Tube City Online

Filed Under: News || By Jason Togyer

February 25, 2011 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted: MSP 'Concerto Festival' Sunday

Category: Events || By Submitted Report

Famed concertos by Vivaldi and Mozart will be the highlights at the McKeesport Symphony Pops' concert this Sunday.

Entitled "Concerto Festival," the concert begins at 2:30 p.m. in the auditorium of McKeesport Area High School, 1960 Eden Park Blvd., and will be recorded for later broadcast over Pittsburgh's WRCT-FM (88.3).

In addition to the McKeesport Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bruce Lauffer, "Concerto Festival" will feature violin duo Nicole Lennartz and Gabrielle Faetini; Rebecca Silverstein and Rebecca Pfingstl, a flute and harp duo; pianist Rishi Mirchandani; and violin soloist Dena Miller.

The concert will begin with the overture from W.A. Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" and include Vivaldi's popular "Concerto for Two Violins" and Mozart's "Concerto for Harp and Flute" and "Piano Concerto," then conclude with Max K.A. Bruch's "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra."

Tickets are available at the door and cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students, with children 6 and under admitted free. Seating is first-come, first-serve.

For more information, visit the symphony's website or call (412) 664-2854.

. . .

Meanwhile, the McKeesport Symphony Auxiliary is holding a "Welcome to Spring" Card Party next Saturday, March 5, at the White Oak American Legion. Reservations must be placed by Feb. 28 by calling (412) 678-0949.

The card party runs from 12 noon to 3 p.m. Tickets are $8 and include lunch. The legion hall is located at 2813 Capitol St. at Pennsylvania Avenue in White Oak.

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February 23, 2011 | Link to this story

Remembering 'Wood's Works'

Category: History || By Jason Togyer

Click to embiggen

Though almost all McKeesporters realize that the city was once home to U.S. Steel's massive National Works, many have probably forgotten or never even knew about its most important predecessor, known to old-timers as "Wood's Works."

W. Dewees Wood traveled from Philadelphia to McKeesport in 1851, bringing with him a patented process for "planishing" iron --- a method of hammering and polishing iron to make it flexible and shiny. "Planished" iron resisted heat and rust and was much in demand for use on locomotive boilers, roofing materials, and for stoves and stove pipes.

The mill, which was eventually absorbed into U.S. Steel and was modernized to produce stainless and chromium steel, closed in 1954. It was demolished to allow the expansion of National Works.

But Wood was here first --- more than 20 years before National Tube Works Co. was founded by a group of Boston, Mass., investors, and before even the railroad arrived in McKeesport.

Just added to Tube City Online's "Steel Heritage" section is a circa 1948-49 brochure about "Wood's Works" that you can download. The cover includes three photos of Downtown that I've tried to stitch together into one continuous view.

You can click that photo to enlarge it, but here are a few things I found particularly interesting. (Apologies for the watermarks on the enlarged image, but lots of things from Tube City Online seem to be turning up on other people's websites, without so much as a link back here.)

. . .

Tech High: That "white castle on the hill" is McKeesport Technical High School, which was built in 1916 and later converted into Cornell Intermediate School. In 1948-49, vocational students still attended "the Voc," now Founder's Hall Middle School, at the corner of O'Neil and Eden Park boulevards.

Besides "Tech High," the castle property was also then home to the McKeesport School District's football field. The school was demolished last year and will be replaced by a new building.

. . .

Tube City Beer and McKeesport Tin Plate: Although the Wood Works brochure isn't dated, I can make a reasonable guess at the time period from the fact that Tube City Brewing Company still seems to be operating --- or at least smoke appears to be coming from its smokestack. The brewery closed in 1952.

In the background, the stacks of the old McKeesport Tin Plate Co. are visible. Located in Port Vue, the plant was then part of Jones & Laughlin Steel. J&L in turn would sell the plant to Kelsey-Hayes for the manufacture of automobile wheels. Today, it's ELG Metals.

. . .

First National Bank: That's the First National Bank of McKeesport at the corner of Walnut and Fifth, with a streamlined Pittsburgh Railways streetcar in front of it. The bank was modernized a few years later, which resulted in the loss of its elaborate columns and capstones. Eventually, it became Western Pennsylvania National Bank and later still, part of Equibank. The building is currently vacant.

Not visible is the H.L. Green Co. store that was a longtime landmark just across Fifth Avenue from the bank. It was built in 1949, which is another clue that this photo was taken sometime after World War II, but before 1950.

You can download the history of the Wood Works by clicking here.

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February 19, 2011 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted: Route 30 Restrictions Next Week

Category: Announcements || By Staff Report

Traffic will be restricted on Route 30 in North Versailles Township beginning next week while crews complete work on the Greensburg Pike overpass.

Weather permitting, the work begins Monday and will continue through early April, says Jim Struzzi, district spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

Crews will be sealing concrete, painting and performing other minor tasks, he says, and will occasionally be forced to close or restrict traffic under the bridge.

The bridge near the township municipal building and the Great Valley Shopping Center was replaced last year under a $4.5 million contract with Gulisek Construction of Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County.

. . .

Mifflin Road Project Continues: Meanwhile, work has begun on the reconstruction of a bridge that carries Mifflin Road through the Hays neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

The bridge is an important connection for McKeesport area residents traveling to Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, traffic was rerouted from the southbound lanes of the bridge to the northbound lanes, so that the southbound bridge can be completely reconstructed. Work includes removing and replacing the southbound bridge deck, substructure repairs, and guide rail and approach improvements, Struzzi says.

The northbound bridge was rebuilt last year and re-opened to traffic in late January. The projects are part of an $8.1 million contract with Swank Associated Companies Inc. of New Kensington for improvements on several bridges in Allegheny County.

. . .

Scholarships for Volunteer Firefighters: Scholarships to Community College of Allegheny College are again available for volunteer firefighters through the FireVEST program.

The Fire Volunteer Education, Service & Training Scholarship Program is accepting applications for 200 full scholarships for an associate's degree or certificate program at CCAC, in addition to training at the Allegheny County Fire Academy, a spokeswoman says. The deadline to apply for the fall semester is May 15.

