporting Harrisburg is to miss an April 1 Bond Payment.

Some past news links I put in this post last week

Should be good fodder to ask all the guv candidates about don't you think......


In other cities.....

Here's something from thecityfix commenting on an EPA report Residential Construction Trends in America's Metropoltian Regions.  The punch line looks to be that center cities are regaining some advantage in their share of new construction vis a vis older suburbs. 

Before anyone jumps to any conclusions about what is going on locally.... there is also this quote
A number of major cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis & St. Paul, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Atlanta, saw substantial increases in permits, but the central city still represented less than a fifth of regional permits. In other cities, like St. Louis, San Jose, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and San Diego, there was little change in the share of new construction taking place in the central city.
Which gets to the answer for a question people keep asking me in the wake of the migration numbers that came out last week.  Updated population estimates for the city (and municipalities) do not come out when the county and MSA numbers come out.  Those were the news last week.  City numbers will likely be out in July... but those city and municipal population estimates are almost entirely driven by housing unit building permit data which it looks like this report is commenting on.  So while the latest migration/population data for the county will positively impact the city numbers coming out, it is not going to be a huge shift in the trend. 


Reading list

I got nothing...  so just going down the reading list on the right let's see what is there.

Next American City focuses on Pittbsurgh's Biking Moment

Governing looks at the move Google is making into public data: Fun with public data.If only they reported pension data eh? and I missed this from a couple months ago also in Governing: Rise of the Megaregion.

Site Selection Magazine is on the topic of the day: Could Gas Play Ignite a Region? Subtitled: EQT executives call the Marcellus Shale the most important economic development for Southwest Pennsylvania.

Site Selection also has Pittsburgh ranked #7 in some metric of competitiveness. 

American City and County touches on the pension issues cities face nationwide:  Hatching New Ideas.

also they remind me of the Urban Institute's new metrotrends web site.  Worth a look.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Still on the list

Latest data just out has the airport ranked as the 45th busiest airport (out of the 50 largest airports that is).   So we are pushing down to edge of the list.  Remember Pittsburgh is the 22nd largest metro.  See the full Pittsburgh profile from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics with lots of stats.  I didn't realize Atlanta was a bigger destination than Philadelphia for folks departing Pittsburgh.  By segment I presume and not ultimate destination?  But to rank so far below our population rank would say that our location quotient for air service is quite low.


Counting parking spaces

No... nothing to do with anything here.   Just interesting to me.  from the SF Streetsblog:  San Francisco First City in the Nation to Count Its Parking Spaces


Book of the moment

I'm told some (or most?) reading here never see any of the links on the right.  I'm experimenting with a book list that you may not see if you are just using an RSS reader/aggregator of some sort.  But below is an link new Book of the Moment just out that I will have to add.  From CMU's Joe Trotter and published by the Univ of Pittsburgh Press. We call that regional cooperation.

I'll just add a map to go with that.  By far most of the region's African American population lives in the county and historically most within the city proper.  Though how that is changing is a story unto itself.  Many people beleive that the city population loss is all a story of upper income white households moving to the suburbs, whether inner suburb or exurb. I'm honestly not even sure if that explains most of the migration story for the city these days, it certainly isn't all of it.  Here is a map I have... each page is a decade... of the African American population in the county.  If you size it to full screen so the image stays static and then flip through the pages you really see the history.  I just don't have time to make it into an actual animated graphic to do the same. 

and the book released yesterday it looks like:  Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II


Does this count as VLogging?

Note to self: bring powder for head.....  and then pass it around.     also part 2.

Anyone out there able to gin up a script that would allow me to embed that video?


Sunday, March 28, 2010

High and rising

Well, last week's migration factoid got people's attention.   For those who want to obsess on regional migration trends, my last full migration report is online here.  That report does not reflect the data just released in any way.  The data I need to do that won't be out for a few months. 

Funny thing though.   Every year there is this perpetual cycle when these annual census population estimates come out, at least there was.  The data inevitably shows decline and the minor news cycle starts spontaneously as almost everyone wants to jump to a conclusion that it's yet another data point showing that all the young people are leaving.  I am left repeating a somewhat lame mantra that says...  no, for Pittsburgh the population decline is not all from migration and no, not it's not even true that all migration is made up of young people.  We have these old people who sort of like Florida to retire to and all.  I try to argue that when you add it up, it's not even worth a story or that it's not exactly as bad as it seems..  If I'm lucky I can get the discourse to move away from using the young people 'fleeing' verbiage.  As often I fail at even that.

I was actually going to name this post something like a silver stake through Border Guard Bob's heart... but fewer and fewer people will get the reference which is a good thing.  That or a bit too gruesome.  But maybe we can at least move Beyond Border Guard Bob. Yes I may be talking to myself sort of, but Bob continues to manifest himself in a lot of subtle ways in the region's mentality.

This year, the numbers come out and nobody noticed at all.  It was strange in my little world.  When I got around to looking and seeing our factoid of the day that net domestic migration was positive.  I couldn't figure out why it was not being noticed.  So bad news = big news but good news goes into limbo.  There is some post-cupcake Pittsburgh angst interpretation in all of it, but I need to sleep on that. That and a gentle reminder woke folks up in the end... 

But there is a bigger story in all of that.   Really.  I'm serious. 

First wonk speak.  The numbers just out and the factoid of +1,144 net dometic migration (international immigration which is by construct almost entirely positive is added on top of that) reflect changes that took place between the income tax filings filed for the 2008 tax filing season and the 2009 tax filing season.   So roughly people who changed addresses between the early spring of 2008 and had moved by the same period in 2009. So mostly the early part of the recession.   Migration decisions typically happen well before actual migration, so you are really talking about decisions that happened before the recession began. The timing matters to understand the trend.

So now take into account two completely correlated graphs.  One is the trend in how the local unemployment rate differs from the national unemployment rate.  We are now at 40 consecutive months where the Pittsburgh rate has been below the national level.  That is now the longest period you can say that for any period since at least 1970.... and I just don't have a consistent set of data over a longer historical period, but I doubt you could find a similar period since the end of WWII though for that I still need to dig some more.  But the graph of that over just the last 40 years is this:

Couple that with something I pointed out a couple weeks.ago   Historic recession all around, or as the AP now has appropriated the naming rights, the 'Great Recession'. (who named the 'Great Depression' anyway? At the very least it seems not to be the AP)  The unemployment rate, and total unemployment levels for that matter, high and rising here and elsewhere.  Yet the labor force in the Pittsburgh region reached an all time, and I do mean all-time, peak in January.  Whether employed or unemployed, the labor force represents people here in the region. If anything, labor force participation drops during recessions, so if that is true here a rising labor force would require an even greater rise in population. 

