Does the Mayor Matter?

I don't do politics on this blog, much, but the recent spate of stories on new Mayor Luke Ravenstahl begs a question: Does it matter who the mayor is? When? And how much?

If the mayor were a charismatic soul who could both connect at a human level and also do "the vision thing," maybe the answers would be "yes," and "all the time," and "a lot." But Pittsburgh didn't have that mayor in Tom Murphy (some vision, limited charisma), and it didn't have that mayor in Bob O'Connor (charisma, limited vision). The mayor's identity seemed to influence the mood of the city (long-standing funk, for Murphy; some lifting of the fog, for O'Connor), but not much more.

Both the New York Times and the Post-Gazette write as if the weight of the city is on the new mayor's shoulders. But obviously it's not. Both Mayor Luke and new chief of staff Yarone Zober are too young and too new for Pittsburgh's political establishment really to give them the keys to the city. For both of them, my verdict for now is: No charisma, and no vision. It's hard to imagine even the mood of the city shifting much.

So Mayor Luke has nominal authority; real authority -- where charisma and vision aren't so important -- lies elsewhere. Who's really in charge now? The next six to eight months will be telling.


23 Responses to "Does the Mayor Matter?"

Judge Rufus Peckham said... 9/10/2006 10:37 PM

The oversight boards, to a large degree, run the city. But that's what happens when you incur debt to the tune of $800 million and have no realistic prospects of ever repaying it. That's why Bob O'Connor was so good for the city. He was the best cheerleader the town has had in recent memory and that's about the most a mayor of Pittsburgh can do right now.

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/11/2006 1:30 PM

Well, the overlords do have a big role in the city. But their main role is to make sure that the bond holders get paid. The overlords can't 'run the city' as the question asks. Nor do they try. Nor are they capable. The overloards are here to make sure that the city doesn't run on empty without the loss of serious flesh and blood first.

The overlords should be shown the door. That should be one of Luke's biggest missions. It was lost on Bob, so far.

My first address if I had been O'Connor in January, 2006, would have been, "I'm here now. I'm in charge. Overlords, there is the door. Hit the road."

But, that song would have been 'flat' as O'Connor was on council when quick fix after quick fix was approved and the city slid into its debt. Bob was on Grant Street, with powers, and with the Gov, too, with powers, when Pgh did a lot of its financial bleeding.

Luke wasn't. That's Luke's advantage. The new guy should be known as "Long Term Luke."

Luke should be about 'Long-Term Vision' + Short-term power + and finding the ULTIMATE solutions for fiscal sustainability.

Now is not the time for a band-aid approach.

In Luke's 2007 budget address, Luke needs to talk about the work process for the 2008 budget. The 2008 budget needs to be the best budget any city has ever seen -- anywhere in the world. And in 2007, we build the monitors and enforement and accountability into our city's work culture -- round by round, department by department.

Judge Rufus Peckham said... 9/11/2006 2:32 PM

Tell the "overlords" to hit the road based on nothing more than Luke's serene ipse dixit that the city will do an about-face and suddenly be accountable for its spending? No, thank you. Maybe if you were in charge, Mark . . . .

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/11/2006 3:30 PM

Tell them (overlords) to hit the road. They (overloards) won't listen and leave, I expect. But, those are the next moves for Luke as a signal to send. Then, prove to them (overlords and others) that they are not needed.

We want to be self-reliant. And, we're going to be self-reliant.

Butt out. Those efforts (overlording) won't be needed here much longer.

C. Briem said... 9/11/2006 4:03 PM

mark.. the city's bond debt is all insured. No bondholder is at risk. just fyi.

and what does "best" budget mean in this context? high? low? balanced? and the issue is not the 07 or even the 08 budget, but they have to do a 5 year budget plan. Given that they recently borrowed 50 mil more and restructured a lot of other debt payments into the future, it's ever more untenable to get out-year budgets to work out... no matter who is the mayor or what ideas the Act 47/ICA folks come up with.

I would have to disagree that either of those two entities are providing any meaningful management of the city. They may want to, but thus far their guidance has been at some pretty broad levels that doesn't always translate... and certainly does not offer any roadmap to ever pay off the city's debts...

Mark Stroup said... 9/11/2006 4:29 PM

In reviewing the 2006 revised budget, I notice significant improvement over the Murphy administration draft. A picture on the front page of the Super Bowl Parade. Woo-woo! Here we go . . .