"The FireVEST scholarship program was designed to help volunteer fire departments that have difficulty recruiting firefighters, and it's working," says Dan Onorato, Allegheny County Executive. "Volunteer firefighters protect more than 910,000 people in Allegheny County, and are essential to our public safety. We're pleased to offer an incentive to serve and a thank you for continued service."

Of 200 scholarships offered each year, 150 go to new recruits who commit to five years of service, and 50 scholarships are awarded to current volunteers who commit to an additional five years of service.

Scholarship applicants must be residents of Allegheny County and either be a current volunteer or join a volunteer fire department in Allegheny County. Applicants must apply and be accepted to CCAC, file for federal and state financial aid, and complete the financial aid process on time and in its entirety.

Applications and more information can be obtained through CCAC's web site or by calling the Allegheny County Fire Academy at (412) 931-3158, ext. 5.

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February 18, 2011 | Link to this story

To Do: Pancake Breakfast, Port Vue on Screen

Category: Announcements, Events, News || By Staff and Wire Reports

Pancake Breakfast Tomorrow: The McKeesport NAACP will hold its annual pancake breakfast from 8 a.m. to 12 noon Saturday at The Common Ground (the former YWCA), 410 Ninth Ave., Downtown. All are welcome!

Tickets are $5 for adults or $3 for children under 12. Call (412) 673-2206.

. . .

'Four' Opens Today: The new movie "I Am Number Four," which opens today, includes footage shot along Glenn Avenue, Liberty Way and Port Vue Avenue on the border between Port Vue and Liberty.

Based on a young adult science fiction novel by James Frey and Jobie Hughes, the film was produced by Michael Bay (the Transformers movies) and directed by Daniel "D.J." Caruso (TV's "Smallville" and "The Shield"). Although the film is set in the fictional town of Paradise, Ohio, most principal footage was shot last spring in the Pittsburgh area.

Other locations used in the film include New Kensington, Vandergrift and Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville. A studio in Monroeville was also used for some scenes.

The trailer includes footage shot along Glenn Avenue in Port Vue, including a scene of a police car flipping in mid-air.

Reviews are so far mostly negative, with The Onion's AV Club website criticizing the film's "cheesy" and predictable storyline, "recognizable from many past films." The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert calls the movie "shameless and unnecessary" and says the story amounts to special effects "intercut with brief bursts of inane dialogue."

But the Post-Gazette gives the movie three stars, saying it "delivers the alien action goods" and is "one of the better recent movies to be made here."

(And Tube City Almanac's film critic, F. Stop Fitzgerald, raves, "If you see only one movie shot in Port Vue this year, 'I Am Number Four' should be Number One on your list!")

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February 18, 2011 | Link to this story

Who's Next?

Category: Cartoons, Commentary/Editorial || By Jason Togyer

© 2011 Jason Togyer / Tube City Almanac

Update (Feb. 21): E.D. Kain, writing at Balloon Juice:
"At the same time that we're discovering that the 401k model is unsound, we're also seeing a concerted effort to attack the last bastion not just of unionism in this country, but of pension-based retirement plans.

"And the even larger picture, if we zoom out a few hundred feet or so higher, is that this is an attack on the middle class and on the future of the middle class in America. Not just on the public sector, but on the entire middle class, private sector included (though those battles have largely already been fought, and the middle class has lost them one by one) ...

"So why does Wisconsin matter? Because this is a pivotal battle in that fight. What happens in Wisconsin could be a bellwether for things to come. If Walker wins, expect other like-minded governors to attempt the same thing, and many of them will likely win. If he loses, organized labor may have bought itself a bit more time.

"But the new class war will continue. Unless the public narrative can be recaptured from the Tea Party and the austerity now crowd we won't see it end."

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February 17, 2011 | Link to this story

Proposed Internet TV Empire Faces Skepticism

Category: News || By Jason Togyer

By Jason Togyer
© 2011 Tube City Community Media Inc., all rights reserved

Jim Smith is out to prove his skeptics wrong. He says he's building an entertainment empire in McKeesport because he believes in the region --- and especially in its people.

"Nobody seems to think we're real, but we've shown them that we're here and we've shown them that we're real," says Smith, co-founder of Tru Vu Entertainment, part of a network of companies running out of the former Immel's Department Store on Fifth Avenue, Downtown.

With his wife and business partner, Cathy Morgan, and several local investors, Smith has proposed the creation of a 24-hour Web-only TV network, along with several live entertainment venues, a coffee shop and an upscale restaurant.

The company is currently at a "stalemate" because of a lack of support from local, state and federal agencies, according to Smith, but he's working on a deal with a Dutch entertainment conglomerate for exclusive rights to webcast an event celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and has received approval to run a $1 million giveaway for Tru Vu users.

Smith, who has attended recent city council meetings to complain that the city isn't doing enough to help him promote the businesses, says he doesn't have any doubts in the ability of McKeesporters and Mon Valley residents to make Tru Vu successful.

"We have really seen a lot of heart in the people who work here," says Smith, who currently lives in the city's 10th Ward. "They really see what we're trying to do here, and they're trying to do everything they can to make it a reality."

. . .

Yet seven months after Smith's grand opening in McKeesport, no content has yet been produced by Tru Vu, and at least two local elected officials have raised questions publicly about the company's viability.

At the request of Tube City Almanac, two Pittsburgh-area broadcasting executives were asked to review the business plan for Tru Vu and its related companies. Both men, speaking under condition of anonymity, were sharply critical. Neither is a Tru Vu competitor.

The first, a radio station programmer and consultant who has been on the Internet since its early days, says that in his opinion, the plan "uses a lot of the right words ... but it doesn't add up to anything."

The second, who helped launch Warner Brothers' interactive QUBE cable TV service in the 1970s, is kinder, but equally skeptical. He suggests that in his experience, the parts of the business plan that would seem most feasible are the coffee shop and restaurant --- not the TV networks.

. . .

