It's Bob's Time | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

It's Bob's Time

... but when the clock strikes midnight on inauguration day, his promises may prove hard to keep.

"I have so many people to thank for this overwhelming victory," Bob O'Connor told the crowd at his May 17 mayoral primary victory party. "I want to thank business and labor, especially labor -- I know we have a lot of labor people here."

He also had a lot of suits, seniors, young people, women and minorities crammed into a Sheraton ballroom awaiting the balloons and confetti. Several dozen politicians, meanwhile, gathered behind him in hopes of sharing the spotlight.

"It's Bob's time," his supporters had been saying -- some blissfully, some tearfully -- as his lead solidified throughout the night. On his third try for the Democratic nomination, O'Connor had managed to take nearly half the vote in a seven-candidate field. His total was seven times that of the unopposed Republican nominee, Joe Weinroth, whom he'll face in November.

And now that it was all but official, O'Connor reiterated his oft-made promise to "[get] this city back on track. ... With the elected officials behind me, business and labor, there's nothing that can keep us from being successful."

Actually, the very fact that business, labor and most of officialdom supported O'Connor may prove to be among his biggest challenges. Each group brings expectations and priorities, and they will inevitably clash. Worse, the city's continued budget problems and the mayor's diminished powers mean that O'Connor may have trouble fulfilling the promises that brought them all to his side -- starting with the very centerpiece of his platform.

Bob's promise: "[T]he city must: Reduce operating costs with a better-managed operation and increased productivity in the workforce," reads the key plank of O'Connor's campaign platform. "Bob O'Connor as Mayor, working with the legislature, The Act 47 Coordinator, and the Oversight board, [offers hope of] addressing a $1 Billion long term debt."

Bob's problem: O'Connor should enter office with a lot of friends. Among them are the people nominally in control of the two fiscal watchdogs that can veto city budget changes: Gov. Ed Rendell, who can pull the strings of the Act 47 financial-recovery team, and Bill Lieberman, chairman of an overlapping oversight board appointed mostly by the state legislature. Other Friends of Bob are the heads of the powerful Fraternal Order of Police and International Association of Fire Fighters unions, which endorsed him.

Unfortunately, Bob's friends aren't friendly with each other.

"We have such tension between the [oversight board] and the Act 47 team," says Jim Simms, an oversight board member. That tension boiled over in March, when the oversight board voted to sue the city, the Act 47 coordinators and the firefighters union. The board felt a five-year contract the city agreed to with the union was too generous, and should have been only a one-year pact. Only Simms voted not to sue, saying he wanted negotiations, not litigation. (The oversight board also, briefly, entered into litigation opposing the police contract, but then dropped out.)

Relations among the city's unions aren't cozy, either. The police are perennially jealous of the firefighters. They're upset now, says FOP President Mike Havens, because the city is appealing a contract-arbitration award that would have finally given the cops health care, pension and seniority provisions resembling those the firefighters got. The refuse workers, whose last contract expired at the end of 2003, want "the same health care the firefighters got," says Joe Rossi, vice president of Teamsters Local 249, which represents them. "Once we get over that, we should be able to complete a new contract," he says -- as long as the time they've spent without a contract counts against a two-year wage freeze all other city employees face at the beginning of their new contracts.

How does O'Connor plan to bring two competing overseers and green-eyed unions together? "Get 'em in the same room," he said as he shook hands following his victory speech. "I can do it." He should be careful to clear that room of sharp objects first.

Bob's promise: In his campaign literature, O'Connor pledged to merge lots of city functions with the county, including police training, records storage, some public-works operations, computer systems, hiring, inventory control, security and cleaning services, telecommunications, tax collection and asphalt procurement. Asked about sharing services with the county at an African-American Chamber of Commerce forum on April 21, he said, "That's easy. It should be done overnight, with the cooperation of the mayor and the county executive."

Bob's problem: Read the list of things O'Connor wants to cooperate with him on, County Executive Dan Onorato quips, and you might conclude, "The quickest way to do it would be to merge the whole thing." Onorato points out that since he took office in January 2004, the county has taken on the city's 911 call center, police fingerprinting, courts and some bulk purchasing. Along with much of the business community's leadership, he's called for eventually folding city government entirely into the county.

