Monday, January 31, 2011

Knowledge City maybe, but not Data Burgh

OK, we won the football game, but why is Baltimore so far ahead of us in some other ways:  Mayor orders city to post data trove online.

The great irony is that here in the information technology center of the universe we like to think, nobody is even contemplating anything like that here..  at the city, or how about the county or any of our other 1,000 local governments???  Upcoming race for Allegheny County Chief Executive might be a great place to start a discussion of open government data.  Every candidate should have a white paper on what it means to them don't you think?

The dichotomy is not that hard to explain... it just isn't about technology.  When it comes to data transparency for either city or county I could revert to the mean with a vengence given an intern and a scanner.

You can't just blame the apparachniki...  the local fourth estate is not quite doing much along these lines. What is not happening here? Check out the Guardian's meta-list of their digital journalism

If only I had time....


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Forged in Pittsburgh

A good read from Matthew Stevenson via Forged in Pittsburgh: The Football Industry & The Steelers


Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Flintstones run Pittsburgh real estate"

Just because I know I have a lot of friends in the real estate biz who read here I can't help but pass on this obscure, if extensive, critique of the online presence of Pittsburgh real estate firms.  See:

Flintstones Run Pittsburgh Real Estate

and while I'm not quite qualified to evaluate its content, it's kind of entertaining in its indictment of all that is in the nexus of Pittsburgh, real estate and the Internet.  I'm not one to talk about long rambling rant-like typing on esoteric subjects I know...  but wow, what promted that?


No escape from SteelerNation

I don't make this up..... 

Semi-lost in the town of Esperanza, on the island of Vieques, in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.. so a bit off the beaten path.... at the end of a residential street this is staring directly at me:

I am told this is the house of "Joe" whose support for the Steelers is somewhat legendary here. But, you know what? It all seems normal.  No complementary Green Bay paraphernalia obvious anywhere near here I have to point out.  A friend once flew that Steelers flag in Kuwait, but had to take it down once it caused some identification problems among coalition forces; SteelerNation not quite to being recognized by the UN as yet.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Quick, name your county council representative....

....  or maybe explain what they do. No googling allowed.

With news of another entrant to the race for Allegheny County Executive, it looks like Rich Fitzgerald will be announcing his candidacy today.  Though others are looking to overturn the rule, County Council rules currently require a sitting member to resign in order to run for another office.  Remember Jim Simms' bid for County Controller where he also had to give up his role as County Council president to run for county controller.  The story was he supposedly had some solid support to back him, but Flaherty snuck in and wrested the ACDC endorsement from him even. So that support must not have really been there and Simms' tenure as the most powerful African American in (the history of?) county politics was cut short by the rule that disallowed incumbents to simultaneously run for other political offices.  One could muse over the counterfactual that if he had become controller, he would be in the pole position for ACE now. Him and Mayor Ricciardi I suppose. 

It looks like County Councilman Matt Drozd is going to run for Allegheny County Executive and challenge the rule that precludes incumbents from running for other offices.  That seems problematic more because there is no "z" in Gaelic which would likely disqualify his petitions in the first place.  But with rumblings that County Councilman McCullough will also be running for the office, we have the potential for a truly contested Republican primary which is a rare thing around here.  The only real example thus far being the close Acklin-McCullough fight for the Allegheny County Council at-Large seat a few years ago. 

Anyway...   Maybe a more useful map.  Here is a map of Council District 11 that one would suppose Rich F. is about to vacate. So this will allow you to decide if you live in the district and want to consider self-nomination.  Do we have a short list of likely candidates?

View Larger Map


Thursday, January 27, 2011

map fun

Someone must have this already, but I couldn't find it out in the ether.  Might be of some use to folks: KMZ file of City of Pittsburgh neighborhoods.  KMZ file itself is here. Call Google map directly here.

View Larger Map


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Keep from all thoughtful men

I think it is encoded in my DNA to promote this book:


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SI peers into Aliquippa

I would have saved that last post for tomorrow if I knew this was coming out today.

Jan 31st issue of Sports Illustrated take a long hard look at Aliquippa:  The Heart Of Football Beats In Aliquippa


The politics of declining numbers

First off from the wonkobesessed...  Many know that there is an ever escalating level of confusion over some of the big changes the US Census burea has implemented in recent years.  Changes to the decennial census which will no longer have the "long form" and thus have a lot less data than even in 2000, all while a new program called the "American Community Survey" starts up.  So hold that thought.

Via the PG Early Returns blog is this item: SWPA likely loser in redistricting.  It says someone has presented a new picture of how redistricting will impact regions within Pennsylvania.. specifically that they:  "presented a map of all the counties in Pennsylvania that lost or gained population in the just-concluded 10-year census".

Problem is...  the results of county populations from the 2010 census have not been released just yet.  There has been one data dump from the 2010 census, which is just the population totals by state. No breakdown beyond the total population in each of 50 states which is what was required for US congressional reapportionment.  So there has been no other data released from the "just conlcuded 10-year" census that will help anyone with redistricting.  I have not seen what they used for data, but it was data from some other source which may or may not work in context, it all depends. That or the news item mis-described the data as presented.  I dunno.

Some years ago I made this map of my prediction of the county by county changes in Pennsylvania General Assembly seats that I would anticipate based on population trends through the decade... but it still is just a projection until we get the detailed data from the decennial census.  That data, by the way, must be distributed by the end of March, and last I heard they (the Census gnomes) are going to dump it out in February. 


