Rules of the Road

The purpose of this blog is to share with you my thoughts on issues pertaining to Oil City and Venango County and to foster discussion.

However, that requires some basic rules. Personal attacks, inappropriate language and venom-filled postings will not be tolerated. Comments will be screened, and if necessary edited, before posting.

Disagreement and a variety of opinions are encouraged, but I ask that it always be in a respectful, positive manner. So fire away, but do so cleanly

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The after election

Sometimes the after-election period is harder on a
community than the pre-election campaign frenzy.
After all, once the votes are counted there are going to
be some people that will fee, well, like
losers. And I don’t necessarily mean the candidates.
People support a candidate because they believe in the
candidate and at some level that means they invest themselves personally in the
candidate and all they think the candidate has done, will do and stands for. By extension, that means at best that the
other guy is not up to the standards of your guy and that the electorate
There has been some of that thinking exhibited in a
couple of recent letters to the editor in the local paper, a handful of
Facebook posts that I’ve come across and more than a few comments on the
Losing is hard, but I can’t help but think the best way
to honor a losing candidate is to remain involved in the affairs of the city,
its numerous community groups and activities. An initiative identified with one
candidate or another is not dependent on the candidate, but with the people who
support it and want to see it succeed. An election might mean a change in
direction or a new way of achieving that success, but it does not have to mean
failure for one group or another.
I am speaking here very specifically of politics at the
local level.
The winners of the election and their backers need to be magnanimous
in victory. And just as vital to the community is for supporters of the
election losers to be magnanimous in defeat. Human nature being what it is,
that might be the much harder of the two.
However, Oil City needs it.
Our problems are huge and we must work together. That doesn’t
mean we won’t disagree and even argue, but it does mean we should wish all well
and each of us do what we can to save our community. It means you work for what
you believe in for the community, and not just to bring someone else down.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

More on the Ramp

As nearly everyone knows, city council voted last week to not spend another $260,000 on repairs, stopping the work on the parking ramp and instead shuttering it until it can be demolished.

It was not a good choice, for there were no “good” choices. For me, and I suspect for other members of council as well, it was simply the best of the bad.

Without the ramp, I worry about trying to attract more northside businesses and downtown residents with greatly reduced parking options. I have much the same parking concern when it comes to our growing downtown events, such as the Indie music and film festivals, and of course Oil Heritage Week.

The fact we will have a building anchoring a downtown corner that will continue to deteriorate and look it until we can find the money to tear it down is both unappealing and frustrating.

But to some extent, having thought of those things we can at least search for solutions.

It is what we have not thought about that is most troubling, To be sure, there will be unintended consequences. There always are.

One of my greatest fears as a councilman has been that some decision council makes no matter how well meaning becomes what I call a cascade event, setting in motion a series of negative events that end up having major costs to the city, whether economic or social. You always hope it goes the other way, but you never know and it might well be the next generation that finds out.

So, you tread gingerly and try to make the best of bad options.

And I suspect there are going to be more and more situations where there are no good choices, just lesser of bad. Oil City and really all of Pennsylvania’s core communities are facing perhaps the greatest challenges since the Great Depression, maybe even more so.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Between the rock and the hard place

Thursday council will have to make a decision on whether to continue with the current repairs on the parking ramp, or close it and save the remaining money – about $300,000 -- borrowed through a bond offering to repair the ramp.

There is no good decision, just what will be the best for the community of a number of bad options. And no matter what decision is reached Thursday, that is not the end of it.

If repairs continue and the ramp reopened, the city must decide whether to undertake more extensive repairs and major maintenance in the future to extend its life and the huge financial commitment that requires, or if it is just going to buy some time. If closed, attention must turn to its demolition, estimated to cost at least $1.3 million.

Right now – Monday evening, Oct. 10 – I’m leaning towards completing the current repairs, to buy the time to sort out the many issues related to the ramp, our downtown and parking and to develop a long-term plan for whatever the eventual outcome, including the financing.

Unfortunately, I can not attend Thursday’s council meeting due to having to be away on business. It’s quite possible that my current view would be changed by those discussions, and of course whatever recommendations City Manager Ryan Eggleston makes.

Today in a brief discussion with me the City Manager did a good job of outlining the pros and cons of both continuing and stopping work and closing the ramp for me. There are still a number of questions outstanding that would impact the pros and cons.

Whatever decision is made Thursday, I personally believe this council must come up with a definitive resolution over the next few months. It would be unfair and irresponsible to “kick the can down the road” and leave the question and costs of either demolition or renovation to some future council.

There is no easy answer to the problems presented by the ramp. Every answer is costly and potentially financially devastating to the city and every answer carries with it its own set of problems for our downtown and community.

The city (council) is truly between the rock and the hard place on this one, or perhaps the phrase should be between the concrete and asphalt.

