Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Old is as old votes

With the ever-churning Republican primary process ongoing, I guarantee you every media outlet in town is chomping at the bit hoping that the race is still contested by the time the Pennsylvania primary comes around.  A close race means ads, ads, ads... and more ads. Did I mention ads?

Anyway.. the New York Times' 538 blog had this snipped last night: Michigan Republican Electorate skews older.    Few places appreciate what old means for voting as we do.  I doubt they come as close to us in terms of how old their electorate is. If we can get the 538 folks reading here by chance.. Western PA = oldest effective electorate in the nation... or so I hypothesize. Gotta be worth a story.. certainly will be if the parachute folks drop in for the primary coming up. 

I guess I didn't yet get to this, but last fall the general election in Allegheny County had an anemic turnout.   General elections usually get younger voters to come out at rates well above whatever happens in the primary, no matter how determinative the primary is.  But older voters are more consistent and come out in high profile races as much as in races that are not so exciting.  So the variation in turnout is usually reflecting what is going on with younger viters.   In November 239K folks turned out, about as low as it gets for a general election in Allegheny County. 

So below is what I get looking at who actually made it to the polls in November.. Remember this is for a general election which is normally 'younger' than primary elections here. For the mirage of young voters it was worse than ever for a general election.   Yes, the total proportion of all voters under age 30 was just over 5% of all votes cast.  Not under 20... that is not a typo.. under 30!  There were over 4.5 voters age 70 and over for every voter under 30.

Nothing new here at all of course, we've been through this ad nauseum. What I don't quite get is given how determinative the older voter is, why there is not more impact of the anghst of older voters (who are big transit and ACCESS riders) over the big transit cuts. Makes you wonder a bit if they really appreciate the scale of cuts coming down. I don't think anyone really has gone out of their way to tell them from my conversations.. that or they've heard the message but don't believe it because it has been such a repeated story in the past only to have crises averted at the last minute.. or so is the perception.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pick a number, any number

So last month I added a link there on the right to the Pittsburgh threads on the City-Data Forums site because it is a consistent source of rational discourse on lots of local topics that intersect here.  Lots of comments on assessments is what caught my recent attention.  A poster there that seems to have reliable reputation put this up today (about 4 posts down in this thread):
Old Today, 05:33 PM
Senior Member
Join Date: Oct 2010
Location: Mt. Lebanon
256 posts, read 99,478 times
Reputation: 50
Had my hearing today. The officer - who was a nice man - whispered to me that I'll get a lower assessment but then he asked me how much I think its value is to put in the computer? i was shocked by such a question. Nobody told me they ask this. I said the price i paid when i bought it although right now i am paying for much, much less. What else could i have said? Be aware of this if you didn;t have your hearing yet.

So yes, it is psuedononymous and as such passing it on without any other corroboration begs a bit of scepticism.  Still the poster has a record there of rational posts.  The City-Data forums seem to me to be much akin to the Skyscraper forums and the PG has in the past taken notice positively of what is posted there.  Maybe that post will spur some similar poking into how the assessment appeals process is going.  If that post is even semi-accurate that that is really the level of formality in the appeals process then you have to wonder a bit.. or more than a bit about the fairness of the process.  When the appeals process is over with there will certainly be lots of quantitiative fodder to look at.   Remember that both the PG and now Tom at Blog Lebo have found.. think those under assessed homes are also being futher underassessed in appeals?  We will see. 

By the way Tom has updated his work again and really nails it.  New assessment clearly underassessed higher valued homes, but in a further post today parsing the data even more he clearly shows how the new assessment is far more equitable than the old assessment numbers.  Those are my words and I don't want to put words in his mouth but go check out his charts and clearly most properties moved closer to sales values with the new assessment values. 

So take that and again go back to the first part of this post.  We will see ex-post if the appeals process produces fairer numbers in the end, or is more a move back to the old numbers and the old inequities.

By the way... I just noticed this but look at Lehigh County's official presentation online about their reassessment process.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Behind Curtain Number 2...

Sometimes it is worth looking back at old posts. Actually a reader reminded me recently that there still are 'deals' being shopped to consumers for locking in long term natural gas prices.   Reminds me that a year and a half ago I posted this letter I received myself.

Was it a good deal?  Even then Elwin pointed out the problems with interpreting the offer. It seems the offer was just for the commodity price of the gas, not the total price consumers pay. If someone had taken this deal, they clearly would have lost out vs. the option of not taking it.  But what about going forward?

There are current version of these  deals being offered are you can check out the current version of the natural gas shopping guide put out by the state.  It seems to still be the case that for all the vaunted deregulation of natural gas supplies in Pennsylvania, some of us only have one alternative offer and even that comes at a price that is above prices we get by default these days.  That and I am pretty sure the current natgas price has not yet fully adjusted for the recent drops in natural gas prices. 

The bottom line is that the only 'offer' I have is to pay a higher price than what I currently get with the added benedit that the higher price will be 'locked in' for a year.  You would think with all this gas literally erupting all around us there might be a few more suppliers willing to offer gas to consumers at more competitive rates?  A curious system of 'competition' all around.

 And on that state shopping guide page.. it seems that none of the archive links seem to be working??


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ещё разик, ещё да раз

More great parsing of the current reassessments from Tom at BlogLebo: Reality-Checking the Reassessments. A must read, but don't you wish every municipality had a Tom?

And more reassessment news from Lehigh County where their property assessments are in the mail.  See the Allentown Morning Call:Lehigh County reassessment notices are in the mail.  Look at all that detailed explanation that went out in their letters from Lehigh County to individual property owners.  Looks like they laid it all out up front.

and for all the folks who are asking me for more information on what the baseline assessment numbers are for municipalities in the southern neighborhoods (other than Mt. Lebo which has that information per above) that received their values last week; I don't have it, nor have had time to scrape it.  I would suggest getting in touch with your county council representatives to make that information available somehow.  If Tom can put it up there, the county surely can with a lot less work than he had to do to produce that.   


