A look in the City Council crystal ball: What 2018 could bring to Pittsburgh

Council could have a big impact on Pittsburgh’s Amazon HQ2 bid if the city wins. It’s also eyeing more robust sexual harassment training for city employees.

citycountybldg
Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
colin-square-crop

After closing out 2017 with action on a long-dormant affordable housing fund and circus animal protections, the new year means a new workload for Pittsburgh City Council.

So what’s on the agenda for 2018? What’s possible and what’s unlikely? Here are a few highlights.

Amazon HQ2

We’re still awaiting word on Amazon’s choice for its new headquarters, for which Pittsburgh is a dark horse or a frontrunner, depending on who you ask.

But if the city is chosen to host Amazon HQ2, city council would likely be required to approve significant aspects of the plan.

Neil Manganaro, chief of staff to Council President Bruce Kraus, explains:

“As the legislature, council would ultimately be responsible for authorizing any sort of tax breaks Amazon would get as part of the proposal submitted by the mayor’s office and regional authorities. For instance, everyone that operates a parking structure in Pittsburgh, as is often the case with large developments, we give them a temporary waiver … It’s called the Parking Tax Diversion program, and it’s pretty standard for people to apply and receive a waiver allowing them to leverage parking revenue in paying down construction loans. […] Also the LERTA program (a tax abatement program created to incentivize property investment and redevelopment) requires council approval. Basically council has the role of giving final authorization to any tax incentives” proposed as part of the city’s Amazon HQ2 bid.

Manganaro was clear that he had not seen the city’s bid, adding, “But I’d have to imagine those types of things were offered and council would have to decide which to support.”

Amazon has promised 50,000 jobs and billions in investment to the winner of its Amazon HQ2 competition, of which hundreds of cities across North America are participating.

Peduto’s office, meanwhile, said it’s too early to say what council’s role in the Amazon HQ2 process might be if Pittsburgh were to win.

Pittsburgh residents filled up water containers during a precautionary flush and boil advisory in February 2017.

Pittsburgh residents filled up water containers during a precautionary flush and boil advisory in February 2017.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

PWSA

Last year was a difficult one for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. It began under a cloud of lead contamination concerns and ended with a state consent order that included a multimillion-dollar fine.

2017 also saw an at-times tense relationship between city council and the PWSA. But City Council did pass legislation over the summer that would allow PWSA to use the city’s public safety powers to replace private lead lines, PublicSource reported.

Beyond that, Manganaro said he doesn’t expect council to have too direct a role in the ongoing reformation process underway at PWSA.

“As far as I know, no one’s really approached [Kraus] with any formal request for oversight from council, and so we’ve sort of taken a backseat. There’s a lot of eyes on [PWSA] as it is, and I don’t know how much of an appetite there is for council to weigh in at this point…” (Those “eyes” include members of a Blue Ribbon Panel convened by the mayor and various state agencies.)

The mayor’s office said there is nothing currently pending before city council pertaining to lead pipes or the PWSA.

Obviously, that could change.

Mayor Bill Peduto at The Incline and WESA's mayoral forum.

Mayor Bill Peduto at The Incline and WESA's mayoral forum.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

A new budget season?

Years after the city found itself on the brink of bankruptcy and entering the state’s Act 47 program for financially distressed municipalities, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and others say the time has come for the city to remove itself from related oversight.

And while the city continues to make steps toward that goal, Manganaro said there has also been informal talk about moving up the city’s budget season if and when that exit were to finally happen.

“So basically [if] there’s no [Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority] oversight, then there’s the potential for quite a bit more haggling and changing of our budget because there’s more freedom [and control] over it,” Manganaro explained.

He added that a July-to-July budget season is a possibility, adding, “that’s what most corporations and businesses do.”

The city’s budget season currently runs December to December and, under state oversight through the ICA, has involved the mayor identifying his priorities and providing them to city council and the ICA for review by mid-to-late September so that the ICA could review and give recommendations and checks on what the city planned to spend.

“There’s been some informal talk about potentially changing our budget to a July-to-July budget because of the scheduling difficulties of doing this every December and, especially if we’re going to have a little more freedom about it, maybe moving the whole time frame up,” Manganaro said.

Late last year, council already took steps codifying several standards for financial management before Pittsburgh emerges from budgetary oversight under state Act 47.

Tim McNulty, spokesman with Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, said council approved three budget reform ordinances in December: prohibiting pension enhancements, maintaining fund balances, and capping debt.

stephenfoster
Colin Deppen / The Incline

Stephen Foster  

In October, the city’s Art Commission recommended removing a controversial Stephen Foster statue, saying it failed to meet the requirements of public art and should be moved from its perch on city property outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.

And while the final say in the matter belongs to Peduto, City Council could be involved in a budgeting decision if there are costs associated with possibly moving it.

(A decision on the statue is expected from Peduto later this year.)

If Peduto decides to have it moved, meanwhile, Manganaro said council’s involvement could depend on whether the move is handled with in-house labor or if the statue is placed into long-term storage in lieu of finding a willing recipient.

Manganaro said the process could likely be handled with an operating budget already established for Department of Public Works projects, meaning council would have little to no further role in organizing or funding it.

The Foster statue became a contested symbol on the heels of deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., last year and its removal is likely to renew some of the debate surrounding similar symbols nationwide.

Anthony_Coghill3

Pittsburgh City Council District 4 candidate Anthony Coghill.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

What else?

The addition of Council Member Anthony Coghill from District 4 this year and whoever wins the March special election for former councilman Dan Gilman’s vacant District 8 seat is likely to further set the tone for the coming year.

“Considering we have a brand new member and a special election in a few weeks, there are a lot of balls in the air,” Manganaro said.

“In March or the spring, once Mr. Coghill is up to speed on how things are running, he’ll have his own priorities and want to get things done. […] But other than that, and depending on who wins Gilman’s seat, it’s still too early in the year to say” exactly what council’s 2018 agenda will look like.

Moira Kaleida, Coghill’s chief of staff, told The Incline by email that the eradication of the opioid epidemic in Pittsburgh, particularly in Carrick, remains a top priority for Coghill during his first term in office.

Coghill has also identified rebuilding the South Hills’ 4th Public Works division and making the Beechview corridor a more viable business district as top interests.

Emails sent to the remaining members of council — with the exception of former council member Gilman, who is now Peduto’s chief of staff — went unanswered.

Meanwhile, you can also expect larger thematic issues to be in play in 2018 after a 2017 in which some council members and the mayor repeatedly expressed their resistance to — and desire to thwart — aspects of President Donald Trump’s policy agenda.

This includes Peduto’s attempts to ratchet up environmental controls locally faster than the Trump administration can tear them down nationally.

Additionally, Kraus’s office says he plans to introduce legislation requiring all city employees to attend sexual harassment prevention training. This on the heels of sexual harassment allegations emanating from the state Capitol and seemingly everywhere else in recent weeks and months.

The city currently requires new hires to do training about sexual harassment in the workplace, but Kraus’s legislation would require a more robust program for all employees, Manganaro told The Incline.

“It’s a way to be proactive rather than wait for something bad to happen,” he said.