Pittsburgh MSA Labor Force, 1970-present

So if nothing else, a fairly easy prediction for the record.... but the positive migration making news this year will be a bigger positive number next year.  I'll save some thoughts on the international immigration numbers released last week for later.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

There's, like, some protest going on.

So the great conundrum in the great Google quest everyone is on.   Would we want to be listed among the most 'desperate' cities trying to get Google Fiber to land here.  Depends on your spin on 'desperate' I guess.  I read between the lines in the news coverage about the local Google Day that turnout may have been lacking. That and Google Day reminds me of our QUBE Day.

See PC World from yesterday evening: Google Fiber Candidates: Top 5 Desperate Cities.  Duluth ranked way up there, which I still think has something to do with Al Franken. You have to admit they are focused on the prize.

The quote though is fascinating.. Remember, this wasn't supposed to be a flash mob, but planned and advertised well in advance.  Does lack of awareness of the promo being staged Downtown reflect the same level of ambivalence toward soemthing like the protests during the G20.... or maybe just insufficient marketing? 

Someone does deserve credit for morphing the Pittsburgh Parking Chair into a 21st century theme... or am I projecting?  


Friday, March 26, 2010

Hypothetical world

Bond Buyer has this:  Nonprofit Hospitals Now in Play.

So merely as a thought exercise...   You know, I can't even type it.   Just imagine.


$$ in the footnotes

A virtually unnoticed article in the PG today: Health care law to boost Medicare rate for hospitals in Western Pa covering what is at best a footnote in the tome that is health care reform. 

Medicare benefits alone in the Pittsburgh region were $5.7 billion in 2007. So even a single % point change in Medicare reimbursement rates represents a decent revenue chunk into the regional health care industry.

I haven't even begun to ponder what all the impacts of the bill will be on the regional economy.  It's actually a huge question.  


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cleveburgh notes

I forgot to mention this when I saw it, but I was fascinated that I saw advertising books around town last month for the Cleveland International Film Festival.   Still a few days left and you can catch it until Sunday.   I probably can't make it up there myself, though I do see one I'd like to see:  Youngstown, still standing.

Speaking of Cleveland...  Article worth scanning from our neighbor up the turnpike.   Cleveland Magazine has an article on the misma that is the Cleveland housing market titled: Tear it Down, and subtitled: Foreclosure, sprawl and a sagging economy have left a crumbling American Dream in their wake. These ruins remain, scarring our city. But there is hope for a fresh start.


Houston not looking over its shoulder..... yet?

FT has a couple things worth taking a look at.  Their energysource blog has an entry today about shale gas in Europe and China. This whole natgas rage is not just going on here.  

Also an article worth a scan:  Houston, where energy is king.  Semi-gratuitous Pittsburgh mention though not the Marcellus mention you might expect.  In fact, no Marcellus mention at all as best I see reading quickly.  The Pgh quote is:   
Mike Linn, executive chairman of Linn Energy, knows that first-hand. He decided in 2006 to move his Pennsylvania-based oil and gas company to Houston. “I couldn’t attract engineers and geologists to move to Pittsburgh. If you want to attract the most talented people to grow a company, Houston is the place to be,” he says.
Which of course was all pre-Marcellus rage. You have to wonder whether he would make that same decision today, and more interesting why that question wasn't even asked.  In 2006 I bet Marcellus didn't have any mention in any local news at all and when I wrote things like this lots of folks in town said I was nuts, or somehow being quaint....  It was all biotech or bust and energy was just not going to be a big enough player to focus on ever again.   

Anyway....   just something else I saw the other day on marcellus stuff.  Philly Inquirer has a look at the impact Marcellus Shale is having on short line rail in the state.

That is a bigger story than it may seem.  Some may recall that before the recession the big congestion issue in the national rail grid was being driven in lots of ways by ever growing transportation of coal.  We may think most coal is delivered by barge, which may be true around here.  Yet the greater Pgh region is not the sole coal region it once was and out in Wyoming the Power River basin now dwarfs all that comes from Pennsylvania and West Virginia combined.   That coal is all mostly being delived by rail. The impacts on local and natioanl rail grids could be significant and I never pondered the marcellus connection since the product will mostly be delivered by pipeline...  But as the article points out, there are inputs that need to be shipped in.  Reminds me of the story of the Panama Canal.  It wasn't hard to dig the ditch, but shipping out the stuff being excavated was the bigger issue and efficient rail usage was the solution.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Must be Talking Play Money

Sometimes I wonder how lawyers really keep a straight face.   So the news snippet today is that the Rivers Casino is appealing its recent property assessment set at $199 million.  So some poor lawyer needs to make the case that the $800 million dollars spent on the casino built a product overvalued at $200 million.  Yeah, yeah, take out the value of the actual machines and other incidentals, but what does that get you??  I'd love to hear what assessment valuation they are arguing for and on what basis. I'm a bit surprised the city or city school district didn't appeal the valuation as being too low. I'll have to ask the lawyers if it's too late for that. 

I hate to point out that if you were to look at the profitability of the casino... which might still be negative..... or gross sales...  both are doing a lot better now than when they set the assessment value a couple months ago.  Maybe that could be an argument for lowering the assessment value right?  Makes as much sense as arguing the whole place is worth cents on the dollar right out the door. 

Which then leads me to consider......  if we sell the parking garages they would have to pay property taxes right? How much are they expected to be valued at in total??? But if we lease them I am presuming they won't since they will still be owned technically by the Parking Authority.   All stop...  another post there...  back to the casino. 

Anyway... last weeks numbers are out and there is a bit of erosion in their numbers, but not too much.  They also seem to have kept up their heightened level of promotional play.  Below is what I see for that trend.  How do you get those prizes?  Can I just go hang out one day down at the casino and maybe I will win something...  I presume they must pay out based on your level of play??  but I dunno.

Rivers Casino Promotional Plays By Week


4th in everyone's crosshairs

Just because of all the noise in the news over Jason Altmire's incumbency in PA's 4th congressional district, talk about earned media.... Here is a map I put up at the time with how his original race with then-incumbent Melissa Hart went down.

I also once made a map of how those original results compared to the rematch 2 years later:

I suspect that 2nd map... not my map, but the result she obviously knows..  played a part in why she didn't even plan on another race against Altmire.  One might wonder if she would would have made the same decision knowing how things have evolved, or why she still stayed out.   


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pittsburgh Bound

Gotta be short for now, but big news in wonk world.  Census data just released shows the first net positive migration into the Pittsburgh region since forever.  (to clarify, the first positive net domestic migration in years.  If you add internatioanl immigration and domestic migration together it was positive last year as well.  Internatioanl immigration, including its measurement, is a topic almost unto itself). 