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bibere, numerare

So I just can't pass up a Brian O. column on Thursday pouring over some of the routine statistics released by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.  Brian digs into the minutia, and he may have found irrefutable evidence of the Marcellus Shale impact.  It all makes for a great natural experiment we could call it and someone, someday is going to have a dissertation using the rise and anticipated decline in drilling rigs as a basis to study alcohol consumption.  More mundanely it just got me wondering where in the state is the biggest alcohol consumption.

(yeah, I first typed Pittsburgh Liquor Control Board... Freudian slip?   yeah, we need that)
So I took their data by county and just matched it to population to come up with a ranking of sales from the state stores per capita for all Pennsylvania counties and the following is what I begin to come up with.  Where is that old City Paper Go Figure column when you need it?

Total Pennsylvania State Store Sales Per Capita by County, 2010-2011 Retail Year
Top 5, Bottom 5 + Pennsylvania and Philadelphia

Montgomery $225.13
Chester $213.68
Allegheny $191.34
Bucks $191.19
Wayne $190.28
Lehigh $177.01
Monroe $175.10
Cumberland $169.49
Lackawanna $166.03
Centre $162.02
Pennsylvania $139.56
Philadelphia $139.06
Adams $51.38
Armstrong $50.75
Perry $44.92
Fulton $36.73
Juniata $28.89

So no.. we are certainly not the biggest drinkers at least in dollar terms.  I honestly do not know if state store prices are completely consistent across the commonwealth which would impact what these dollar values mean to actual consumption.  Beyond that what's it mean?   Certainly some income effects on top end with the higher income counties spending more per person.  On the low end it is more than income and certainly does not explain why Juniata denizens are such teetotalers.  One issue may be sheer access and Juniata has only a single state store in the entire county.  Probably has something to do with the low sales.   Is a paper for someone to write and create a more complete model of what predicts state store sales in Pennsylvania. I would include income, demographics, distance from a state border crossed with access to major interstate, and density of stores. Throw in some spatial autoregression and we're there!  Someone must have done that somewhere. 

Anyway..  as Brian began to, you could spend all day obsessing on those stats.  Not a bad compilation of data from the state in that report, but it would be nice if they made it available in some other form than just the PDF documents.  So......  I have put the data I transcribed out of the report and the matched population data into this file

I will point out that if you dig into their data... there is a truly astronomical amount of Sake being purchased per capita in Montour County, Pennsylvania...  for reasons that are not apparent to me.  So if there was not some big Japanese Wedding there last year I almost wonder if someone added a zero (or two) by accident in some data stream.  It is that far from the norm.  Works out to an average of $2.69 of Sake per person per year compared to the statewide average of a single penny.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Pittsburgh – “the Galapagos Islands of American dialect”

Just because this ranks among the best titles ever.. from the Vancouver Sun today: Pittsburgh – “the Galapagos Islands of American dialect”

and the author may not appreciate it completely... but the linquist/geographers might already have research on how migration impacts language.  Pittsburgh which clearly has had one of the lowest rates of in-migration within the US over the last decades may indeed be seeing a language impact...

I will leave that to the experts to develop more fully.. except to say that it is clearly spelled Yunzer with a "U" and the "i" only became colloquial with the New Yinzer magazine some years ago. 


Soylent Green as a factory

Found it: the factory of the future.  There has to be a person there somewhere?


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Old factor

Just catching up on some things.  A few have asked me about an article a couple weeks ago covering some work from Harold on how Pittsburgh's medicare spending per capita compares to other regions.  In summary I read: it's really high. 

It just got me thinking.  Whenever I see anything like this I wonder about the impact of age demographics. I can't tell from the PG's coverage if there is a fuller reference to look at as it does not give a specific cite, but I think it all follows directly from the data in the map at the the Dartmouth Atlas .  So this isn't really intended as a reaction to that article as a general look at what is going on within the elderly population here compared to elsewhere.  Still that map there on the Dartmouth Atlast sure appears to me superficially to have a strong correlation to maps of age in the US; at least that big older swath through Appalachia.  I can't begin to say much about what is going on in Texas and the Gulf Coast.

Even just looking at the local elderly population it is not quite the same as the elderly populations elsewhere.  I made a graph of how Pittsburgh's elder population compares to other metropolitan regions.  This is what I get for the breakdown of "Older Old" population, I'll use the population age 85 and over here, as a propoprtion of the population age 65 and over. 

So that is a pretty significant range across metro areas.  Some have much older elderly populations than others. Hard to imagine that does impact expendtures on health care here compared to elsewhere. That would especially be true of a Medicare served population which is older to begin with.  It may be an age factor that is accounted for in the initial benchmarking of this data, I don't know. 

This all would matter in the health care context a lot since at least the economists have worked out that a large chunk of Medicare spending is all tied up in end of life care. So if you have a lot bigger proportion of your population nearing mortality, then you might expect that to show up in the health care costs in aggregate. Since Pittsburgh remains the only large metro area with a natural population decline (more deaths than births) we remain an outlier across a lot these demographics. 

Just to think about is all.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

One Municipality Down - only 129 to go....

Crowdsourcing at its finest...   denizens of municipality otherwise known as the home rule charter community of Mount Lebanon might want to check out what Blog-Lebo has up on the what new assessments mean for each and every property there.  Cool. 

Of course it all begs a bigger question.... why do we all need to do such contortions to figure out what is going on with assessments in Allegheny County?   On that note, check out all the new data citizens of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania learned today about their new property assessments.   Basically citizens there will know more about their new property assessment before they ever see their new values individually than citizens here will know even after all values have been sent out. I think that is called educating the public. Someone really needs to write about the process the two counties went through in their respective reassessments.

So I am sure there are a few more Toms to help out with the Mt. Lebos out there.  Who is going to help get the information out on Wall, PA? 


Monday, February 20, 2012

Assessment cycle anew

News accounts say that Allegheny County has today posted online its new assessment values for southern municipalities.  For all those folks, and everyone else in the county, my colleagues have made up a useful interactive map with all recent real estate transactions across Allegheny county.  It might be helpful for example for those looking to appeal their assessments and are looking for the comparable values near their home.

