Bethlehem and Lancaster Win CRIZ Districts

It’s a Crizzmas miracle, y’all! (John Callahan’s joke, not mine.) Bethlehem and Lancaster have been selected to keep more of their own taxes to finance infill development. It’s a big win for Bethlehem in particular because they’re right next to Allentown, and people were worried that the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) would diminish interest in redeveloping Bethlehem’s brownfields.

I’m a big fan of the one-of-a-kind NIZ district Allentown politicians snuck into the 2009 PA Code, which has succeeded in spurring lots of urban infill development in its downtown, but I am less enthusiastic about the CRIZ that was modeled on it.

The slush fund nature of the NIZ, where a new Authority gets all the state and local taxes collected in a contiguous area except local property taxes, with few strings attached, seems to have worked strongly in Allentown’s favor. To a large extent, Allentown may have just lucked out with a developer who’s committed to good urbanism, but good ideas combined with a massive slush fund turned out to be a great combo, even as the process obsessives are having kidney stones over it.

The CRIZ is considerably weaker, but still a big win for cities. I think we should extend this deal to all the Cities of the Third Class now, before they all end up in Act 47. That’s not how state opted to do it though, and two large (over 50K) third class cities per year will be selected to keep some more state taxes instead of pissing them away into our state’s emptiest counties.

have a number of problems with Bethlehem’s list of projects (contiguousness is paramount!), and haven’t paid much attention to Lancaster’s, but good for them. I hope the new Bethlehem Council members will revisit the list and make some better choices, or at least make the Martin Tower redevelopment plan contingent on more comprehensive redevelopment of the parking lots and other land parcels around it.

Allentown turned the money firehose on the most walkable areas of town, not on white elephant projects, and that’s a key reason why it’s been successful. People worried the new buildings would stay empty, but they were wrong, and J.B. Reilly’s already leased all of his planned space to business tenants.

#SD18: Should John Callahan Primary Lisa Boscola for State Senate?

Primarying conservadem Lisa Boscola or having another go at Charlie Dent in the 15th District in 2014 seem like the 2 best options available to John Callahan after the County Exec loss. And if he is really intent on staying in politics, one of those options has a much lower difficulty setting than the other.

On the one hand, Callahan and Boscola are supposed to have a good public working relationship. On the other hand, I hear the conservative Donchez/Boscola/Morganelli faction of Bethlehem Democrats actually cheered every time Callahan’s losing spread came up on the screen at the Bob Donchez victory party last night, so you know, fuck it.

Boscola sucks, and Callahan is probably the only person in that district able to raise more money than her. He could just take a couple weeks off and then basically continue his County Exec campaign, with the $100K+ still left in his campaign bank account.


Munipocalypse 2013: A Mostly Good Night for Progressives

(Cross-posted from Keystone Politics)

Yesterday’s municipal elections were a pretty good night for progressives on the whole, but before we get to the good stuff, let’s rip off the band-aid and get the bad news out of the way first.

The Bad

In an extremely embarrassing upset, Bangor Mayor John Brown beat Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan 52-48 in the race for Northampton County Executive. Brown got 18,277 votes to Callahan’s 16,808.

Callahan barely even beat Brown in the City of Bethlehem where he’s been Mayor for 8 years. For some context, Mayor-elect Bob Donchez and Willie Reynolds received a combined 3800 votes in the Bethlehem Mayoral primary this spring. In the general election, Callahan got a total of 2693 votes in Bethlehem compared to 2205 for Brown.

The lack of competitive races to drive turnout in Bethlehem and Easton definitely hurt Callahan, but this is inexcusable. And it’s basically all his campaign manager Eric Nagy’s fault as I’ll explain in a follow-up post on this race.

Delaware County and Northampton County both saw Republican sweeps of County-level races, which is just incredibly disappointing given that these are both areas Democrats were expected to build on recent gains.

Statewide, Republican Vic Stabile won the Superior Court race over Democrat Jack McVay by 3 points, 51.5 – 48.5, proving that statewide elections (or really any elections) should never be held in low-turnout odd years.

Also disappointing to me: the (predictable) reelection of Brady machine favorite Alan Butkovitz as Controller in Philadelphia, which advances a Mayoral campaign I’m going to hate. Get ready for lots of empty pandering on education and absolutely no investigations of the Sheriff’s office’s broken tax sales or city contracting.

That’s about it for the races I was following. There were thousands of local races yesterday though, so let us know in the comments if there’s something you think was consequential in your area and I’ll be happy to promote it.