On the other side is City Council, which must approve major changes in city operations, and which has been cautious about mergers that, members fear, might compromise city services. "We have problems with [merging city and county issuance of] dog licenses even!" says Councilor Len Bodack. "It costs us less to process them than it does the county," he says, and the city collects special fees to support its off-leash exercise areas, which the county might balk at doing.

"I'm all for looking into anything if it makes good common sense for the City of Pittsburgh and if it's good for the residents of the city," says Councilor Jim Motznik, who will likely be the city's veteran legislator and a strong candidate for the council presidency in January. But can it happen overnight? The 911 merger "took six or seven years," he notes, in part because city and county call-center workers were represented by different unions and had different pension plans that had to be reconciled.

If consolidation talks bear fruit, labor unions won't have to rely solely on O'Connor to protect their interests. Motznik, Bodack and Councilor Luke Ravenstahl have strong ties to unions. Unions representing city workers (especially the fire and police unions) were also among the biggest contributors to the campaigns of first-time Democratic council nominees Tonya Payne and Dan Deasy, meaning there will likely be a labor-friendly majority on council next year. That could doom consolidation proposals that cut jobs or change pay and benefits.

A wild card is County Council, which is battling with Onorato over whether it has authority to amend or nix consolidations. "When I'm ready to make a move, if [county councilors] want to challenge it, they will," says Onorato. Such a challenge could lead to a lengthy court fight before any of O'Connor's consolidation promises are fulfilled.

Bob's promise: His platform called for more cooperation with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, including shared procurement, health insurance and utilities bidding (all of which could also include the county). O'Connor repeatedly said he'd be "mayor for everybody, especially the kids in the schools," and even told attendees at a Leadership Pittsburgh forum on March 4 that he'd "make sure that every child by six o'clock has his homework done, or her homework done" by convincing the district to provide after-school tutoring.

Bob's problem: In March, O'Connor abandoned his past support for turning the elected school board into a partly appointed body, saying he'd rely on his people skills to get the board and the city working together. School board members seem eager to work with him -- to a point. "Anything that can save money, we're open to it," says board President Bill Isler. They've already hired the city's Cable Bureau to televise some of their meetings, he notes.

But proposals such as altering the district's existing after-school tutoring program raise some hackles. "I think he should leave those kinds of things to the superintendent," says board Vice President Randall Taylor, a longtime O'Connor supporter. "Those suggestions are nice, but I hope they don't start turning into pressure or mandates."

Bob's promise: He'd seek more state aid for the city's pension fund, which contains about half the money it should and threatens to become an unbearable drain on the city's budget. "I will go to Harrisburg and lobby heavily to remove the current cap and restore funding to its previous levels," his campaign literature said. That could mean adding some $10 million to the city's budget, and may be his best hope for buying some budgetary breathing room.

Bob's problem: The state helps out municipalities whose pension funds aren't flush enough to handle current and future retirees. The assistance is based on a complex formula involving the property and casualty insurance premiums collected in Pennsylvania by out-of-state companies, and the numbers of current employees of the needy municipalities. The only "cap" on state pension aid is one that restricts any one municipality from getting more than 25 percent of the pension-aid pie -- and only Philadelphia reaches that ceiling.

So solving Pittsburgh's pension problem isn't as simple as eliminating a cap. The big problem with state pension aid is that affluent municipalities have intentionally underfunded their pensions in order to get state bucks, says state Sen. Jay Costa, a Forest Hills Democrat. "These are self-distressed pension systems that get money that they shouldn't be entitled to," Costa says. They've grabbed more and more of the pension pie, driving the city's take down from around $28 million in the mid-1980s to $17.6 million this year.

Costa and Rep. Dan Frankel, a Squirrel Hill Democrat, have sought various changes in the formula. "It's an uphill battle," Costa says. "There's great reluctance on the part of many [legislators] to tinker with the payments that go to local governments" they represent.