You know what is even stranger than the fact that Lehigh County in NE PA is also completing their mass reassessment a lot faster and cheaper (by far) than here.. they are also finishing it all with far less news about the whole process along the way.  Strange.  But here is a story of their process up there from a few days ago and an unfortunate property owner only now discovering he has been overpaying property taxes for a decade.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Automation then, automation now

So the PG had an editorial yesterday based on some national analysis about that old canary folks really believe about dead folks showing up in the voting records. I know lots of folks believe that happens a lot here, likely in part because we have so many older voters and then they read things like that so they connect the dots.  I won't repeat it here, but in the past I parsed the data on that and you can see what I came up with specifically on the mythical dead voter in Allegheny County .   From what I see there just is not much evidence at all of dead people in the voting records at all; no matter how much fun it is to theorize. Every now and then I will see a record or two that has me wondering, but seriously, the data does not support any systematic problem.  Where there are 'ghosts' in the voting records it is among younger adults who are also the most mobile folks in the population.  That folks who likely have moved out of the region remain on the rolls longer than they might otherwise ought to is probably an issue, but not an easy one to fix actually.  There is no big brother requirement to report to the government when you pick up stakes and so it is the hardest cohort of folks to really capture accurately in the voting records...  no matter how well you administer the system.

Just a random musing though that I generally agree with the tone of that editorial that Pennsylvania needs to do some big jumps to catch up with the 21st century overall.. Just look at what the Ohio Secretary of State has going on in terms of electronic availability of voting records.  I am sure folks are working on implementing something similar in Harrisburg.

and I guess it fits here in this meme.  I was going to save this for next week sometime because it talked about assessments... but it also talked about modern administration of voting records in Allegheny County.What comment could one add to this? Here is a headline that was in the Pittsburgh Press some years ago and an article really worth reading:

Courthouse Getting Ready for Era of Computers - Automation Spells Savings for County Taxpayers, subtitled: Instant Election Results, Fast Reassessing Possible

The first line goes: "Government in Allegheny County is on the threshold of automation.  Then it gets into what the implications are for property assessments in Allegheny County. You gotta read this:
"Allow the County assessors to reappraise every property in the 129 municipalities here in two months time.
"The significance of the assessment speedup is ready discernible as experts explain that computers will replace reappraisal procedures that now take anywhere from nine to 18 years.

It takes so long to reappraise taxable property in Allegheny County under present methods that rolls cannot be kept up to date.
The inability o the assessors to keep tax valuations in line with current market values causes lossesin revenue to every taxing body in Allegheny County. It also produces inequities which dooms property owners in areas where assessments are current to pay higher taxes than those in communities where reappraisals are pending.
By William Pade, Pittsburgh Press, January 15, 1963.

I do think they kind of overlooked human factors eh? 'Nine years' it mentions.... kind of the cycle we are still going on in a way.  Godspeed John Glenn.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

The politics of (really) small numbers

So here is a story I guess I have to comment on.  See the Trib: Zelienople appeals census count in effort to get more money

I'm warning you up front.. for all but the obsessive readers here, go back to sleep now!

Let's start with the nominal issues up front.  Does the Census make mistakes and can they correct them?  The first question is obviously yes.  It's a big country and lots of people residing in a lot of different modes mean some numbers are not perfect.   Here in Pittsburgh the biggest recent error I have mentioned on occasion is how in 2000 the Census folks had some systematic errors in counting of people in group quarters, things like dormitories and jails.  The Allegheny County Jail had moved locations between 1990 and 2000 and the official census statistics to this day reflect that error.  I had thought folks were correcting that and by the time I discovered that nobody had pushed that forward it was too late.  The confusion that results spurs a question I get from somewhere out there every few months for me. Makes a big difference if you are fighting over bragging rights over the population trends in the city's Uptown/Bluff or Downtown neighborhoods.

As an aside... as a result of the error described above you can see the machinations I go through to come up with a definitive count of the population change in Downtown Pittsburgh between 2000 and 2010.

Still..  the 2nd question,  can the Census Bureau fix its mistakes?, gets complicated.  The Census Bureau interprets US law, beginning with Article I, section 2 of the Constitution itself, from precluding any recounting to be done once the census was completed. So it is just not the case that anyone from the census is going to go into Zelienople or anywhere else to make a new enumeration and 'add' people that they didn't catch in 2010.  They will, however, check to see if an error was made in people counted elsewhere ought to be counted.  The only meaningful changes possible are likely again in group quarters populations where some groups may be counted in one location because of say adminsitrative addresses as compared to their physical locations which is what should count. They also have defined the process for all of this and it is the Count Question Resolution (CQR) process. You can further read ALL the changes made thus far to 2010 numbers and it isn't a big list and typically a handful of people per instance being corrected.

Zeliniople with a 2010 population count of 3,812 wants to add at least 188 to get to 4,000. I suspect that would, if successful, be one of the biggest percentage changes they have ever made to a municipality's population via this process. So we will see.    Wells Townwhip in Bradford county is also challenging their 2010 population count via this process, but I am guessing they may have a real case if the Census gnomes missed one of those new 'man camps' out there that only recenly sprung up before Census Day which was April 1 of 2010. 

The overly wonked should be clear on another point.  The process of challenging or correcting the decennial census is very different from the process of challenging annual population estimates which is what you more often see in the news.  The decennial census is intended to be a complete enumeration of the population and is why it is a big process both legally and in sheer effort.  It is an entirely separate census program that pegs a population count estimate on every state/county and municipality every year.  Those annual estimates are just that.. estimates based on a set of administrative data the census collects.  Because they are estimates they are prone to other errors and it is possible to challenge those numbers and get the census to made adjustments if you can make the case to them their methodology did not capture some change going on in your location.  None of that type of correction can take place with the decennial census counts.

The big picture though.   I would have skipped this whole story except for this quote in that article:

"Having a status of an entitlement community, it's like money in the bank. It's gold," Pepe said. "You don't have to compete with anybody else."
Does anyone else see how perverse that logic is in the big picture.  Not a knock on the municipal official there really who is fighting to preserve a revenue stream, but think about what it means really.  Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money is supposed to help severely disadvantaged communities.   You are not supposed to want to be CDBG eligible. You really ought to have a goal to no longer become a CDBG eligible place.   I get it, it's 'gold', but???   and the further statement that "You don't have to compete with anybody else." I am still cogitating on. I'm a bit speechless as yet on the point.