The Good

Bill Peduto! This win makes me happier than even the Bill DeBlasio win in NYC because the Peduto team proved a Democratic monopoly on city politics does not automatically doom a city to the type of corrupt, depressing garbage we observe in Philadelphia. Peduto got very lucky with Luke Ravenstahl’s unexpected implosion, but once a political vacuum appeared, his team seized the opportunity to piece together a whole new electoral coalition that turned out to be powerful enough to supplant the machine. It’s proof you can broaden the city interest group coalition beyond just AFSCME + building trades if you want, and open up political space for more inventive policy ideas. Peduto ally Deb Gross won in District 7, young progressive Natalia Rudiak easily held her seat, and former Peduto chief of staff Dan Gilman won his former boss’s old seat. That’s a narrow progressive governing majority on City Council for the Peduto coalition.

In Lehigh County, moderate Republican-turned-Democrat Tom Muller was able to beat professional Tea Party clown Scott Ott, 51-49. Remember that time acting Executive Matt Croslis crossed party lines to endorse Ott over Muller? So will all Lehigh Valley Democrats forever. Mike Schlossberg staffer Geoff Brace picked up a seat on the Lehigh Commission, and I have to imagine young progressive Wes Barrett’s very narrow loss to incumbent tea person Michael Schware by 114 votes will go to recount. That leaves Republicans with a 7-2 majority on the Commission, enough to override Muller’s vetos. But with only 4 (and possibly just 3) tea people, policy outcomes are probably going to be pretty mild for the time being.

Bethlehem City Council now features a progressive governing majority, in contrast to the old more conservative Council. Last session, Eric Evans, David DiGiacinto, Jean Belinski, and Bob Donchez were a (not so coordinated) conservative bloc, but now Belinski is retired, DiGiacinto is Controller, and Bob Donchez is Mayor. Council is a lot more progressive in this round, with Karen Dolan, Willie Reynolds, and now Bryan Callahan and young progressive newcomer Adam Waldron picking up the open seats. These four will be able to pick a 5th progressive member to fill Bob Donchez’s old seat, for a 7-2 progressive governing majority. I’m guessing they make Willie Reynolds the Council President.

And in Carlisle, let’s have a shout-out for our boy Jake Sternberger who helped elect Tim Scott the Mayor. This was Jake’s first race as campaign manager, and by all accounts he did an incredible job. Tim will be the first Democratic Mayor of Carlisle in 28 years, and the first African American Mayor to be elected in the borough. Jake’s other candidate Sean Schultz won his seat on Borough Council, while Nathan Harig fell slightly short. Two outta three ain’t bad.

On the statewide front, I don’t follow judicial elections as much as I should, but the retention win for Supreme Court justice Ron Castille (moderate Republican) is being regarded by people I trust as a win for Democrats, since a vote not to retain would have given Tom Corbett the power to appoint a nuttier Republican.

All in all, mostly good news for the Blue Team! Now let’s get to work on getting our turnout operation humming for 2014.

If Brian Sims Would Vote for Alcohol Reform, the Gayborhood Could Have Wine Tastings

One of the only things that sucks about living in South Philly coming from Brooklyn is that the wine and spirits stores here don’t have wine tasting events. In NYC, wine stores will bring in small vintners for like 2-3 hours in the evening to offer free samples of their wines. These can be a big draw and are pretty fun marketing events for all concerned – people love free wine, and wine store owners love tipsy impulse shoppers.

Wine and spirits stores in Philly don’t do this is because they’re all shittily central-planned monopoly stores who are completely oblivious to local interests and trends.

If my state representative Brian Sims and my state Senator Larry Farnese would vote for the retail alcohol reform bills this fall, entrepreneurs in our neighborhood would open some very nice specialty wine stores in neighborhoods like Bella Vista, Queen Village, the Gayborhood, Graduate Hospital, and Washington Square West. These wine stores would have the same vibe as the bars and restaurants everybody likes, and they would have events that give away free wine sometimes.

Is this the biggest issue in the world? Of course not. But nobody should feel guilty about wanting politicians to fix this problem. The rural Pennsylvanians who want continued access to taxpayer-subsidized alcohol aren’t shy about telling politicians what they want. The state store unions and beer distributors aren’t shy about advocating for protection of their regulatory rents. Don’t let anybody shame you into thinking your convenience and your fun are weaker political claims than public cartel rent-seeker demands. This debate is properly understood as a fight between rural and metro interests, and urban politicians should be representing the interests of their voters.

Brian Sims and Larry Farnese, why can’t we have wine tastings? Why won’t you let us have nice things?

Easton Should Take Back Centre Square From the State

As a complement to yesterday’s post on PennDOT’s hostility to local transportation planning priorities, here’s something amazing that might happen. JD Malone says Easton, PA might vote to take a key downtown road back from the state in order to stop the PennDOT madness:

Centre Square might be the heart of Easton, but it’s maintained by Harrisburg.
That relationship is likely to end as City Council will decide Wednesday night on whether to take back Northampton Street — from Seventh Street to Larry Holmes Drive, including historic Centre Square. The take-back would come with $665,000 from PennDOT for improvements.

Council and Mayor Sal Panto Jr. have vented in the past how state control over Centre Square has held back improvements of the curbing, handicap accessibility and traffic pattern control.