Monday, January 24, 2011


If you excuse the vanity post to a degree, the thing I wonder about is why the news commenting world is so much more active up in Cleveland than here?  The local dailies do not really get into public commenting much at all.  I think the Trib used to have something and the PG+ behind the paywall service did or does have commenting.  Not too many people take Potter up on the option of commenting at the city paper and quite honestly, the universe of active commenters here, or a lot of other local blogs is a pretty finite universe.

Fun comments still going up on yesterday's Cleveburgh piece that ran up the hike. Not just the comments on the Plain Dealer's site, check out the tweets which are a lot more than when the same oped ran here.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mega props to Jerry Jones for building such a quality facility we will be playing at in a couple weeks


I see dead stadia

Since only sports related stories are allowed today according to the contract, I'll point out that the Trib whispers this week leads with the discovery of the extant website for the nonexistent  Three Rivers Stadium. You know, that website looks quite authentic.  Could it be intended as a hoax?

Who caught that last year?  What the Trib didn't bother to mention is that the site says it is optimized for Netscape 3.0!  Mosaic anyone?  What gets me is that the domain was renewed not too long ago and is now registered until 2013.  Just another bill that came in that was paid automatically?  Lost password?  Clearly the stadium authority gnomes don't read the blog here, since they had all year to do something with the ghost content, yet it remains untouched over the decade.  Weird. 

What next?  Someone in the media might discover that the Stadum(less) Authority still exists as well?  Can anyone really explain why?

Then there are the other paranormal activities going on down there that others have caught. Maybe some unified field experiments going on down there.

OK, back to the NFL channel. Well, I wish.


Cleveburgh on Cleveburgh

Cleveburgh redux in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sunday... and check out their enhancement of my graphic.  Cool.  and check out the comments already posted with it.   They certainly are chatty up the pike.

PD is not new to the topic and from over a couple years ago was this:  Pittsburgh's renaissance holds lesson for Cleveland.  It is worth noting that that story was out a half year before the G20 was even announced as coming to Pittsburgh and, along with some others, may not be insignificant in laying the groundwork that lead the White House to us in the first place as G20 host. So we may owe them.  I still think the seminal piece seeding most of this was from the Detroit Free Press even before that.  Or farther; I'll tell you that the journalist who wrote the FreeP article had been working on that piece for at least the 6 months or so before it ever came out.

Today, the positive Pittsburgh story has become so ubiquitous that we barely mention even when it comes from over the pond. Some of it can be overplayed for sure, but we really  have become a global story in a way that was once, and in some ways still is, hard to grasp. 

Where it brings us back to is the current state where Pittsburgh, and any collaboration I or others can theorize, is not dismissed as it likely would have been for an awfully long time.

I'll add that we are all collectively grateful that the Plain Dealer did not ask me to offer up that oped in verse.  (h/t GregV for that reference as well as for indulging this little thought experiment in the first place of course).


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cold is as cold does

You know... I was at this game and up in row ZZ or whatever it was I can tell you it was cold beyond belief.

Yet that game was 11 degrees officially; the forecast for Sunday is a low of 3.! Wouldn't put it the list of top 5 coldest NFL games, but would you really be able to tell the difference?

More diaspora notes from NY: Steeler fan living in New York hates to break Jets fans' hearts, but Pittsburgh is bound for Dallas

and some economic chalkboard material from Dallas?? They must still be smarting over XIII:  Jets and Bears would bring more Super Bowl bucks to Dallas-Fort Worth.  That extra $million will pay for 0.1% of that new stadium built for the Cowboys to play that Superbowl in. 

finally just gratuitously:


Friday, January 21, 2011

Legal work to be had

For all who like to tell me that municipalities can't ever go bankrupt in Pennsylvania, an interesting press release out from law firm Pepper Hamilton:  20 Municipalities in Pennsylvania Listed as “Financially Distressed” by Government Agency, Says Pepper Hamilton, Law Firm That Led State’s First Successful Municipal Bankruptcy Reorganization .

Sure sounds like they are carving out a niche for legal work and sure do mention federal (Chapter 9 bankruptcy) a lot.. even touting they did the work for a Pennsylvania municipality (Westfall township) to go through bankruptcy last year. 

It also mentions that states are prohibited themselves from filing for bankruptcy.  True enough, but that can't prohibit them from defaulting on debt.  Pennsylvania itself technically defaulted on a lot of debt in I believe the 1840's.  Wilkes-Barre failed to make bond payments in 2002 and today we have the ongoing imbroglio in Harrisburg.    I was just checking the date of the Pennsylvania bond default and even came across this recent BLAWG post from a PA lawyer all about that history: “Van Buren to Pennsylvania: Drop Dead” which is a great title.

So there is money to be made even, or especially, in bankruptcy.  Lawyers always have the angle. 


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The lost $billion

The ProPublica parsers have been compiling where stimulus money has been going.  They suggest what seems like an obvious news story about where the $$ has gone. 

Maybe the question to ask is where has the money NOT gone.. at least relatively. 

Their data for Allegheny County is online.  It says Allegheny County has received $867 million in stimulus moneys in total.  The thing is, they show that to come out to be $711 per capita, which turns out to be well below the Pennsylvania average of $1,291 per capita and just above half the national aveage of $1,400 per capita.   That is the story for what has been going on locally, where lots of proposals for stiumulus related funding have been turned down.  If we had received at the national per capita rate, there would have been almost another billion floating around somewhere. 

If you scroll down you can see the itemized list of recipients... my quick scan looking for the metaphorical $800 hammer didn't show me anything, but maybe a crowdsourced look will find something to note. There is a line item there for $840K for the Double Wide Grill which I presume is the place on Carson on the South Side.  I am pretty sure, and a note there seems to confirm, the $840K was not specific to them... just that they were a recipient of part of it. 


