Thursday, March 1, 2007

Peduto Gets It, Ravenstahl Clueless

Pittsburgh City Councilmember and mayoral candidate William Peduto not only understands the problem, but he's got the testicular fortitude required to do something about it. The same cannot be said for his opponent in this election, incumbent Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl. Yesterday, Mr. Peduto not only demanded that the Ravenstahl administration reinstate the city's cost recovery program for police secondary employment -- which Master Ravenstahl eliminated last November in a moment of spineless capitulation to the police union -- but went one step further. Mr. Peduto is calling for Master Ravenstahl to do what he should have done months ago. Instead of reducing or eliminating the cost recovery fee, Mr. Peduto has challenged his opponent to bolster the program using a sensible, percentage-based fee structure which will bring in (according to my own calculations) between $710,000 and $730,000 of new revenue every year to compensate city taxpayers for the costs of police secondary employment.

Regular readers of this space will already know the specifics about what police secondary employment is, the costs and problems that it places on city taxpayers, and the full story of how Pittsburgh's cost recovery program has evolved over time through three different sets of mayors and police chiefs. If you are just joining us, however, you can read all of the ugly details in an earlier three-part series of posts, beginning here. You may want to go get a fresh cup of coffee first.

The Post-Gazette initially broke the story of these latest developments yesterday afternoon, and then followed up with a longer story today. These two versions of the story lead to a certain degree of confusion about the specifics of Mr. Peduto's proposal. In the earlier article (and in the Peduto press release), he seems to be calling for a cost recovery fee equal to 10% of the police officers' wages whenever they are engaged in secondary employment. In the later version, the cost recovery is presented as the same flat, $4-per-hour fee that was proposed during the administration of late mayor Bob O'Connor. The story which appears in this morning's Tribune-Review is similarly unclear, describing the plan as one which would use "an approximately 10 percent charge", but also referencing the flat-fee arrangement that was due to be implemented prior to Interim Mayor Ravenstahl's decision to end the program.

We can only hope that the Mr Peduto's reconstituted recovery fee will indexed, on some kind of a percentage basis, to the police officers' hourly wages. That is by far the best sort of arrangement for our city's taxpayers. Rounding the amount off to the nearest dollar, and expressing it as a simple dollar-per-hour rate makes a great deal of sense, but the cost recovery fee must be set up in such a way that it automatically increases in pace with the city's costs. Setting a fixed flat-amount fee that could only be increased after protracted negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police, a huge number of private employers, and the members of City Council would be an enormous mistake.

It would hardly be surprising if Luke Ravenstahl were to make this kind of a mistake. Doing so, whether accidentally or on purpose, would be entirely in keeping with his on-the-job performance over the past six months. It would allow him to appear willing to go along with this common sense proposal, while allowing it to become weaker and weaker with every passing year. But Mr. Peduto seems to understand Master Ravenstahl's ways, and I remain hopeful that he will be vigilant in protecting us from this kind of back-door docility by our interim mayor.

As much as I welcome the Peduto proposal, and hope that it can be established as an indexed, percentage fee, I must say that I am somewhat disappointed by the fact that it is set at only 10%. My firm understanding is that other local police departments, such as the Allegheny County Police and the Port Authority Police, charge a 22% fee on all secondary employment by their officers. The reduced fee that Mr. Peduto is proposing is, as his press release notes, entirely in keeping with the plans that were developed during the initial days of the O'Connor administration. A 10% fee is far better than the flat $4 to $5 per-hour arrangement that Mr. O'Connor's police chief, Dominic Costa, finally decided to institute just before Mr. O'Connor's death. It's an enormous improvement over the laughable $2 to $4 per-hour flat fee that the FOP leadership suggested once Mr. O'Connor had died. And it goes without saying that Bill Peduto's plan is infinitely better than the complete absence of any cost recovery fee that would be preferred by Luke Ravenstahl.

Charging just 10%, when the going rate in other local jurisdictions is 22%, may just be simple political reality at work. The large-scale users of police secondary employment in Pittsburgh -- most notably the Steelers, the Pirates, and Giant Eagle -- are all very well-connected to our city's political establishment. The power of the police union cannot be easily dismissed. And there is certain amount of public benefit to having uniformed police officers on the street in an urban environment, even when those officers are engaged by private secondary employers. So I can understand why Mr. Peduot's proposal does not go any further, and why it is anchored to what had been put forward during the O'Connor administration. But I still think that everyone involved -- from Mr. Peduto, to the Interim Mayor, to the FOP leadership, to the larger secondary employers -- should be confronted with this question, and should be asked explain to the city taxpayers just why we aren't receiving the standard rate for the private use of our public police officers.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the secondary employment story, as it stands this morning, is that Interim Mayor Ravenstahl still seems to be absolutely clueless about what the whole thing is about. Even after asking city council to approve a $200,000 settlement to cover the city's liability in a secondary employment detail gone horribly wrong, and even after being challenged by his primary opponent to do something to protect the taxpayers from these excessive and ever-increasing costs, he still hasn't done his homework. As reported by the Tribune-Review:

Ravenstahl wouldn't comment directly on the settlement. "I'm not familiar with the case," he said. "That was something that the Law Department handled internally."
Master Ravenstahl also hasn't even taken the common-sense step of directing his legal department to provide him with any information about the issue, despite the fact that it has been coming up over and over again during the last few weeks:
The City Clerk's office does not count how many settlements are related to off-duty police work. Acting City Solicitor George Specter did not return a call yesterday.
And, as reported in this morning's Post-Gazette, he still hasn't worked out exactly how he wants to proceed with secondary employment. Despite the fact that he first dealt with this issue three months ago, and that he has promised to reestablish the program within the next month or so, he hasn't yet decided how much he wants to charge as a cost recovery fee. Indeed, he hasn't even decided whether he actually wants all secondary employment to be brought under city control and thus subject to any fee whatsoever:
The mayor said he is developing a system that will include an as-yet-undetermined fee for the city, but hasn't decided whether all side jobs will be doled out by the Police Bureau, rather than by entrepreneurs. [snip...]