It is a bit more complicated than that of course. The issue at hand is whether Zielenople fell below the bottom size threshold to be eligible for such funds.  So it is not quite the case that it is trying to argue it is poorer than it is.  Presumably the economic conditions are similar whether they are just above or just below 4,000 people and so they don't want to be excluded because of their size.  Does this not get to a Pennsylvania pathology.  Given that Pennsylvania is one of the most fragmented states in the nation when it comes to local government then it follows we have lots of small communities that are similarly too small to be allocated CDBG money directly.  One solution is obvious I guess.  A community below 4,000 folks could merge with another small municipality (and they are almost all small municipalities) and voila... a still pretty small, but CDBG eligible, municipality emerges.

I'm too lazy to go match the data.. but I bet there are other municipalities among the 2,500+ municipalities that went from above, to below, 4,000 people with the recent census.  Likely more in the future.  Certainly a lot of communities already well below 4,000 and this just isn't an issue, but still might be able to become eligible with a merger of some kind.  It does get back to the "don't have to compete" quote mentioned above. It isn't that a community goes from money to no money with a changed population count.  Smaller communities are eligible for a pot of CDBG money allocated by the county or I guess in some cases the state.  That money arguably is competitively allocated among all such smaller communities and is likely the 'competition' being referred to.

If there is an even bigger picture, go back to what I said about whether you want to be a CDBG eligible community in the first place.  For big cities CDBG eligibility is specified to specific census tracts which are generally population groups of 3,000 people give or take.  So think neighborhoods or parts of neighborhoods for the City of Pittsburgh.   Gotta mention assessments I guess, but generally look at changes within the city.  Some of the bigger changes going on in real estate are reflective of fundamental changes in the neighborhoods holistically.   When it comes to CDBG eligibility look at the South Side.    It is likely, anticipated actually, that the income levels of residents in South Side tracts will have jumped in the point that what had been CDBG eligible communities for decades will no longer be CDBG eligible in the near future.  The implications for CDBG funding, and the need for community development efforts as have been so successful there in the past are at the heart of the decision of the South Side Local Development Corporation to disband itself in the future.  It is a dissolution born of success, or at least of completing it's mission. It also is what then leads to the current debate over a future evolution of a post-CDBG institution in the neighborhood which has become the debate over a "Neighborhood Improvement Zone" in some form and that is an argument all about money in the end.  So it all comes back around.

and if you read all of that and it is still Saturday morning... go back to sleep!


Thursday, February 16, 2012

A tale of two property assessments

Isn't this the real assessment story.......

Lehigh County in northeastern Pennsylvania voted to conduct an assessment just last spring...   so years after Allegheny County finally and fully agreed to the court's order to conduct an assessment here.  Yet they already are putting out more information to help the public to understand their assessment than the public is getting here. For background Lehigh County is in NE Pennsylvania which at least puts to rest the idea that no county other than Allegheny is conducting a mass reassessment. Also note they did this voluntarily, no judge involved. Imagine that?

See the news story (h/t to Jon Geeting for pointing it out) out today from going over detailed information Lehigh County is releasing. For more see:  Lehigh County releases town-by-town tax impact from upcoming property reassessment.  Lots of data there. Town by town results.  Distribution details.   More than I think the public has seen for Allegheny County as yet. 

Again... Lehigh County started their assessment process long after Allegheny County committed to this same process.. years after the court ruled they had to conduct a reassessment.  Why such a different timeline?  I would love to see someone dig into and compare the processes by which the two counties conducted their assessments that are finishing around the same time.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Catching up on a week in numbers

I was told my blog here needs more white space.  I am not sure this post will be an improvement, but here are some random hits from numbers talked about over the last week and a half.

So if I were Allegheny County and I were doing my due diligence defending itself in almost any appeal of a commercial property valuation I would start with this chart which is awfully clear. Since I am pretty sure real estate is a very fixed-cost investment... a roughly 25% decline in vacancy rate has to have a much bigger percentage gain on net profits for almost every office rental in the county. It is a remarkably positive trend no matter.

One of my first posts here some years ago mentioned the likely displacement of local bingo hall revenue that will result from the then notional casino.  Those stories have begun.  Trib: Alle-Kiski area bingo halls feel burned

Speaking of casinos... the Cleveland casino is now slated to open May 14th.   When there will also be a casino in Lawrence County I just don't track enough to know. 

So you might read this story on the latest from the Pittsburgh pension fund and think things are good: Pittsburgh's pension fund shows some recovery.  Of course if you do the division the numbers work out to the pension fund being up by just under 3%. See the problem?  Consider it was a great quarter for the markets and the Dow was up over 12% over the same period.  So if my math is right and if  you presume this trend continues unabated the pension fund will be fully funded in just over 4 years. That's great.   Of course it also would mean that the Dow would be hitting 70,000 or so at the same time.   Hmmm....

Did you know the Pirates are setting attendance records?  and h/t to Otis White for pointing out what may be required reading here from on what some are computing as the "Psychic Benefit" of professional sports.  Double Yoi$

obligatory mention of Marcellus Shale.. and following up on the post last week of how the government once tested atomic bombs for fracturing shale for natural gas extraction.  I see that the upcoming big shale conference is at the Greenbrier.  What is the Greenbrier known for?  It was the fallback captial if the US congress needed to evacuate Washington and continue operations even in the event of nuclear war.  Dots?

On Marcellus is an insightful article from the Towanda Daily Review about how Chesapeake recently sent a letter out explaining they are going to be taking out of royalty payments the costs of getting the gas to market.. and what will really hit the bottom line for some folks is that that they are going to do so retroactively going back more than a year. So when you couple the retroactive amount with the record low price of gas to begin with.. I am thinking some folks are not going to have any royalty payments for some time??  and you gotta love the company's only non-comment on their letter to land-owners... it says their letter is "self-explanatory".  That PR consultant deserves a bonus.