Immigrant-Burgh... or not.

Missed this, but Rustwire focused on international immigration in Pittsburgh a couple days ago.  I get a call out of the blue every week from someone... journalists, researchers, other interested folks, specific to the topic of international immigration in Pittsburgh. Usually folks from outside the region and I just dump on them a load of history and statistics. The short version of it all is that to the degree we have any data the region remains near the bottom of any benchmarking of international immigrants compared to anywhere else in the US.  Some go 'wow', some don't believe me and one national media journalist once spontaneously asked incredulously "but who drives the taxis?"

Recent immigration here is so low that almost any growth appears significant.. and indeed any real trend has to start somewhere. But the Rustwire piece quotes a few current statistics that show we are even a fraction of Cleveland and Buffalo when it comes to the size of the local Hispanic population (which is not necessarily a proxy for immigration mind you), and neither of those places are exactly high on any such list themselves.  A friend disputed the low numbers with me once with a comment that I think is fairly summarized as... 'but I heard someone speaking Spanish in Target' as if it was a big new thing.  It might have been, but to me it only reinforced the data at hand... nowhere else in the country would there be cause to notice someone speaking Spanish out shopping.

In the comments there I learned something though.  I didn't realize the Hispanic Center had fully closed. I knew it was waning for some time.  It was an interesting concept when it started and and part of a focused effort to attract immigrants here a decade ago.


Daily Ranking - bonus

Texas Transportation Institute has their annual dump of congestion stats for regions in their Urban Mobility Report.  Here is their Pittsburgh summary.   The super summary version: about the same as last year and it could be a lot worse here than it is.


Daily Ranking - Most Insured

Daily Beast has us #11 on a list of most insured places in the nation

So the question why comes up when this stat pops up and it's pretty simple.  A combination of Pennsylvania's CHIP and a lot of folks covered by Medicare together add up for us.  Pennsylvania pops up disproportionately on that list mostly for the same reasons.  York, PA is 7, Scranton 13, Harrisburg 22, Allentown 25.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New York City needs a football team


Speaking of property values

The very last line in an article today.. barely surviving the editor's scissors:
In Allegheny County, the median price for an existing home rose 23.7 percent, and the average price was up 23.9 percent
Ummm...   I take that is over two years, but......  I'm telling you the headlines are completely missing the real story in all of this.


Special Delivery

The assessment train is getting closer and seems to be on a collision course with the political process. Cue Captain Renault.

There is not much time to derail any of this.  You can read the official schedule of the assessment process via the court docket which I do believe says new values will start to be mailed out on Independence Day, literally July 4, 2011. 

Is there mail on Independence Day?  I'd call that special delivery. It will certainly feel like a special delivery for many.

It is not quite clear that new state legislation would have any impact on the court-mandated process we are reaching the terminal start on here in Allegheny County.  Some small state constitutional issues in thinking a standing court order could be voided by legislative action, but I suppose it could gum up the legal situation enough to delay the whole assessment.  Can you imagine?  County complains for years it can't afford to do all of this. Then that it can't be done in the timeline anyone wants (they wanted to stretch this out in stages over next few years which Judge Wettick went along with per their request) only to pretty much give in and say the only practical way to do it is to do the whole thing by 2012.  Then at the last minute it all gets thrown out or delayed to the point where they have to start over again in a few years. Hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened (in re: pension).

It's not cheap to keep redoing this from scratch.   The whole plan a decade ago was to update assessment values every year. Only regular updating can really prevent the big cost we just had to repeat and keep inequities from building in the system.  That proved too much for the political process to handle at the time and thus we are where we are.

The question remains, however, what happens when the reassessment is completed (assuming it does get implemented)?  Do we then ignore this all and wait for more litigation down the road before updating values again?  Or do we put in place a system to regularly update assessment values and keep them accurate and fair?

A rhetorical question I do realize.

Speaking of real estate valuations. The prices are going up. Best to get those assessments in sooner if you really are worried about your tax bill, though you may want your neighbor's assessment value to go up to keep yours down. 


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pension Purgatory

I just don't have it in me to comment more than point out the pension purgatory we are in.. and at this rate will forever be in.  The current and soon to be re-identified WDUQ: Pension Valuation Could Take Months

I guess it is better than pension hell?

There are public pension doings in Philadelphia.  WHYY:  Nutter's pension overhauls stalled in Philadelphia


Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK Day - wonk version

The demographics of race, the Pittsburgh version: Pittsburgh's Racial Demographics: Differences and Disparities

Our workforce: EEO Employment Data for Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh region

and where we live:


depends what your definition of stability is

So I don't quite get the semantics of this story in PG Sunday on real estate in some Mon Valley communities.  The crux of it is how real estate prices have nominally stayed the same over an amazing 23 year period. You can see the table they have there of nearly identical prices in both 1987 and today for 6 distinct municipalities.  The numbers are remarkably identical. 

Never mentioned is that those are nominal prices.  Inflation has not been high over last few decades, but not nonexistent and compounded over a quarter century it adds up.  A dollar in 1987 is worth $1.92 today by just a CPI calculation alone.  So to begin with, real estate in these areas have not been "treading water" as desribed at one place in the story, but that they have seen their real real estate valued drop by half all while real estate values have appreciated (in both real and nominal terms) most everywhere else in the nation.  Just not a place you would want to invest your savings into and when you consider your mortgage is really a very leveraged investment to begin with...  you can potentially lose a lot if your value does not appreciate.  