This is just net migration from elsewhere within the nation.  There was one year around 1990-1991 the census estimates recorded net domestic migration into the region, but it was under 1,000 folks. Other than that one year you really have to go back much of a century to find a period when that has been true.   Ponder that.  Here is the graph of data just released: 

More later for sure. Gotta run.   But it should be a big story.  I don't have precise enough data to say this for sure.... but it's possible its the highest net in migration count since WWII.  Net domestic migration has been mostly negative for the region since argubaly the 1920's. 


Free Money Squared

Ok.. we all know the city is looking for a big cash windfall from monetizing the Pittsburgh Parking Authority's assets.  Free money it might seem like.  The recent news is that there is a lot of interest in the 'market' for these assets, something that was beginning to become obvious some weeks ago.

Most anyone who is going to bid on the assets is going to borrow most of the money needed. What I just realized is that given how low interest rates are these days, it will be almost like free money as well for the bidders.  Big real assets with a virtually guaranteed revenue stream all but codified by statute will clearly securitize any borrowing and result in low low interest rates.   So almost anyone with the credit wherewithal might as well try this deal.  Borrow at virtually no interest rate, leverage the entire deal and it will require almost no cash, buy parking assets with the capital raised and anything coming in is itself like free money cubed.   No wonder demand is high.  It is in a sense the same dynamic as the low interest rate fueled real estate boom. 

Speaking of free money.  This all brings up another little second order effect of the recession.  Some may recall I kept harraunging on the variable interest rate bonds issued by the Sports and Exhibition Authority.   There was a scary period in late 2008 when those bonds spiked in interest rates which could have been quite a disaster all around if it had continued.  But the world didn't end and interest rates have collapsed all around since then.  Since then there has also been more disclosure of how the state is really backing those bonds anyway. 

Here's the thing though...    SEA issued roughly $280 million in bonds to pay for the arena.  Payment on those bonds to come from the state and the Rivers Casino.  The bonds were variable rate bonds, but no doubt the SEA has budgeted for a certain interest rate. They had to plan for something. Who knows what their internal budgeting was, but I'm guessing they were planning in the 3-4% range.

So the question then is, what interest rate are those bonds paying.  Public bonds, especially those guaranteed.. and the SEA bonds have both bond insurance and a now publicly known guarantee from the state (why you need both I still don't quite get) are getting some really really low interest rates these days.  I looked it up and the arena bonds have been paying between 0.14% and 0.23% since the beginning of the year.  The zeros and the decimal places are correct.  Basically the SEA's bonds are paying out virtually nothing in interest.  So $280 million in bonds... For sake of argument assume they budgeted to pay out at say 3.5% yet are only paying out at 0.2%.   You can do the math.  Let's just say I am wondering no more why we have not heard as much about revenue shortfalls down there which was a routine news story a couple years ago.  So we will file it all under the category of things that make you go hmmm.....


Monday, March 22, 2010

Mirror in the mirror

A large proportion of the readers here will know this already, but for those who have given up on the main stream media for political news...  and I know that is true for some folks...  the PG had launched its new Early Returns 2.0 web page for local, or locally connected, politics.  So not an advertisement, judge for yourself.  And no, it's not because they actually are highlighting their blog role in the top left and yup.... it self-references back to here.. So its like the picture of a person looking in a mirror, in a mirror, in a mirror.

That NullSpace highlight is temporary over there and they are going to rotate that I am sure.  Probably mostly starting with me because Bram has given up the ghost and you need to start somewhere.  I am probably a safer post than others which might be more insightful, but possibly more inciteful.   So boring R us.

But what is much more interesting is whether it all will work. Newspaper folks have been working to crack the code of how to survivie in this new media world.  PG has their pay side going at PG+.   NYT has announced it will be moving back to a pay model as well for some of it's content.  This new political site is free to all and it will be interesting to see if it works.  Could it become more of a website of reference for all things political?  Maybe, we will see.  They certainly have started with an uber-prolific day of news not otherwise covered.  Granted I think history may have cooperated a bit to help out.

I suggested they could have some microblogs linked in focusing in on specific topics, or more likely specific races.  Maybe in the future.   Right now they have what a Yard Signs forum section which I guess anyone can comment on anything.  Could it become the forum of record in town?  Possibly.  Though right now you need to register yet another way in order to post something.  Probably why does not have a first poster as yet... At least we know the PG folks don't plant comments out there.   But registering is a big impediment I figure.  Maybe openid or something could work. 

Now what the PG folks need to do is to do the same thing with their transportation coverage.  Boring you think?  Well, a lot more people drive to work than vote let me tell you that.  Hell, a lot more people drive to work than even know who their local mayor is. I kid you not.  One new idea down at the PG is the traffic blog, roundabouts...  which is a good in concept, though awfully underutilized.  I bet there is an order of magnitude more content floating around the PG newsroom on local transit/transportation/congestion/parking issues that could fill there.  So maybe they should skip right to Roundabouts 2.0 have make up a web page collecting both content and references the same way.   Think Jon Schmitz is cursing me right about now?

Though I have to add...  it does have a news snippet today my maglev news filter didnt catch yet.   Looks like the folks in Las Vegas have given up on building a maglev on their own.   Hmm.


The Census Cometh, and the Census Taketh Away

Everyone is filling out their census forms I hope.  The political repurcussions of the data being collected will impact everyone in one way or another.  Most attention is paid to the how the new numbers will shift congress, but there will be a lot of local impacts as well.  Take just the state house for one example.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly has 203 seats and like congressional districts will have to be redistricted following the 2010 census.   Slow but increasing population in Pennsylvania coupled with slowly decreasing population in Allegheny County means that the county's state delegation is going to shrink.  The only question is by how much?   What that math looks like to me:

in 2000:
Pennsylvania's Population: 12,299,533
Average Pennsylvania House District: 60,589 people
Allegheny County: 1,279,914
So if you do the division you had 21.1 house seats in the county.

For 2009 Pennsylvania's population is estimated at: 12,604,767.  If that is correct and the trend continues one more year gives an estimated population in 2010 of 12,638,682.  Which then would mean that each of the 203 districts of the Pennsylvania House should measure near 62,260.

Allegheny County's 2008 population estimate is 1,215,103.  Again, if that is correct and the trend continues through until 2010 it gives a projected population of 1,198,900.  Divide that by the projected district size of 62,260 and you 19.3 districts. 

So Allegheny County itself is losing not just one, but 1.8, virtually 2 whole, districts in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Out of 20 that is a lot. Which districts are the most 'vulnerable'.  First, what does vulnerable mean?  Each and every district is likely to see significant boundary changes.   'Saving' a district usually means keeping an incumbent's residence of record within a district that roughly keeps his or her political base. 

