Wednesday, October 31, 2012

P-G: Mt. Lebanon school director cited for public drunkenness

A Mt. Lebanon school director cited for public drunkenness early Saturday morning said he has no intention of resigning from the school board.

Scott Goldman, 42, said he was in an establishment on Washington Road celebrating with friends when, at the end of the night, he decided to walk to his home about 20 minutes away, a familiar route he said he's taken before with his family.

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Letter: Your Vote Counts ‒ in the 2013 Election

The following letter to the editors comes to us from Richard Gideon. –Tom

If the past is prelude to the future, approximately 75% of registered Mt. Lebanon voters will go to the polls this coming election day, 6 November 2012. Presidential elections always seem to draw the biggest crowds, as a study of election data freely available on the Allegheny County web site will attest. "Your vote counts," we are told, and that phrase is pounded into us from elementary school and beyond. But in a recent article in REASON magazine entitled "Your Vote Doesn't Count," managing editor Katherine Mangu-Ward writes, "In a 2012 Economic Inquiry article, Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman, statistician Nate Silver, and University of California, Berkeley, economist Aaron Edlin use poll results from the 2008 election cycle to calculate that the chance of a randomly selected vote determining the outcome of a presidential election is about one in 60 million." Clearly, the odds of any one person's vote affecting the outcome of this year's presidential race is just north of zero.

But there is an election wherein each individual's vote is more important by several orders of magnitude; the 2013 so-called "off-year" elections. Up for grabs in Mt. Lebanon are the commission seats of Matt Kluck (Ward 2) and David Brumfield (Ward 4), and the Mt. Lebanon School Board "at large" positions currently held by Josephine Posti, Dale Ostergaard, Mary Birks, and Daniel Remely.

In many respects, these local elections are more important to the fiscal well-being of Mt. Lebanon residents than what may happen at the Federal level. Although one should not downplay the effects of Obamacare and other taxes that will begin to hit us in 2013, local property taxes, fees, and intrusions into individual liberty are often more pernicious at the local level because the people who exact such tribute are closer at hand, and sometimes more intimidating. But the history of off-year elections reveals a foolish consistency; that being a low turnout at the polls. In 2011, for example, 36.51% of eligible Mt. Lebanon residents bothered to vote. In 2010 that number increased to 57.4% due to a U.S. Senate race, and in 2009 ‒ another "off-year" ‒ it was 29.2%.

Although there has been no formal effort to discover the reason for this situation as it applies to Mt. Lebanon, it certainly is not an uncommon circumstance across the nation; a quick Internet search for "turnout in off-year elections" shows this to be a common complaint from sea to shining sea. Reasons given nationally vary from "not important" to "no choice" to "what's the use?". Locally in 2011 the "no choice" lament may have had some validity. Despite an eleventh hour bid by a handful of write-in candidates, Mt. Lebanon voters were given almost no choice in the school board election, as the majority of candidates cross-filed on both "major" party labels and ran on "platforms" virtually indistinguishable from one another. (It was suggested to me by a Blog poster that Mt. Lebanon residents who do not vote in off-year elections are satisfied with the candidates who are elected by those residents who do vote, and therefore don't feel that it is necessary to go to the polls! Not only is this totally illogical, but it assumes that the majority of Mt. Lebanon voters trust a small vanguard of people to make their decisions for them ‒ an insult to anyone with a mind.)

Mt. Lebanon residents should not "sit out" off year elections, as those who govern us locally set the fees for residency in "Club Lebo." In 2011 a local family with a median income of $75,000 and owning a house assessed at $225,200 paid 9.43% of its income for property taxes to the Mt. Lebanon School District and the Mt. Lebanon Municipality. This is on top of the 1.3% Earned Income Tax that is unevenly split between the Municipality and the District, and does not count County, State, and Federal taxes.

If local residents do in fact believe that they have little to choose from in the way of candidates then it is time to change that situation. What is wanting are viable, young, candidates for the Commission and the District who are completely independent of the two major political parties. Perhaps once we have a slate of actual choices the voters may come out of their heavily taxed homes to cast an intelligent vote during an "off-year" race. Mt. Lebanon residents deserve "choice" at all levels in their lives. If the same people run again and are reelected then so be it, but it should not be because there were no other options on the ballot.

There is a "perfect storm" of debt coming due in this country. Mt. Lebanon residents should not think that their little six square mile village will not be affected by it, thus leaving the people who comprise the local municipal and school district governments free to spend as they see fit. The Municipality and District are both in debt, and while they may be manageable debts now they aren't the only bills being laid at the feet of the local taxpayer. It would be refreshing to see some local candidates in 2013 who understand this basic premise.