The story also repeats a common misconception that for many of these communities the population left when the jobs left which just isn't the case.  Braddock as a case in point, but the story is true for places like Duquesne and McKeesport as well.   People has started moving out of the community long before the 1980's as workers found themselves more and more able to buy homes and live further away from their factory jobs in these communities.  The paradigm of mill workers living in the mill-town is an image from a century ago, not the 1980's.  In almost all Mon Valley communities, the percentage and absolute population decline between 1960 and 1980 was far larger than the population decline between 1980 and 2000 when the jobs went away.  There were some good years for workers in both employment counts and wages in those earlier decades and before, yet that is when the trend was even worse than today. Seemingly counterintuitive it was those income gains that probably facilitated the population loss we are only at the trailing end of today.

May not be easy to read, but here is a chart of all those population changes over time. Source is page 58 (per the pdf numbering) here which also has a section focusing just on Mon Valley trends starting on page 56.

Why do I beat on the subject?  Do I want to be a nabob?  Over the years nowhere are the myths so incongruous with the facts as in the Mon Valley and until we get to some ground truth on the facts there isn't much hope on making things better.  The myth (or crutch) that it was the steel jobs leaving these communities that left them in the condition they are in has never been true.  

As for real estate.  There was a point between the 2001 and 2002 reassessments in Allegheny County that it was seriously discussed if the county should just set the property values in some of these same communities to zero.  Of course, the public finance system would break down if you did that.  Equity issues or not, if there is no base property valuation, municipalities and school districts would not be able to raise any revenues at all. 

The real truth is that the true economic prices of many of the homes in the area are not zero, but negative. Nothing theoretically wrong with negative prices, but it just does not work for local public finance.  I don't think any of these communities have the $$ to send money to their local property owners every year while giving up their main source of income.  Don't believe the negative value?  The vacancies are high, many properties are not put through sheriff sale because it would cost more for the banks to process than they could recoup.  The markets are just not clearing even at these barely existent prices.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Go Here come the New Jersey Jets!


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Marcellus Watch

So there is and isn't lots of Marcellus news floating around.  A lot, but most has been written before in other formats.... but on it goes.

Trib has today: Low natural gas prices no boon for shale.  PG had related article yesterday: Shale gas affecting industry's pricing

Yet Forbes has this: Chesapeake Could Be $30 Stock, Shale Reserves Are Huge

Yin and Yang?

On the state of Pennsylvania policy on this, really worth a read is this from the (Towanda-Sayre) Daily Review:  Sen. Yaw introduces Marcellus Shale legislation.  Note the section on the proposal for the state to merely 'allow' localities to use value of reserves is calculating property value and property taxes.  If the MSC was mad at the city of Pittsburgh, they must just hate anyone proposing anything like that. 

Why would localities ever want property tax to reflect shale value?  Well, it looks like some Pennsylvania counties are having a hard time even funding their state-mandated hazmat teams.  No growing need for those I suppose. 

Beyond PA wassup?

Industry exec in Dallas says:  Natural gas prices' wild ride is over, Atmos Energy chairman says

Speaking of Dallas... everyone likes to tout how Fort Worth is an American city that allows drilling inside its city limits.  Nobody ever mentions how much less dense Fort Worth is than say Pittsburgh. But what I didn't realize is that even if Fort Worth is ok with it all, Dallas isn't.  Few mention that.

Marcellus drilling is extending into Maryland.

and while virtually nothing is impeding Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania, New York continues its virtually complete moratorium.  Here is a quote in a Buffalo News story yesterday
“It’s so frustrating, losing people to Pennsylvania,”
Just to begin with.  Think about that statement some next time you hear folks talk about the bad business climate in Pennsylvania.  Is the economy in North Central PA booming compared to upstate New York? It's not quite obvious in unemployment stats.   We will have to keep an eye out if any migration stats ever back that claim up.  Do the movement into man-camps count though?

Speaking of Pennylvania and policy.  Johnstown Tribune Democrat the other day: State officials are no-shows for Marcellus forum

Anyway... just doing my bit to keep the social media consultants employed.. if there are no blog comments on the whole Marcellus thing, the contracts may not continue.  If you ask my thoughts on some of it, the price of natural gas is really the center of it all. And if you have been around long enough you know that few folks who claim to predict future energy prices ever ever get it right.  Dire warnings of price escalation have been followed by price collapses and stable periods have seen spikes appear out of nowhere. The emergence of Marcellus Shale is itself just one small (or huge dependng on your perspective) datapoint in the unpredicability of energy markets.  I used to love talking to the small energy derivatives desk at Lehman when I was there...  then one day out of the blue they were all let go.  Why?  The energy markets in the very early 90's were so stable that it just wasn't an easy play to make money off of... especially when you had all these other fun new derivative markets exploding.  Note the use of the term 'explode' probably changes in that context over the coming years.

In a sense there is a huge speculation going on in all energy development in that it depends.  Here we are in the middle of a cold-enough winter and generally speaking natural gas prices are below the basement of the range of prices most natural gas developers were pitching to their investors.   You would think something has to give.. Then you hear others say things like "Prices are at 15 year lows" with the implication they will rebound. Lots of money has been lost waiting for that reversion to the mean to eventually set in. The belief that prices will eventually have to revert to what their long term trend or pattern has been is the logic fundamentially that first did in LTCM, and later much of the CDO market.   

For the intermediate term.. Natural gas is not quite like other commodities. I think I will agree with Duquesne's Kent Moors who has an article on "seeking alpha" where he points out that the issue is storing the gas.

Then there is coal.. gotta talk about coal.  Later.


Friday, January 14, 2011

foreclosures and then what?