Smith says he's founded successful companies all over the country. He and Morgan most recently lived in Arizona, according to published reports. His growing network of companies based in McKeesport includes a talent agency and a credit collection agency, Samuel, Stevens & Bosse Inc.

In addition to the Immel's building, which is owned by one of his business partners, Jerry Magnelli of Baldwin Borough, Smith has purchased and is also using the former business incubator at the corner of Fifth and Sheridan --- a former Montgomery Ward store that was later part of G.C. Murphy Co.'s home office complex.

At the heart of the plans is Tru Vu, which has proposed offering more than two dozen TV channels, including channels for live music, news, soap operas, home shopping, religion, movies and "many more to come!" All of the channels would be streamed from McKeesport and showcase local talent, including actors and musicians trained at Pittsburgh's universities.

. . .

Smith says he's tested his Internet TV concept successfully twice before in Florida and Tennessee, and eventually hopes to employ as many as 1,600 people in a $20 million per year business.

According to a longtime friend and former business partner, Smith is sincere, and has been refining his Internet TV station plans for years.

"He's definitely got an entrepreneurial spirit," says Charlie Becker, a credit investigator in Delaware, who came to McKeesport last year to help open Samuel, Stevens & Bosse. Becker, who's known Smith "at least 15 years," says he left the McKeesport operation because he wanted to return to his home in Delaware.

. . .

Tru Vu's arrival in McKeesport was heralded by a front-page article in The Daily News, along with coverage in the Post-Gazette and in the city and school district's magazine, In McKeesport Area. Smith was credited with helping to "rebuild" and "(bring) new life" to the city's long-suffering Downtown.

Despite the good press and high hopes, there's no live entertainment originating from the Immel's building yet, although a temporary studio is under construction.

Smith says that Tru Vu and its related companies were forced to "restructure" on Jan. 1 and lay off employees after state and federal job-creation money failed to materialize.

. . .

Two candidates for mayor in the May primary have gone on record to question whether Smith's dream is even realistic.

When Smith came to McKeesport City Council in January to complain that the city had not done enough to help Tru Vu establish itself, Councilman Darryl Segina retorted that he'd found the company's operation "kind of rudimentary."

"I'm not trying to chase any business out of town, but I'm trying to get some more information about what you're trying to do," he told Smith.

Mayor Regis McLaughlin also pronounced himself "unimpressed" by the Tru Vu operation.

. . .

The two broadcasters who have seen Tru Vu's business plan share McLaughlin and Segina's misgivings. The first, who has more than 30 years' experience at radio stations around the country, says that in his opinion, the 13-page Tru Vu prospectus that he was shown was "nonsensical."

"It's all over the place," he says. "This defies logic in so many ways I can't even start to enumerate them."

The other broadcaster worked at Warner Cable's innovative QUBE service, which offered live, original, interactive programming in several cities, including Pittsburgh. He says "boosting McKeesport and creating new jobs is obviously needed," but adds that Tru Vu's plans need "a real dose of reality."

"Have the backers realistically looked at the personnel needs for the TV aspect of their plan?" he tells the Almanac. "It is horrendously expensive to create a live channel."

. . .

The proposed "'50s style diner," copy center and restaurant "have a chance" to succeed, the second broadcaster says, but a stand-alone, Internet-only TV network is probably not viable. Although the Tru Vu business plan cites MTV as an inspiration, the broadcaster says he doesn't think that comparison is valid.

"MTV succeeded because cable was in its infancy," he says. "There were music programs such as Wolfman Jack's 'Midnight Special' on NBC. MTV succeeded in that era because it filled a need in a day when there were few other cable choices ... and no Internet."

Today, he says, there are "streams from thousands of terrestrial broadcasters worldwide. Tru Vu will have to cut through that established clutter."

. . .

Such criticism and skepticism doesn't faze Smith. "I've had 15 people in here who have all told me, 'It can't be done,'" he says.

According to Smith, establishment broadcast executives don't understand the keys to the Tru Vu concept --- low-bandwidth, undiscovered talent and interactivity.

Tru Vu's programs will require only 32 kbps of Internet bandwidth --- suitable for viewing even on a 56K modem --- using a compression technology that Smith says is proprietary.

The channels will be "100 percent interactive with the world," Smith says, "not just broadcasting to an audience." Viewers will be able to comment in real-time and even influence the direction of the programs they see, Smith says. "We are truly live, and that's very hard for people to understand," he says.

. . .

To avoid heavy talent fees, Smith says, the Tru Vu stations will spotlight artists --- including local acts --- not available anywhere else. "Our cost to produce a show is 1/100th or maybe 1/1000th of a prime-time network show," he says. "This is original content, not the same old content."

And bloopers will be part of the charm. At his previous Internet TV stations in Florida and Tennessee, Smith says, "the more bloopers we showed live, the more people reacted to it."

But one of the broadcasting executives who have seen Tru Vu's business plan argues: "There are plenty of live, interactive internet portals. He doesn't acknowledge them, or perhaps does not know of them. Moreover, he's looking backwards -- at 56K modem users --- when the future is clearly broadband and is spreading quickly."

. . .

The other broadcasting executive notes that Tru Vu's business plan envisions selling advertising and charging a subscription fee to generate money, but for that to work, he claims, the company will have to offer established, well-known acts --- and it can't do that from McKeesport.

"Having live capability from L.A., New York, and other locales worldwide will be a must to attract the entertainers needed," he says.

And he adds that Tru Vu's suggested 32 kbps rate is "too low for quality streaming." (Smith replies: "It's not HDTV, but we never claimed it to be.")

. . .

Smith has launched two previous Internet TV operations --- one called IM2K in Tennessee in 1999, and Rave 2000 in Florida the following year. An actress and disc jockey who worked at IM2K as an on-air host or "VJ," JoAnn Vickers Wilburn, tells Tube City Almanac "it was cool, a very good experience."

Although Wilburn, who lives in Tennessee, says she never met Smith, she says the setup at IM2K "was beautiful ... (it had) nice broadcast-quality equipment, an engineer for the VJs and a couple of cameras, (plus) a nicely furnished (set). We were given a lot of room to develop our own show. I got myself a co-host and did a mix of music, comedy shorts, and (had) some of my actor and musician friends as guests. It was a blast."