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P-G: Mt. Lebanon field hockey player helps African mercy mission

No coach likes to lose an athlete during the season, but Mt. Lebanon High School field hockey coach Stacey Hart knew she had to make an exception for junior midfielder Meghan Schneck.

"I was confused," Hart admitted when she learned before the season that Schneck, 16, wanted to spend a week in Lusaka, Zambia, helping her father, Dr. Fran Schneck, and other members of a group called International Volunteers in UrologyMED.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

WTAE: Bump-and-grind no more, Mt. Lebanon High School says

Some students consider school to be a grind, but the Mt. Lebanon High School District says a bigger problem is some student couples "grinding" it out on the dance floor.

Mt. Lebanon High School principal Brian McFeeley tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that school officials are adding chaperones and even changing the kind of music played at school dances to enforce a no-grinding policy.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

P-G: Norwin beats Mt. Lebanon in WPIAL girls soccer playoffs

Norwin faced Mt. Lebanon in the opening round of the WPIAL Class AAA girls soccer playoffs, on Oct. 20 at Norwin High School. The Knights shut out the Blue Devils 4-0 to advance to the quarterfinals.

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Sunday, October 07, 2012

Assessment update: County’s own analysis shows a regressive bias in Mt. Lebanon

This article is part of a series examining how Mt. Lebanon is likely to be affected by the recent county-wide reassessment. For other articles in the series, see Blog-Lebo’s Reassessment Series. —Tom

Via Chris Briem’s blog, I learned that the county hired an independent team to review the recent assessment process. That team’s report is offered as Exhibit 4 of a recent court filing, part of the ongoing court case at the center of the controversy.

The findings of the independent review support Blog-Lebo’s conclusion from March that the new assessments for Mt. Lebanon are unfairly biased toward overtaxing owners of low-end properties and undertaxing owners of high-end properties. In particular, the report gives the independent reviewers’ estimate of the coefficient of price-related bias for Mt. Lebanon as about –7.5% (see page 19 of the report; look for the PRB-coefficient value for school district 26, Mt. Lebanon).

The PRB coefficient is a crude measure of bias, but it’s telling. What that –7.5% means is that, when you examine residences of increasing value in Mt. Lebanon, as their market value doubles, the corresponding assessed value tends to get a 7.5% discount. For example, if residences worth $150,000 tend to be assessed at a full 100 cents on the dollar with respect to market value, residences worth $300,000 will tend to be assessed at only 92.5 cents on the dollar, and residences worth $600,000 will tend to be assessed at only 85 cents on the dollar.

As a result of this “regressive” bias, owners of low-end properties effectively wind up paying some of the property taxes for high-end properties.

How could this happen? The report suggests some answers.

According to the report (page 9), each residence was valued by (1) selecting similar, recently sold residences as comparables, (2) taking a weighted average of the comparables’ sale prices, and (3) adjusting that average based on how the comparables differed from the residence being valued, with this adjustment being done using a statistical predictive model. I have some concerns about this process, as applied to Mt. Lebanon.

One concern is that the model predicts property values based on their characteristics – bedrooms, bathrooms, fireplaces, living area, and so forth. But these characteristics tend to be underreported because many homeowners fail to fully declare them on property questionnaires for fear that, if they declare them, they’ll get overtaxed because everybody else is failing to declare them, for similar fears. The problem, then, is that if you do declare them, you’ll probably end up being assessed for them more than once – once through the comparables, and once again through the adjustment on top of the comparables, which assumes that the comparables’ sale prices don’t already account for these characteristics.

Another concern is that the predictive model ignores multiplicative effects. From page 7 of the report: “All models are additive, meaning that the contribution of the various terms in the model are added (rather than multiplied or some combination of additive and multiplicative adjustments).” What this means – oversimplifying a bit – is that when the model is trying to predict the value of a residence, if the model learns that the residence has, say, 3 bathrooms instead of 2, it will always add some constant third-bathroom increment to its current prediction, say $15,000 (I’m just making that figure up, by the way).

A better predictive model might add a varying third-bathroom increment based on what else it knows about the residence. It might adjust that increment upward (say, to $30,000) for high-end mansions and downward (say, to $7,500) for low-end ranch houses. Because that adjustment does not occur when the county’s model makes its predictions, however, the model ends up predicting too low for mansions and too high for ranch houses. That’s not a problem if your community is all mansions or all ranch houses, but if your community is like Mt. Lebanon and has properties all over the pricing spectrum, it is.

The report reveals a lot more about the assessments, too, and not just for Mt. Lebanon. I encourage you to read it for yourself, especially if you have an appeal hearing coming up.

Let me know if you find anything else interesting.

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