Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ravenstahl Tax Abatement Details Now Officially Overdue

Twelve days ago, on Thursday, 1st March 2007, Pittsburgh Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl held a meeting at the now-closed Reizenstein Middle School in East Liberty. At this meeting, Master Ravesntahl hauled a bunch of "pleased-as-punch" neighborhood leaders in front of the press to extol the unlimited virtues of his property tax abatement plan. His rival for the Democratic mayoral nomination, City Councilmember Bill "Cojònes" Peduto, responded by noting that the interim mayor was providing no details about his abatement proposal, and had no analysis to back up the notion that the his plan was really a good idea. As Mr. Peduto noted in an earlier discussion of the Ravenstahl proposal, "He has no plan. He had a sound bite and a press release." Once again, as is so often the case, Luke Ravenstahl was caught saying the nice words that everyone wanted to hear, but was being decidedly parsimonious with the details.

While the Ravenstahl campaign probably didn't feel particularly concerned about Mr. Peduto's charges, they did at least make a token effort to parry his accusations. There was plenty of data and plenty of specifics available to back up what the interim mayor was saying, they told us. As the Post-Gazette reported on 2nd March, just one day after the East Liberty meeting:

The mayor's plan would waive the first $2,700 in city property taxes, for 10 years, on units of new housing built Downtown and in 21 other neighborhoods. The neighborhoods were chosen based on a formula involving dozens of factors, including stagnant development, population loss, low education levels, single-parent families, tax delinquency and violent crime.

[Interim Mayor Ravenstahl] said the full data would be released within 10 days.
The Tribune-Review's reporting on this meeting states that the details of the Ravenstahl proposal would be made available in "seven to 10 days". His homework is now officially late.

The Interim Mayor's ten days to provide "the full data" expired yesterday. I gave him an extra day to compensate for unforeseen delays and for the press to have a crack at the data. But this morning, there is nothing in either newspaper about his abatement proposals. Not surprisingly, none of the television stations have anything to say on the matter. And there isn't even a press release on the city website to trumpet the full details of the Ravenstahl proposal. This last fact is highly noteworthy, since the press release section of the city website -- indeed, nearly everything about the city website -- is usually nothing less than a festival of fluff concerning everything Ravesntahl. If the interim mayor had anything at all to say about handing out a tax break to a large portion of the city, we would at least be sure to have seen something posted there.

Why does it even matter that Luke Ravenstahl is late with providing this tax abatement data? What's the big deal? The answer is that there are at least three very good reasons why this one little thing speaks volumes about Luke Ravenstahl's ability to serve as our city's mayor.

First of all, this one incident fits a continuing pattern of behavior on his part. Time and time again, Master Ravenstahl he makes sound-bite-worthy promises in very general terms, but then fails to follow through in taking care of anything specific. He did it when he promised, weeks ago, to hold debates in the lead-up to the May 15th primary. That sounded great, in a general way, but he still has yet to agree on a single specific time and place for any of these debates, and has also, according the the Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog, been working to cut the number of debates down from the Peduto-proposed 8 to only 5 or 6. He did the same thing when he promised, in a general way, to re-establish the city's ethics board, but then did nothing to ensure that they could hold even a single successful meeting.

This same pattern keeps repeating itself, and it's enormously disturbing. This isn't Peter Pan. You can't "keep moving Pittsburgh forward" just by wishing it to be true and repeating banal slogans in front of the television cameras. As a mayor, you actually have to do something to make these things happen. And Luke Ravenstahl continually fails to do take even the tiniest first steps required to make his promises anything approaching a reality.

Secondly, Master Raventahl's failure in meeting his self-imposed deadline to release these details matters because his opponent in this primary election, Mr. Peduto, has already done so. The very idea of instituting a property-tax abatement within the City of Pittsburgh, in fact, came directly from Councilmember Peduto, who first started to examine this issue more than a year ago. The councilmember commissioned a detailed study to examine how these abatements could be implemented with maximum impact on our city, while still having a revenue-neutral effect on the city's budget. The resultant report has been available online for more than a month now. It sets out a convincing argument about Mr. Peudto's own tax abatement plan, which is far more limited in scope than what is (apparently) being proposed by Interim Mayor Ravenstahl. Mr. Peduto's detailed analysis shows that his plan would have a neutral, and possibly even a positive, net effect on city finances, and thus makes his ideas far more likely to pass muster with our Act 47 financial overseers.

It would be nice to be able to really compare the proposals put forward by both candidates. But because Master Ravenstahl is running several months -- if not several years -- behind his opponent, and because Master Ravenstahl can't even keep his own promises when it comes to releasing these details on time, it remains impossible for any citizen in Pittsburgh to make such a comparison. Indeed, the only comparison we can make at this point is that one of the two Democratic candidates, Mr. Peduto, makes his promises only after careful thought and deliberation, and only when he knows that they are likely to be kept. The other candidate, unfortunately, makes his promises without any thought or deliberation, and typically with his fingers crossed in hope that he not have to keep them at all.