She began doing her show two nights a week in mid-July or early August of 1999. "By the middle of December they closed their doors," Wilburn says. "I think they spent too much money up front and didn't think about operating capital."

But she notes that web streaming technology wasn't as reliable then as it is now. "And if (Smith) plans to do it again, he might make it this time," Wilburn says.

. . .

Smith's bio on the Tru Vu website calls his 40-year business career "illustrious," but an extensive search of online databases for information about Smith, IM2K and Rave 2000 turned up only two news articles --- one from a trade publication for music teachers and another from 2000 in the St. Petersburg Times. According to the Florida Division of Corporations, Rave 2000 was founded by Smith in July 2000 and was declared defunct by the following year.

Rave 2000's failure was caused by the collapse of the so-called "dot-com" bubble, which scared investors away from any Internet or web companies, Smith says.

Although Samuel, Smith & Bosse has laid off all of its employees, Smith says the setback is a temporary restructuring. State and federal job-creation money that he was promised has not materialized, causing four investors to back out, he says: "Our business model was based on a lot of programs that we thought would still be in place."

. . .

But the political upheaval caused by the 2010 election --- which is forcing state and federal agencies to cut their budgets across the board --- has hurt Tru Vu and its related companies, Smith says. "We got caught in the cracks," he says. "Right now, everything has been put on hold."

His companies aren't looking for "some humongous tax abatement," but they do need start-up capital to provide on-the-job training for new employees, Smith says. "We're not looking for handouts," he says.

Rumors being spread about the company's solvency have also hurt his efforts, Smith says, but he's "not threatening to leave." In fact, he plans to launch an interactive Web portal to promote the area that will be called "McKeesport Now," but without an infusion of either private or public money, his companies are being forced to retrench.

"We have a lot of people who are working here even though the negativity is kind of rampant," Smith says. "The truth of the matter is, their souls are invested in McKeesport. We keep getting asked, 'Why should you do this in McKeesport?' I think they should be asking, 'Why shouldn't we do this in McKeesport?'"

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February 15, 2011 | Link to this story

Council Targets Parking Scofflaws

Category: News || By Jason Togyer

City council is asking police to increase their enforcement of parking regulations along Fifth Avenue, Downtown.

The effort is designed to encourage motorists to use the city's two parking garages on Sixth Avenue and to improve parking meter revenues that one councilman called "anemic."

As part of the ongoing reconstruction and widening of Fifth Avenue between Market and Coursin streets, the city has installed new digital, electronic meters that replaced mechanical meters that were often missing or malfunctioning. The meters were paid for through a grant from the McKeesport Downtown Business Authority.

City Administrator Dennis Pittman said the contractor will be painting lines --- weather permitting --- to delineate the parking stalls.

. . .

But without an effort to catch scofflaws, Councilman Darryl Segina said, the new meters are useless.

"We need more enforcement to drive people into the garage, because our revenues are anemic," he said.

According to a group of consultants hired by the state to study and audit the city's operations, McKeesport needs to improve its collection of fees and fines --- including those generated by parking meters and enforcement.

In a report presented in December to Mayor Regis McLaughlin and city council, Delta Development Group said that compared to similar municipalities, McKeesport is "overly dependent" on real estate taxes and must find other sources of revenue.

The report notes that the city collects more than $300,000 in revenues from parking fines, fees and taxes every year, but only $40,000 to $60,000 comes from parking meter revenues.

. . .

Parking "fines and forfeits are consistently about $145,000 per year," the Delta consultants wrote, recommending that "better parking enforcement strategies" should be studied to "enhance and increase" that revenue.

McKeesport currently has one parking enforcement officer who works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Police Chief Bryan Washowich said at a council work session earlier this month. Adding more enforcement will require financial support from council, he said.

"We're currently down four officers," Washowich said. "If we were given the go-ahead to hire additional personnel, we would hire them."

The Delta report suggests that instead of using only sworn police officers to write parking tickets, parking enforcement could also be handled by civilian employees.

. . .

One persistent problem has been with motorists who park all day on Fifth Avenue --- taking a space that could be used by a nearby business --- and carpool to Pittsburgh, sharing the cost of the McKeesport parking ticket. "That problem has lessened in recent years," Council President Mike Cherepko said, but it still exists.

Illegal parking near UPMC McKeesport hospital is also an issue, Cherepko said.

The criticism is not directed at the city's parking enforcement officer, said Cherepko and others. "None of this is intended to denigrate that man," Segina said. "He's done a fine job for years."

. . .

Washowich promised council an increased effort to enforce the existing laws. Patrol officers who work in the Fifth Avenue business district will be asked to watch for illegal parking and expired meters, he said.

But City Controller Ray Malinchak suggested that council members have bigger problems to tackle than parking meters.

"We've got $8 million worth of back taxes that we need to collect --- why are we chasing parking tickets?" he said.

Councilwoman V. Fawn Walker, who has been a persistent critic of the city's parking enforcement efforts, said she and her colleagues are paying attention to the larger picture, including delinquent tax collection.

"We are talking about it, but you can't just push one issue and ignore others," Walker said.

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February 13, 2011 | Link to this story

Another Viewpoint: 'Playing for Keeps'

Category: Another Viewpoint, Politics || By Jason Togyer

John Cole is a Steelers fan and former die-hard Republican who edits and writes a blog called Balloon Juice, which is mostly (but not exclusively) about national politics. (Warning: Those of you with delicate constitutions will find some bad language there.)

I stumbled onto it quite by accident, and it's become a must-read for me every day. And almost daily, I find something worth quoting, but these passages from last Thursday were especially pungent. I'm sure they'll fire some of you up:

One thing that even the dim bulbs in the media should understand by now is that there is in fact a class war going on, and it is the rich and powerful who are waging it. Anyone who does anything that empowers the little people or that threatens the wealth and power of the plutocracy must be destroyed ...