But hey, Chesapeake has some big cash issues..  I guess it is only fair to pass some of those troubles on to the landowners. Moving on......

In a new analysis the Pittsburgh region gets an 'A' for the degree of white-Latino residential segregation here.  Sort of..

I'm just connecting dots in my head.. but Port Authority transit cuts imminent..  Downtown office vacancy low and declining...  big retail like Macy's Downsizing.  It all comes together for me in this story out of Cleveland

and last, but not least...  h/t to Bram for pointing out the WashPo's coverage on the state of cupcakism in the US.   Remember it was not long ago that we were so desparate for some 'sign' of change in Pittsburgh that we obsessed on the metaphor of what the cupcake craze's arrival in Pittsburgh meant. and yes, it was an obsession.

last last...  and the best local economic news I read is that someone is at least thinking of saving HEMAP.


In Omnia Levitate

So I lie already and will add more on the news on the bankruptcy of Maglev Inc..  Extant or not Maglev should be fodder for talking about economic development policy in Pennsylvania for years to come.  So an alternative title for this post could, or should, have been... old Maglev's never die, they just fade away. 

It always amazes me the dichotomy of how much media attention is paid to things on the front end when there are press releases hyping potential no matter how unlikely with the subdued coverage at best when things finally pass into the afterlife of strange ideas.  No better example is the history of Maglev in Pittsburgh which has been a sop of money and news coverage for decades.   Consider that support for local Maglev continued even after, it may have even accelerated, after Transrapid, the German company that was the focus of the local effort itself decided to give up the ghost.  h/t to Jason T. for catching that nugget..  I myself tried to finagle a ride on the test track Transrapid had set up for years outside of Hanover.. Luckly I never pulled it off since not long afterwards an accident on the site resulted in 23 deaths.   You think someone might have gotten a clue long before now that this might not be the most promising technology?  But no.. in fact the dollars coming in just got bigger?

First question that really needs someone to dig into is how did Maglev continue to generate revenue in multi-million dollar chunks. Was there any real strategic plan here?  Any realistic assessment of what was ever really possible?  Then you have to ask yourself what did all that money produce in the end. The bankruptcy filing will answer that last question, but how it got money over and over again is worth digging into by someone.

and I know some folks hate Tom Murphy, but he remains to this day the only local politician who ever said no to any of the multiple maglev projects that have been floated over the years.  It was a position that did not earn him any political support, but actually generated for him a fair amount of grief in subsequent years in ways too long to get into here... but the short versionis that like all things Pittsburgh everything is connected.  There has been state money along the way, but it has been federal money that had really been feeding Maglev for years.  Support for Maglev projexts may have defined the very term earmark more than most any other project..  Is it the biggest local federal earmark over the years??  I wonder.

The costs go beyond the sheer dollars the project took in and spent along the way. Realize that any large public transit project like this had to involve the Port Authority.. and I am pretty sure the Port Authority folks had no love for any of this over the years.  Yet the same political processes that generated the money for maglev likely forced the Port Authority to devote preciously limited time and effort to support the effort along the way.. Think how it was just a couple years ago it seems that the Port Authority sponsored Environmental Impact Statement was soliciting comment from the public

So there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the whole saga that is Maglev in Pennsylvania... but it won't be a story really ever told as it just fades away.  Everyone (or virtually everyone) just went along with the idea with few critical questions ever raised.  Even when some doubted, the money kept coming.


The last Maglev post ever?

So I do admit I need a life.  Flipping through in-flight video I had no idea what I was scanning when I literally thought a mail box… yes, a mail box, looked awfully familiar.  Some drama TV that I just could not identify.  Then in the background of an outdoor shot I clearly caught Steeler paraphernalia that looked not staged.  What show was filmed in Pittsburgh that I could not identify I wondered.  I thought I was making it up but then a clear shot of a Downtown scene and the Caligiuri statue plain as day. 

Funny thing though..  Show turns out to have been from a new USA network series Suits which I see no reference saying it was filmed here.  Maybe I was half asleep?

Anyway.. on my list of stories I need to write someday is the complete history of Maglev in Pittsburgh.   Drink! Trib: Maglev assets headed to auction.

Wasn’t the last story we heard that the bankruptcy filing was only due to a delay in getting a round of federal funding?


Monday, February 13, 2012

"Meat axe" approach to public transit

There are like 5 different articles on this one page of news from 1962 that are interesting if not directly relevant to the news today.  I'll just link to the most obvious one: Bus Cut Hearings Delayed

Anyone notice some of the other gems on that page.. including a proto-Skybus reference.

If you venture off to other pages, take a look at the 2/3 page ad on page 7.  We have to find the 20 minute movie referenced there.  Anyone have a clue?


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Compensation by county

So before you read further.. quickly guess at what county in Southwestern Pennsylvania has the 2nd most lucrative jobs in region?  Allegheny County has been #1 for some time, if not as far back as it matters.. but #2 is...........

Just a random factoid the Bureau of Economic Analysis which came out with just before the new year with data on compensaton by industry in 2010.  Below is what it says for regional counties in terms of average compensation per job.  Follow the link for more on the definitions of compensation, which includes more than just wages received.  Also note this is compensation per job by place of work, which is different from most labor force stats you see which are complied by place of residence.  That makes a big difference when you look at differences across counties within the metro region. 

Total Average Compensation Per Job, 2010
Allegheny, PA $60,374
Armstrong, PA $45,799
Beaver, PA $47,757
Butler, PA $51,208
Fayette, PA $40,891
Greene, PA $59,411
Indiana, PA $46,941
Lawrence, PA $44,567
Washington, PA $52,585
Westmoreland, PA $46,423

So what will be interesting will be to see when the next round of data comes out for 2011 is if Greene County edges past Allegheny County for the highest average compensation in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The gap between the two counties, which have been #1 and #2 in this list for the last decade, has converged quickly over the last 4 years.   Lest anyone jump to conclusions thinking it is somehow all or even mostly shale gas related... if you look back over the decade in this specific data set, which goes back to 2001, you will see that even in 2001 Greene County was solidly #2 in this ranking of highest average compensation among the 10 counties in the region.  So it isn't really a new pattern at all, even if it is suprising.  

and did you guess right?