How it all plays out is really quite impossible to speculate on too precisely at this point.  Redistricting is about as political a process as exists.   Some have said that the 20th district vacated by Don Walko is now tops on the vulnerability list.  That's possible, though I'm not sure.  The argument is that the most junior incumbents will be most likely to 'lose' their seats.  It's one argument, but it isn't the only thing going on. The party that controls the process may choose to target a particular district or a particular incumbent. That and there could be a retirement or two among the incumbents over the course of the next two years... which would mean PA20's incumbent would not be the most junior when redistricting actually happens.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Not all earned media is worth the same

Don't say you didn't hear about this here weeks ago... but the Economist is poking at the bankruptcy talk coming out of Harrisburg.  See similar recent coverage in the Fiscal Times and this from The Deal yesterday as well.  The possibility of a state capital even talking about bankruptcy is big news all around, except not so much in the the state itself.

But as I pointed out, the really key point is that the immediate problem facing Harrisburg is nothing about any revenue or expenditure problem with the Harrisburg municipal government.  The problem on their immediate horizon is the result of having guaranteed bonds for a distinct government entity called the Harrisburg Authority which borrowed money to build an incinerator.   It really is all a story about government fragmentation and governance in Pennsylvania.  If I had time I would make a Pennsylvania version of what the fragmentation story looks like in the Pittsburgh region in itself.. Can you imagine what that would look like?.. but the story is awfully similar across most of the state. Is there any real understanding of the overlapping risk issues in local public around here such as what caught up Harrisburg? 

But there is other stuff percolating in Harrisburg that could be productive.  A bipartisan effort is working on banning the use of credit default swaps in municipal finance.   Just about anything that uses the word bipartisan in Harrisburg these days (or DC for that matter) should generate reams of coverage.  Also a bit too wonky to really get much notice.

Just to finish up on public finance... No, I really don't think Pennsylvania law would ever have a similar result here.  But there is an awful lot of buzz in certain circles over a very recent legal ruling in Illinois that stripped the property tax exemption from one of their health systems.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Parking geeks everywhere

Just reading this news item about how the Pittsburgh Parking Authority is going to ramp up ticketing to make up for a revenue shortfall resulting from our snow-filled February.

Which brings to mind a piece of economic research I remember:

Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror: Local Fiscal Conditions and the Issuance of Traffic Tickets
Sometimes research merely documents the obvious eh?
So I have to admit my biggest questions about how the leasing of parking meters would work is how ticketing will happen and be enforced.  Just trying to figure that out I came across this.  Chicago had a Parking Ticket Geek blogger who has a 7 part series on Chicago meter leasing deal.  Here is part II: The Meter Lease Deal Part 2 - Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

Mr. Parking Meter Geek has another post just on the visit of one of the Chicago Aldermen to Pittsburgh last week to discuss the pending parking asset monetization.


More Canadian perspective

Worth a read is a short piece from our neighbor and virtual sister city to the north. Hamilton, Ontario. I like talking about Hamilton. If you have ever visitied Hamilton, or just have driven by on the way to Toronto, you will see what I mean as you pass by a large part of the Canadian steel industry.  Note the mention of Bill Strickland and also the last line which is kind of funny as well. 

See:  The Pittsburgh Makeover: Hamilton group finds striking similarities, inspiration, in the Hamilton Specator from yesterday. 


Friday, March 19, 2010

USS Pittsburgh saves the day.

The USS Pittsburgh is itself one of the most battered ships in history, but she has some other accomplishments.

Today is the anniversary of the USS Pittsburgh coming to the rescue of the aircraft carrier USS Franklin during World War II.  The Franklin may be the most battle-damaged ship in the history of the US Navy that nonetheless managed to stay afloat.  After multiple bomb hits, and hundreds of casualties, the USS Pittsburgh towed the Franklin the not insignificant distance to Pearl Harbor for repair. 


Pontificating Pensions for Posterity

So there is a little spat over whether and how the sale of the parking assets will save the pension fund by getting it, hopefully, over a 50% funding ratio. Will it?

Something to ponder.........

From 1996 you can read 75 pages of all the financial calculations you want to chomp on (or not) leading to a simple conclusion that the then-proposed $300 million* pension bond of the 1990's will solve all the pension problems when projected out into the future.

That all worked out well.

* equivalent to ~$414 million in today's dollars.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shrink what?

Way too serious of late. So a dumb question.  At the risk of promoting some viral thing I just have to ask this.  Anyone notice the billboard on the corner of 16th and Liberty in the Strip District advertising a web site  It's been there for a long time as best I recall.   The problem is that the web site goes nowhere and as best I can tell is registered by a domain name aggregator is all.  Does not seem to be some virus trap or novel marketing idea?   Am I missing something obvious.  Someone has been paying Lamar for a prime billboard for some time? 

Which sparks the stray neuron of course.  What is the status of this?  The last news per that link sounded like some legal limbo.... which I suppose is an improvement over the legal purgatory where it was for so long in the past. 

But on the mysterious billboard....  I've been meaning to take a picture, just as proof I wasn't making this up, but I keep forgetting. The only evidence of this billboard or site I can find is this picture on flikr.   That's the billboard.  Let's call it the Seinfeld billboard.  Mr. Google tells me nothing which is weird in itself.  Google knows everything I thought.

Maybe the edge of the Strip District is like the Twilight Zone of billboards.


recessions then - recessions now

NYT's Economix blog yesterday looked at some research looking at Pittsburgh's economic past.

Also relevant is a post there the day before with Harvard's Ed Glaeser and Youngstown's Hunter Morrison discussing shrinking cities


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wos takes on the Big Apple

Missed this from a few days ago.  Anyone notice Joe Wos and Pittsburgh's Toonseum all over the NYT Museum section?

OK, I have to admit I have yet to make it down to the Toonseum myself.   But Joe Wos is also an up and coming political force to be reckoned with


novel public finance

Long ago I studied, as a student at least, Business Improvement Districts in New York City where were and are now a big topic.  Many don't fully realize that the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership (PDP) is a BID.  A BID is not just your run of the mill neighborhood business association.  One of the defining characteristics of  BID is an ability to assess taxes which is done on the property value.  BIDs in themselves are not new, but grew rapidly in use under Mayor Ed Koch in New York City a couple decades ago.  I am not sure but I think the BID downtown is one of the last true land taxes in use.  It used to be an assessment based on the land value, and not on total property value.  Is that still true?  

Anyway, the news today is about a study done by the International Downtown Association looking at the plan to lease the city's parking assets.  Worth a read.  It also uses a better description of what is going on. At the end of the day its the all about the 'monetization' of the parking assets value.   But what caught my quick read is that they propose that if this all goes through then:  "The BID should receive a PILOT payment at the BID assessment rate on leased facilities".   I think that's quite a novel idea.  A public authority paying a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to a BID, in this case the PDP.  Fascinating.

BIDS are fascinating in that one path the city may take if its finances collapse is that you may see more neighborhood level districts like this created to supplement services.  It is not as big a tool in Pennsylvania as in some other states, but it's a possibility.  Only 2 BIDS in the city right now I think, but need to check.  Oakland and Downtown?  Could there be more BIDS throughout the city?  It may be worth talking about at least.


