Friday, May 8, 2009

Helped or Were Ordered? Q&A with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl

Click to play

This Q&A with Mayor Ravenstahl is from May 1st, the day after the mayor's race debate in which "Ravenstahl apologized for a 'misleading' ad".

You can listen in with the audio link above -- or read the transcript of the Q&A session. The questions are mine, except where noted. Below the transcript, I'll also share some fact checking about state law and Pittsburgh's financial oversight.

Q (Bob Mayo) : "What exactly is it -- that you apologized about something? What was the apology for?"

A (Mayor Ravenstahl) : "Well, what we'll do -- it was basically around, it was basically around the question of reducing taxes. The parking tax and the gross receipts tax. And the question was that we were suggesting that we were taking the entire credit for that. I said last night that the state clearly did help. And we'll actually adjust our ad today to say that we helped reduce the tax, rather than taking credit for it ourself. So, it was just a small, minor nuance, and something that we've taken care of in our campaign advertisement."

Q : "So, the... the state-imposed plan required the reduction of those taxes. Whoever was mayor was required by law to do that?"

A (Mayor Ravenstahl) : "Well, *in theory*, yes. But at the end of the day, we submit the budget, I submit the budget every year with our recommendations. You may remember when council a few years ago actually voted to freeze the parking tax -- I vetoed that. So there have been efforts in the past to try to freeze those taxes. We've continued to -- continued to put budgets forward that have reduced them. And so we were a partner in that effort, and that's all we were trying to communicate in the campaign commercial."

Q (Maria Leaf) : "Did you proofread the script for that ad, mayor, before it ran? I mean, how did this happen that it got on the air like this?"

A (Mayor Ravenstahl) : "Well, you know again, it's something that we think we definitely did reduce those taxes, and I'm not suggesting that we didn't. But in the effort of -- in the effort of cooperation and through the discussion last night, we'll simply add the word we 'helped' or 'worked with' the state to deal with these issues. Everybody knows that we submit a budget every year. I can tell you that I get requests over and over and over again to increase spending. It's interesting that the critics will criticize the budget situation when it doesn't go their way. But then, of course, when something does work and it is doing the right thing, it's the state's --uh, it's the result of the state's work. So, it's part of the political game that gets played this time of year. And we're very proud of what we've done financially. And we played a significant role in leading this city to where it's at."

Q (Maria Leaf): "But would you have changed the commercial if it had not been brought up last night?"

Mayor Ravenstahl : "Uh, probably not. You know, again, I don't think that the commercial was wrong in the way that we reflected what we've done. We have lowered the gross receipts tax, we have lowered the parking tax. I have submitted that in our budget. City Council can also take credit for reducing that tax, because they vote on the budget. And so, the city played a role in that effort and we're proud of it. And we also will acknowledge now that the state did help. They clearly did, and nobody ever suggested that they didn't. And so in the interest of clarity we'll -- we'll adjust the ad."

Q (Bob Mayo) : "Helped -- or ordered and required by law?"

A (Mayor Ravenstahl) : "Uh, helped. Yeah, they -- we helped them, uh, to do that by introducing our budget each and every year. There are things that in Act 47 and in our budgets now that weren't originally in the Act 47 plan. So there is clearly adjustment each and every year. This is something that was off the table, we agreed with. We wanted to see those taxes reduced, and we cooperated and helped the state with those efforts."

Q : Didn't the state legislature write into state law the recovery package that the *legislature* approved --?

Mayor Ravenstahl: "They're -- Sure."

Q: " -- that the taxes had to go down?

Mayor Ravenstahl: "The state law and, you know, and the original act that we passed also called for a 144 dollars a year. It also called for a higher payroll preparation tax. So we can sit here and pick and choose the different issues we want to talk about. There are a lot of things in Act 47 that weren't enacted. This is one that was enacted as a result of our leadership and continued support of reducing these taxes."

Q: "But the legislature didn't mandate the lowering of the taxes? You're saying that a... ?"

Mayor Ravenstahl: "It was in the Act. There were a lot of things that were "in theory" quote, unquote, mandated that didn't happen. And we weren't mandated to save a hundred-million dollars above and beyond what they've asked us to do, but we did that. Something we're proud of and take credit for. So, so when we get the credit or when we get the criticism, it's also part of the credit that should be-- should be recognized as well."

Now, a look back at some history.

Let's start with two quotes from Mayor Ravenstahl:

"I'm not going to break state law," Ravenstahl said.

That's from an October 12, 2007 Trib article which reported:

"A bill freezing Pittsburgh's parking tax likely will die next week on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's desk.

"It is not his intent to be confrontational with the state Legislature," said his spokeswoman, Alecia Sirk.

The bill City Council approved 8-1 on Tuesday clashes with a state law that mandates a lowering of Pittsburgh's 45 percent parking tax -- the nation's highest -- to 35 percent by 2010."


"We must abide by the state law mandating the parking tax reduction," Ravenstahl said.

That's from an October 18, 2007 Trib story headlined "Mayor vetoes council's freeze" .

This 2007 Post-Gazette headline puts it succinctly.

The PG story goes on to report:

A legal opinion provided to council in December, signed by Solicitor George Specter, found that the city's charter doesn't permit it to ignore the state-mandated tax cut...

