Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I posted a comment on Mike Madison's Pittsblog that I feel is worth restating in this space. The debt is an issue that many of us have been following for weeks, months or even years that appears in the last few days to have gained some steam. I firmly believe that it and the Merger are the two largest issues facing our fair city in the upcoming years. The text below represents essentially what I feel is a mission statement for this blog (and hopefully others) in covering the debt problem.

I’m glad to see so many blogs tackling this debt issue, I think blogs particularly ones penned by people who are authorities on what they discuss (for example say, lawyers (Peckman), Law Professors (Madison), Professors of Social and Urban Research (Briem) or even recognized amateur local political experts (Bram). I believe that it provides a forum for forcing this conversation with or without the policy makers. I further believe that if this conversation is forced, policy makers will have no choice but to join.

I think from this post and the several others scattered around the Burghosphere that this discussion is well under way. However, I find it lacks several key facets that will be necessary to force this issue with the public and the policy makers:

1. What is the danger? When we say “financial ruin” what do we mean? In cities that have gone bankrupt how have the citizens felt it? I would hypothesize and hope to confirm with research when I find the time (or if one of you do) that there are documented cases of cities not very different then our own that had to cut off funding for parks, street cleaning, commuting (though you could argue that is happening to us already) and other key services for both residents AND commuters. Even if such cases do not exist educated guesses from those of us with related degrees/expertise would be valued. With public policy the public has away of assuming that concerned citizens are claiming the sky is falling unless provided with concrete evidence otherwise.

2. An effort to define the scope of the problem. Yes we can sight the size of the public debt… but some debt is a good thing (or at least not a bad thing) for a municipality. Roughly how much of our debt is in the “too much” category?

3. What can be done short term and long term to curb the debt? Along with exploring the horrors we can avoid (point 1) and understanding the amount of debt that needs to be trimmed (point 2) how much sacrifice do we need to make now to avoid “financial ruin”? For example, if we live with a commuter tax, does that make this problem go away? Is it insufficient? Is it overkill?

The problem with debt is not unique to Pittsburgh, and it is also not independent of the financial problems of the country as a whole. However, this does not mean we can or should throw up our arms and give up. In business the company that weathers the recession with solid (if not glowing) financials rebounds quicker and stronger then companies that resigned to blaming the cyclical nature of business. When the country and the economy again find value in the rust belt cities, Pittsburgh can be the one that has the foundation to support it. If city officials are disinclined to engage this problem, I think it is important that bloggers (and anyone else with a public forum) constructively bring it to the general attention.

I will also be building a primer on the most current information available about the Pittsburgh debt situation in the coming days.

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