Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Ravenstahl Does Good

It's been a very long and busy week out in the Pennsylvania Operating Area. Endless man overboard drills, simulated boardings and searches of merchant vessels, deceptive lighting competitions, main space fire drills, formation steaming, DIVTACs, flight operations, and a constant stream engineering casualty exercises (BECCEs) kept us up through all hours of the night. The battle group finally returned to homeport a few days ago, and all hands -- including myself -- were given a 24-hour liberty to recover. It's amazing how sane, and even mundane, Pittsburgh's political scene appears to be when viewed from well over the horizon. Up close, however, the ugly truth becomes disturbingly obvious.

But this morning, there is some good news to report. I once promised that, if Pittsburgh's Interim Mayor, Luke "The Anointed One" Ravenstahl were to do anything that I agreed with, I would be sure to praise him in this space. He finally has done some good, and I both recognize and thank him for doing so.

As the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review are reporting this morning, the police secondary employment story is once again back in the news. Months after the story first appeared here in the burghosphere, it would seem that we finally are seeing a reinstatement of the city's cost recovery fee. Beginning next week, the city will charge $3.85 per hour whenever an off-duty police officer is employed by a private entity. According to my own calculations, this new fee should bring in more than $730,000 to cover the expenses -- liability, litigation, worker's compensation, wear and tear on city property, and replacement of expended consumables -- that it incurs when city police officers hire themselves out to private employers.

I'm impressed by this move by the Ravenstahl administration. In my own cynical way, I had fully expected that they would simply ignore this issue yet again. Once Mr. Ravenstahl's only election opponent, City Councilmember Bill Peduto, had dropped out of the race, I figured that the new cost recovery plan -- which the interim mayor had promised to institute in time for the Pirate's April 9th home opener -- had little hope of seeing the light of day. At the very least, I had expected that it would be significantly scaled back to some meaningless amount. But Luke Ravenstahl has proven to be a better man than I had anticipated, and his plan certainly appears to be worthy of our admiration.

One wonders, of course, if any of this would have taken place without the protests of the burghosphere. But regardless of his motivation, Mr. Ravenstahl has set a cost recovery fee that should truly recover the taxpayers' costs. And for that, I salute him.

As is a bit normal in the wake of an announcement like this one, the media accounts are a bit confusing about what the new cost recovery plan will entail. It seems clear that the new fee will amount to $3.85 per hour, which just so happens to be precisely 10% of an officer's hourly wage ($38.54), at least when the employment is scheduled through the police department's Special Events Office. It is a bit less clear, however, exactly what will happen to this fee in the future. The news reports only mention this flat $3.85-per-hour amount, and don't tell us how it is calculated. Will this fee be recalculated every year, so that it remains at 10% of the officers' hourly wage? Or is it fixed at a flat $3.85-per-hour, where it will stay for years on end until inflation renders it meaningless?

Also less than clear is whether the Special Events Office will take control of all secondary employment details. Rich Lord's Post-Gazette story indicates that some police officers will continue to serve as third-party contractors who dole out the assignments to some of the more lucrative secondary employment details:

The new plan includes a concession to the union -- allowing businesses to use entrepreneurial officers as "designated schedulers" rather than getting officers solely through the Police Bureau's events office. The bureau spent $30,950 in 2005 on software for scheduling the jobs.

Several officers run lucrative businesses in which they place colleagues in side jobs in return for a cut. The city would get $3.85 an hour for the scheduler's time, and for each officer scheduled through them.

SMG [the company that currently handles all events at Mellon Arena] will continue to handpick officers, [General Manager Jay Roberts] said.
I'm not certain who will end up paying for the services of these designated schedulers. Regardless of who does the scheduling, the city will still get its $3.85-per-hour fee for each officer who is employed. So I guess that each of the officers who are provided with work by one of these designated schedulers will be expected to fork over some of their wages to pay the scheduler for this honor. Call it what you like, but to me this sounds very much like a kick-back scheme.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Boren's piece in the Tribune-Review makes it seem like all work will be run directly through the Special Events Office, and that "designated schedulers" are a thing of the past:
Ravenstahl also will stop officers from arranging off-duty side jobs for their colleagues and taking their own cut, Skrinjar said.