You have to understand the mindset --- they are playing for keeps. The vast majority of the wealth isn't enough. They want it all. Anything that gets in their way must be destroyed. They don't care if they poison every stream or crack the foundation to your house or if your daughter dies getting a back-alley abortion or if everyone in your mining town has an inoperable tumor. They just don't give a s--t.

And they are well-financed, have a strong infrastructure, a sympathetic media and entire organizations dedicated to running cover for them. They've even created their own mythical ideology in which they are superhero Galtian overlords, and this lets a few rubes who babble ignorantly about the free market get to feel like they are playing along, when they are really just being played.

It's these guys versus all of us, yet half the people being rogered (Republicans and glibertarians and hell, half the Democrats) have been convinced the other side is a bigger threat to their well-being than the people with all the power, money and resources.

(Source: John Cole, "More Fallout From Anonymous," Balloon Juice, Feb. 10, 2011)

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February 11, 2011 | Link to this story

Consultants' Plan Available for Download

Category: News || By Jason Togyer

An "early intervention plan" designed to keep the city from Act 47 "distressed" status is now available for viewing by the general public.

As a public service, Tube City Online, publisher of Tube City Almanac, is hosting the so-called "Delta report" for free download. A PDF viewer such as Adobe Reader is required to view the documents.

At the January and February council meetings, city officials said many of the recommendations in the report are being addressed, including increased enforcement and collection of fees.

The report, compiled last year by Delta Development Group Inc., became controversial in October when a copy was supplied to The Daily News by City Controller Ray Malinchak over the objections of then-Mayor Jim Brewster, who said the document was a draft and should not have been released.

. . .

Malinchak, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor in the May primary, says the portions of the document he provided to Daily News reporter Pat Cloonan had been complete since August and September. He argued at January's council meeting that those sections of the report should not have been withheld from public scrutiny.

The report was released to all members of city council at a public hearing in December. Malinchak's office provided digital copies of the reports to Tube City Online last week.

No editing has been performed by Tube City Online, although the document has been broken into smaller sections so that users may download it more quickly. The report is divided into seven sections, plus three appendices:

. . .

The report concludes that "there is no imminent financial crisis and therefore no immediate need to amend or modify the budget." But it does note that the city faces ongoing shortfalls in revenue, mainly due to its high poverty rate (about 23 percent) and a population decline in every decade since World War II.

Yet several recommendations made by the consultants are likely to be unpopular among residents. The report suggests that McKeesport has kept real estate taxes artificially low compared to neighboring communities, and that those tax rates should be raised.

At one point, the consultants caution Mayor Regis McLaughlin and city council that they should "not avoid tax increases when necessary."

"McKeesport residents, at $888.83 annually, pay far less in total taxes than any other comparable community in Allegheny County," the report notes. "With the exception of the City of Duquesne, McKeesport residents have a far lower actual tax burden than residents in adjacent communities.

Residents of North Versailles Township, it notes, pay "nearly three times" the amount of real estate taxes paid by city residents, even though the per-capita income in North Versailles is only slightly higher than McKeesport's.

. . .

Although the city has been able to balance its budget through the use of one-time moves, such as asset sales or bond refinancing, the consultants say such moves are not viable for the long-term. "Overall, expenses have outpaced revenue at about 1 percent each year, leaving a gap of approximately $1 million annually," the report notes.

The consultants, paid for with the help of a grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, recommend increasing user fees and "aggressive activities" to collect delinquent taxes and enforce building codes and other ordinances.

Fees and fines collected for parking, amusement devices and other services are lower than those of comparable communities, the report says, and in some cases, the city is spending more to administer the permits than it collects in fees.

Overall, fees and fines make up only 2 percent of the city's overall revenue --- the lowest percentage among 14 other communities of comparable size to McKeesport, the report says. "It is absolutely critical that the city take immediate steps" to shore up those collections.

. . .

The city's management team, "although strong and experienced," is weak in terms of resources, the consultants say. Their recommendations include:
  • Appointing a "Chief Financial Officer": "Considering that the city is a $20 million operation, the absence of a competent, highly trained CFO is a glaring omission."

  • Hiring or contracting a personnel or human-resources director: "There have been complaints, grievances and lawsuits filed against the city related to employment practices ... an investment in this area would produce significant savings in the long run."

Although the consultants generally praise the city's police, fire and other departments for doing a good job with a tight budget, they had harsh criticism for the city's building inspection and code enforcement efforts.

. . .

"The lack of code enforcement was identified in every interview and at every discussion with city staff and officials," the consultants write. At six public meetings, "residents voiced their opinions loudly and clearly about issues related to the cleanup of the neighborhoods and the business district."

"Although the Code Enforcement Department is the most critical function in the entire operation for preserving and protecting the neighborhoods from further decline, it has received virtually no attention or resources, based on a review of the budget over the past seven years," the report says.

The report recommends appointment of a full-time Director of Code Enforcement and re-assigning employees to code enforcement, and makes other suggestions, including possible outsourcing of some inspections, or utilizing school crossing guards to perform inspections during off-hours.

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February 08, 2011 | Link to this story

Briefly Noted: Black History Program Slated

Category: News || By Staff Reports

The Rev. William B. Meekins Jr. will be the featured speaker at the McKeesport Heritage Center's annual Black History Month program.

Meekins is the superintendent of the Greensburg District of the United Methodist Church's Western Pennsylvania Conference. A graduate of Gammon Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, he is currently pursuing a doctorate in ministry from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.

Superintendent since 2006, Meekins has also served as pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church in Monroeville and as a full-time staff chaplain for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. He is a past chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry for the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, and served in various capacities on other conference teams and ministries. Meekins has traveled extensively in his work and ministry, visiting 28 countries.

The program is slated for 2 p.m. Feb. 26 and admission is free.

McKeesport Heritage Center is located in Renziehausen Park at 1832 Arboretum Drive. Call (412) 678-1832 for more information.

. . .

Scholarships Available for Local Students: Applications have gone out to area high schools for two scholarship programs administered by the Consortium for Public Education --- the Hope Scholarship and the Dr. Matthew R. Hadley Scholarship.