Seizure of the road would mirror Easton’s take-back of Larry Holmes Drive, where the city narrowed the roadway, built a partition for visitors to Scott Park, and generally made the riverside road more appealing.

Becky Bradley, who has since moved to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, God bless her, did an amazing job with the Larry Holmes Drive road diet. The level of service on that road used to really high, and people would speed around it at highway speeds. The road diet put in some planters and parking spaces, and now it’s much calmer and more walkable. This corresponded with some waterfront park improvements, and anecdotal evidence suggests that there’s more pedestrian traffic in that area now. Success!

Centre Square in Easton is already pretty awesome, but it could be even better with some traffic coordination improvements, and especially if they got rid of the parking spaces in the circle and extended the pedestrian areas in the four corners out to the circle edge. They keep having these big public events in the circle where they close off those parking spaces and turn them into temporary pedestrian zones, and unsurprisingly it’s no big deal. Logically, it follows that if it’s not a big deal to lose those spaces at peak times during big public events, then it really won’t be a big deal to lose them the rest of the time.

Another way to get even more pedestrian space here would be to revamp the landscape architecture inside the circle. Easton uses this space for the Farmer’s Market and other events, and there would be even more usable space if they reconfigured the pedestrian seating and green spaces. Check out Kevin Mingura’s photo and you’ll see that the weird grass patches, which nobody really uses, take up most of the space. This might be a good subject for a contest where people can submit redesign ideas:

Maybe some people like the grass, and maybe others agree with me that it’s time for an update, but the only way to have that discussion is to first take back control of Northampton Street from the state.

Interview: How Brad Koplinski Plans to Save Distressed Local Governments as Lieutenant Governor

(I met up with Brad Koplinski, one of the good guys on Harrisburg City Council who’s now running to be the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor, to eat bagels and record this interview back in April. I’ve been sitting on it until I got the sense more people were tuning into the 2014 primaries, and this seemed like a nice slow news week to push it out there. Brad and I wonk deep on the Harrisburg incinerator political fight, infrastructure and pensions, distressed cities and regionalism, Marcellus Shale and taxes, and tax-exempt properties and PILOTs. So pull up a tab – this is extremely long, but highly worthwhile for anyone interested in municipal issues in PA. You will learn way more than you ever thought you wanted to know about what the Lieutenant Governor does.)

Jon Geeting: We see a lot of finger-pointing at the city of Harrisburg for the incinerator mess and the city’s fiscal distress. But doesn’t Dauphin County also share responsibility?

Brad Koplinski: The county – every county in the state- has to have a trash plan, a disposal plan for all the trash in the county. Well we had a dump, a landfill, in our county and the trucks who went to this landfill happened to go through the nicest neighborhoods in the county. They didn’t want stinky trash trucks going through their nice neighborhoods. And so the dump was full, they wanted to expand and people said no,  so the county said, what are we going to do with our trash? And so they bought into the city’s plan to retrofit the incinerator. (And coincidentally, then, all the stinky trash trucks go through the [pause] worst neighborhoods in the county. So we have some environmental justice issues there as well.)

So the county bought into the city’s retrofit of the incinerator. The Harrisburg Authority was the original bond issuer. There was some concern, and there should’ve been concern, that this was not revolving debt. This was not debt that was sustainable. If you build a parking garage, ok people are going to park here, you’re going to make money, and you’re going to pay off your loan. Everything had to work perfectly – perfectly – for the incinerator to even think about paying itself off. They said that it was like revolving debt. They said that it would pay for itself. They wrote papers to the state, because every city has a debt limit, of course, and said “hey, don’t count this against our city’s debt limit.” And the state saw the signature of the former Mayor and others and they said “ok” and they rubber-stamped it.

So what role does the state actually have in following up to make sure that something is self-liquidating debt? So they fudged that, and while the Authority was the initial bond issuer and was going to pay back the debt, the city co-signed for all of the debt, and the secondary co-signer was in many cases the county of Dauphin, and another was AGM, the insurance company. So the incinerator never paid for itself, it does make money – about $8-9 million a year – but the debt service is $15-16 million a year.

JG: So the question becomes, who should take the haircut? [Read more…]

Driving is Massively Subsidized

This fact is always worth repeating:

The amount we spend on roads every year far outstrips the money raised by user fees: “Nationwide in 2010, state and local governments raised $37 billion in motor fuel taxes and $12 billion in tolls and non-fuel taxes, but spent $155 billion on highways,” and the federal government spends about $40 billion more on roads than it takes in from the gas tax.

There’s a zombie idea out there that transit requires subsidies, while the auto infrastructure is fully funded by user fees. In reality, all of the transportation infrastructure is subsidized. One important reason that all transportation modes have to be subsidized is that we don’t capture back the windfall we create for nearby private landowners when we build and operate useful public infrastructure like train stations near their properties.

(via Gainesville Sun, h/t Shane Phillips)