"The whole idea is to bring this under the control of the police department, without any freelancing by individual officers," said Skrinjar, who added that all off-duty assignments will be tracked by computer.

Before November, only businesses that hired officers directly through the city paid the fee. But about two-thirds of all moonlighting jobs were privately arranged between businesses and individual police officers, at varying rates, city records show.

Police Lt. Thomas Atkins, who privately arranged for officers to work Pirates games, said he would abide by the city's decision.

"I'm a team player," he said. "Whatever they tell me to do, that's what I'll do."

"This would make if fair so that everyone can bid on the same jobs," said Jim Malloy, president of police union Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1.
You will pardon me for being confused here. One story says that there will still be role for these "designated schedulers", and the other article says there will not. But if "designated schedulers" are going to exist, the Trib article at least makes it appear as though the jobs will still be entered into the department's computer system. If true, then this brings additional good news for the city and its school district, since together they stand to collect more than $200,000 in wage taxes from these secondary employment details. In the past, many of these jobs were done "under the table", and these taxes went unpaid. As long as the officers' wages are being paid through the city's payroll system, this sort of tax evasion should now be a thing of the past.

Hopefully, the city and the police department will be vigilant, and will institute rules which forbid officers from working outside of the official secondary employment system.

I have to be fair to Luke Ravenstahl. Without an opponent in the coming election, he easily could have sat on his hands here. He could have instituted no fee whatsoever, waited out the inevitable howls of protest that would have come from the burghosphere on April 9th, and placated all of the powerful interests who had rebelled against the earlier fee until he eliminated it last November. But instead, he actually went forward with a decision that will anger these internal factions, but will be very good for city taxpayers.

I'm truly impressed. Good job, Mr. Ravenstahl.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hear hear, Admiral! You are a man of your word...

EdHeath said...

Welcome back, Admiral, I trust you had an enjoyable holiday.

I wonder if this is something that council needs to approve. The details, or lack thereof, should come to light then. I looked now (lunch time on April 4) at the city website, and there was nothing.

Gotta run now, as it happens.

The Burgher said...

You deserve a big pat on the back Herr Admiral.

Your work and Maria's work kept them in line.

Char said...

Yes, it would be a good thing to take a little time to enjoy this day…… Ravenstahl’s “good deed” n@ …..and the part you and others played in forcing, er ...shaming, er ....encouraging it to happen.

After a bit, maybe you could take a look at the details surrounding a multi-million dollar energy consulting deal awarded to a company whose founding investor is DA Zappala’s uncle. Where the bidding time per the RFP was only 15 days. At Christmas time. So only 2 companies out of a possible 18 responded. Which is not even enough according to the City’s own guidelines. But a deadline extension request from a 3rd company was denied none-the-less. (Dom Costa worried that an extension would not “be fair” to the 2 companies that met the deadline)

I kinda thought a public servant’s primary concern would be “fairness” for the citizenry. Which of course would be getting the best and lowest bid possible. But I must be deluded.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07088/773441-53.stm

Matt H said...

Welcome back! Nice 1st post back. I liked it.

Bram Reichbaum said...

What about the idea that the FOP got the important part back in the deal?

Smitty said...

All the article really shows is that Luke understands that if your hired thugs are going moonlight at your expense,you have to have a kitty to pay for the damages.

Anonymous said...

Smitty:

How is that a bad thing?

Smitty said...

8:50 AM, April 06, 2007

agreed..and it begs the question why did Reganstahl stop the program in the first place.And it acknowledges, sadly,that there exists on the force guys like Frank Rende and Eggleton who are liabilities to the city, the taxpayers, and their fellow officers.
And it reeks of the kind of people Opie gravitates to including Regan.

RRL said...

Hold on there Admiral - maybe this has gone down our collective memory hole but someone please look into this - as I recall, the previous recovery surcharge the city levied for off duty police work was $5.00 per hour. Then Luke removed that for political gain. Then we got hit with a $200k settlement, then Luke installs it back, at a lower $3.85 per hour, and he's a hero? Sounds like all he did was lower the surcharge by $1.15. Hopefully I've got my facts mixed up here. If I don't, I'm calling this Grade A hackery.

