Burgess' Burgeoning Debate | Slag Heap
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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Burgess' Burgeoning Debate

Posted By on Tue, Mar 2, 2010 at 7:02 PM

Fair warning: This is going to be a LONG damn post about the reforms city councilor Ricky Burgess plans to propose in council today. It's a little about the reforms, and a bit about Burgess too, and what makes him tick. But whatever else it is, it's long. 

You can speed things along by checking out Rich Lord's exigesis on Burgess' proposals here. But for those who never tire of my deathless prose, I'll note that Burgess' proposal is in three parts: 

Part the first: Burgess wants to change the way council allocates federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding. Currently, each councilor gets $75,000 to spend in his or her district, usually by making grants to community-development groups and other neighborhood bulwarks. But since CDBG money is intended to help economically distressed communities, Burgess argues, council districts should get the same amount of money only if they have the same concentrations of economic distress. I'm going to focus on this proposal in a minute, but I'll note the other two planks for the record.

Part the second: When councilors spend their CDBG money, Burgess wants to make sure they can't make grants of any less than $5,000. On the surface, requiring councilors to hand out larger sums of money sounds like a pretty counterintuitive reform. But Burgess says that making a grant has the same administrative overhead no matter how large it is. Making fewer contributions of larger amounts, he argues, is a more efficient use of funds. 

And while Burgess didn't say so, one could argue that it's easier for good-government types to track grants if they are fewer in number, and larger in amount. If you've ever pored over campaign-contribution data, you know you'd much rather see a politician getting one contribution of $5,000, rather than 10 of $500. (Still, you'll notice that nobody's proposing a reform that sets a minimum contribution limit ...)

Part the third: Burgess wants to ensure the city doesn't use CDBG funds as "offsets." Even when the city does use CDBG money in poor districts, Burgess worries that doing so does free the city up to use its own money in less impoverished neighborhoods elsewhere in the city.

That may not sound like a bad thing. But Burgess contends that the city should be dividing its own money up evenly between the neighborhoods -- and that federal money should be used in poor communities only.

Tea Partiers take note: What Burgess is talking about here amounts to a redistribution of wealth, with poor areas getting extra cash while the rest of the city tries to get by on allocations from a cash-strapped city budget. I'm actually not sure this is at all workable, but Burgess contends that it's only fair. Poor communities have often been overlooked when it comes to receiving city services, he says, so it's time to make up the difference.

Really, that part of Burgess' proposal deserves a whole separate blog post. For now, I want to focus on the first part of his idea -- dividing council's discretionary CDBG money according to a different formula. 

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Currently, city council gets $675,000 in CDBG money to spend in the nine districts. The money is divided equally, so each councilor gets $75,000 to spend on community needs.

Burgess would divide the money differently, allocating it to each district according to how many economically distressed census blocks it contains.

A census block, for those who aren't hopeless geeks, is a subdivision of a census tract mapped out by the Census Bureau. There are more than 7,700 such blocks in the city. Burgess crunched some numbers and found that more than 4,400 of those blocks meet CDBG standards for economic distress. He calls these "CD-eligible" blocks.

So Burgess took council's $675,000 and divided it by 4,400 to figure out the average number of dollars each CD-eligible block should get. That works out to a bit more than $150 per census block. To figure out what each city councilor gets to spend, then, he multiplied that amount by the number of CD-eligible blocks in each district. 

How would the districts fare under the formula? Burgess' office provided a chart, showing what he believes the breakdown for all 9 districts would be. I'll reprint the relevant portion of it here, with the caveat that these are Burgess' numbers -- I haven't checked them: 

 

District

CD- Eligible blocks

Allocation

6

857

$130,404.64

3

850

$129,339.50

9

774

$117,775.02

1

656

$99,819.66

7

564

$85,820.56

2

281

$42,758.12

5

221

$33,628.27

8

151

$22,976.78

4

82

$12,477.46

As you can see, under the Burgess proposal, the council districts of Daniel Lavelle (district 6), Bruce Kraus (3), Burgess himself (9), Darlene Harris (1) and Patrick Dowd (7) would all be better off under the proposal -- i.e. they'd be getting more than the $75,000 they currently receive. The districts of Theresa Kail Smith (2), Doug Shields (5), Bill Peduto (8) and Natalia Rudiak (4) would all be worse off. 

