At a press conference timed to follow last night's election, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Mayor Bill Peduto today announced the launch of an audit of the city's pension plans for firefighters, police and other municipal employees.
While the pension audit is one done regularly by the auditor general's office, DePasquale and Peduto used the opportunity to talk about the city's dire pension outlook and call on newly elected representatives to help solve the state-wide crisis.
"People want to have safe streets, enough cops to protect your streets, communities that are safe from fire because you have enough firefighters," said DePasquale. "The only way cities are going to be able to afford that is to get their pension costs under control and there's going to have to be help from Harrisburg."
Of the 1,218 municipalities throughout the state, 573, including Pittsburgh, are distressed and underfunded. Pittsburgh was ranked number two on a list of the top 25 municipalities with the largest unfunded pension liabilities.
"What we've seen is a loss within the asset, some of it due to market condition, some of it due to a lack of adequate investment," said Peduto. "Bringing about a systematic change in our pension system is absolutely required not just for Pittsburgh but for every other older city throughout the state of Pennsylvania."
According to the auditor general's office, Pittsburgh has an underfunded pension liability of $485 million. Throughout the state, the pension liability totals $6.7 billion.
In addition to illustrating the state's pension problem, DePasquale also detailed a number of possible solutions. These include establishing consistent member contributions, updates that account for the population's increased life expectancy, and excluding overtime and lump-sum leave payments from pension benefits.
"This is about protecting people's retirements. These changes have to occur," Peduto says. "At the end of the day if we go bankrupt there's no money to give anyone, not only the employees of today but the employees of the future."
After months of community meetings, today the city announced they'd reached an agreement with the Pittsburgh Penguins on development of the 28-acre lower Hill District site.
"It's goal is to build transformational wealth for the residents of the greater Hill District," said Mayor Bill Peduto.
Among the agreement's highlights is the creation of a tax increment financing district in the Hill District, which will be the largest in the city. It will generate from $22 to $50 million of investment from the development's tax revenue for the Hill District.
Local leaders said they hoped the agreement could begin to reverse decades of disinvestment in the Hill District that began with the original development of the Civic Arena, which has since been demolished to make room for the new development.
"We do have two Pittsburghs," said Kevin Acklin, the mayor's chief of staff. "We have neighborhoods in the city that haven't seen investment and development in generations."
The TIF funds can potentially be used for neighborhood improvement and investment like residential facade grants, grants for down payment and closing cost assistance, and street and utility improvements. The city said the agreement also has the highest level of commitment to minority and women business enterprise participation in the city.
"When we did the arena project it was a lot of hard work, but we found a way to work with the community and we came up with the community benefits agreement," said Penguins COO Travis Williams. "I think we've shown again that this city and this community and these corporations and foundations know how to come together to make something good happen."
But while the agreement promises millions of dollars of investment for the greater Hill District, it does not meet the community's desire for 30 percent of the development's residential units to be affordable housing.
"The community hasn't even had a chance to see it let alone say whether they support it or not" said Carl Redwood, a community organizer with the Hill District Consensus Group, who interrupted a press conference earlier today where the agreement was announced. "We have the power in the community. We can stop the whole development."
Out of the 1100 residential units planned, 20 percent will be affordable housing. Of these units, 15 percent will be affordable for families and individuals making 80 percent of the area median income, 2.5 percent will be at 70 percent area median income, and 2.5 percent will be at 60 percent area median income.
This plan includes, greater levels of affordability than what was originally proposed by the Penguins: 20 percent affordable housing at 80 percent area median income. Rental rates could be as low as $600.
"The economic reality of being able to get to 30 percent, the reality is the dollars to fill those gaps are limited, so this was based on an analysis of what was achievable," said Hill District councilman Daniel Lavelle.
While Lavelle admitted he didn't get everything he wanted out of the agreement, he said there will be a variety of opportunities for Hill District residents. Future efforts will focus on training individuals to be able to work on the site and building capacity in small businesses in order for them to occupy the site.
"I agree with Councilman Lavelle, you're never going to get everything you want in negotiation," said Mark Lewis, president of the POISE Foundation. "But I think we've heard things in the past about minority participation limits set for the stadiums that did not come to fruition, so we have to wait and see what the commitments are really going to be to make the opportunities available for those in the Hill District."