Sam has an update on some new numbers about foreclosures in the region.  Something related that is not new, but a bigger and bigger issue for us is what happens to the homes as they move in and out of foreclosure and the role of banks in that process.  Just something we are spending more and more time looking at because of the impact on neighborhoods and communities. Here is an illustration of the banks involved in local sheriff sales in Allegheny County through most of last year:



Just commenting on all the machinations that will follow the Dan announcement.  What will the Post-Dan era in the county look like?

Just going through the list of names there:  Flaherty, Fitzgerald, Lamb...... I really think it would be much more efficient all around if we just take the current top guy at the Ancient Order of the Hibernians and make him the next Allegheny County Chief Executive.   Think of the benefits: it will save money on the election, eliminate all this ambiguity for the next few months.    How did Dan sneak in there? Maybe it was once spelled O'norato.

Hey.. it's O'Briem.. really.

I suppose there will be a follow up to these stories looking to the fall and whether there will be a Republican or I guess even an Independent running as well.  The short analysis on that is there is that if you have been following how lots of suburban counties in SW PA have indeed been trending Republican, it is in large part because of selective migration of folks out of Allegheny County.   So the secondary impact of what is happening in the surrounding counties is that Allegheny County is likely trending more D just in terms of who remains.   I bet I could quantify that.... some other day.  

So the bottom line is that if that is true, it is much harder for a non-D to get elected within the county and you have to realize it has now been 12 years since Jim Roddey won by what was the slimmest of margins..   Less than a fraction of a percent and many of the circumstances of that election just won't be repeated again.   If Cyril was  not turning 80 in a couple months, I would begin to wonder if was going to wade into the primary even.  Still, I bet O'Roddey will continue to gratuitously push for an O'Santis run for ACE as he has been doing over the last couple of years.  Other than that, R's have a problem of finding a candidate with much name recognition at the start.  Roddey himself had an arc of public involvement and particiption going back a couple decades before he pulled off his upset.. chairman of the Port Authority when they built the T for one, ALCOSAN chairman and a bunch of other things.  There was a plan to all of that I bet not uncorrelated with the efforts to create the ACE position in the first place via the home rule charter movement.  But today who is arguably the biggest R name in county politics these days is going to be preoccupied in court at some point which at the very least will make it hard to schedule all the rubber chicken dinners. 

Anyway... I have not updated these in a bit, but for the emergent interest here are the maps for the county's: Democratic Registration, Republican Registration, Independent Registration, Straight Ticket D voting, Straight Ticket R voting.  Tally-ho!


Thursday, January 13, 2011

meta-news, micro-numbers

Some meta-news first.  The Scranton Times-Tribune is moving behind the paywall.  Or going to try it at least. Not quite sure what their model is that they think will work better than others, but hey.

Also micro-meta-news question in a sense.  Is this our former traffic-man Joe Grata writing in the Valley Independent? Mon Valley population becoming smaller, older and poorer. Or someone else?

While that story comes close to doing what we have generally been advising against, which is using the new American Community Survey(ACS) data to report population counts, they are not the only one doing so.  The new data is intended to be used to observe characteristics and the population counts you get may not reflect what is ground truth.  Why is a long answer, but that is how the survey was designed.  In fact, in the data just reported, the data reflects some population controls that remain derived from the 2000 census....  so it's a bit problematic to report changes in population with respect to data from 2000.

OK..  Skip that.   I will add that they have a decent set of 'instructions' there on the left of that story with a great line about "For more detailed information and additional data, you'll need to do some computer gymnastics. In Step 3, start with "detailed tables" instead of "data profile."  Computer gymnastics?  A technical term?  or my avocation?

The story did have some interesting snapshots of communities in the "Mid-Mon Valley".  My technical point above notwithstanding, I suspect most of the qualitative observations are as the story describes. Could be worse even.  Is Braddock outside the "Mid" Mon-Valley?  I only ask because the most shocking number I have seen so far in the ACS data is that Braddock has increased in housing unit vacancy from 28 percent in 2000, to over 36 percent in this recent release of ACS data.

After 2000 I would point out that Braddock's vacancy rate was higher than anywhere in the state other than Centralia, which had this minor excuse of being evacuated by the state due to unquenchable underground mine fires. So the higher Braddock number must be #1 this time around I figured? 

Numbers are never as easy as folks like.  For housing vacancy, especially in Pennsylvania, you need to account for things like seasonal vacancy.  So the first number you might get looking at vacancy may just reflect that a lot of housing in central PA is only being used part of the year... often summer housing.. or for hunting season.  That data is in there, but you need to know to look.  So I take that seasonal stuff out, and rank all municipalities in Pennsylvania. Centralia falls out this time with the ACS data because I think they have actually gone in and demolished the vacant homes. Can't be 'vacant' if there is no structure there in the first place.  Some hold-outs I hear, something about no taxes if you are a de-facto squatter in your own home in Centralia.  Makes sense since you technically don't live anywhere anymore if you are sleeping at night in a completely off-grid Centralia abode. Utilities, services, and I suspct even mail service should be long gone.  Kind of an off-grid mecca possibly.  

But is Braddock #1 when it comes to vacancy?  Turns out it comes in at #2 with number one being Ohiopyle, PA.   Huh?  Is Ohiopyle the new blight capital of Pennsylvania? I really think not.  Data is data and no data is perfect despite popular misconceptions. I suspect the actual vacancy rate is accurate enough, but someone collecting data coded some structure as being vacant, but did not realize it was more seasonal housing that will be more than filled through the summer season. 