The Hope Scholarship is an award specifically for seniors in East Allegheny, Steel Valley, West Mifflin and Woodland Hills high schools who plan to continue their education at an accredited college, university or technical school. There are two $1,000 awards to be made this year, a spokeswoman says.

The Hope Scholarship was founded by Mimi Falbo and her brothers and sisters to honor their parents, Margaret and Frank Sattler. The first Hope Scholarships were awarded in 2006.

The Hadley scholarship is open to seniors in Clairton, East Allegheny, McKeesport Area, Steel Valley and South Allegheny high schools who plan to continue their education at a four-year college or university. The scholarship is given in memory of Dr. Matthew Hadley, a longtime McKeesport-area physician who served the community for decades through his private practice and his years on staff at McKeesport Hospital.

There may be a single Hadley award or multiple awards, depending on the quality of the essays. Awards usually are in the $750 range.

Deadline to apply for both awards is March 31. Students should contact their guidance counselors for application forms. Both applications also may be found on the consortium's website.

. . .

Police Seek Suspect in Attempted Abduction: McKeesport police are looking for a suspect in an attempted child abduction Tuesday morning near George Washington School.

Police say the suspect was a light-skinned black male with a goatee who appeared to be 30 to 40 years old. He was driving a silver vehicle with a yellow roof and dirty chromed wheels. The children were not harmed.

According to police, two children ages seven and nine, were walking to school on Douglass Street at about 7:50 a.m. when the vehicle pulled alongside them. The driver asked the children if they would "go to the store" with him. When the children said no and walked away, the car followed them.

The children ran to school and told officials there, who reported the incident to police.

Anyone with information about the incident or the suspect should call police at (412) 675-5015 or 911.

(Editor's note: This story originally appeared on Tube City Online's Facebook page.)

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February 07, 2011 | Link to this story

MAHS Seniors Urged to Apply for Alumni Scholarships

Category: News || By Submitted Report

More than $45,000 in financial aid for college, vocational school or technical training is available to McKeesport Area High School seniors again this year through the scholarship program administered by the McKeesport High School Alumni & Friends Association.

In announcing the current opportunities, association officials said letters detailing the scholarship program have gone out to parents of members of the Class of 2011. Fliers listing the scholarships and grants have been distributed to every senior as well.

The McKeesport High School Alumni & Friends Association, now in its 25th year of operation, is an ongoing initiative of The Consortium for Public Education.

"These scholarships and awards have been underwritten by proud McKeesport alumni, their family members and friends and others who want to support today's McKeesport students as they contemplate the next step in their educational careers," said Linda Croushore, president of the alumni and friends association.

"We want to stress that they are open to all seniors intent on pursuing post-secondary education, whether they are college-bound or headed to career or technical schools, business school, art school or culinary institute," Croushore said.

The association has been aggressively seeking funds for this program, a spokeswoman said, and has added three new awards for 2011:

  • The Kenneth and Evelyn Frew Scholarship Fund provides a maximum of two awards of $5,000 each to be given annually to seniors intent on furthering their education at a college, university, business or technical school. Preference will be given to those pursuing a career in engineering. It was established in 2010 in memory of Kenneth Duane Frew ('43) and his wife, Evelyn Jane Henderson Frew ('44).

  • The Rick Keller Memorial Award provides a $1,000 grant for a student interested in pursuing a career in the health care professions. It was established in 2010 by family members in memory of Rick Keller, a 1971 graduate of McKeesport Area High School.

  • The All-Alumni Scholarship provides a $250 grant from funds contributed by members and supporters of the McKeesport High School Alumni & Friends Association.

In all, there are 23 scholarships and awards available this year, a spokeswoman says.

Some awards do not require applications but do require students to notify counselors of their interest. Deadline for applications is March 31.

A complete list of the awards as well as applications can be found in the high school guidance office and library and online at the Consortium for Public Education website under the "McKeesport alumni" link.

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February 03, 2011 | Link to this story

Possible Gun-Theft Law Attracts Early Opposition

Category: News || By Jason Togyer

If McKeesport follows 47 other municipalities and requires firearm owners to report their guns lost or stolen, it can expect a legal challenge from handgun advocates.

That's the message of Kim Stolfer, chairman and co-founder of a political action committee called Firearm Owners Against Crime. If illegal handguns are flooding streets, then that's because police aren't enforcing the existing state and federal gun laws, he told city council at a public hearing this week.

But passing a bill to force gun owners to report their weapons missing would trample on the rights of law-abiding citizens, Stolfer said. "You cannot be coerced into reporting a crime against yourself," he said.

. . .

But a spokeswoman for a group seeking tougher laws against the illegal sale of handguns, CeaseFirePA, said that Stolfer and other handgun advocates threaten litigation simply to intimidate local officials.

"I'm used to him following me around and trying to scare communities into not taking any action against illegal handguns," said Jana Finder, the group's Western Pennsylvania coordinator. "This is how they operate --- fear and intimidation."

CeaseFirePA was invited to address city council at the request of Councilwoman V. Fawn Walker. Since being elected to city council in 2009, Walker has been a vocal advocate of anti-violence and crime prevention measures.

. . .

At issue is a possible city ordinance that would require gun owners to report the loss or theft of a weapon within 72 hours after the handgun is discovered missing. The law is designed to prosecute people --- so-called "straw purchasers" --- who legally buy a gun, resell it to a criminal, and then claim the gun was "lost" or "stolen" after it's been used in commission of a crime.

McKeesport is not currently considering such an law. But according to CeaseFirePA, 47 municipalities, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and several Mon Valley municipalities such as Clairton, Duquesne, Glassport, Homestead and West Mifflin have passed similar laws.

Such ordinances give police an additional charge to use as leverage against people who try to circumvent state laws banning straw purchases, Finder said. The "model ordinance" distributed by CeaseFirePA doesn't require a gun theft to be reported until after it's discovered by the gun owner, she said.

. . .

"We have nothing to do with any kind of a 'gun ban,'" Finder said. "We have gun owners in our ranks of supporters. We are really focused on restricting access to illegal handguns ... If you're a responsible gun owner, you don't see a benefit to a criminal getting access to an illegal handgun."