Rep. Mike Turzai, a Bradford Woods Republican, says he won't support more pension aid because of "Pittsburgh's abhorrent behavior with respect to its pension," including the use of overly optimistic estimates and very-long-term borrowing. He's also conditioned support for any more help to Pittsburgh on the privatization of some services and elimination of some city authorities -- concepts O'Connor has opposed.

Worse yet, O'Connor's best friend in Harrisburg -- his former boss, Gov. Ed Rendell -- "is not pursuing changes in the formula," says gubernatorial spokesman Chuck Ardo. That's not too surprising, given that Rendell's headed into a 2006 reelection campaign in which suburban officials could help or hurt him.

So O'Connor may be collecting a pension before he sees any change in state aid.

Bob's promise: "Blighted properties and slum landlords must be confronted aggressively and resolved expediently," his platform says. That echoes a growing concern in neighborhoods seeing an influx of absentee landlords and tenants that has caused class and racial tensions from Upper Lawrenceville to Sheraden.

Bob's problem: Remember those consolidations O'Connor is so hot on? One that took effect in January merged the city's Housing Court, which long dealt with bad landlords, into the state's judicial system, which is run by the county. As a result, landlord complaints that were once heard by a single mayoral appointee, under rules favorable to the city, are now heard by rotating district justices who have to adhere to stricter procedures and standards of evidence.

Council has passed ordinances that would allow the city to declare problem rentals "nuisance properties" and put liens on the landlord's home or evict tenants. But questions of legality and enforceability have kept them from taking effect, says Bodack. Legislation to license landlords -- and pull their licenses if they flout city laws -- bogged down pre-election. "The real-estate people were objecting to the fact that they would have to register their properties" and pay per-unit fees, says Bodack. "I would like to renew [the effort]."

But guess who, in large measure, bankrolled O'Connor's campaign? That's right: real-estate people. Of the 31 five-figure contributions his campaign got through early May, 13 came from real estate or development interests. They'll have O'Connor's ear -- at the very least.

Bob's promise: "I will continue efforts already underway to build new housing units and capacity within the Golden Triangle," his campaign lit said. "We could have 5,000 to 7,000 students living down here," he told members of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership at a March 16 forum.

Bob's problem: "There are a sizable number of projects going on Downtown," says Fran Escalante, project manager at No Wall Productions, which has developed Downtown housing and is now building 20 units at 930 Penn Ave. But, he adds, "This is not something I think the next mayor will be able to wish into happening."

It's expensive to turn old commercial buildings into apartments, Escalante says, and that forces developers to charge high rents. The problem is, Pittsburghers don't pay high rents, so to make the projects work, the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority usually kicks in subsidies. It takes a significant subsidy just to get rents on a small Downtown apartment down to $1,500 a month, Escalante says -- and that's still more than most students can afford.

Point Park University, for one, is interested in seeing more student housing Downtown. Developers, including No Wall, have long studied the prospect of doing just that, but no one has signed a deal. "If it was feasible, it seems like someone would be attempting it," Escalante says.

O'Connor could throw money at Downtown housing. But the city is tapped out, and President George Bush is trying to cut federal aid for city redevelopment. The next mayor will have "a lot of competing priorities," Escalante rues.

Bob's promise: He famously suggested running a trolley from Downtown to Oakland, but then broadened his proposal. "[W]e must link our two employment centers, downtown and Oakland," his campaign lit said. He later professed not to care whether that be by commuter rail service, monorail or magnetic levitation system -- as long as somebody besides the city paid for it.

Bob's problem: "We find it an interesting proposal," Port Authority Executive Director Paul Skoutelas told City Paper in an April interview. "There's a need to make some better connections between Downtown and Oakland." He said several different transportation modes are "worthy of consideration and evaluation."

A respectful ear is about all Skoutelas is obliged to give O'Connor. His bosses on the Port Authority board are appointed by the county executive, not the mayor. Port Authority is currently trying to connect the T to the North Shore and studying possible improvements in transit to the airport and the eastern suburbs. "Realistically, funds certainly aren't unlimited for transportation," Skoutelas said. "Frankly, our plate is full."