So I can't technically say Braddock is the most vacant place in the state... though I suspect the numbers really do say that it is. I bet the 2010 Census numbers will be a bit clearer on this so I will recompute this when we see those numbers soon enough. What I have not gotten around to is then comparing that to other vacancy rates in municipalities across the nation.... I really will be surprised if Braddock's vacancy rate is not near the top, if not the literal top, real vacancy rate for an entire municipality anywhere in the nation.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Daily Ranking: Drain to Gain

I think Jim already has some comments on this, but note the latest from Brookings: Migration Declines Further: Stalling Brain Gains and Ambitions

In particular check out their Table 2.II.  Looks to me that if you skip New Orleans and their particular circumstances (euphemism for flood, disaster or calamity, pick your semantics)... Pittsburgh has the biggest magnitude of swing in that table in terms of shifting from migration loss to migration gain among folks with college degrees. 

Bafflegab I tell you... Bafflegab.



It's a bit brutal, but here is some wonkish smack talk. BaltSun forums has this thread going: "Headed to Pittsburgh for the game. Any Ravens Bars? Tailgating". 

I just think RavenNation should merge with ThePurpleStore.


I didn't know they had 90 jobs left to cut

File today's news in the "sure bet" file.  Big bet it was. The thing is... all those IRR NPV calculations on the cost-benefit of allthose subsidies?  Just a tad off in their assumptions I bet.  Folks have begun to forget the late 1990's when support of USAir(ways) and airport based economic development was the key economic strategy for the region and remained so for much of that decade. Maybe we should file it all under "industry targeting".  My inner Libertarian might superficially point out a correlation between the escalation of local subsidies and the airline's local demise.  The simpler truth may just be that the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

News references to USAirways employment in the Pittsburgh region

1981: "more than 4,500"
1987: "more than 7,000"
1989: "9,600"
1990: "11,500"
1991:  11,900
1992: "about 14,000" (I think that refers to the state)
1994: 12,000
1995: 11,382
1996: 11,287
1997: 11,739
1998: 12,000
2000: "11,700"
2001 "12,000 locally"
2002: "about 9,000"
2003: "close to 9,000"

2005: "more than 7,500"
2006: "2,847"
2007 "about 2,700"
2007: "just 2,000"
2008: "about 1,800"

2010: "about 2,020"

Hey, look... we're trending up.  Let's extrapolate that.  Better yet, let's put a quadratic on that.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mega-regionalism not withstanding...  nobody will be talking about reinventing the Steagles anytime soon.  I do hate to be one-upped by our friends out east, but they may top even our local government shenanigans of late.  Check out the story of the Philadelphia sheriff's web site being hacked


Monday, January 10, 2011

The heroes standing next to us


Mysterious vanishing homes

Now NPR is jumping on the bandwagon of national attention of the latest home to be demolished by accident around here.  What I don't quite get is why this is news?  It is not like this is uncommon. 

Here is the thing... isn't the real question here why someone showing up to demolish a home never considers the question "this does not look right, maybe I will check if this house should come down?". 

They don't because, in a complete veil of ignorance* way, it probably seems quite logical to tear down the homes in question.  That says a whole lot.

I suspect if we parse the numbers, the city of Pittsburgh has pretty much the oldest housing stock in the nation... if you exclude Jamestown of course and maybe a few old places in New England.   I bet the places that might have older housing stock have had a tad more investment in them to keep them up.. or were better built in the first place.   So if someone were to compute a 'real age' metric for housing, how far off the chart would we be I wonder?

*Note that is not a pejorative, but a philosphical context.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Cleveburgh evermore

The echo of this has been interestring.  Note the Cleveburgh rerun in the Youngstown Vindicator today
If there are Pittsburghers who do not quite appreciate the idea yet, this may help.  Many have seen this making the rounds in last few weeks, but it was a Cleveland attorney who wrote what may be the best letter ever written by a lawyer.  Apologies for the language.  Gotta give some points to a city that could produce that and allow it to be postmarked.  CC to Art Modell no less.  

Just compare that to the dense two page letter some other poor lawyer most likely felt obliged to write on the topic of the best license plate ever.


Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Groundhog will returneth

No, this isn't about the weather, the movie, nor any other famous marmota monax.  This is about property assessments and yes, that does make sense around here.
Since people keep asking me about this, I’ll say a few things.  I know little on the legality of tax referendum for new property tax changes in Pittsburgh as is being proposed, but it does seem to me that this is all an assessment issue first and foremost.  The issue of equity in the county’s property tax system has been at issue and litigated nearly continuously since Larry Dunn fired all the assessors and froze property assessments in 1996. Larry Dunn I still argue is the biggest change agent in the county over the last 40 years, though not quite in the way he intended. (even less fair, it seems even Bob Cranmer has a wikipedia entry, but none for Larry..  what's up with that?).  As many know, yet many still unawares, Allegheny County is currently proceeding with a court-ordered mass reassessment.  The primary purpose of which was to correct obvious inequities that inevitably emerge if you do not reassess your real estate comprehensively in a routine manner.  We are getting close to getting new numbers for the political machinations to have re-started on this.
So the first question to ask is what happens when the county finishes the current property assessment? Will it then try to never do another reassessment ever again until forced to do so by a judge somewhere.  Judge Wettick is going to eventually retire and one could predict a future where no other judge would even be willing to take.  We could easily get back to a situation much as I described when I wrote “Groundhog Day in the Assessment Office”, which is now going on 9 years ago.  My friend the late John Craig would use a similar meme in the intro paragraph of "Same as it ever was",written a few years later, but of course he probably would not have read the former as it was in the Trib.  It's a kind of self-evident theme around here and the fact that Phil Connor/Bill Murray was of Yunzer provenance in the movie just can't be a coincidence.
Obligatory history mention, but if you really want to know about problems in assessments, the Allegheny County Jaffurs’ report is the rosetta stone.  Yeah, I know it is from the 1970's.  Some of it has been overcome by events, but an awful lot of it is relevant today.  There is a great point in there that even then, a century after the invention of the camera and decades after folks were generally using computers, assessment records were mostly pen and paper and for many parcels the only visual record or many properties were WPA-era line drawings.  Cool, but not such a great practice for a modern assessment office... let alone in a region that was even back then on the cutting edge of computer applications.

