Ravenstahl grapples with parking defeat

Supporters say two failed proposals won't reflect on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's leadership

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Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has been rebuffed on two major initiatives in as many years. Failure of his anticipated bid this week to breathe life back into his parking-for-pensions plan could say a lot about his leadership in a city where mayors aren't traditionally subject to defeats.

Mr. Ravenstahl last year shelved a proposal to tax university tuition amid an outcry from students and their institutions, settling for an as-yet-unfulfilled promise of donations and help lobbying Harrisburg.

City Council last week defeated his plan to lease parking garages and meters for a pension bailout in a 7-1 vote (with one abstention). Mr. Ravenstahl has called for a pension summit Monday while bashing council's parking-for-pensions alternative and offering to compromise on his proposal to lease the parking assets for 50 years.

As if overwhelming defeat of the parking proposal weren't enough, council members also accused the mayor of bad policy-making and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Councilman Patrick Dowd may have been the harshest critic, accusing the mayor of a "failure of leadership" for rejecting council's alternative bailout proposals while having no backup plan to the lease deal.

"I'm a teacher by training, so I'm always optimistic about people who fail a test and figure out what went wrong and make the required adjustments and changes," Mr. Dowd said. "I haven't seen that yet in the mayor."

Veterans of past administrations could not recall a similarly resounding council rejection of a major mayoral priority. "We sometimes had a close vote, but we never had anything as disastrous as this," said former Mayor Sophie Masloff, who publicly supports the parking lease plan.

Mr. Ravenstahl has warned that the city's annual pension payments would skyrocket under a takeover, leading to tax hikes, service cuts and layoffs. Noting he and council agree on many issues, he said even defeat on the high-profile parking lease issue wouldn't be a true reflection of his leadership ability.

"I'm quite confident in our ability to get the job done," he said.

Several civic leaders agreed.

Morgan O'Brien, CEO of Peoples Natural Gas Co., said the tuition tax proposal garnered attention for the city's financial problems and the need for state officials to help. He said the effort "shows strong leadership. It was getting the right people at the table, getting people engaged."

Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which organized the mayor's trip to Asia this month, said Mr. Ravenstahl "led the delegation in an environment of business CEOs, high-level government officials and national media. He performed brilliantly."

Aggie Brose, deputy director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., said Mr. Ravenstahl has been a leader in making blighted and liened properties available for development, in promoting greening initiatives and in rearranging a summer youth work program so it didn't conflict with summer school.

Council finance chair Bill Peduto, though, said Mr. Ravenstahl has been "more image than substance" at times. "Now, it appears more people in town are beginning to see the emperor has no clothes."

Parking crunch

As part of the mayor's plan to address the pension problem, investors led by J.P. Morgan Asset Management and LAZ Parking Ltd. bid $452 million to lease the parking garages, lots and meters operated by the city and its parking authority. Mr. Ravenstahl wanted to infuse at least $220 million into the pension fund, which may otherwise come under state management.

During debate on the proposal, Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said it had been "universally panned" by city residents, partly because of parking rate increases the mayor included to lure investors and get the best possible bid.

Mr. Dowd said a 50-year lease of public assets -- one that would have included significantly higher parking rates -- simply had no traction. He also called the tuition tax proposal "an unfortunate policy choice" for a mayor who helped develop the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program.

"It's not about him personally," Mr. Dowd said of the mayor, "it's about the failure of these policies. ... He has to start making the right policy choices for the city, today and into the future."

As long as a year ago, he said, he approached Mr. Ravenstahl about alternatives to a parking lease. "I have basically been shut out," he said, adding that a meeting he got with Mr. Ravenstahl last week lasted all of one minute before he was dismissed.

What critics call intransigence, the mayor calls principle. He opposes new debt and rejected some of the alternatives floated in recent months, including the one council gave preliminary approval to last week, because they would involve new debt.

"Mayor Ravenstahl, from day one on the job, has made the city's fiscal condition and job growth his top priority," said his spokeswoman, Joanna Doven. "That's why Pittsburgh has balanced budgets and has received three bond rating upgrades."

Mr. Peduto said the mayor has a habit of bullying opponents and using scare tactics, such as the threat of layoffs, for legislative ends. "You can do that once or twice, but you can't do that as a policy," he said. "My unsolicited advice to him: Work to build bridges, not to build walls."

Mr. Dowd said city Controller Michael Lamb, who helped to develop the alternative bailout that council has favored, repeatedly tweaked that plan to address members' concerns. Now, he said, a majority of council members feel "invested" in the plan and are able to support it.

That plan involves selling the city's parking facilities -- the Mellon Square garage, five lots and about 7,000 on-street meters -- to the parking authority for $220 million. The city would pump that money into the pension fund, avoiding a takeover. The authority would float a 30-year bond to buy the assets and repay the debt with parking rate increases more modest than those Mr. Ravenstahl proposed.

Last week, LAZ Parking CEO Alan Lazowski said he was "elated" to have emerged the high bidder for the lease but shocked to learn how divided the city was over the proposal. After council rejected the deal, which he said he spent millions of dollars working on, he issued a statement suggesting other cities eyeing infrastructure deals strive for greater cohesion.

After seeing J.P. Morgan and LAZ get jilted, will investors consider a similar venture here again?

"I have heard from a couple of my sources that it may have a chilling impact," said Cezary Podkul, editor of InfrastructureInvestor.com. "I don't think the industry would ever 100 percent rule out a deal," he added, especially if the political landscape changed and officials reached an early consensus on a deal.

Mayors rarely lose

Officials in past administrations said compromise was the key to advancing a legislative agenda.

Former Mayor Tom Murphy faced council rivals, but said impasses always ended with "somebody walking across the hall with a list in their hand" of neighborhood priorities that the administration would address in return for a key vote.

With a few exceptions -- like council's major rewrite of Mr. Murphy's proposed 2004 budget -- his administration was routinely able to win over five or more of the city's nine legislators. It even won financing for two new stadiums after voters rejected an initial plan. Its biggest failure, the proposed revamp of Downtown's Fifth-Forbes corridor, never came to a vote, collapsing with the pullout of department store Nordstrom.

"There should be somebody on the mayor's staff whose single job it is to count to five," said Michael Diven, a former councilman who was a swing vote during part of Mr. Murphy's administration.

"I certainly remember some huge votes, and they typically came down to 5-4, 6-3, but most of the time we won," said Jim Turner, the city's finance director under Mayor Richard Caliguiri and Mrs. Masloff. He now teaches at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. "I'm sure we didn't win them all."

Even when they did lose, his bosses rebounded smartly, he said. "The most important thing for a mayor is having a short memory."

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com . Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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