Bob's promise: Though his written campaign platform makes little reference to it, he promised at forums to address the black community's concerns. If elected, he pledged repeatedly, "Fifty percent of the authority board members [appointed by an O'Connor administration] will be women or African Americans." Police-community relations will improve, he said. "I as a mayor will cooperate with the citizens, the police, and the [citizens] review board," he told the Black Media Federation on April 16.

Bob's problem: O'Connor won around 65 percent of the black vote, according to an analysis by Chris Briem of Pitt's University Center for Social and Urban Research.

"I don't think that was so much a referendum on Bob," says Rev. Johnnie Monroe of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District. "I think it was more a reaction to what [current Mayor Tom] Murphy has done." Though Murphy wasn't in the race, O'Connor benefited from dissatisfaction with the 12th-year incumbent because he challenged him in 1997 and 2001, Monroe says. In addition, O'Connor's main rivals -- City Councilor Bill Peduto and County Prothonotary Michael Lamb -- were perceived as being in various ways tied to Murphy or his policies, Monroe says.

O'Connor's pledge to make half of his board appointees women or minorities isn't sufficient, Monroe says. "I don't think we can continue to allow politicians to put minorities and women in the same category," he says, noting that pols sometimes appoint black women and count them twice. The black community should have organized and held out for a more detailed commitment, he says. But it didn't.

At African-American forums, O'Connor was frequently asked about the Citizens Police Review Board, which investigates charges of police misconduct, and which he opposed before city voters mandated its creation in 1997. The questions became especially pointed after the Fraternal Order of Police, which has long battled the board, gave O'Connor its endorsement and a $10,000 campaign contribution. O'Connor said he'd work with the board, but didn't promise to order officers to cooperate with board investigations, nor to respect the board's disciplinary recommendations. "Certainly, we're optimistic that change in leadership will bring with it some reflection on the past and [the next mayor] will be more inclined to move forward" with improving the police bureau's cooperation with the board, says CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger.

At least O'Connor pledged to cooperate with the review board, and fight drug dealing, and tear down crime-infested houses, and much more (See "Bob's Jobs"). Assuming he wins in November, he'll be expected to deliver on at least some of his commitments, says Monroe. "We need somebody that's going to remember the campaign promises," he says. And if the new mayor doesn't? "I think we'll have to remember him the next time around."

Bob's Jobs

How's Bob doing? Follow along at home!

Here's a clip-and-save list of campaign pledges taken straight from Democratic mayoral nominee Bob O'Connor's campaign literature, or utterances at his campaign appearances. Tape this list of promises to your refrigerator and check them off as he fulfills them!

-- Make "a 20 percent reduction in the cost of the Mayor's Office" and "a 12 percent cut in the City Finance Department," saving taxpayers $850,000 a year.

-- Lower property taxes. "When you bring more people in, you can lower that property tax base. It can happen in the next few years, it doesn't have to take forever."

-- Roll back the parking tax. "I think that's something that would be easily rolled back. ... I believe if you roll it back, you will probably come out almost even" due to increased parking volume.

-- "Eliminate Deputy Mayors and appoint a professional City Manager. ... I'm going to hire the most professional city manager I can find to make the trains run and make them run on time."

-- "Professionalize our boards and authorities and implement term limits."

-- Improve minority contracting. "Create a pool, so that everyone who has the skills or expertise ... can bid on that contract and perform."

-- "Create [an] Internet-based system for online permitting applications" and "Collect taxes, fees, and parking tickets over the Internet."

-- Rein in panhandling. "When I'm there, we're going to make sure it's restricted, and they don't bug people."

-- Address crime on Formosa Way near Homewood Elementary School. "We'll tear that down. We'll all work together to make sure our kids are safe."

-- "[P]ut all the swimming pools open in the City of Pittsburgh."

Sources: Campaign literature; Hazelwood Initiative candidates' forum of April 12; Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership candidates' forum of March 16; campaign literature and campaign kickoff event of Feb. 13; campaign literature; African-American Chamber of Commerce candidates' forum of April 21; campaign literature; Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership forum; Black Media Federation candidates' forum of April 16; Beechview Area Concerned Citizens candidates' forum of April 28

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