I digress. Equity problems in property assessments are part endemic and otherwise too much to get into here.  But it is almost always going to be true that equity issues grow as assessment values age.  So the question is how good.  This also gets to what will be the bigger story.  The bottom line is that Pennsylvania manages property assessments about as badly as they manage local public finances, which is they do not manage it much at all.  Pennsylvania as a state exercises little of the oversight and none of the management of the assessment system as is typical in many if not most other states.  There are some statutory issues that require the state to do something and one can look at the Pennsylvania State Tax Equalization board which is an office that collects data on assessments and property sales valuation from all counties. 
The STEB computes a “Common Level Ratio” which is a metric measuring how far off assessed valuation are from recent property sales on average.  So a lower value means assessments on the whole are below current market values.  The important note is that this is on average, and does not say much about whether your individual tax is over or under assessed. You can look at the aggregate STEB data for counties in Pennsylvania here.

No doubt over time assessment values have divereged ever farther from current market value. Here has been Allegheny County’s CLR (as per the STEB) since 2002.

A common argument is that Allegheny County is unfairly put upon to reassess when other counties have not.  Given the numerous anti-windfall statutes you have to differentiate between assessment accuracy and tax rates and I have never completely understood the argument.  Overall assessment values go up? Reset millage rates to whatever the neutal rate is. Of course it is not that simple and taxing bodies have ways to push the system and sneak in a tax increase when assessments happen.  Nonetheless, different counties do better and worse when it comes to accuracy in the aggregate.  This is what the STEB data says about how counties do at using assessment rates close to curent market value.
PA Counties with highest CLR’s in 2009
County2009 CLR

PA  Counties with the lowest CLR’s in 2009    
County2009 CLR
So it looks like Blair County wins the prize as the county with the lowest CLR.  So their tax bill shows they live in a home that on average is really worth 11 times the value shown on the bill itself.  Are they being undertaxed?   If their values were reset, the millage rates would be reset as well and whether they wind up paying more or less will be determined by the accuracy of their assessment relative to everyone else. 
There is a follow up to my “Groundhog” oped that I need to get into at some point.  The full story of the first 2001 mass reassessment in Allegheny County has never really been written and like all our public finance stories around here becomes pathologically convoluted as only we can make these things… for another day.


Friday, January 07, 2011

"Modern-day version of Pittsburgh"

Neither hagiography nor its opposite, but note the opening sentence of this story: Low education levels holding Nevada’s economy back, official says. goes like this:
Nevada’s higher education levels are holding the region back from diversifying its economy and the city has become a modern-day version of Pittsburgh or Detroit, which once relied on one sector for its growth to its detriment, the director of a UNLV-based think tank said today. (emphasis added)

....  of what Pittsburgh was maybe??? I guess they kind of sneak in the past tense, but still they need the memo.  We have become iconic though, but we knew that already.  The region as Warhol... or is it vice versa?


I'll append a few more comments on this.  The whole Pittsburgh-Las Vegas dialectic has been fascinating since it started. We went for much of a decade without anyone ever even conceiving of talking about Pittsburgh and Las Vegas in the same breath when it comes to economic growth.  I have told this story before, but years ago I was at a conference of economic development folks and there was a fascinating discussion between folks in Las Vegas and Boston.  In Las Vegas the metric of economic development was hotel rooms. Made sense for them.  All of their economic activity keyed off of that and so folks who studied it knew pretty precisely how many regional jobs came from each new hotel room built. You once saw news on production from the steel industry here for the same reason.  More fascinating was a point that came up almost in passing, but is also key.  The Boston folks mentioned that there was not a school building constructed in the city since 1950.  The Las Vegas folks looked at each other and said they didn't have a school building built before 1950.  Ties to the story in the news of a local home demolished by accident.  I don't quite get why it is news since we know this happens fairly routinely around here.  Demolition order goes out and it is so hard to distinguish between the structures that are slated to come down from those that are not.  One reason is that we are Boston in that real estate metric.  Median age of homes in the City of Pittsburgh is 1939.  Boston is actually one of the few places in the country that has residential real estate as old as ours, but without our level of disinvestment by far.  Century old homes with only a fraction of the reinvestment they need to stay viable is the modal home in the city and many local municipalities.  So the stories are cute and there are some nuggets of wisdom in them, but this whole post G20 story has evolved to the point that now sometimes I talk to folks who like to say our circumstances have flipped with places like Las Vegas.  We have a century of investment to catch up on in things like infrastructure and housing and it is a long way to go.


Potential Puns Proliferate

Otherwise without comment, though this may be the best Marcellus Shale economic impact story yet: Portable Restroom Business Boomed Thanks To Natural Gas Drilling.

OK, minimal comment.  I'll add that anything that is capable of getting the portable toilet business into headline news territory must indeed be huge. 

on a side note.  Don Barden not doing well.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

Daily Hagiography


Cheese Charts and the Illusion of Control

I'm really sorry, but that is what came to mind immediately when I read this.  If we make a powerpoint on it, it must work out, right?