And finally, Master Ravenstahl's failure to provide these details is important for third, yet very critical reason. His tax abatement "plan", if one can even call it that, has been cited as one of the few decent arguments in support of his candidacy. In an earlier post, I noted that the following:
After months of pleading, by myself and others, throughout the burghosphere, I still have yet to encounter a single worthy argument in favor of retaining Master Ravenstahl as the Mayor of Pittsburgh. At their worst, the few things written in support of him fall into the "give the kid a chance" or "isn't it cool to have someone so young" line of thinking, and are oblivious to what our interim mayor has done with the chances that he has already had. At their best, these arguments voice support for the self-interested benefits that one's own group, neighborhood, or even self will reap in the wake of a Ravenstahl victory. But not one statement has described even one positive result for the city as a whole that Luke Ravenstahl has either provided or promised as mayor. His actions thus far have largely consisted of a string of failures, and his promises for the future are either all-but-exact copies of Mr. Peduto's plans or simply remain unpresented by the interim mayor's campaign.
In response to this statement (and much to his credit), one of Interim Mayor Ravesntahl's staunchest supporters, Matt H., noted the following:
OK. I live in the Elliott section of the city. An area that has been in total decline thanks to many years of zero help from the Murphy administration. Right now I am working with Councilman Deasy and some other elected officials to develop some NEW housing and the rehab of vacant homes here in Elliott & the West End. The proposed tax abatement from the administration will help my projects that I have going here in Elliott. Why wouldn't I want to support a candidate that is going to directly help my area with a plan? Peduto's plan does nothing for my area.
The cynical part of me would note that this particular argument, as I had already remarked, does nothing more than "... voice support for the self-interested benefits that one's own group, neighborhood, or even self will reap in the wake of a Ravenstahl victory". In a general way, self-interested politics like these, in which one group is continually played off against another, are a big reason why Pittsburgh is such a mess today. But ordinary self-interest will always be part of politics, and Matt H. is certainly within his rights to view things in this manner. After all, that's precisely the way that many people make their political decisions in any modern democracy.

Instead, my present concerns with this argument are far more practical in nature. How on earth can anyone tell whether their neighborhood is or is not included in the Ravenstahl abatement proposal? The city's only press release on the topic fails to mention the specific neighborhoods involved, noting only that it includes "... Downtown Pittsburgh and 20 other neighborhoods – East, West, North and South - that need an additional boost due to population decline, increasing crime and diminishing quality of life". The Tribune-Review describes the Raventahl proposal as one which will affect, "... residential housing Downtown and in other neighborhoods designated as 'growth zones'", and goes on to note that the abatement, "... would be available in 21 other city neighborhoods where development has been virtually nonexistent".

A later Tribune-Review article on this same topic notes that the proposed abatement will affect the city's Homewood neighborhood, along with Fineview, where the Ravenstahl family itself may take advantage of this tax break (how's that for self-interested politics!). Apparently Shadyside does not qualify for the Ravenstahl abatements, so new Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will be paying full freight when it comes to city property taxes. But it does seem like both Upper and Lower Lawrenceville are included, from what one can glean out of a few comments in the press reports. But if you don't live in one of these four or five neighborhoods that are specifically mentioned in these reports, you are currently left in the lurch by Luke Ravenstahl's failed promise to provide us with details on his "plan". Your only hope is to take a wild guess as to whether your neighborhood contains enough "... stagnant development, population loss, low education levels, single-parent families, tax delinquency and violent crime" to qualify for Master Raventahl's largess.

As far as I can tell at the moment, there is no proof that even Matt H's own western neighborhood, Elliot, is part of the Ravenstahl abatement "plan". I'm rather sure that Elliot is included, of course. Matt H is a bit of a Ravenstahl insider, and is in a position to know about these things. Maybe he was even present at the interim mayor's March 1st meeting with neighborhood leaders, and was privileged enough to hear some of the details first hand. But the rest of us aren't so lucky. It has to be said, assuming that the names of all 20 targeted neighborhoods were made available during that meeting, that the local press has done a pretty poor job of telling us about the few details that are known about the Ravenstahl proposal.

It may very well be the case that Mr. Peduto's own tax abatement plan -- and it at least can be fairly referred to as an actual "plan" -- is simply inadequate. It may be true that the Peduto plan ignores many of the residential neighborhoods in the city which would reap enormous benefits from a tax abatement of this kind. But the only reason why we can even argue about the Peduto plan is that he has had the courage to make the details about it available to us.