But Stolfer, a firearms safety instructor certified by the National Rifle Association and a member of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League, said the reporting requirement is unenforceable because it's impossible for the police to prove when the gun owner discovered their gun missing, unless they inform on themselves.

"And you still have the condition of determining when the firearm was stolen, and that's something the police officer can't do," he said. Stolfer called the ordinances passed in other communities "ineffective."

. . .

If the laws don't work, asked Councilman Darryl Segina, who's running for mayor in the Democratic primary, "then why would you be against it?"

"Should enough municipalities start enforcing it," law-abiding citizens might be charged, Stolfer said.

He said cities, boroughs and townships should let the state government handle gun regulations and not attempt to enact their own ordinances.

But Walker and others pointed out that an attempt by former state Rep. David Levdansky of Elizabeth to get a similar bill through the state's General Assembly died. Their complaints echo those of former Gov. Ed Rendell, who said last year that any kinds of gun control legislation are a "lost cause" in Pennsylvania.

. . .

"The legislature proved consistently in my eight years that they are scared to death to buck the NRA," Rendell told reporters in November. "It's incredibly frustrating, the hold the NRA has over the legislature. It's embarrassing."

Both of the state legislators representing McKeesport --- Democratic state Reps. Marc Gergely of White Oak and Bill Kortz of Dravosburg --- voted against the so-called Levdansky amendment in 2008.

And Levdansky lost his bid for re-election in 2010 to Rick Saccone, an NRA life member who had the support of firearm advocacy groups, including Firearm Owners Against Crime.

Stolen-gun ordinances passed by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have been challenged in court by the NRA, but so far, the state Supreme Court has allowed the laws to stand.

. . .

At least one member of city council expressed his own doubts about the effectiveness of a stolen gun reporting ordinance. "I believe it's a hollow measure, a feel-good measure, but I don't see how there's any teeth in it," said Councilman A.J. Tedesco Jr., who's also running for mayor in the Democratic primary.

Council President Mike Cherepko, another candidate for mayor, said he was "trying to keep an open mind."

"It's definitely a controversial issue, and it's a sensitive topic," Cherepko said. "There are arguments on both sides."

Before any draft ordinance is introduced, he said, the city will have to consider its own potential liability.

To Finder, that proves that the mere threat of litigation can be effective. "There's no one thing that's going to end all gun violence across the state," she said. "I just think it's so off-base to tell communities they can't do anything about illegal guns."

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February 02, 2011 | Link to this story

Mayor, Council Deadlock on Attorney Appointments

Category: News || By Jason Togyer

After a month of having two city solicitors, McKeesport apparently now has none.

A compromise arrangement where two attorneys --- one appointed by Mayor Regis McLaughlin, the other by a majority of council --- would have shared duties and fees fell apart on Wednesday night after McLaughlin said he'd never agreed to the deal.

"I never once talked to you about this," McLaughlin told Council President Michael Cherepko, who is challenging him in the May Democratic primary.

With that, Cherepko and three other council members voted to withdraw the proposal, which leaves the city without official legal representation, at least until the next council meeting.

. . .

"I have to be honest --- I am extremely disappointed at what has developed," Cherepko said. "I thought we had worked things out. I think it's getting ridiculous."

The incident is the latest battle in a political tussle that began in December, when McLaughlin told former City Solicitor J. Jason Elash that he was being terminated. Elash, Cherepko and others have argued the termination was not done properly and never ratified by council. McLaughlin has said the city's home-rule charter gives the mayor sole hiring and firing authority over the solicitor.

The mayor asked for the appointment of the Pittsburgh law firm of Ira Weiss as the city's legal representation, with McKeesport attorney Bert Moldovan as its local counsel, at a retainer of $5,000 per month. Four members of council, including Cherepko, then moved to name Elash as "special counsel" at a retainer of $3,333 per month.

But a truce was brokered at the Jan. 5 council meeting, when Cherepko and McLaughlin seemingly agreed to have Elash, Weiss and Moldovan meet and broker a compromise where the two attorneys would collaborate on the city's legal matters.

. . .

On Wednesday night, McLaughlin said Cherepko's interpretation of that agreement was not correct. The attorneys "may have sat down and negotiated, but I wasn't involved," the mayor said.

Cherepko noted that the minutes of January's council meeting --- approved by all seven members of council on Wednesday night --- indicated that the mayor had given his consent to those negotiations. "If that's what it says, that's what it says, but I didn't agree to it," McLaughlin said.

Although Moldovan wasn't present at Wednesday's meeting, Elash said he "was told we had an agreement with the mayor and that I was negotiating on behalf of four council members."

The charter allows the mayor to make a one-time-only "emergency appointment" of a city solicitor for 30 days. McLaughlin appointed Weiss' firm on Jan. 1, but the 30 days have now expired.

. . .

In theory, according to Cherepko, the city could ask Elash for legal advice, since council never officially approved his removal. But the city will be unable to pay Elash for his work without a signed contract voted on by city council, City Administrator Dennis Pittman said Wednesday night.

Elash submitted a bill for work performed during January, but Pittman said he was not legally able to sign the check.

And any attempts by Elash to provide legal advice are likely to be challenged by McLaughlin and the three other council members, including Councilman Darryl Segina, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination. Twice on Wednesday night, Elash attempted to provide a legal opinion, only to be told to "be quiet" by Segina and McLaughlin.

. . .

Segina, Councilman A.J. Tedesco Jr., and City Controller Ray Malinchak all questioned whether Cherepko had done enough to find a lower-cost solution to the city's legal representation. Like Segina, Tedesco and Malinchak are also running for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

Tedesco said he had talked to three surrounding municipalities --- he did not identify them --- and found that they were paying their solicitors retainers of between $500 and $1,000 per month.

Malinchak suggested the city follow Monroeville's model. According to Malinchak, that municipality pays its solicitor a flat annual fee of $210,000. But Pittman, who serves on a committee with several officials from Monroeville, said that fee does not include other expenses incurred outside of routine city legal matters.