Let's address some basic poltical concerns, because we're bloggers and that's what we do. To some extent, the winners and losers of Burgess' proposal break down along factional lines. Take this past January's vote for President -- widely seen as an indication of where the political fault lines on council are. Of the four councilors who'd be worse off under Burgess' proposal, three voted for Darlene Harris for council president (Peduto, Shields and Rudiak). In doing so, they thwarted Smith -- the candidate favored by Burgess and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

But of course Smith herself would be a loser under Burgess' proposal -- while Harris would be a winner. And Bruce Kraus -- who backed Harris -- would benefit from this proposal almost as much as Lavelle did. So the political impact here is murky. 

But Burgess sometimes does sound like he's trying to settle scores. When I talked with him about the proposal, he said that "Council talks about being data-driven all the time. Let's show that we're serious about that." Does that sound like a councilor throwing the gauntlet down at the feet of, say, Bill Peduto -- who prides himself on data-driven policy? A bit, yeah. And no doubt it will play into existing suspicions about Burgess' motivations regarding the living wage. Some see that issue, too, as a sort of political jujitsu -- using the rhetoric of Peduto and his allies to force them places they don't want to go. 

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But even assuming Burgess is looking to stick it to Peduto, that may have more to do with personal conviction than political strategy.

For one thing, Burgess sets great store by consistency. More than once, he's referred me to discussions we had during his 2007 campaign, arguing that what you see today is what voters knew they were getting years ago. And he is rigorous in demanding similar consistency from his colleagues.

For another, Burgess sees economic justice as a moral issue -- and arguably a much more pressing one than some discussed in city hall.

If you are going to support a prevailing wage bill to improve workers' lives -- a reform Peduto supported -- Burgess is going to ask why you don't back a living wage that could help workers even more. Especially if the beneficiaries of that more sweeping measure include struggling workers in his own district. Similarly, if you are going to demand a data-driven approach to snow removal, Burgess is going to expect a similar approach to poverty reduction. 

In any case, Burgess' proposals deserve to be discussed on their merits. Unequal distribution of resources is an age-old problem. During last year's mayoral campaign, for example, there was some chatter about the fact that some neighborhoods -- like Homewood, which is in Burgess' district -- were getting hand-me-down trashcans emblazoned with the names of other neighborhoods.

So let's put aside the politics here and talk about the policy.

I'll admit that I have a hard time getting my head around a proposal that grants Peduto and Shields -- whose districts include some of the most prosperous are in the city -- more money than Natalia Rudiak's district 4.

Granted, Shields' district includes long-suffering communities like Hazelwood and Greenfield along with Squirrel Hill: His district may have higher highs and lower lows than Rudiak's, which tends toward a narrower range of working-class communities. But I covered Rudiak's race last year, and there was palpable resentment of the way the city's southern neighborhoods feel ignored by the city. Smith's District 2 next door -- another loser under Burgess' plan -- has similar grievances. 

And my inner liberal cringes at the friction that seems likely between working-class whites and poor blacks, when neither group gets the resources it needs. I feel like I've seen that movie before. 

And at least one thing strikes me as potentially problematic with Burgess' methodology. He's using census blocks as the basic unit here, but population can vary widely from one block to the next. (For example, I picked out a randomly selected portion of Beechview, and found blocks ranging from a couple dozen people to nearly 150.)

According to Burgess' chart, for example, district 6 has 857 CD-eligible blocks, whereas district 4 only has 82. Does that mean district 6 has 10 times as many poor people? Not necessarily, if some of the 82 blocks in District 4 are more densely populated. 

I'm not sure how that would affect the district-by-district breakdown of allocations. This is really Chris Briem's area of expertise, and as he pointed out just yesterday -- a new Census is being carried out this year. So the demographics of those blocks will soon be changing.

I've had a back and forth with Burgess' office about this question; among other things, they argue that drilling down further into the data opens up different cans of worms. (For example, the number of households in economic distress within a census block can vary widely as well.) At any rate, Burgess may or may not be trying to make the fur fly in council. But that seems a likely outcome either way. 

Even so, it beats a discussion of licensing cats.

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