..."An illegal act by the city is unenforceable," said state Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair. "Pursuing this avenue in this manner is effectively unenforceable theatrics that could have grave consequences should [state-mandated oversight agencies] exercise their responsibility."

Back then, I blogged here about State Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie's warning. She said that doing any else but lowering the parking tax:

• "... violates the spirit and letter of the law. It's in complete violation of the state law. This was negotiated in a bi-partisan fashion."

• "There are ramifications for violating the law, and they could lose state moneys. That alerts them them, you are taking an action in violation, this is what is at risk."

• "Under state law, if they want to play this game---and it's really sad, because they're violating the letter of the law--not only can the state withhold funding. The state, because it's a state created city parking authority, we can force them to reduce the rates."

Orie fired off this letter to the Pittsburgh's oversight board, warning that the city was poised to pass an ordinance "which violates a state law (Act 222 of 2004) specifically mandating a reduction in the City of Pittsburgh Parking Tax". She also wrote that "...the City's Solicitor, George Specter, provided a legal opinion to the City Council in December which clearly stated that the city's charter doesn't permit it to ignore the state-mandated tax cut". (You can click to enlarge the images.)

The state law we're talking about isn't Act 47 or the act that created the oversight board (though both the oversight board and the Act 47 team have roles in making sure the city obeys the law in question). It's the city financial recovery legislation passed by the state legislature that some called "the bailout".

Let's jump back to November, 2004 when the law was passed:

PG: "The elimination of the gross receipts tax and the reduction of the parking tax were required by a state law passed on November 22, 2004. House Bill 197 eliminated the mercantile tax and phased out the Business Privilege Tax on businesses' gross receipts."

Mayor Murphy talked about it here.

Governor Rendell commented here when he signed the legislation.



EdHeath said...

Unless we have a Mayor at the top of his or her game, who really communicates to the State that we need to address our long term pension *and* debt issues, and who is able to strike the right balance between asking Pittsburghers (including not for profits) to do as much as they can, trying to find new businesses to locate here and help the tax base and going to the State and saying we have done as much as we can and our only alternative is bankruptcy, unless we have that bankruptcy seems like the alternative for our future. And our current Mayor does not seem to be that person.

The shame if it is that I suspect if you surveyed ten random Pittsburghers, nine would not know anything about Ravenstahl’s parking tax dissembling, and the tenth would only have a vague sense. I think the blame for that lies with Pat Dowd and Carmen Robinson. They have the most to gain from voters knowing as much as possible about Ravenstahl, but I think they are trying not to burn bridges with the party (or something).

Mark Rauterkus said...

I've said all along that the Parking Tax should go down, very low, say to 10% or 15% tops -- AFTER the city LIQUIDATE the parking assets. The parking garages should be sold. Then the parking tax should be reduced in a drastic way.

So, Luke wants to 'lease' the parking garages. That is not nearly as good as a sell off.

When the property is sold, the investor / new owners can do what they wish with the property -- and might one day take down the single use buildings and put in mixed use investments.

And, a lease is going to earn less income than a full property sale.

Just details, details -- and counter points.

Good work Bob Mayo. Thanks for the posting and all the facts in the story.

Bram Reichbaum said...

So upon surprised by a confrontational reporter while on camera, Ravenstahl let slip the word "apologize" during his dissembling ... but in fact he's still very much standing behind these transparent lies.

Just so we're clear what you've demonstrated.

Anonymous said...

that's a hilarious premise--- that we should sell off the parking garages to reduce the cost of parking.

Amadi said...

EdHeath - are you serious? It's Dowd and Robinson's fault that Luke's little lies aren't being more publicly taken apart?

Are Dowd and Robinson now responsible for WPXI, WTAE, KDKA, The Post-Gazette, the Tribune-Review (which you think would be glad to have real lies to pin on a Democratic leader) and countless radio stations?

The last time I checked, watchdogging our elected officials, including their campaign statements, was the responsibility of our media. Dowd & Robinson couldbe yelling about this from up on the West End Overlook or on the porch of the City-County Building, but it shouldn't be their focus, and if it were, we'd have people complaining about their "negative tactics" and "smear campaigning."

Pinning the lack of public knowledge of Ravenstahl's inability to tell a straight story on anyone other than the people who are empowered and expected to tell the story is a joke.

Bram Reichbaum said...

That's church, Amadi.

"Dowd & Robinson could be yelling about this from up on the West End Overlook or on the porch of the City-County Building, but it shouldn't be their focus, and if it were, we'd have people complaining about their 'negative tactics' and 'smear campaigning.'"

As it happens, that exact scenario just unfolded!

And so then, in the near-barren media wasteland that is Pittsburgh, that in turn leads to incumbents patting themselves on the back for utter banality masquerading shamelessly as positivity.

Until finally, when it's all said and done, some in the media will turn around and suggest that "average Pittsburghers" are to blame for poor decisionmaking.

I read somewhere that the top rated news programs in the country are Sean Hannity, Glen Beck and Bill O'Reilly. I don't care for their politics, but how about a little attention and excitement? Doesn't anybody want to make money around here?