Friday, September 9, 2011

On Capital Needs and Reality

A few weeks ago City Council received a Capital Improvements Plan that outlines capital expenditure needs through 2016.

The plan was developed by the Community Development Office and reviewed and modified by the Planning Commission.

I’ve been a bit surprised there has not been more discussion about this, not by council, but by the local news media and community in general.

The problem is that despite being identified as “needs” – and many truly are – it is largely a wish list. There simply is not the money or the popular will to raise the money necessary to undertake even a tiny fraction of what is outlined in the plan.

Take street paving as one glaring example. The plan states the city should undertake $500,000 in paving in each of the next five years, for a total of $2.5 million. Looking at current funding levels using general fund, state liquid fuels and CDBG monies, the paving is under funded by $300,000 a year, for a total of $1.5 million by the end of 2016.

To raise an additional $300,000 a year would require approximately a 1.6 mill increase in real estate taxes.

And even spending $500,000 a year I have doubts if we would truly reach a state of paving equilibrium. The industry standard calls for repaving every 10 years.

When residents complain about why their street is not repaved the answer is simple: there is not the money. That has been the problem faced by every council for a generation.

Other infrastructure needs are equally as pressing and often even more costly. (As I write this, I received a call that the parking ramp might need a lot more in repairs than we planned) And the city’s facility and equipment needs are staggering.

And as any homeowner knows, putting off repairs and not replacing faulty equipment only leads to greater costs in the future.

Of course there is always borrowing, but that’s only spreading the costs out, often longer than whatever was paid for by borrowing.

Oil City is not alone in this predicament. Nearly every core community in the Commonwealth is in the same situation.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that all of us must take a realistic look at what is possible, what we expect and what we are willing to give or give up.

I also know that the state needs to provide some long-term solutions for core communities, including addressing the issue of the high-percentage of tax exempt properties, distributing the costs for regional assets and leveling the playing field for all classes of municipalities.

(I need to also mention that a number of comments to previous blog posts were inadvertently and permanently deleted. I apologize.)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Feeling like a hostage

The city and its workers, like many other employers and employees in western Pennsylvania are caught in the fight between UPMC and Highmark BC/BS.

I can’t help but feel UPMC is holding us hostage.

As most already know, UPMC refused to negotiate a new agreement with Highmark, one of the region’s largest health insurance providers, after Highmark agreed to buy into the troubled West Penn Allegheny Health Systems. The Allegheny system was in danger of financially collapsing without finding a partner. If that were to happen, hospitals would likely have been shuttered and a lot of people left without services or health care providers. In addition, it would have given UPMC a near monopoly in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

UPMC announced that since Highmark would be a provider, not just an insurer, it could not do business with it. As a result, there would be no new contract when the current contract with Highmark expires on June 30, 2012.

Those with Highmark BC/BS insurance would be “out of system” and have to pay much higher fees for using a UPMC hospital and the many doctors and others who are either employed directly by or are contractually within the UPMC system.

I find it ironic that UPMC does not want to do business with Highmark because it would be both a provider and an insurer, when that is exactly how UPMC operates.

The UPMC propaganda machine has been working overtime on putting its spin on things. City council has received two very pointed letters from UPMC officials, and UPMC has really been on the front-end of the media push, at least in northwestern Pennsylvania.

In the latest letter, Gregory Peaslee, UPMC senior vice president, noted that UPMC is very concerned that the city’s employees continue to have access to UPMC physicians and hospitals.

I bet not has concerned as I am. City employees do not have a lot of choice. UPMC is the local hospital and most of the local doctors are in the UPMC system. Sure, someone could go to Titusville or Clarion, but the truth is UPMC has a local monopoly and has just moved to strengthen that.

Bear in mind, the city and its employees selected Highmark BC/BS over competing plans, including UPMC Health Plan, because it was the best value.

To make its position more palatable, or at least sound that way, UPMC has announced it has gotten four other insurers to come on board. There is some argument that that will result in more competition than has existed in the past in western Pennsylvania and therefore lower comparable costs going forward.

Still, I can’t help by view what UPMC is doing as a squeeze play and yet another attempt to assert its hegemony in the region.

Face it, UPMC has not exactly been a gentle giant when it comes to dealings with the remaining independent local hospitals in the region, such as Titusville or Clarion. If you doubt that, talk to the people in the know at those facilities.

The merger of our local hospital(s) into UPMC brought us a beautiful, new hospital. I’m not sure what other benefits have accrued.

Many “back office” jobs have been shipped off to Pittsburgh. It strikes me that a lot of people are now sent to UPMC’s Pittsburgh centers for procedures that use to occur locally and we have not gained the promised increase in specialists, and in fact have fewer of some than we did before.

And now UPMC is saying it won’t play ball with the city’s current health care insurance provider.

I’m sure Highmark BC/BS is no business saint – I’ve had my share of disputes with them – but UPMC is really something else.

