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The holy terror of Jim Ferlo

Published by Tim McNulty on .

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If indeed the Pittsburgh mayor's race turns into a 1989-style cage match, state Sen. Jim Ferlo appears ready to resume his no-holds-barred approach to both policy and his political rivals – in this case fellow 1980s/90s-era city Councilman Jack Wagner.

Ferlo said today he is still considering whether to circulate petitions over the next week to get on the May 21 Democratic ballot, and if he does, he said it will be a challenge finding the time (it's state budget season) and the vigor (he's diabetic) to campaign full-throttle like in his community activist days. But at a state Senate appropriations hearing this afternoon he showed he still has much of his old fire.

The target was the funding for the Pittsburgh's convention and tourism agency Visit Pittsburgh. At a hearing on budget plans by the Department of Community and Economic Development Ferlo called it "a waste of an organization" giving unduly high salaries to its staff and filled with "graft and patronage," though of a legal sort practiced by pols of both parties. He then hit Wagner, who is also mulling a late mayoral run, saying the former auditor general "looked the other way" when he was on the agency's board and never audited it. (There's some ancient history ancient history between the two going back to the city council days.)

"I'm on a holy terror about them, I have been for some time," Ferlo said in comments directed to DCED Secretary Alan Walker. ". . . I wish somebody would look into [the salaries] because nobody else has been willing to. The previous AG when he was on the board – Mr. Wagner – he looked the other way. I don't know what the heck's going on.

Visit Pittsburgh had a $9.9 million budget in 2011 (the last year available) with $7.9 million coming from Allegheny County hotel tax revenue, followed by $762K in advertising and sponsorship revenue. It spent $3.5 million for convention sales and services, $2.3 million promoting tourism and cultural heritage and $890K on operations.

Pittsburgh's mayor is an ex-officio member of the agency's board and the county exec (like the mayor) can send a representative to its board sessions. According to Visit Pittsburgh data the agency in 2011:

- booked 538 meetings, resulting in 243,678 convention room nights for 2011 and beyond, worth a (conservatively) estimated $229 million in direct spending from outside sources to the local economy.

- helped to generate 236,881 convention room nights within 2011, which brought 324,766 convention delegates to the City and generated an estimated $203 million in direct spending from outside sources.

Ferlo has made similar comments before, such as in this WPXI-TV story on Visit Pittsburgh's salary structure. The agency is funding an outside study to look at its salary and pay structure to see if they are in line with similar tourism boards.

Reached this evening Visit Pittsburgh president and CEO Craig Davis said "the state legislature has not funded Visit Pittsburgh for four years, so I am curious as to why this became a topic at a state appropriations committee meeting.

"By all measures Visit Pittsburgh is extremely successful at what we do."

At the end of his comments at the budget hearing, Ferlo made an appeal to Walker's boss.

"But if you want some more money, we in Pittsburgh have some dynamic public relations firms. You're big on privatization Mr. Corbett? Then take some of that darn money and hire some of the professional firms we have in the city, to really market this city and fill that convention center, which right now is a white elephant: if it wasn't for the home show and the auto show. It's embarrassing and I wish you would provide some leadership on that.

"I appreciate your comments," Walker replied, "but we do not have any state money in that organization."
"I know you don't, but I have to appeal to somebody. If I can't appeal to my good friend Gov. Corbett I don't know who I can appeal to," the Democrat said to laughter in the room.

Some more full Ferlo quotes:

""It's [filled] with political patronage. Both Democrats and Republicans alike have milked it for consultants, and have taken the graft as far as I'm concerned – the legal graft and patronage. They're not effective, they have an unbelievable payroll with dozens of people making in excess of $100,000 plus, more than our own economic development directors in the city and the county. And they don't produce. They've never been audited, they feel it's their money, they're not accountable to anyone. There's not one public official they're accountable to – whether it's the county executive, the mayor or anybody else. . . . I'm on a holy terror about them, I have been for some time.

. . . I wish somebody would look into [the salaries] because nobody else has been willing to. The previous AG when he was on the board – Mr. Wagner – he looked the other way. I don't know what the heck's going on."

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