Judge Rufus Peckham said... 9/11/2006 4:59 PM

Finally an expert (Chris) chimes in. I've always thought the debt is like the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. What's the answer for reducing or controlling the debt, Chris? Remember, the ICA couldn't get a higher commuter tax, and the parking tax is already ridiculous. I can't imagine there will be any additional significant fire/police cuts. I think it's time we start listening to the experts -- what's the answer?

Mark Stroup said... 9/11/2006 7:47 PM


I think fee-for-service (unpopular), privatization (selling off assets), and privatizing services (short term gain, long term pain) have been mentioned.

Wage taxes are probably flat -- any increase in wages have been offset by loss in population. Any appreciation in the value of real estate (and Pgh real estate values have made significant gains) have no correlation to real estate taxes.

So we're left with cutting services. Volunteer Fire Department, anyone. Perhaps Uncle Joe and Sam Drucker can tend to the US Steel building. Maybe we can get one of those sweet deals where the State Police patrol the streets for free (oops, forgot. they don't have that anymore).

. . . or we could hold a show. We'll call it the 250th birthday. We can borrow someone's barn, or Mr. Heppenstall's building. Mark can build the sets. Chris and Mike can write it, and the Judge can direct.

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/11/2006 9:34 PM

A big part of the debt, I have a hunch, is with the pensions. The pensions are without insurance as are bonds, yes? Pension funds are fragile and can evaporate, right? Who is screwed then -- the retired, the widows, the fixed income folks.... Right?

Of course we need an excellent budget for specific years -- and for the long-term future. Right, a budget plan. Each budget generally has plans for the future years.

And, if no bondholder is at risk with the insurance -- then the insurance holder has the risk. I dare say that those folks are finance types too, i.e, finance institutions. Its six of one or a half-dozen of the other. Why split hairs.

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/11/2006 9:39 PM

Can anyone name ONE idea that the Act 47 Team or the ICA Board has come up with? Just one would be nice.

I don't think they get credit for anything. I'll go out on a limb and say, "zippo."

I've been to a few of their meetings. Mostly, meetings don't even occur.

That doesn't 'translate well' -- as a room full of monkeys and some typewritters could do a better job producing poetry.

C. Briem said... 9/12/2006 6:45 PM

there is no need to guess. The pension liability is well documented.

but I do not have the answer. I wish I did. Long term the city budget is well past any fiddling with at the margins. While MR is being bombastic, I would agree that little has been done to this point that will prevent their from being a future default on city debt. That point has been delayed for sure, just as the additional borrowing this year delayed any cash flow crisis this year.

A real solution is really only feasible when city taxes are not so uncompetitive compared to the suburbs that are so close to the job centers within the city. Absent that, there will be no abating the loss of city population which is becoming ever more made up of students, elderly and others who do not generate much in city tax revenues.

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/12/2006 9:12 PM

Bombastic! Kwel. New handle perhaps?

But in real world times, the bombastic actions and talk have been such that I can't lay claim to them. No way. The chatter I raise now is but a peep when matched with the bombastic behaviors of the city's elected leaders in the past years and terms.

Just to be clear. I feel I'm on the mark and the bombastic elements were made by them on Grant Street (elected and appointed).


Mark Rauterkus said... 9/12/2006 9:31 PM

As for the real solution parts, IMHO, reside with a tax shift back to a land value tax.

Nods to the facts on city taxes being uncompetitive to nearby suburban locations.

I think a new boom occurs when a tax shift comes and we return the city to a land tax.

Yes, you are right that the city can't make it up in income taxes on students and seniors. Nor can it tax itself to prosperity with parking and amusement and deed transfer tax revenue streams.

Yes, the fiddling can't fix this mess. Nor can a tunnel under the Allegheny River.

So, my answers. First, lay the shovel down. End big ticket spending on projects that won't help anyway. Second, get back to the land value tax. Third, put recreation into a new regional park district (a government entity like IL has).

Amos_thePokerCat said... 9/12/2006 10:46 PM

Here are the budget documents for 2003 to 2006 for the City of PIT.

Amos_thePokerCat said... 9/12/2006 11:04 PM

Looking at the 2006 estimages Expenditure Summary: The top 4, personal ($128M), debt ($92M), Police ($65M), and fire ($48M), make up 78% of the $428 total. Public Works is #5, and 9% and $38M. Not sure if that is "public works" as in building new stuff, or just fixing pot holes.

Anyway, the tunnel, is a PAT thing. Isn't it?

C. Briem said... 9/13/2006 8:24 AM

that is correct.. there is no city cost resulting from the tunnel.. If you really want to push the argument you could say that somewhere, somehow, someway, there would be a few million more state or county $ that might possibly be reallocated to some city benefit.. but that is a stretch.

so as not to repeat myself.. over on Potts' The Converstion I gave some detailed thoughts on the land tax and its history and future in this blog thread.