"There will be some fee," Mr. Ravenstahl said, adding that he "isn't going to make it so cost-prohibitive that businesses aren't going to hire officers." [snip...]

The mayor said the administration is "still in the process of discussing" whether all such work should be doled out by the bureau. He said a decision should be made by April 9, when the Pirates' home season begins.
When you read things like this, you can almost see the little wheels frantically turning over in Luke Ravenstahl's mind, desperately searching for any way to appease the police union while only appearing to do something substantial for city taxpayers.

The differences between our two mayor candidates are quickly becoming very clear indeed.


X said...

Without knowing the rationale behind the $4 or $5/hr., I'm guessing that the idea is that the cops can get paid whatever rate they want or negotiate ($10-20-30-40/hr.), but the city will still get about 10% of $40/hr. But you're right, that only works for this year and maybe the next, an the rate should be tied to something so that it automatically increases.

What I don't get is how does the city get away with charging a fee for some jobs but not for others? Isn't that an equal protection problem? In other words, why does the guy holding a first amendment rally have to pay the fee but the Rooneys don't?

Mark Rauterkus said...

Great points. Furthermore, there are sure to be "marketplace reactions."

Q: How much does it cost to hire private security for Steelers games? What is the wage(s) for business owners who hire security -- say at a East Carson Street bar?

As the overhead charges and base pay for City Police Overtime increases -- then private contractors (not Pgh Police) might be able to enter the scene and impact the respective formulas. (great spreadsheet, BTW)

Why not hire off-duty county police as bar security on the South Side (vs off-duty City Police). Make it so various agencies 'compete' with one another for these duties / paydays.

In the end, I want a small, well-rested, well paid, efficient police force that can't be bought and sold. On the streets, they need to work as keepers of the peace.

Plus, in the marketplace, competition and alternative choices are always welcomed.

I'm a common-sense, liberty-minded idealist.

Anonymous said...

Memo to Luke: Everybody complains when they hear they are going to have to pay more money for something. That doesn't mean that you should fold up your tent and walk away at the first sign of resistance, assuming that sensitivity to business concerns is the basis for your indecisiveness and not buying votes from the FOP (I'm thinkin' it's the latter). Anyway, assuming that it's the former, we can only imagine what kind of advice you're getting from the guy who went bankrupt (Denny), from the guy who gave you bad advice on the '07/'09 election thing and the Cathy McNeilly situation (Yarone) and Lord knows there's not a soul in your office with any business maturity or experience, including you, and J. Verbanic is an obnoxious, ill-willed blow-hard. Oh, and your friend Motznik will probably tell you to just double-bill the businesses just like he does for City vehicle usage. So here's what you do: Since you have no compass of your own to guide you, and since your friends and family members failed you in telling you to trust Denny, a good rule of thumb for you would be to simply go with the exact opposite advice of anything that Denny & Yarone are giving you on pretty much everything. You will be right more than you are wrong, you'll avoid bankrupting the City, your decisions will no longer be based on "what's best for Denny, Marlene & Frank Rende" & you will no longer be Jim Ferlo's ----boy. Oh, and the FBI would probably be less suspicious of your administration too. Some people just can't be trusted to make decisions on their own, & you're one of them. So let's practice:

"Luke, you should demote Cathy McNeilly."

"No, Yarone, I won't indulge the Napoleonic complex you share with Denny, and I won't allow you to waste taxpayers' $ on your petty vendettas. In fact, I think I will demote you and fire Denny instead."

Then again, cost recovery is a no-brainer & you couldn't even get that right. How can we trust you and your boys with such complex judgments on what is simply "not right"?

Richmond K. Turner said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments.

x, I do see a bit of an equal protection problem, especially when protest rallies get charged while bar owners and professional sports teams get off with a reduced rate (or even pay nothing at all). A private security company, of course, would be free to charge their customers any fee that they thought the custormer could bare. But the city shouldn't do that. If Peduto's plan goes forward, however, these equal protection should be a thing of the past.

Mark, I love the way you think. There have been a few bar and business owners who have complained about this fee. To which I say that if they really don't like it, go out into the private sector and hire your own guards. They won't be anywhere near as well trained. They won't be anywhere near as capable of summoning help when you need it. And they won't carry the automatic authority that comes with a city-issued police uniform. But hey, if $4 and hour is too much for all of these things, then go try to find a comparable service for a better price.

Don't go to the County Police, though. They charge far more.

If the mayor and the FOP are so worried about the loss of off-duty police pressence that would result from the introduction of this $4 per hour fee, then I would suggest that they could soften the blow signficantly by agreeing to a compensating reduction in their own hourly wages while working these side jobs.

Anonymous (12:09) you bring up a very good point. Part of the reason why Luke got into this mess is that he simply hasn't had the life experiences to brace himself for these complaints. He's never been in business, and indeed has never even been called upon to negotiate his own salary or vacation days when taking a new job. He's just not used to dealing with these kind of scare tactics, and he caved in almost immediately to them.

Thanks again, everyone, for your comments.