Friday, July 15, 2011

In response to the question

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The ORA, the County and Just What Do We Expect": Hi John. I miss your insight and additional source of information. Did you give up on your endeavor?

I guess the honest answer is I did give up for a while. The reasons are many.

First, I reached a point where I wasn’t sure I had much to say worthwhile and also began to question whether more than a handful of people cared in any case. I also feared I was in danger of becoming “snarky” about a couple of things that went on, and I don’t like that in others, let alone myself.

On a more personal level, I went through a bit of a mentally down period dealing with the continued frustration of unemployment and trying to hustle and complete some freelancing and consulting work. On the upbeat side, I’m once again gainfully employed, but have been awfully busy settling into the new job and we are also now grandparents (Samantha Audean Bartlett) and I have to say that has been the focus of a lot of my life.

And there is yet one other reason I hadn’t posted for the past two months: my computer ineptitude resulted in getting me locked out of the blog site after I changed a number of e-mail addresses and servers. Obviously, I’ve figured that out.

I do have a sense of not meeting a commitment I made, and for that I apologize.

As nearly everyone knows, I am running for re-election to city council. It was a difficult decision. I don’t really find serving on council fun, but I do believe I am an important voice and I do enjoy serving the city (There being quite a difference between fun and enjoy.) I do not want this blog to be a campaign tool, but I suppose to some extent that cannot be helped for better or worse.

So, time to comment on a couple of recent city issues.

First, council has taken some criticism – one individual in particular – about the purchase of a new aerial platform truck for the Fire Department. Believe me, no one on council spent $940,000 without a lot of thinking and soul searching.

Personally, I don’t think we had a choice. Our old snorkel truck would soon be unable to pass certification of the aerial devices. No responsible person would ask any firefighter or any other worker to use equipment that was dangerous and that could endanger lives if it failed.
Repairs to the snorkel would have run a couple of hundred thousand dollars or more with no guarantee of how long it would remain serviceable. Everyday parts for repair of the non-chassis equipment were also becoming increasingly difficult to find.

There are those who argue the city does not need a platform truck. I have to disagree, and I understand that insurance rating agencies do as well. Only a platform truck can reach the top floors for rescue and/or get water above four of the senior citizen high-rises, a number downtown buildings and our larger apartment complexes. In addition, even the lower buildings in our downtown by virtue of having joined walls, etc. require an aerial attack. Hitting them with streams of water from the ground is not sufficient. It becomes the difference between losing a building and losing a block. I’ve also been told by a number of firefighters, that given some of the slopes in residential areas, the aerial is important there as well.

(In the interest of full disclosure, my son is an Oil City firefighter.)

Our fire chief was able to secure a federal grant that covered more than a third of the cost of the truck. That money might not have been there if we waited out of hope for some better times, and the cost of the equipment would only increase.

And finally, a quick note on two other city items.

YESSS!, as you all know the city received Main Street Program designation. A Main Street manager should be aboard shortly. I firmly believe the future is looking increasingly bright for our downtown.

And, I’m deeply concerned about the 2012 budget, and we haven’t even started talking about it yet. Times remain tough, but you have to keep enough intact to be poised for a revival.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Well it is 2011, a municipal election year.

I’m entering my fourth and final year of my term of office, along with that of Mayor Sonja Hawkins and Councilman Lee Mehlburger.

I will soon have to make a decision on whether to run for reelection, seek some other office or do neither and take life easy. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. I enjoy being on council and I like to think I’ve served the city well, but I would not call serving on council fun. I find there is a lot of agonizing and a lot of lying awake at night. As with everything, there are times it is more difficult, more frustrating than other times.

Time marches on and we can only guess what 2011 will bring for the city and what challenges for council.

I’m optimistic on several fronts, and concerned on many others.

I remain hopeful that the city will receive Main Street designation and Main Street program funding. I’m also convinced that whether or not we gain the designation, we are going to find a way to have a comparable downtown program.

I think the long dilemma of the Brody Block will come to an end this year. We need to credit the Oil Region Alliance and the Oil City Redevelopment Authority for their willingness to step up to the plate and assume some risk.

Our Waterways Study will soon be completed and it provides a good outline for better utilization of the river and Oil Creek to the economic, recreational and social benefit of the city. The difficulty will be in finding a way to fund some of the suggestions. Of course, much can be done with little or no money, and we will need to quickly implement those low-cost projects. I suspect we can also think a bit outside the box and look to more public/private partnerships to bring some of the other ideas to fruition.

On the concern side of things I’m really worried that the state will push a lot of its budget problems down onto municipalities, notably the state’s cities. I suspect this will come in many ways. Taxpayers need to understand that what they think of as savings at the state level could easily cost them a lot more at the local level.

The city’s long-term financial viability remains a great concern. We must continue to “right size”, but we also need to preserve core functions. I’m sure in coming years there will be never-ending debates as to what is a core function.

There is no shortage of things that council needs to think about.