Taxonomy of Political Economy

Just playing with numbers and looking back at last week's news that the Pittsburgh to Paris flight is not doing well and will require payment a full $5 million in subsidies for its first year of operations. 

I didn't quite think about what that subsidy meant per trip.   So my math starts with this:

52 weeks in a year
8 segments each week (4 outbound, 4 inbound)
186 passenger capacity for 757 per Seatguru
68% reported capacity utilization

Which gives me 52,615 passenger-segments that wound up being covered by the guarantee.  Have I missed anything?

Divide $5 million into that and you get $95 per segment, or $190 per RT purchase on average.   For a ticket the same news reports as averaging $800 or so RT that is a quite a level of market intervention in an American market whether the subsidy was needed in the end or not.

Some have  heard my personal taxonomy of political economy.  Basically it comes down to your view on whether market failures exist.   If you think market failures exist but are quite rare, you are probably a conservative.  If you think market failures exist, but are more common than that then you are someting of a liberal.  If you think market failure is a tautology then you are akin to being a communist and if you think market failure is virtually an oxymoron then you are libertarian.

So given that level of subsidy, where in that range of possibilities would you characterize this particular project subsidizing flights to Pittsburgh?


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

a soda a day keeps the tax man away

You know I can't resist this one.   News is that city thinks a 2 cents per ounce tax on sugary drinks will bring in $25 million dollars a year.  I like the graphic PG has of what that will mean in terms of new taxes on different products.  You are talking a fair bit.  Looks like it would double the price of that 2 liter pop.  So we are talking a lot bigger impact than say the alcohol tax in Allegheny county.  Whether pop drinkers get as upset as the restaurant owners who knows?

But lets see what that math looks like. 

to get $25,000,000

at 2 cents per ounce that equates to 50 ounces per $ of revenue =

1,250,000,000 ounces per year to be taxed

300,000 people in the city =

4,167 ounces per person per year

12 ounces per can

347 cans consumed per year or equivalent
365 days per year =

0.95 cans of pop per day per person from every living Pittsburgher, infant through seniors, throughout the entire year.  And all bought from taxable sources don't forget. 

OK..  at least that seems reasonable.  Certainly more in the realm of possibility than the great Ho Ho metric which turned out to be incorrect anyway.  There is this little thing called price elasticity that I suspect folks are ignoring.   We will have to bring back Border Guard Bob to stop the secret smuggling of soda from outside the city.  Probably need to include the Coast Guard to block the rivers as well.  Big vats of soda could be hidden on those coal barges I suspect. 

What's next...  taxing the perogies?


Beyond the headline - labor force history

Yes, there is a snippet of news that the local unemployment rate has ticked up to 8.1%.   Still well below the US rate at 9.7%.   The bigger negative factoid is that unemployment count in the region is an even 100K.  Round numbers always catch my eye, but that is a bad number for sure.  That is all bad, but the weather may have both local and national numbers a bit off of trend for a couple months.

BUT... what nobody seems to have noticed, not even the state itself, and what is something I need to think about a lot more...  the county for the region's seasonally adjusted labor force in January came in at 1,240,100.  If that is a robust number (by that I mean it does not get revised too much in coming months), I think it is the single largest count for the labor force in the region in the last 40 years... which is all I keep track of.  I am pretty sure that would make it the single largest labor force count in the region's history.

What's it mean?  I ponder, you decide.  But it is big big news no matter what the headline says.

How is the labor force going up despite the unemployment rate ticking up?  Only hypotheses from me with the data we have at this point, but it could either be all those new natural gas drillers, or possibly the roofers.  Well, I guess the roofers would not show up in the data yet.

I'll add a picture.  Here is what I see as the history of labor force in the 7 county MSA:


Correcting the Mistake

I'm not quite sure what to make of this and there has to be a Price is Right joke in there somewhere. is starting a video documentary with Drew Carey titled How to Fix the Mistake on the Lake and other Once-Great American Cities.   Can Michael Keaton be too far behind?


Monday, March 15, 2010

Blame Bismark for Pension Mess?

That's a stretch, but I'm all for historical context..  Something called Metropolis, not the design magazine, but something labeled:  In Depth News, Analysis and Commentary for the Philadelphia region, has a special report on Pennsylvania's Pension Crisis

Don't know much about the source, but it lists Tom Ferrick, formerly with the Inky, as Senior Editor which is interesting unto itself. Some version of the 'new' media we talk about?  or citizen journalism?  or something else?  I dunno.  Is there something like that here?

Anyway... pensions.  The report points out something really important.  There are several large pension issues out there in Pennsylvania.  The smallest of which is the one for state employees (called SERS)... the worst off are collectively the pension plans for local governments.  Somewhere in between is the pension plan for teachers.  But as much as some will conflate the issues, the state of each of them are not the same by any means.  A topic for another day.  Note also the number thrown out there for the unfunded liability fo all local pension systems in the state.   $5 billion is the factoid.   at this point $1 billion of that is coming from the City of Pittsburgh alone.   So the city which has roughly 2.3% of the state's population (yes, that's it) has roughly 20% of the unfunded pension liability.  If you really work out the near term cash problem for pensions, the City of Pittsburgh's share of the problem is probably a much bigger percentage. 

Just for those who have not seen it. All the local pension data I can find I compile at iPension.


Listener supported wonkery

You have probably seen the news about how Duquesne University is plannnig to sell radio station WDUQ.

Interesting read in Bond Buyer today about what is happening with National Public Radio itself.  They are issuing $160 million in tax exempt bonds to help pay for their new headquarters.  Sooo....  does that open the possibility that WDUQ directly or by proxy could issue tax exempt debt to pay for itself?   Just wondering.

also just in the idle musing category... is WQED still trying to sell WQEX?


Sunday, March 14, 2010


I know we want to be part of the Google high speed broadband initiative.

You have to give credit to the Google marketers over all of this.  They are way above their high standard for garnering earned media.  See how we are going to have a lot of competition to be included in this; folks are taking this uber-serious.  See more via the HuffingtonPost and this video from Senator Franken himself. (it is Senator right?...  all that litigation is over with?)   Nothing against either of our incumbent senators, but I think we are a bit humor challenged in terms of our DC delegation.  How will we compensate?

Seriously..   our good friends up the street are a big advantage in something like this I am sure, but nothing is guaranteed.  I would imagine that there are a lot of unavoidable disadvantages to trying to expand broadband locally.  Sheer topography and creeking infrastructure all around make things like this unavoidably more expensive here versus a lot of other places.  That's not to be a nabob mind you, but more a warning that we can't just stand by and assume it will happen here just because CMU is here.  I suspect it will take more than that. 