. . .

Segina said that a report issued last year by a group of municipal consultants showed that McKeesport's legal expenses had "significantly increased" after 2004 --- in other words, after Elash was appointed solicitor.

"We balanced our budget this year by drawing down on our reserve fund," Segina said. "When that reserve is gone, there's nowhere else to go. We have no more assets left to sell except for the Palisades and the marina. We also have people still on layoff, and our wading pool has not been open for three years."

At that, Cherepko gavelled down Segina. "Now is not the time for a political speech," he said.

Council's next regularly scheduled meeting is at 7 p.m. March 2.

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February 02, 2011 | Link to this story

Local 'Seer of Seers' Goes to Bed Hungover

Category: General Nonsense || By Jason Togyer

While the world's attention was focused on Punxsutawney, Pa., this morning, another furry prognosticator two hours to the southwest was also making predictions at sunrise.

The mysterious raccoon known only as "Port Vue Pete" emerged from his borough this morning and predicted "six more days of Super Bowl hype." Then he went to bed, hungover.

Tube City Almanac first documented Pete's legend in 2007, and since then has been the exclusive source of Pete's prognostications.

This morning, only the Almanac's reporter and photographer were on hand for Pete's appearance in a backyard off of Romine Avenue. Clad in a South Allegheny baseball cap and wearing dark glasses to protect his eyes against the glare of the early morning sun, Pete was carrying a nearly empty bottle of blended Scotch whisky.

"I found it in the Dumpster behind the Spotlight Lounge," Pete said. "I found a half-eaten meatball hoagie, too."

Pete told the Almanac that unlike the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, he doesn't have to wake up at sunrise to deliver his predictions. "I'm still up from the night before," he said.

Told that Phil had predicted an early spring, Pete laughed. "Yeah?" he said. "When that smelly rat is freezing his fat buns tonight, he should burn his press clippings for warmth."

Pete, 14, whose full name is Peter Prolotor ("it was changed at Ellis Island from Procyonlotor") said he doesn't bother predicting the weather. "You want a forecast?" he said. "Go talk to Dennis Bowman. I ain't got time for that."

Instead, Pete predicted that Pittsburgh media would remain obsessed with Super Bowl arcana until Sunday, and delivered his prognostication in rhyme form:

The black-and-gold's in Texas,
And we are gonna see
About a million minutes
Of non-news on TV.

They'll visit Steelers sports bars,
From Paris to Peru,
And talk to rowdy patrons,
Who haven't got a clue.

They'll track Ben Roethlisberger,
From press tent to press tent,
And whenever Hines Ward blows his nose,
It'll be a news event.

It's just another ball game,
And it's over-hyped to me,
But since you want predictions,
I say "Steelers win by 3."

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February 01, 2011 | Link to this story

Round 2: Council Clashes Again Over Attorneys' Contracts

Category: News || By Jason Togyer

The spirit of cooperation among city officials requested in January by Council President Michael Cherepko lasted for one meeting.

At Tuesday night's work session, members of city council again locked horns over the hiring of both a city solicitor and a "special counsel."

The dispute centers around Mayor Regis McLaughlin's decision to replace City Solicitor J. Jason Elash with the Pittsburgh law firm of Ira Weiss. In January, four members of council voted to retain Elash as "special counsel."

. . .

Council on Wednesday will consider contracts with both Weiss and Elash to provide separate legal services.

But announcement of that agreement on Tuesday brought an angry accusation from Councilman Darryl Segina that Cherepko and other councilors violated the state's open meetings laws, and a counter-charge from Councilman Dale McCall that Segina is "grandstanding" in his campaign for mayor.

Three city councilors --- Cherepko, Segina and A.J. Tedesco Jr. --- are declared candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor, along with McLaughlin and City Controller Ray Malinchak. Because of the city's heavy Democratic voter registration edge, the Democratic nominee has an inside track in November's general election, barring a well-organized write-in campaign.

McLaughlin has declined publicly to state his reasons for wanting Elash to be replaced, though Elash's past political support of Cherepko has been rumored to be a factor.

. . .

The contracts to be considered by city council would name Weiss' office as the official city solicitor at a fee of $5,000 per month, plus $105 per hour for litigation and negotiations. Longtime McKeesport attorney Bert Moldovan would represent Weiss locally.

Elash, who was city solicitor from 2004 until 2010, would receive $3,333 per month for additional services as approved by city council and Weiss' office.

Neither attorney would receive any fringe benefits, and both would be outside contractors, not city employees. The combined retainers for both lawyers would be $20,000 less than the $120,000 salary Elash alone earned in 2010.

. . .

Moldovan said Weiss has agreed to represent McKeesport in 2011 at a substantial discount from his usual fee. Tedesco questioned why the city needed two separate attorneys.

"We have a lot of projects that are going on in this city which have been going on for several years, and which Mr. Elash has been involved with," Cherepko said. "Rather than Mr. Moldovan being thrown into this totally blind, I think Mr. Elash can assist Mr. Moldovan, and together they'll serve the city very well."

That brought a rebuke from Segina. "Ira Weiss at one time was solicitor for the County of Allegheny and his office has 11 attorneys," Segina said. "I'm sure if there was any problem, one of them could come in and solve it."

. . .

The agreement was negotiated by Elash, Weiss, Moldovan and city council, Elash said, but Segina disputed that, saying he and the other council members who voted against Elash's appointment weren't consulted by Cherepko.

Segina accused Cherepko of holding an unadvertised meeting to discuss Elash's contract, in violation of the state's open meetings law, or "Sunshine Act." No such meeting was held, Cherepko said.

"We discussed this last month at a public meeting," he said. "We had a problem. We came up with a solution. If you're not for the solution, don't vote for it."

. . .

Other items on Wednesday's agenda include appointments to several committees and authorities, a contract for lighting at the Sulfur Springs ballfield in Renziehausen Park, and a maintenance agreement for city hall computers.

Council meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday on the second floor of the Public Safety Building (the former municipal building), 201 Lysle Blvd. at Market Street.

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