Friday, February 10, 2012

Multi-modal Pittsburgh

A rare but not unheard of coincidence that both the PG and Trib ran the same wire story a couple weeks ago with a piece from McClatchy looking at rail traffic in the US.  Just got me thinking about the history of rail in Pittsburgh.
So just another picture from the North Side Study with a vision of a river-rail-road multimodal (though a pre-container type of 'multimodal') hub that was intended to be be built right there on the Allegheny.  Never built of course.  There remains a glint of a vision at the Port of Pittsburgh to build a modern version of that type of facility here today.


Thursday, February 09, 2012

How I learned to stop worrying and love hydraulic fracturing

Just connect the dots and think what could have been here in Pennsylvania.  Random Wiki pages of the day:


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Yunzer Caching

Here is the ultimate Yunzer contest:

Start at the Point.  Head out past the Hilton Hotel and continue toward the Sweet William.  Stay on the road as it heads out of Downtown past the Buyers Mart.  When you see a Winky’s on your right make an immediate right and go over the Bridge.  At end of Bridge go toward French Fry Park.   Make left at first traffic light.  Continue through first light.  Right at Dwelling House Savings.   At fork in road veer left.  When you hit a T go left and continue until you go over the Brady Street Bridge.  Make right.  Left at South Vo-Tech.  Go 3 blocks, make right.  Continue until you get to top of a hill. Make left.  Go 5 blocks.
Where am I?

We need a contest to see who can come up with the best version of this.  Maybe the all-Isaly's version?


Update:  I guess we need some rules if people really are thinking of this (h/t PopCityMedia and others).
  • Must start and end with a known current location in or around Pittsburgh
  • References for directions must only be to landmarks that no longer exist, or have changed names
  • No references to any current street names, but street names used in the past are ok
  • Bonus points for referencing a past Isaly’s location
  • Points for references that even Google can’t help you locate, but would be known to past denizens of Pittsburgh

and the criteria?  Like all art, it's up to you.  The more obscure the references the better.


Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Reassessments then, reassessments now

I didn't say there wouldn't be posts about assessments.  So here is a gratuitous grab from the archives and scanned for the image more than anything at this point. 
Trib May 28, 2000


Monday, February 06, 2012

Traffic then, traffic now

Who thinks info-graphics are new?  Traffic into Downtown Pittsburgh circa 1941 via the November 1941 issue of Progress, the magazine of the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association.

Just for those wondering why there is a post here at all. No "real-time" posts this week barring most any conceivable news. I have left a few things to post that a few may find interesting.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

Digging into the numbers

So I lied. I did. But don’t expect much more this week.

Anyway we are getting there..  albeit slowly.  Read the PG piece today carefully please: Allegheny County reassessment favors properties with higher prices, review finds…. and the penultimate comment. :-0 Seriously though, I would concur with and beyond what the PG is observing in their ward by ward level analysis. In fact the regressivity of property assessments is a bit starker than you can see when looking ward by ward as they do. Ward by ward tend to even out what is clearly true that the new assessment values are progressively more under assessed (or is the semantics better described as regressively more) for higher valued properties. By the time you get to $300K properties it becomes undeniable yet those are some of the angriest people out there.. at least from whom I hear from directly.

BTW.. note also relevant PG letter to the editor today on topic.

This is entirely an artifact of self-selection, but it is remarkable how many home owners in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill or environs have talked to me about how their own properties were overassesed. Look at the Post Gazette numbers and you begin to see what is incontrovertible that pretty much everything valued over 150K (I would put the point lower actually) is under assessed. As you get into higher valuations the level of underassessment can be quite large. You can go back and look at my own graphing of sales value to new assessment numbers and for properties valued over 100K or so there just are very very few sales in 2010 that came in at values below new asseessment values.  Virtually all sales transactions are coming in above the new assesment values and far above the old assesment values. 

Just a point in passing, but note the clear PG point: "properties that recently sold for between $100,000 and $150,000 were, on average, accurate."
What the PG analysis does not get into at all is how under assessed the higher valuations are in the current assessments. I think equally incontrovertible is the observation that the base-year assessments currently in use higher valued properties are far more under assessed than in the new numbers. I wish they dug into the comparison of old assessment values to current market values which they mostly skipped in the piece today. But I suspect they will be at this for some time. I do with they did this separately for residential and commercial parcels, but that is more judgment call than anything else. Just lots of different things going on in commercial markets than residential markets in the region.

A point in there is what we should all be focusing on. There is no doubt that the county’s preferred method of ‘fixing’ assessment values though the appeals process is just not a fair way to fix more than extreme cases. If there are systematic problems you want to do it uniformly because the access to quality appeals is going to be highly self-selected with income. I hope someone tracks the appeals process to see if any value changes make the inequity issues being observed better.. or if things wind up worse in the end.   

Also with appeals there is a bigger deal. One of the big problems with the political rhetoric of late is that I am speculating most school districts and municipalities are being spooked out of doing their own fiduciary responsibility and appealing the obviously low valued assessments. Just as individuals will appeal their own valuations to get a fair assessment.. if no taxing body appeals the obvious underassessments there are significant tax revenues being left on the table. But I bet the political climate prevents that routine administrative action from taking place. How big a deal could it be? Well.. just looking at the Post Gazette’s own data.. just looking at the 14th ward alone it says the average underassessment to market is 9% on an average market value of 287K. I’ll add a number that there are 10,718 parcels in the 14thWard… so you can do the multiplication of what the total value lost to tax revenues is notionally if you want. That is just one ward mind you. Someone should do the calculation of what the tax revenue lost in the current base year assessments is for the same set of properties which is going to be a much bigger number.   Maybe the county should be assisting local school districts in identifying potentially over assessed parcels and assisting with those appeals. Probably not. 