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/13/2006 9:59 AM

The tunnel needs a local match. At first the match was 25%. I think that percentage has been altered downward. But, the cost over-runs are not yet been paid for.

Yes, PAT is PAT. But, $ is $. All of PAT's money is my money too. The Fed money, the state money, and the local money is all my money -- and YOUR money too. Take it out of my front pocket, back pocket or purse -- it is still money.

Those costs won't help the city. They cost us all. And, I say they will hurt the chances of the city pulling itself up as the operational costs will be hit too.

Service to the North Side where nobody lives means more exit Pgh. Meanwhile, if service went to the east on the T, where there is a greater capacity and people do live, then more would move here.

We don't get a rise in property values when we take light rail to the stadiums and convention center -- as they are properties we already own and can't make liquid. (Well, we could sell off the stadiums, but that is another thread).

T-service to the east would cause a boom in development and homeownership and density.

You see, we MUST fix the city's budget by PULLING all ASSETS into the mix in productive ways. The fringe elements are pimples, as stated before. So, it becomes a matter of recuritment.

Use all of our brains. A global serious problem can't be fixed by tweeks to rodent control that already went to $0 a few years ago.

globalburgh said... 9/13/2006 1:03 PM

I don't understand why service to the North Side means more people exit Pittsburgh. Folks leaving isn't the problem anyway. That crisis has long since dissipated. Chris has posted maps at his blog that suggest that people are already moving to the areas east of Pittsburgh. I suspect that trend will continue regardless of where the T service extends. The only gain I see is encouraging more people to go to the CBD, not that I don't appreciate that value.

A different infrastructure project isn't going to solve the political gridlock killing the city. The tunnel project is a red herring.

C. Briem said... 9/13/2006 3:47 PM

the local match does not have a city component to my knowledge.. if it does, it's pretty minimal.

overall, bringing up the tunnel with regards to the state of the city's budget is misleading and confusing.

but I do agree that the rodent control debate pretty much defines the state of the city.. days were spent last year in gridlock over $30K to find some rats while no work on any meaningul finance issue took place.

Mark Stroup said... 9/13/2006 4:31 PM

That we spend a disproportionate amount of time on the rats budget is telling. It illustrates what political will means. If you have rats in your neighborhood, you will fight very hard to get rid of them.

How hard does the city want to fight to get out of debt, and deal with the more amorphous issue of unfunded pensions?

Maybe if we called them rats. . .

Gloria in Pittsburgh said... 9/13/2006 10:19 PM

People in Pittsburgh, stay in Pittsburgh. Retention is not the problem.

How about we give away, for a dollar, the properties that have lain vacant for a very long time? With some proviso that something be done with them by X time?

Then how about we let folks in the Silicon Valley, along rte. 28 in Massachusetts, etc. , etc., know about it? And let them know about housing costs here? And remind them of the beauty of being a big fish in a small pond? Helen Keller did alot being a small fish in a big pond. So did Ani Di Franco in Buffalo...

Maybe the 1/4 of a mil that would've been spent by a commitee determing which font & color of typeface to use, could've been spent to a better end?

Gloria in Pittsburgh

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/14/2006 1:42 PM

Gloria, retention is a problem. I agree that retention will not provide a magical solution however.

We do have some who can NOT leave the city, even if they wanted to. Retention of the sick, poor and students is sure to continue. Retention is a lock for those that dwell in section 8 housing too. And, should they leave, replacements are easy enough to find.

Seniors are not making any babies. Many are elderly. They are leaving this earth -- yet alone Pgh.

Pgh's population is dropping if you only count on the departing seniors. And, turning the tide is going to be all that much more difficult.

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/14/2006 1:49 PM

Gloria, I do like the idea of unloading the glut on properties. However, we need to be careful not to jack with the marketplace forces. Put 10,000 deeds up for sale for $1 -- and bang -- everyone's house value went down by 75% -- and I can't send my kids to college in 10 years.

Talk about the 600-pound gorilla then will be all over the place. A massive fire sale would kill folks who can't afford to live in house now owned as they's still need to pay a mortgage.

I'd rather sell or reward houses (most are not vacant lots) to college students at local schools at the start of their Junior year (and grad students too of course) -- with a bunch of conditions dished out in FRESHMAN orientation.

And, expand the side-lot program, etc., to locals.

And, take 50 a season okay -- and move them on eBay.

Furthermore, the URA used to ONLY do these types of first-time home buyer deals. Oh, those were the days.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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