Work on the site will begin in the next six to nine months.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto says the United States is among 11 nations who elect public officials but do not guarantee citizens the right to vote. Today, he joined Rev. Jesse Jackson and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in advocating for a constitutional amendment that would protect the right to vote.
"It's time for the United States to join the rest of the world in supporting its citizens," Peduto said.
Pittsburgh is the second city to come out in support of a constitutional amendment. In August, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and the Cincinnati city council led the way by passing a resolution endorsing the addition of a voting rights amendment.
Earlier today, Rev. Jackson met with Pittsburgh city council to urge them to pass a similar resolution.
"All Americans should have the fundamental constitutional right to vote," Jackson said. "Most people really think they have that right now, but they don't. Each state has its own set of rules on elections."
Jackson's campaign is in response to the August 2013 Supreme Court decision that invalidated a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring federal approval of election law changes in areas with a history of voter discrimination. The next step will be to encourage members of congress to sign on to H.J. Resoltuion 34, which would amend the constitution and allow congress to develop a national election system.
Fitzgerald, along with county council president John DeFazio also committed to passing a resolution in support of the amendment.
"This was brought to our attention in many ways a couple of years ago when our state legislature tried to suppress the vote and deny people's right to vote," Fitzgerald said.
Pennsylvania was one of at least 25 states who in the past few years proposed legislation requiring people to present photo identification when voting or expanding established voter ID laws. The local law was passed in 2012 but later struck down in January 2014.
Back in March, I wrote a story about the years of neglect foisted upon the Citizen Police Review Board, and the hopes some police accountability experts had that the Peduto administration might take civilian oversight of law enforcement more seriously than his predecessors.
And while it's probably still too early to tell exactly how seriously the CPRB will be taken by Peduto and the new yet-to-be-named permanent police chief, there's now at least one high-profile case in which the CPRB's recommendation to fire an officer who arrested a teacher outside a community meeting is being largely ignored by the city.
That case involves Dennis Henderson, who was arrested by Pittsburgh officer Jonathan Gromek outside a Community Empowerment Association meeting last summer. Henderson claims there was no apparent reason for his arrest other than commenting on Gromek's driving as he drove down the street in his cruiser, which led to a verbal confrontation that quickly escalated.
In November, based on findings from the city's Office of Municipal Investigations that Gromek had violated bureau policy, the city appeared to settle on a written reprimand as the appropriate punishment.
But the CPRB reached a very different conclusion, recommending instead that Gromek be suspended for five days pending termination for actions the review board deemed "egregious."
And while the CPRB's recommendations are not binding, the police chief or mayor are required by law to respond to the CPRB within 30 days and either accept the board's recommendations or explain why they shouldn't.
In this case, interim chief Regina McDonald didn't respond specifically to the CPRB's recommendations issued March 26 until July 8. And even though she agreed with the CPRB's finding that Gromek violated bureau policies on proper conduct and incompetency (though disagreed with their rationale without explanation), she wrote, "No action will be taken based on CPRB's findings and recommendations" beyond action the bureau has already taken based on OMI's investigation.
Asked why McDonald did not respond to the specific recommendations until over three months after she received them, police spokesperson Sonya Toler wrote, "OMI investigated and the police bureau took appropriate action." She did not elaborate. Officer Gromek is currently assigned to Zone 3.
Mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty did not respond to an email asking how seriously the CPRB's recommendations should be taken or whether Peduto believes Gromek should continue to serve on the force.
CPRB executive director Beth Pittinger says she isn't surprised by the city's response.
"The acting chief of police is from the old school," Pittinger says, adding that the timing of CPRB investigations often comes well after the city has already made a recommendation for discipline, which happened in this case. "I think we are all anxious for a chief of police to take the reigns so we can get out of this holding pattern."
Jerome Jackson, a witness to the incident and executive director of Operation Better Block, said the rejection of civilian recommendations only worsens the community's perception of the police department.
"Unless the CPRB is taken seriously and its recommendations are taken seriously, what good is it?" he asks. "It doesn't help community-police relations."
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