Which gets to my comment in that. Property per property the underassessment of the higher valued homes has a far bigger impact on tax revenues at the end of the day. So even fixing half of that underassessment will result in millage adjustments that will in the end benefit lower valued homes that I bet are proportionally higher to lower valued parcels.  

and at the end of the day we just miss the forest for the trees.  Set aside the level of accuracy in the assessments, new or old, take a look at that table and the average sales value of poroperty in Knoxville!   Isn't that the story here in the big picture.

For the folks really parsing this.  I like the fact the PG looked at the most recent sales, though I wold prefer folks parse commerical and residential parcels separately. There just are some very different things going on in commercial markets here than in a lot of our residential neighborhoods.  Also from what I read in the court filings the cutoff of sales data for this assessment happened early in 2011 and more reflects valuations from 2010 or before.  Given there is little dispute some neighborhoods are seeing appreciation in the most recent years, it begs a situation where some folks might really want this assessment to conclude quickly.  If we do this next year again those in appreciating neighborhoods may see even bigger changes than they are seeing now.  At least that is what the PG's version of this all is saying to me.

and for thos really wondering..  it's Newark airport.. what else am I supposed to do? Those who have been here understand. Though I have to say it is a far nicer terminal than when I first flew through 30 years ago flying Peoples Express and buying the ticket on the plane.  Can you imagine what TSA would say if someone tried to restart that business model?!


Saturday, February 04, 2012

Weekend fix

I updated an earlier post with this, but I will put it here to post Saturday.  Must watch video from the Wall Street Journal with some amazing predictions of what could happen in the natural gas markets this summer.

With that.. gonna become a pumpkin.  No real time posts this coming week.


Friday, February 03, 2012

Disagreeing to agree

OK…  I was trying to avoid this, but this has gotten out of hand a bit. 
So yes, many saw, and some of you started reading regularly, after reading here how I predicted that with the new assessment numbers that 65% were likely to see a tax bill decrease if indeed tax rates were reset to their revenue neutral points. 
Then there was this other estimate out there that made the news that said I was being 'optimistic' and tht number was really close to 'half'. If you missed it I really had a Sally Field moment reading this press release.   I keep getting questions about why was I wrong?? 
The two numbers are not as far off as one may think.  I said 65% would see taxes go down.  The RealSTATS estimate is not half but 54%.  So 54 or 65, which is it? Who is wrong?  Of course, nothing is that simple, and the number you get depends on the question you ask. So let’s recap a few knowns.
So no need to scrape any longer.  With the actual data on new assessment numbers for the city of Pittsburgh there are 119,102 residential parcels in the city of Pittsburgh.  I had scraped over 118 thousand of them at one point, but that difference is irrelevant to the issue at hand.  That was my starting point since the question at hand then, and remains for me, what percentage of homeowners in the city of Pittsburgh are really looking at their taxes going up or down.

Now there are also 10K or so commercial parcels in the city, along with 20K+  other government or otherwise exempt parcels.  It looks like the commercial parcels saw assessment increases a bit higher than residential parcels.  So for them it has never been the case that 65% would see taxes go down. I have not worked it out, but it may in fact be the opposite and 65% of commercial parcels in the city will see tax bill increases.  Bunch them all together and you are really asking a different question.

I was focusing on residential parcels since that was all that had been released at the time as anyone who read the posts would have realized (the commercial parcels were not even on the county web site yet as well). RealStats clearly says they were looking at 128,921 parcels which I infer means they are looking at both residential and commercial parcels lumped together.  They decribe their analysis as applying to  "property owners" which seems to confirm that they are looking at more than the residential parcels which I hope was sufficiently labeled on all my graphics..  So right there is one big reason the numbers are not the same.. nor should they be. 

There is a bigger difference though.   I did not just blindly include all residential parcels either.  I excluded all residential parcels with previous assessments under $3,000.  Why?  It was a quick and dirty way to exclude those parcels that did not really represent unique homeowners. What I knew is that the lowest valued parcels typically are vacant land and have no homes on them.  So now looking back and checking there are 13,864 residential parcels with previous values assessed at under $3K.  It turns out that 91% of them are indeed vacant land.  Not vacant homes, literally vacant land.   So a good back of the envelope number it turns out*.

So go think about the news stories those first days.  The lines of people seeking appeal forms.   None of those people were living in empty lots I bet.  And as an aside, the occupy folks who are (were?) denizen of the vacant Mellon Green, so exclude them as well.   Then remember the news I mentioned yesterday with the owner of 4 vacant parcels upset over his new assessment.  Maybe the owners of the vacant land are upset and filing appeals, but just that one case shows they is not a unique owner per vacant parcel and it just wasn't the issue. 

So let’s do this a bit more formally and I apologize for any confusion.  Technically my label of 'residential' may have been a bit broader than I was intending since I took out parcels I was inferring were vacant as well.  Technically vacant can still be residential and I did not make that clear I guess.  So if I take out all vacant land and all 'boarded up and condenmed parcels' from the equation I wind up with 99,129 residential parcels in the city of Pittsburgh.  Again assuming the 58% aggregate assessment increase for the city..  I am getting a breakdown of 63.96% of said parcels below the notional revenue neutral point.   I still find it hard to reconcile that number with the reporting, let alone the public rhetoric, of that first week.  

If you then couple that number with what is in the news today showing that a lot of higher end parcels in the city are actually underassessed, that ought to mean the impact of appeals is not going to be as much as some might expect.  Anyway.. if you want a pretty complete picture of how ALL recent sales in the city of Pittsburgh compare to their new and old assessment values I refer back to the graphs I put in this post last month: Assesments today. Where did the water go? I think those graphs tell the whole story of what worked and what didn't pretty well. 
Circling back..  makes me wonder what would happen if I actually started issuing press releases.. or started showing up at city council public comment period.  Where is Les L. when you need him?

* lest anyone dis back of the envelope calculations. Sometimes you have no choice.  I was once taught back of the envelope calcualtions for policy analysis in a class with a very emminent physicist even.  Granted the physicists will be better at that then the rest of us.  There is the story of how Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi estimated pretty accurately the strength of the Trinity atomic bomb test by throwing strips of paper in the air to see how far the shock wave threw them.