Personally, I would much rather have a mayor that I could argue with and about, than one who simply doesn't tell me anything at all about his plans for our city's future.

UPDATE: Reader, blogger, and fierce Ravenstahler (Ravenstalite? Ravenstahly?) Matt H. has kindly provided a list of all 21 neighborhoods included in the Interim Mayor's abatement proposal. They are: Allentown, Arlington, Beltzhoover, California-Kirkbride, Downtown, Elliott, Esplen, Fineview, Hazelwood, Homewood North, Homewood South, Homewood West, Knoxville, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington Belmar, Lower Lawrenceville, Manchester, Spring Garden, Upper Hill, Upper Lawrenceville and West End.


Maria said...

"Personally, I would much rather have a mayor that I could argue with and about, than one who simply doesn't tell me anything at all about his plans for our city's future."

Luke has plans! He plans to move us forward.

Why isn't that enough for you?

Why do you hate Pittsburgh?

EdHeath said...

'Cause you guys have a corner on the Freedom hating market?

The Pens are staying, apparently, Luke's still gonna win ...

Lawrenceville needs tax abatement, so they can vote for the right council candidate. Expect hints that Stanton Heights will be in there, but Highland Park might not be reliable politically. Ditto Shadyside and Squirell Hill.

We really might turn into the People's Republic of Pittsburgh.

Smitty said...

Good Matt H imitation,Maria

Mark Rauterkus said...

Lawrenceville's nonprofit board sent a spokesperson to today's city council meeting to urge council members to NOT take a vote on the vacant property bill.

They have objections on a number of categories: fees, costs, red tape, etc.

That's good news to me. I also have a long list of objections.

Matt H said...

Thanks for the mention of my name in your blog post.

I am not just supporting Mayor Ravenstahl because of his proposed tax abatement program that would benefit projects I am currently working on in my neighborhood of Elliott. There is a list of the 20 neighborhoods that are in Mayor Ravenstahl's plan. I actually spotted the list at a development meeting I was at last night.

Here are the neighborhoods that are included in Mayor Ravenstahl's plan.

Allentown, Arlington, Beltzhoover, California-Kirkbride, Downtown Pittsburgh, Elliott, Esplen, Fineview, Hazelwood, Homewood North, Homewood South, Homewood West, Knoxville, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington Belmar, Lower Lawrenceville, Manchester, Spring Garden, Upper Hill, Upper Lawrenceville and West End.

Tell me these neighborhoods don't need help.

This plan is just one of the reasons why I am supporting Mayor Ravenstahl. Even if this was the ONLY reason what's so wrong about that? Don't people want to know what an administration is going to directly do for a neighborhood? That's a question that is always asked at "meet the candidate" type events during every election cycle.

Your right on one thing though. I was at the announcement. I was invited because I am a community leader in Elliott.

Richmond K. Turner said...

Thanks for posting the list of neighborhoods, Matt. Just by that one act alone, you have done more to tell us what is going on than the Post-Gazette, the Tribune-Review, and all of the television news outlets combined. I rather suspected that a full list of the neighborhoods had been made available, but it was never published by the mainstream press.

You would think that most people's very first question, when they heard about the proposal, would be, "is my neighborhood included". But it would have been impossible for them to get an answer to this question anywhere, including the city website. And especially from the mainstream press, who really let us all down on this one.

I'll paste your neighborhood list up in the original post. Thanks again for providing it.

Matt H said...

You left my name off the update. It looks like you were going to give me credit but it was left blank...haha.

Skip said...

Having written a letter to the editor yesterday on this very issue and after reading the Admiral's post today, I was driven to call the Director of Grants and Development, Bernie Lynch, this afternoon to find out about a formal release date for the mayor's plan. I think it's safe to say she's been fired. See my post at http://threeriversfishing.blogspot.com/

Richmond K. Turner said...

Thanks Matt. Sorry to have missed your name, but it's fixed now.

Skip, nice to meet you. For those of you who want a permanent link to Skip's blog post, click here.

Anonymous said...

Lawrenceville has been the dumping grounds for every housing project demolition in the past 5 years. The crime statistics rose greatly and poverty seemed to pop up over night when projects in nearby communities closed. I expect more of the same when Garfield Heights comes down soon. We will need to be ready for this and have the right people in place to help us. We need to be able to accept the good people ready to make a change for the better in their life and the resources to move the criminal elements along. The only time Dowd ever came to Lawrenceville, although he represents the district as the School Board rep, was when he opened a campaign headquarters to run for a seat he swore he wouldnt run for. As he said, the School Board position is being abused by power grabbing individuals not interested in helping our students, cant argue with him there. His record clearly shows us he's done nothing to improve the schools in Lawrenceville or Garfield for sure. Maybe he will pay more attention when his kids reach middle school age and leave the comfy confines of a Regent Square magnet.