He who is not mentioned

It continues to amaze me that the one guy that must not be allowed to show his face in town by statute is actually the city's biggest ambassador literally everywhere else on the planet.  Just another Tom Murphy sighting from the Canadian media recently. Also a pasing mention from Miami?  Who ever imagined anyone at all in Miami even considering talking to anyone from Pittsburgh for advice of any kind. 

Media attention elsewhere not withstanding, the guy is literally being written out of local history. Such are the emotions that I can't get a shred of traction for even the minimus idea of naming a bike/ped bridge for him.

But he must be on some folks' brain..  Note he was not elected to congress I am pretty sure. 

and that all just sparks a neuron.  One of Tom's lawyers is still not the US attorney here.  Makes you really wonder if there will be a new US Attorney in town ever again. I'm serious. Once they get someone nominated there is going to be an unavoidable confirmation process.  What is the earliest someone could be working? Halfway through this presidential term?


Saturday, March 13, 2010

But for a Billion Bloggers

Let's see...  if you leave out the part about being a racecar driver, famous novelist, and heartthrob then this might be the story of Null Space here.  Oh yeah, the 300 million hits might be another defining difference between the two. 

Anyway. Is this not the biggest story out there if you think about it?  NYT today writes about the guy who may be the most widely read blogger in the world.  Strike that, make that the most widely read living writer:  Heartthrob’s Blog Challenges China’s Leaders.  Really world changing stuff in all of that.

It does keep things in perspective.  It did get me thinking about what I still think is one of the most fascinating blogs I've been reading for years.  Arguably one of the top true 'blogs' in the Middle East.  Check out:  If you have never heard of Ahmed Al-Omran I bet you will in the future.  Looks like he is heading to Columbia's J-school for graduate school. 

Other random new world news in the nexus of information technology and government.  From the "Free Our Data" folks over the pond is a story about The First Data Election.  How far are we from that over here?


Friday, March 12, 2010

Cinci loves us

The Cincinnati perspective on how Pittsburgh is doing on sustainability

The Sally Fields quote comes to mind...  that and I always wonder why when people recount the whole story of environmental reclamation here, nobody mentions the impact of folks being forced to give up their coal furnaces which were a big culprit of the bad air here.  That's a general point and not the focus on this article in particular.. but you always get the impression that someone waved a wand and the air cleared. 


Tarmac troubles twofer

Let me say upfront that it's great having a European flight out of Pittsburgh..  That and I have used it myself more than once and will likely do so in the future if the flight continues.

That is the question though... will it continue?

News just out shows the accounting of the Pittsburgh to Paris flight started last year.  The big news at the time was that the flight was backstopped by a joint Allegheny Conference/Pennsylvania guarantee if the flights revenues fell below a certain threshold.

They did.

Big time, unfortunately.

The guarantee was that the ACCD and then the state would provide up to $5 million in relief to Delta for the amount of revenues they collected that fell below a negotiated level. According to the info just out, the full amount of that relief from both the ACCD and the state will be collected by Delta for the first year.  If only some of it was used it would not have been news.  If the subsidy was small enough it would have been a big success.. But that the full amount was used is the biggest point and opens up the possibility Delta is really losing money even with the subsidy.

The utilization of the flight dropped to a low of 53% last November and that's an average number. That was obvious to me as early as last summer, which is a peak season.  As I pointed out back then, I was on a flight well below what was expected in both utilization and cost and commented on how it must be resulting in failing to meet the guarantees that would trigger the subsidies. 

Begs lots of questions.  Going forward if the flight is going to continue, it would seem reasonable that the guarantees would have to be extended.  Is that feasible?  I honestly was a bit surprised in the beginning that the ACCD had a couple million to throw into the pot, but the state is itself now facing huge budget issues so the payment now due, let alone any future subsidies will be quite painful for the folks in Harrisburg to come up with.

No doubt...  the recession is the big story in just how bad the flight has performed.  Not the whole story, but we will never know what the results would have been if the economy had been doing better.  The thing about recessions like this is that they do alter behavior of both businesses and individuals.  So even as the economy improves, businesses have learned to economize with their travel in ways that will persist longer than the recession itself will hang on.

and I have to point out...  imagine how bad sales would have been if we had elected the mayoral candidate whose main policy plank was to send the Statue of Liberty back to France.   They might have gone on work stoppages over there whenever the flight arrived at CDG.


Can you hear the drums Bernardo?

Not quite sure what got me wondering of late what is up with our friend Bernardo.   Mr. Google finds no performances down in Brazil or elsewhere of late. 

Which leads me to the monthly sherrif sales listing that show that one of the Katzs' properties in the heart of Beechview is scheduled for sherrif's sale in a few weeks. A good sign in that it allows folks to move on and parcels caught up in legal issues are holding up potential development. Other than that it's not the biggest of news items in itself except note the dollar amounts.  The case is listed as a $522K judgement.  Yet when I look it up on the county's assessment record of the parcel it shows an assessed value (and a recent sale of exactly the same value which is coincidentially weird) of $68K.  I think that is an extreme case of leverage if nothing else, but I don't think the sale is going to recoup much of the half mil. 

OK.. I looked it up.  It was a $607K mortgage, but it was for 7 properties it looks like.   Not a bad interest rate he got either.. 5.5% in 2004.  A prime borrower no less.....  makes you laugh or cry, or laugh and cry I suppose. 

and on a side note...  also listed in the Sheriff Sales coming up are a few David Grenick parcels.  The former owner of (or owner of the former) Bloomfield Hardware was also way out on the cutting edge of real estate speculation in town.   Not too much notice has been paid to the collapse of his micro-empire in real estate that blossomed and crashed pretty fast and has produced an uncounted number of foreclosures.   In fact, given how low actual foreclosure counts are in Pittsburgh, he is responsible for a disproportionate number of them...  at least a bigger share than you would probably see any one person have in a Cleveland which had lots more folks speculating beyond their means in the same way.

Which leads me to the parrot heard round the world.  Most have seen the news about the local home that was foreclosed upon without reason and the seizing of the parrot resident inside. I didn't quite get how big a story it was. It seems to resonate far and wide. See the bit included in the UK's Independent even. I'm glad nobody is digging up the story of how we have in the past actually demolished houses by mistake as well.

Finally, finally...  speaking of foreclosures.  I can't find Pittsburgh in the latest dump of foreclosure statistics just released by Realtytrac.  Whether we are counted in their list at all or just too few to measure I don't know. Toledo and Kalamazoo are in there?


Marcellus watch

No, I'm not trying to take up Jim R's comment/observation that there ought to be an energy blogger in town.  The news source for this is as interesting as this story.  NYT ran something yesterday from "Greenwire" on the state of the shale:  Natural Gas From Shale Plays Create 'New World' for Energy Industry  Worth a scan.