A number is not a number

It would take me an hour to parse even some of this: Fairness questioned in new assessments for eastern suburbs. Hard to skip the conclusion that it sews more confusion that it alleviates.
Again, for most all residents the issue is how their taxes change relative to their taxing body. That is all that matters to the bill they pay in the end.  So first factoid is Rankin’s notional +75% assessment increase. I kind of knew this was going to happen with a number like that. First:  No mention anywhere in the article that the so much of Rankin is a housing project or commercial valuation in some form or another.  About the extreme in the county when it comes to what portion of their land is actually made up of taxable residential property. 

Still.  +75%.  Still sounds horrible for the minority of residents in  the municipality that actually.  Does that mean those homeowners are expecting on average to see their tax bills go up some big chunk (nowhere near 75% mind you, but still an increase).  No.  The 75% is a change in total value.  Residential values went up by 59.7%. Still, that is before any tax rate change. Still odd for a municipality in such a situation yes?  Remember you are not talking big numbers here for the taxable property that is all the numbers are talking about.  Total residential value in Rankin is just $14.7 million in the NEW assessment. Smaller than any municipality in this dump other than Wall, PA which has only 560 residents... maybe a quarter of Rankin (where is Wall actually?)  Rankin residential valuation was only a total of $9.2 million in the previous assessment.  So what could have caused a $5.5 million jump?  Funny that the county says it has in just recent years spent nearly $8 million focused on housing improvements just in Rankin according to the PG's own coverage of it. I think it is more if you add up over the decade.  Seems that if you spend nearly $8 million in a community with $9.2 million in residential housing value you might not be suprised that you nominally see $5.5 million increase in assessed value.  Sort of pathological in it's way, but that is a bigger topic. Missing the forest for the trees would be the pithy way to put it. We just don't understand our own problems which gets to the real point of why we never seem to be able to solve them. 

I will skip the other 30 points that drive me nuts just scanning that. Nice that they got the data out there on the total value changes by municipality which folks need to know to understand their assessments.  Most won't get it from the county it seems, or from blogs.

You know what someone needs to do?   Create yet another county assessment web page where you can plug in your address and it gives you the aggreggage assessment changes for your property, for your municipality and your school district and then compute a first pass at how much your property tax bills will change.  Wouldn't that be helpful to a lot of people?  Again.. what most care about at the end of the day.   and the big picture question nobody wants to touch.  New assessment numbers unfair to low valued homeowners?  You bet.  Nobody wants to talk about how unfair are the current assessment number?  Funny nobody has parsed those numbers in this detail in the 6 years this assessment case has been litigated. 

Alas.. even if I could get someone to fund  that new web site.. just no time.  But someone really ought to do it.


Thursday, February 02, 2012

Catch the Cat

So.. first off the WSJ itself is running right now The Really Negative Story on Natural Gas. I am still waiting for the news folks to catch the story on what must be happening (or about to happen I guess for some) with royalty checks across Pennsylvania. 

update. WSJ has a video on the article..  Author predicting gas hitting $1!!!

It's been an interesting week for natural gas prices. So you have to have spent a little time on Wall Street to really appreciate this.  So heading into last week a building news story was the nearly historic lows in the natural gas markets... mentioned in this post last week.. and I still wonder why I catch no stories in the state on the state of the royalty check.

Then.. several big announcements that some of the big shale gas developers were cutting back big time.  Was the goal to cut back production.  Certainly to a degree, but you often don't see companies going out of their way to tell the world they are cutting back at the core business. The problem these folks faced were such low prices for what they were selling that they goal was to get the prices up.  So there was big incentive to let the world know supply was theoretically coming down and push the prices up in the market.  Was supply really going to be cut back as much as the news implied?  Who knows, but you can be sure this was all being played up as much as could be. 

Source: EIA today
How does the saying go.  You can't fight mother nature?  Then these 50+ degree days come rolling in and heading to the big east coast markets. The price of natural gas, even after absorbing all this bad supply news,  dropped again.  Another tick up today, but still the whole bump up was not much and prices are still about as low as they can go (for now).  So despite their best effort I think mother nature called their bluff. The projections are for multi-decade low prices in these markets by summer, but those headlines are always looking at nominal prices.  Adjusted for inflation, you are really at some unprecedented price levels already.

On a side note did you catch this: Columbia Gas Customers May Pay More.  Folks out there were saying that Marcellus shale gas had a higher energy content than other gas.  So I thought that was a good thing right.. Pay for same about of gas, but get more heat out of it?  Gas bill will go down accordingly.  No..  of course not.  It must be true the gas has more energy and the switch described in the article that the company is switching its cost structure from cubit foot to BTU will prevent that savings from happening.  Kind of an inductive bit of evidence that indeed the Marcellus gas burns hotter. I guess the idea of me selling less gas for the amount of heat I needed didn't work for them.

I do have a serious question if there are any petro-geologists out there.   Can you completely shut-in a shale gas well once it is producing?  and I wonder how many PA landowners negotiated any form of a shut-in royalty? Do you get royalities for gas flared off?

Maybe cat falling with knife in paw is the appropriate metaphor?
and I still don't know if that cat is dead or not?


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Allegheny Airlines Watch

There was a time when every hiccup at USAir was a major news story here.  How far have we come? I find it curious that there is news virtually everywhere in the world over the buzz that US Airways will wind up a cog in the post-bankruptcy frenzy following the news of AMR's Chapter 11 filing. Yet not so much coverage here as yet?

Washington Post on the potential for Delta to buy US Airways: Delta Said to Weigh US Airways Bid in Review of M&A Options

Philadelphia Inquirer on potential US Airways merger with Delta: US Airways confirms it may try to merge with American

Philadelphia Inquirer on all fo the above: Merger Mania: US with AA? AA with DL?

and a writeup worth reading in the UK's Independent: British airways key to US merger mania. Remember when British Airways was going to acquire most of US Air in an alliance that began in 1993?? only to dissolve rather painfully in 1996.  Could have made for a different history here for sure if it had worked out differently.

Even Minnesota Public Radio: Rumors of airline merger, acquisition take to the skies

See.. I can post something without mentioning the 'a' word.