Lawrenceville residents were already squarely behind Mr. Ravenstahl well in advance of the tax abatement plan. His willingness to work on issues that affected the every day life of the residents was welcomed as a breath of fresh air after having been ignored since the Murphy administration.

The Mayor's willingness to work with Councilman Bodack on Weed and Seed, The Redd up crew working to clean the community, his coming out to participate in the monthly clean ups sponsored by the community groups all lent credibility to his message.

As a result of the cooperation and relationship built with Mayor Ravenstahl, we finally have a real voice in government that exacts change. I actually felt quite safe coming to the candidates night at the project now that the drug dealing no longer takes place in front of the Drug store, I wonder who brought the resources to solve that problem.

Len Bodack does little things like ensuring trash was picked up almost immediately after the clean ups and serving lunch to the participants lending to a feeling of community from government that we never had before. He does more important things like hosting fundraisers in Morningside, Not to mention the paving of Carnegie Street, support of the Independence Day Celebration at Arsenal Park, the Halloween Party for the kids, the Holiday Party for kids, Map Pittsburgh being adopted, putting additional Police on the street with 40k directed by Bodack to pay for Police overtime. He understands the importance of incorporating green elements to construction projects and has worked on river access for the residents

That cooperation extends to both the Lawrenceville Corporation and Lawrenceville United allowing for professional representation that is inclusive of All residents. A cross section of residents that include preservationist, green, life long residents, business owners, renters, Black, White, well off, low income,gay, empty nesters, all being heard, not as before when the attitude was support me or Ill ignore you when if I win.

Ed, Lawrenceville will be supporting Len Bodack and Mayor Ravenstahl in May but it is because of much much more than the tax abatement plan. You should be happy that life is so good in Stanton Heights that you dont need the abatement. You should also vote to keep the people that helped make your life that comfortable. I know for a fact that residents in SH dont have blockwatches, dont participate in community clean ups, dont have a community group, you know why? You dont need them.

Eventually Lawrenceville wont either but please let us enjoy what we currently have. Open communication and a willingness of our government officials to work with us and really care about our ideas and not just force feeding us what they think is right.

Pat Dowd and his dismal voting record on the School Board has led only to lower test scores, huge payoffs, and the cutting of basic services needed by our children, and Bill Peduto sacrificed most of his integrity to win a seat. I used to respect him until his recent decisions showed his true colors. Too bad, he was a really good guy at one time. I cant see either of them caring about us as much as Mayor Ravenstahl and Councilkman Bodack.

Anyway, take in a hockey game, relax on your front porch with a cold beer on your clean, quiet street with your friendly neighbors, but dont forget why you find yourself in that position. People are working very hard in this district so we all can enjoy what you and the people from Highland Park currently enjoy.

ndp said...

My question about the tax abatement program for neighborhoods - then what is the doing? They have programs for low interest loans and home improvements, with targeted and program areas. Its neighborhood/area and income-based.

Exactly how many programs are we going to support? Because this is all paid for, in the end, with taxes -some federally (which is still our money on some level), but some local. Where is the balance between paying people to move to the city on the backs of the people already living here?

Oh yeah - and what about current URA
tax abatement programs?

EdHeath said...

I gotta admit, those are some pretty deserving neighborhoods. The property tax values are probably so depressed there that the city might not lose too much cutting them a break.

Still, with the state, the county and now the city talking about cutting property taxes, I do worry, like the previous commenter, about where the revenue is going to come from. Also, how many people own in these neighborhoods, and how many rent from absentee landlords. Do we think the rent will come down?

It funny too that apparently the Admiral’s blog is maybe the only place that does have the list of neighborhoods in the Mayor’s plan.

Hi Anonymous, I see you decided to comment somewhere else besides my January Dowd post. I can only say that other people’s views on Lawrenceville and Councilmen Bodack sometimes vary from yours. Your mileage may vary.

Matt H said...


Not all of Garfield Heights ie being torn down.

There are a select amount of buildings being emptied out as we speak. Most of those residents are being relocated within Housing Authority communities.

Anonymous said...

"His homework is now officially late."

Oh, Admiral, you scold, you!

Skip said...

Matt H, most of those residents are being relocated within Housing Authority communities? While I'm not aware of precisely what is happening in Garfield Heights, I do know that "relocation" and "redevelopment" and "urban renewal" are very sensitive terms for some folks in Pgh, and for good reason. Say, folks who were lower Hill residents in the 1960's when the "civic" arena was built.

Matt H said...

I understand. I was just making a point that those folks being asked to leave aren't just being moved into the city neighborhoods.

Some of those residents have/are moving into my HACP community.