From a couple days ago, but it seems Pittsburgher Bill Zagorski is the father of Marcellus Shale. Really seems to me like he ought to be better known?  Curious. 

and I still don't doubt that it is all happening, I know enough folks to know it's true enough.  But for all the talk of Marcellus Shale activity, it's hard to see too much impact in the state's employment numbers for mining industries.  In fact, the January employment numbers just released show the first positive year over year increases since April.  A positive sign, but it reinforces the embedded fact that most of last year mining employment in PA was down.  Is the employment here showing up in other industries or other states' data?  It may be that a lot of this activity is just so new it isn't being captured by the system collecting the data.  Just hypotheses for now. 


Thursday, March 11, 2010

River Casino Rising?

A couple weeks ago the PG had an article about how the casino had its 2nd best week ever. They were a bit premature and after a minor down tick they had their absolutely best week just last week.  See below.

I still am not convinced they are making money on annual basis even with last week's revenue flow, but it is certainly looking better than it seemed at the very beginning of the year.  So the question is why?  I can't say, but one thing I notice is that they are putting more money out there on the table in the form of promotions.  Here is the trend since Christmas in how much they are putting out in the form of "promotional play" money per week.  So maybe the problem is just that they have been stingy?  We will have to see if this is all intended to be an investment to get people back through the door, or if their new business plan is to sustain these levels. 



No mention here??  Amtrak looking to improve one of few remaining trains that service Pgh:


Water, water and more water

The one issue where regionalism is just undenyable.  See one of my favorite maps.  The Army Corps of Engineers District which is essential the map of our watershed.

I guess we can now obsess on the forecast the NWS puts out of anticipated river height down at the point.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More interesting what isn't in the news

I'm fascinated that this little bit of news on the pending property re-assessement that will be happening in Allegheny County has no mention at all of what happened to the last Chief Assessor the county had hired.  I guess his moment as a media star has faded without a trace.  

Amazing what goes around comes around. Also see a good summary of some of the more recent machinations in all of this. 


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Big B Post

If casinos are so valuable, why did nobody swoop in to bail out the owners of license for a new casino in Lawrence County declared bankruptcy yesterday.   Yes, it was the parent and it's all more complicated than that, but still.  That and Carl Ichan looks like he has bought the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City out of bankruptcy at 20 cents on the dollar or something like that. 

In an article in LancasterOnline today is this quote from the Lancaster Mayor saying: ""I think sooner or later, you're going to see a municipality really go into bankruptcy in Pennsylvania,".

Well,  there is a problem with that statement. The 'sooner or later' part.  Sure looks to me that a Pennsylvania municipality has gone through bankruptcy recently.  Read this press release from Pepper Hamilton on their work taking Westfall Township in Pike County Pennsylvania through Chapter 9 bankrtupcty.   If I understand their math, they are touting their settlement of the municipality's debt at 30 cents on the dollar.  I'd apply that ratio to the city's debt here, but people might get carried away.  It would be a number far bigger than any potential net gain from sale/lease of the parking assets. 


Energy new and old

Financial Times had an oped of note yesterday:  The true cost of shale gas production.  The funniest Marcellus story of late is how the local Hare Krishnas are benefiting greatly.  I am not an energy market expert by any means.  I once loved to talk to the energy option traders long ago is about the extent of my knowledge of those markets.   But the price of natural gas is plunging of late and as best I understand it there may be a storage problem in the industry.  There is just too much which is remarkable since we all feel as if it's been a rough winter.  New supply coming online not being matched by a way to store the commodity and it's not the easiest stuff to store. Between that and all this Marcellus gas, my heating bill better be lower next year. I have a feeling it won't be.

Also as noted the other day, the price of coking coal is spiking most everywhere.  I wonder if the billion+ upgrade of the Clairton Works will be turned on again.


Monday, March 08, 2010

barcodes R us?

So I am at at age that it's getting hard to keep up with all the new technology.  I really don't even know what forms of smartphones have barcode readers that one would use as the Post-Gazette is now intending.   Is the PG actually ahead of the technology bow wave or is this common already elsewhere?  I don't quite get the functionality, but I can still learn.   Interesting to look back at Potter's musings from last fall on the PG's digital strategy. 

Speaking of technology.....   even the lawyers are jumping in.  Check out their CLE on: Facebook, Twitter and Blogging.  I would be curious who is teaching that, it doesn't say does it?   I wonder if they are going to go into the whole history of our unsung forebear Grantstreet99???

Anyway...  I think it's encoded differently than the PG's barcodes, but I need to find a prize for anyone who figures out the barcode in the blog header here.  Anyone?


The Socks Make the City

A few have seen this before me, a Mayo tweet and PG+ both take note of recent coverage of Pittsburgh in the Chinese media

Reminds me of some coverage during the G20:  Pittsburgh pulls up socks as it prepares for G20 summit.  If only we could get them to fund our Maglev.  Does make me wonder if there is anything sparking Chinese interest.  Coverage like that isn't random. Maybe one of those sovereign wealth funds will be bidding on the parking assets.  Anyone spot Kunka in Beijing?

You think I jest?  Don't the French own Kennywood and the Spanish own Yellow Cab.... or is it the other way around?


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Deconstructing the ACDC, part 3

If Friday’s post was part II then I guess this would be part III. Whatever.   You can skip the ranting here, but you may be interested in the link in the last sentence if you are a political junkie or historian. 

Many know that the big Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) endorsement vote is today. People get awfully conflicted over what these endorsement votes mean or do not mean. Who gets to vote are the folks that themselves get elected every 4 years (plus those who are appointed to fill empty positions of course). But we’ve been over that. Once elected, this is what they do. Folks get upset thinking the committees don’t represent them, but it’s often the people who shun this whole process that dislike it the most. Thus what you have seen happening in some local elections are people trying to create ad hoc endorsement processes to select pseudo-endorsed candidates. The problem with such ad hoc processes is that you really have no idea how representative they are. So at the end of the day, the process by which the committee people on either side are selected has the advantage of being run by the county elections office and is as open as the elections are in general. Last I went to one of these election confabs, the voting within the committees were themselves run with the same voting machines used in the elections themselves.

But what does it all mean? I still believe the debates over that are more based on false premises and myths if anything else.

Myth 1, the ‘machine’ controls local politics.

Little could be further from the truth. The list of folks who have been elected either without the endorsement, or the complete antipathy of the ACDC is long. Anyone remember some unknown fellow named Pete Flaherty who not only ran against the ACDC endorsed Judge Kramer to win election as mayor…. Flaherty would not even be the endorsed mayoral candidate as the incumbent 4 years later which is awfully remarkable. He still won easily in both primary and general. Tom Flaherty was the city Democratic Party chairman yet when he ran for mayor he came in 4th. He would have likely done better if he had not been endorsed. And we won’t even begin to mention Caliguiri who won as an independent in his first race for mayor. Granted he was the incumbent at the time because Flaherty had resigned to be the Deputy Attorney General, but he clearly had plenty of otherwise lever-pulling support. If those examples are far too long ago for you to count, more recently folks like Dowd, Rudiak, Costa (Dom), Bennington and Lamb to name just some who won without ACDC endorsement.