Why do I get the feeling this little episode is not over yet?  Far from it actually.  A few folks realize who is the most important person in the City Pittsburgh for the next 9 months or so.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

To tweet, or not to tweet

I really am late to the whole Twitter thing.   I still have friends and colleagues who think it is about folks going around and commenting on their lunch.  I probably thought the same for a long time, but am catching up.  I still have a long long way to go before I catch up to omni-media Jon Delano who at current count is up to 11,500 tweets and over 2,400 Twitter followers. That is in addition to some TV gig (or gigs) supposedly, radio I hear, teaching, writing a column, even rumors of a family and a life.  How in the world does he have time? 

Part of this is just a lame excuse to tag on to the story of the day that Pittsburgh Magazine has named Jamie and Ali McMutrie as their Burghers of the Year.  Not really actually, but it did remind me about how I really learned about twitter. Hang with me, this all connects.  As their story was unfolding, and we were all snowed in and wondering when we would ever see spring again.....  the crescendo came as rumors of a mysterous flight to Port au Prince were bouncing around.  There was little actual news reporting to corroborate any of it. Who was going, what it was going to do and just about everything else were unknown to most of the public.  Sounds like some of it was even unknown to those on the flight.

Then... as I was bored there watching news and watching twitter for the first time because of an escalating case of cottage fever..  It turned out that someone I met when he came through town for G20 was Fox News producer Adam Housley who was 'tweeting' direct from Haiti. Nice guy, and what I remembered he was a big Steelers fan. Specifically he was set up at the Port au Prince airport.  I was not expecting anything like this when out of the blue this tweet popped up:

At that point, there was no actual news coverage of the whole flight of Orphan I, nor any confirmation that it really existed.  Lots of interest and rumors and all sorts of related activity leading up to that, but the details of all that happened were barely speculated on... and then Governor Ed was standing there before Adam.  and we all knew instantly.  I still think that is one of the more amazing 'tweets' I have read.

I will still be more shocked if my mother ever tweets. That won't be soon. She sometimes brings up this vague concept of hearing that I am 'on the Internet'.  That and I still am waiting for live tweeting of the pension board meetings, but that may happen pretty soon.

Now we just have to worry about tweeting the afterlife. In NYT today: Cyberspace When You're Dead.


Mr. Ed makes out

So nobody says I am always negative...   between the normal New Year's celebration, and I suspect the folks in town for the Winter Classic and some not so bad weather, it was a good week down at the casino.  How much better than last year?  For slots alone over the week, $17 million more was put into the machines, most of which was paid out over the week as well.  Then take out all the taxes and the gross revenue still came out almost 34% higher than last year, $2.7 million for the week, vice $2.1 million for the week that included New Years last year.    Then they also made whatever they made on table games on top of that, which has no comparison with last year because there were no table games last year.  So they did well.  If only they could have a Winter Classic every year coinciding with New Years at a stadium a few feet away... and decent weather.  All problems would be solved.

If it was because of all the hockey fans spending time at the casino, maybe the casino should send a check over to the arena?  Oh, wait.  Nevermind.    Anyway, here is the summary:

Last year:
Week of December 28, 2009 - January 3, 2010

Promotional Plays:$536,385.80
State Tax$1,604,857.78
Total taxes:$2,596,093.47

This year:
Week of December 27, 2010 - January 2, 2011

Promotional Plays:$1,128,017.66
State Tax$2,140,502.68
Total taxes:$3,452,670.39

So I feel bad for them a bit...  $17 million more in bets and they come out $700K or so better off... That and I suspect they had a few additional expenses.  Maybe folks ate a lot more as well and they made some extra on that? 

If you are wondering what some of the acronyms are for in where the taxes to:

LSA = Local Share Assessment, which is normally split between county and city for the taxes on slots.
PRHDF = Pennsylvania Race Horse Development Fund, so some happy happy horses. 
EDTF = Pennsylvania Gaming Economic Development and Tourism Fund, which is just a long name to explain away the state's own contribution to a few specific things, namely the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, and out here for  one of the following:

 (4)  for debt service and for development and economic
        development projects for an international airport located in
        a county of the second class
            (5)  for distribution to a community infrastructure
        development fund of a county of the second class to fund
        construction, development, improvement and maintenance of
        infrastructure projects;
            (6)  for the retirement of the indebtedness of an urban
        redevelopment authority created pursuant to the act of May
        24, 1945 (P.L.991, No.385), known as the Urban Redevelopment
        Law, in a city of the second class which is financed in part
        with the utilization of funds transferred to the regional
        asset district
pursuant to Article XXXI-B of the act of July
        28, 1953 (P.L.723, No.230), known as the Second Class County
            (7)  for retirement of indebtedness and for financing of
        a hotel or convention center in a city of the second class        established pursuant to the authority of the act of July 29,
        1953 (P.L.1034, No.270), known as the Public Auditorium
        Authorities Law;
            (8)  for retirement of indebtedness of a county of the
        second class
development fund created pursuant to the
        authority of Article XXXI-B of the Second Class County Code
        and the Urban Redevelopment Law;
            (9)  for retirement of indebtedness of a convention
        center in a city of the second class established pursuant to
        the authority of the Public Auditorium Authorities Law;
            (10)  for payment of the operating deficit for the
        operation of a convention center in a
city of the second
established pursuant to the Public Auditorium
        Authorities Law.
(emphasis added)

Bottom line... in all of this, it is the horses that made out best from the new casinos in the state.  No matter what, the horses are way out in front of the Detroit pension systems.  Better than my property tax bill as well.

Speaking of the casino, or 'sure bets' as it were... I'll have to let the bankruptcy lawywers explain it to me, but there are developments in the Majestic Star bankruptcy via the Gary Post-Tribune, and Bloomberg.  Casinos never go bankrupt do they?  The very end of the article from Gary is of note.