Fearing for the future on parking lots and police accountability alike



So I've finally been bestirred from my blogging torpor by the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the apparent death of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to lease city parking facilities. The plan, which would have raised $450 million in an effort to shore up the city's pension fund, was given a preliminary thumbs-down by council yesterday. 

I can't entirely disagree with those who say torpedoing the idea before having a solid alternative is premature, or a bit of dangerous gamesmanship. But I'm not sure the vote makes a big difference. While I thought the mayor made a pretty decent sales pitch, it's been clear for awhile now that council wasn't buying. And hey, it's not like council were the only ones to have prematurely foreclosed on other possibilities. As I pointed out awhile back, the legislature played that game itself, offering the city a chance to raise parking taxes only if it chose privatization.

Finally, let's be honest: Some of the chatter in favor of the lease plan suffered from a bit of cognitive dissonance. At times, the argument seemed to be that the parking lots suffered from inefficient management and overpaid employees -- and that parking rates were too cheap. It's a little like the restaurant customer who says the pork chops were dry, the vegetables tasteless, the dessert undigestible ... and on top of that, the portions were too small.

Still, I feel where foks at the Pittsburgh Comet are coming from. Council paid $250,000 for its own study of the lease proposal. Its consultants determined the present value of parking lot proceeds -- the value of tomorrow's cash if you had it today -- was $400 million. The city was being offered $450 million. 

Note to council: Next time you want to hire a consultant, give me a call. I'll give you advice you can ignore for half the price you piad. 

Because perhaps like the folks at the Comet, I feel a bit like a voice crying in the wilderness lately. Only the issue I'm concerned about is police accountability.  

Maybe you missed this disclosure last week: The city is facing a potential exodus of police officers in the years ahead, as more than half of its 886-member force will become eligible for retirment by 2015. 

For some of us older heads, this all seems very familiar, even if we have to go back more than a decade to remember why:

Some thought long and hard. Others didn't have to think about it at all.

Each arrived at his decision, 410 of the 453 Pittsburgh police officers eligible for an early retirement incentive in the mid-1990s took the offer. During that period, primarily 1994 and 1995, another 136 officers retired on disability or on a regular pension.

To replace those 546 officers -- half the force and representing more than 12,000 years of experience -- the bureau undertook a massive hiring program, resulting in the youngest and least experienced department in anyone's memory ...

[T]he new officers' inexperience led to numerous errors in judgment and performance. While mistakes by inexperienced officers are to be expected, they normally are mitigated by the guidance of veteran officers. But with so few of them left on the Pittsburgh force after the retirement exodus, that didn't happen and problems festered.

Among those young recruits were an officer who got busted for prostitution and Jeffrey Cooperstein, who became a poster child for police/community turmoil. 

That wave of retirements was induced by a cost-cutting measure implemented by Mayor Sophie Masloff in the early 1990s. But the infusion of new blood was just one of the problems the department faced. For example, efforts to fire officers could be be thwarted by arbitrators -- even when there were unsettling allegations of misconduct -- over the objections of the police chief.

Sound familiar?

Public frustration with the lack of police accountability led to a federal consent decree against the department. At the time, Pittsburgh's police bureau was the only one in the nation operating under federal oversight. The public's anger also led to a 1997 public referendum creating a police review board. 

In the years since, the consent decree was lifted. As for the review board? City officials have been taking steps whose impact, if not intent, would be to undermine the board's ability to do its job. 

So in the not-too-distant future, we may well have yet another crop of young, inexperienced cops taking the streets. And we've either dismantled or failed to improve many of the mechanisms for keeping their youthful exuberance in check.

On the bright side, though, at least there's still some hope we can fund their pensions.

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