Anonymous said...

Char said...

Dom Costa worried that an extension would not “be fair” to the 2 companies that met the deadline)

That would be Guy Costa, public works director not Dom Costa, retired chief of police.

Char said...

Oops. I get all my Costas mixed up sometime.

Anonymous said...

You shouldn't congratulate Opie for sticking his hand in the cookie jar, taking a bite, getting caught and then putting the 1/2-eaten cookie back.

Also, how does the city get away with charging some companies 10% and others $3.85/hr.? It may result in the same payment sometimes, but not all the time. What if a company hires a sgt. at $42/hr. - at 10%, the city makes $4.20/hr. Under the $3.85 system, for example, the Pirates are paying the same sgt. $38.50 and only $3.85/hr.

Skip said...

And what about the fact that city police are doing the work that private security firms, particularly local ones, could provide. For the sake of argument, isn't it weird that official (public)cops are doing unofficial (private) security? We love to use 'free market' when it's convenient but forget about the concept when it poses problems. Just like the SEA, shouldn't public entities get out of the business of doing business?

Richmond K. Turner said...

Hold on there Admiral - maybe this has gone down our collective memory hole but someone please look into this - as I recall, the previous recovery surcharge the city levied for off duty police work was $5.00 per hour.

That's not exactly right. The previous fee structure was $4.00 per hour if the employer allowed the city to handle the assignment of officers to the detail, and $5.00 per hour if the employer wanted to hand-pick a specific officer. I've never seen any details about how many employers would have gone for the second option. But that extra dollar-per-hour would probably had discouraged a decent number of them. Over time, I suspect that most employers would have switched over to city-staffing.

You shouldn't congratulate Opie for sticking his hand in the cookie jar, taking a bite, getting caught and then putting the 1/2-eaten cookie back.

He is kind of doing what you describe. But if you remember the details of what happened in November, the FOP leadership went into their meeting with Ravenstahl pushing for a flat fee of just $2 per hour ($4 if the employer wanted to hand-pick the officer).

Instead, Ravenstahl axed the whole thing, which must have really made the FOP's day.

So for him to come back and set a fee well in excess of $2.00 is a really big deal. In addition, the fact that it is set at precisely $3.85 suggests that the fee is pegged to 10% of the base hourly wage for a patrolman. We'll have to wait a year to see whether the fee goes up next year as the hourly wage increases. But let's remain hopeful.

Also, how does the city get away with charging some companies 10% and others $3.85/hr.? It may result in the same payment sometimes, but not all the time. What if a company hires a sgt. at $42/hr. - at 10%, the city makes $4.20/hr. Under the $3.85 system, for example, the Pirates are paying the same sgt. $38.50 and only $3.85/hr.I don't see, at least in the news reports, any indication that there is differential charging going on. Everybody is going to pay $3.85 per hour. For some employers, that will be the equivalent of 10%. But the fee isn't locked into a 10% figure. Instead, every single officer-hour will result in a fee of $3.85, plain and simple.

I don't have any heartburn with the same cost recovery fee being charged for supervisors. Supervisors, on the whole, are probably less likely to end up with a torn uniform or a lawsuit than the street-level police officers. There certainly is no reason to believe that superviors will cost the city any more on a per-hour basis than a patrolman.

One could make the argument that the fee should be higher for all officers. Perhaps it should be 22%, as is charged by the County Police and the Port Authority Police.

But I'm willing to give this new fee structure some time to see how it does. If everything continues at the same pace as it did last year, the city should bring in about $750,000 to $800,000 in fees and wage taxes. That's enough to cover an Eggleton or two, and still leave some left over to cover other costs.

Remember, the city isn't supposed to make a profit here. They are only supposed to cover thier costs.

So let's give this $3.85 thing a shot, and keep tabs on our annual costs alongside of it. If, in a year's time, it's not covering our costs, let's boost it up.

But let's give it a chance.