Myth 2, the machine always supports the old farts

People really don’t believe me on this one. But let’s go through some current pols and their political histories. Bill Peduto.. elected to office originally as the endorsed Democrat and the youngest candidate against several older candidates, some long time ACDC stalwarts even. I honestly doubt he would have won if the lever pullers had gone with one of the other candidates in that race. A lot of recent local political history could have been awfully different if that one endorsement vote within that one district had gone differently. Even the folks you might think were sponsored by ACDC endorsements were not. The new District Justice Jim Motznik is an interesting example. When he was elected to city council he not only wasn’t the endorsed by the ACDC but he ran against the endorsed Democrat as an independent even which borders on sacrilegious in those circles. Yet won.

Myth: you can’t get elected to the ACDC.

I think we have addressed that quantitatively now to a large degree, but it goes beyond that. In an awful lot of cases just filing would get you into the ACDC directly. In the vast majority the competition is minimal. So why does nothing seem to change?  Remember Seth Hufford? 4 years ago this effort to get young people elected to the committee seemed quiescent, but 8 years ago there was a lot more noise along those lines. Seth was the prime, maybe even the sole, example of a young person who chose to dive in to one of these committeeperson races in a district which had a long time incumbent no less. Just happens to be my district as a coincidence. But Seth had a classic little micro-campaign. Sent out little postcards which were cute and worked the polls all day and in the end eeked out a victory over the ‘incumbent’ who most likely had no idea there as an insurgent campaign to unseat him. …

Which all really begs the bigger question.  Was Hufford the vanguard of changes to come? There was this little problem in that not long after being elected Seth picked up and moved out of town as young people are wont to do. It’s America, he was allowed to move. But that right there is one of the key problems. Politics really is local and a lot of the politics here is indeed driven by folks who have lived in their communities a long time and if they take a risk on someone it creates a lot of blow back if they then disappear. So it is actually quite counterproductive if the folks who break the barrier to get elected to offices wind up not sticking with it for the longer haul... or any haul for that matter.
Of course, it all begs the question of why we still have endorsement votes. The real question is why we have primaries actually. If you compare the US to the rest of the Western world, I would argue the endorsement process is closer to what happens. The actual primary election is a very American construct that is not replicated in a lot of other democracies. Think about that some.

But there is an answer to some of that. The Primary system as we know it actually got started here in Western Pennsylvania. Unsurprisingly because of infighting among local Democrats. Mentioned before, but for more see: The Origin of the Direct Primary: The Crawford County System. By Paul Giddens. The Western Pennsylvania Historical Review. Vol. 60 No. 2. April 1977


Saturday, March 06, 2010

Marcellus Watch: Hot and cold DISH

An editorial from Harrisburg today writes about a tour the mayor of DISH, TX is doing to talk about how to deal with the hot Marcellus Shale issues.  Interesting in itself, but note the story of DISH.  It is indeed the town of a few hundred people renamed for the satellite company DISH.  Also happens to be the company that is departing from its call center that has been operating in McKeesport.  A big deal and the loss of 600 jobs is going to be rough.  Not news in itself, this was all announced in the fall and it is worth going back and reading Jason's comments on it at the time.  Now what for McKeesport?

More on Marcellus issues today from the Pocono Record.


Friday, March 05, 2010

Sewer Swaps lead to Serious Sentencing

no, not here. Well, at least not the latter.  We sure had the former (check that link; did that review ever happen or is it just another things around here that makes a noise and then is forgotten about?). Details in Bond Buyer today:

Larry Langford, Ex-Jefferson County Commission President, Sentenced to 15 Years

No further comment on that... though I do find myself wondering what is up with Bernardo of late.

Other interesting stuff in there today. How about this:  PNC Opens Michigan Office, Launches Muni Transportation Team

So we have a home team to finance the Spine Line/People Mover thingy?

and from earlier in the week.. Looks like Indianapolis is looking to lease all sorts of city assets out there: Indianapolis Mayor Floats P3 Plan

Since I figure Indianapolis has not gotten into the antisubmarine business I guess that is Public Private Partnerships?  I guess we are abbreviating euphemisms these days.  It's like texting and twitter meet public finance.  Are people too lazy to type that out.


To 311 or not to 311

Despite the color choice this is a bumper sticker from New York City's 311 system.

I missed the stories earlier in the week, but caught the editorial today that refered back.  Out in Philly the Pew Trusts looked at 311 systems, focusing on Philly, but it seems ours didn't benchmark too well.  Read the Inky's coverage of the report and see the actual report here.

Not surprising, and the graphic above may look familiar because I used it in a post here a couple years ago commenting on some 311 confusion back then... I have seen no public information put out since then that might have altered the public's practice so intertia rules.


Leave no door prize behind

Whether you are running for something big like Senate or just the spot as your district's county committeeperson (this cycle just Democrats) then you have until this coming Tuesday (March 9th) to file petitions to get your name on the ballot.  By all accounts it has been a tough year to get petition signatures for races large and small and the weather is probably a big big factor.  For state offices, the Department of State has a list of folks who have already filed, but these are the early birds.

If you are running for congress you would be behind the power curve to be starting now, but 4 days isn't so bad if you just want a spot on your as a committeeperson...  I think it's just 10 signatures from your closest neighbors.   What do you have to lose?  The biggest challenge for the late bloomers is that you really do need official petition forms which you would have to go and pick up in the county elections office before they close today.  If you are one who always liked to cram I suppose you could technically wait until Monday.   Remember no signatures from dead people...and have a lawyer ready if someone challenges the veracity of your signatures.  Actually, it would be pretty funny if someone challenged the signatures on a petition for committeeperson.   Probably has happened somewhere?  

and if you don't get your peitition in on time, you can always write yourself in.  Stranger things have happened

Not much to really comment on thus far.   McNulty covers the emergent campaign of the off-grid Ravenstahl for state representative. Tonya Payne already has her name on the state list linked above.  Also I see that the grad student leader of the anti-tuition tax movement on campus here at Pitt Daniel Jimenez is running a campaign for the Democratic Party's state committee, which is different from the county committee.  I can't quite figure what impact state committees of either party ever have.  State committee positions are allocated and elected by state senate districts right?

Speaking of the committee races. The table of data I used for the maps you may have seen in the CP I have put online here. You could also check the county's detailed results by district in 2006 to see what happened in your district last time around.  It is just the tabular list, so you would need to refer to a map to see which district is which.   I have some interactive (you can zoom in) google maps for the city and the remainder of the county that might help with that.  And just for the big picture, here are the maps that were in the CP: