Monday, February 08, 2010

city then, city now, city future

Since we are going to be talking about the state of the snow in the city for some time, especially since a lot more snow is coming....   Beyond the criticisms most everyone is talking about, it probably is fair to note that you can't really expect the city's ability to respond to snow to be the same now as it has been in the past.  The successive downsizing of the city's workforce can't not have an impact on it's ability to surge work in circumstances like this. Uber-efficiency has it's costs and probably should be part of the discussion as we debate the city's budget.

I have not updated this with the latest data which probably shows even further decline.  Below is what I have showing the city's non-uniformed workforce (excluding police and fire that is, EMS and others are in there) looks like.  Bottom line, between 1995 and 2007 the available workers are down a non-trivial 30%.  I suspect the decline public works and sanitation is even larger.  We can debate all sorts of things, but the miles of roads has not changed a mile over that period.  Not just the workers, but has the city had any money to purchase anywhere near the capital assets (trucks, etc) it needs to do the job we expect.

Let's consider something..  Imagine if all that snow didn't arrive right at the very end of the work week, but on a Monday morning.  What are the full costs of the full week the city would have been shut down? 


Blogger Grimace said...

I am not going to pin the city's snow-removal ineptitude solely on a decrease in employees. They had no plan. It is not that hard to run plow trucks consistently on main arteries to ensure they are clear before venturing onto side streets. Instead they did some helter-skelter crap and left everyone in the lurch.

Monday, February 08, 2010 5:32:00 PM  
Blogger nbguzna said...

Where's Luke?

Monday, February 08, 2010 5:56:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I didn't say solely... but it still is unreasonable to expect the city to to the same job with so many fewer workers and I presume a lot less equipment.

Monday, February 08, 2010 6:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Johnnyg said...

Chris--Not buying it. Snow removal in the City has been bad since I got here--circa 1995. The City has no logical way to attack snow. It should be an embarrassment to all those in the City-County Building, but everyone seems to complain then forget. Do the math. News reports say that the city has about 60 plows out there for 1300 miles of road. That's 22 miles per truck. After 3 days, you'd think every mile should have been covered multiple times--especially when PennDoT plows the state routes in the city. It is unacceptable that I saw numerous streets UNTOUCHED on the Northside this morning. I smell working to rule by a union upset that it had to work during the Superbowl.

Monday, February 08, 2010 9:39:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I'm not necessarily defending the city, but I don't think the math works out that easily. Especially given all the other issues out there. I'll tell you the fire department only cleared downed wires on my street a couple hours ago. It would have been unwise to have tried to put a plow down the street until that was done. I suspect that is why the fire bureau folks are out in force filling in for electricity and cable folks who I have not seen hide nor hare of.. for good reasons I am sure in that I know some of the folks who still don't have power yet.

So I guess I do have some sympathy for the city given the clear cascading failure on all levels.. some of which is clearly not their fault. but the public request for contractors to help out seemed a bit counterproductive at least from a PR standpoint.

Whatever is the cause... unless you have some specifics to back that up, the super bowl charge its a tad unfair to just throw out there.

at the end of the day it's a transparency thing. If the city had more data out there on the routes the drivers were driving and other details of their snow response plan at least people would have something to base their opinions on. As it is literally everyone thinks their street is the last to ever get plowed in all circumstances.

Monday, February 08, 2010 10:35:00 PM  
Anonymous johnnyg said...

I think that the City would get some more sympathy if this were an occasional issue. This was, admittedly, a historic snowfall. And the downed wires are a big deal. I understand that. But, it seems that the City is incapable of handling any storm over a couple of inches. Ever. You'll tell me that Forest Hills is a bad comparison as a relatively well-off suburb. Fine. Then use Wilkinsburg as the comparison. As soon as I cross East End Avenue after any significant snow, the roads become deplorable.

Same thing with paving streets. Transparency would be illuminating. That's why I don't think we'll ever see it in my lifetime.

And, both the P-G and KDKA reported that the Mayor preemptively told the public works department that you would need a "doctor's note" if someone took off during the Superbowl. I found it odd that the Mayor's Office felt the need to publicly announce that fact.

Monday, February 08, 2010 10:41:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I saw that and thought the comments you saw were the mayor having to respond to other rumors implying the super bowl was causing some workforce problems.. So its an echo chamber of sorts to use that as evidence that it was really an issue. I've heard nothing that would imply that is or was really an issue impacting anything. At this point those crews must be near exhaustion no matter.

You are arguing with yourself over what is or isn't happening in Forest Hills... but I don't think anyone thinks the situation is anything like past snow events in the city. People were kind of fond of Costa I thought.. something that wouldn't be true if they were always unhappy with the city's snow response. I suspect some of this may be difficulties in transitioning the leadership down there.

Monday, February 08, 2010 11:07:00 PM  
Anonymous johnnyg said...

I wish that I had the time to go through the P-G archives to demonstrate that the failure to clear the streets after a significant storm is endemic and as predictable as the sun coming up. Maybe you can't see this because you live and work in the City, but there really is a difference between what you see in the City and what you see in most suburbs. A shocking difference.

That, the fact that PennDoT plows the interstates and state routes for the City, and the sheer number of City trucks, leads me to the conclusion that the City lacks an effective snow removal plan. I'd be frustrated too, if I were a public works employee working my butt off (yes, I know and believe that most do their thankless jobs admirably and with dedication), who was sent out into the streets storm after storm without a clear plan for what to do. And then to get pilloried by the press, by neighbors, and by those evil suburbanites who just want to open their businesses, work, shop, eat, play, and visit hospitals in the City. ;-)

I think you're right about Costa. It does seem that he had a reservoir of goodwill with the public and the press that is lacking with the current public works administration.

Monday, February 08, 2010 11:33:00 PM  
Anonymous DBR96A said...

Maybe Pittsburgh can start burying some power lines after this winter.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 12:10:00 AM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

sure.... money for that just lying around. Would be awfully expensive for utilities and homeowners (whom I presume would be responsible for the last mile). In fact, given vacancy and other issues, the cost of burying cables may be worth more than the value of the real estate itself in some sections of town. But someday I assume and maybe in some neighborhoods.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 8:05:00 AM  
Blogger n'at said...

The war on snow started a year or two ago by the administration, and I don't think we're anywhere close to capturing el niño from his lair. We need to surge, hold and pay off the low pressure systems he recruits.

"in all my years at DPW..." It's nice that folks running DPW have experience, but experience has no worth if that is all you draw upon when in situations that you have never experienced.

Experience and institutional knowledge make government run smoothly on a warm, sunny day in Pittsburgh. Critical thought makes city government run smoothly the other 200 days in the year.

Professionalizing city government has been an issue for decades now. Short staffing is one thing, but quality is a characteristic voters most admire.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 8:28:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

I'll tell you the fire department only cleared downed wires on my street a couple hours ago.

I once watched a guy "clear" downed wires with hedge clippers and nothing else. It was a very bad idea.

We did clear the downed trees on our street by Saturday afternoon. The city still never sent a plow.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 8:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My street was cleared right away and I was driving all over Squirrel Hill and Regent Square Saturday afternoon.

Listening to Marty et. al. on KDKA is a hoot! I don't wanna pay no more stinkin' taxes, but you better plow my driveway and leave a quart of milk in the box by yesterday ... or else!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 9:40:00 AM  
Anonymous MH said...

I don't wanna pay no more stinkin' taxes,

I've lived in a lot of places. Pittsburgh has the highest sales tax, property tax*, and local income tax I've ever paid.

*assuming your assessment is accurate.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Mermaid said...

The city had similar problems during the big blizzards of '93 and '96, even with more employees. Back then, my husband and I were renting a house in south Squirrel Hill. We dug out our driveway only to belatedly realize it was pointless because our street wasn't plowed ... and wasn't going to be plowed any time soon. It was several days before public works trucks hit our street.

These days, I live in Aspinwall. The borough's trucks are out plowing and salting the minute the snowflakes start flying. My little dead-end side street was plowed several times during this year's blizzard and was driveable the afternoon after the storm. I still had to dig out my driveway, but at least this time around it wasn't an exercise in futility.

Yes, I realize that comparing a small borough to the city is like comparing apples and oranges. But I still think that the city can do a better job of dealing with the snow. And taking a page from the snow removal strategies of smaller communities is one way to do it. Get the plows out as soon as possible to try to stay ahead of the storm. Concentrate on keeping the major arteries clear. (Aspinwall is religious about keeping Center Avenue clear because it's the main artery between the upper and lower parts of the borough.) Work on secondary streets in a more organized way. Have a clear priority scheme in place to avoid wasting the city's resources on a haphazard cleanup. Be responsive and keep residents updated on how the snow removal is going. And have snow removal agreements with private contractors in place BEFORE a big storm hits.

People will be more understanding if they see that the city's public works department is attacking the problem as well as it can. But if all appears to be chaos, their patience will rapidly run out.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the poster who says Pittsburgh has higher taxes than other cities, it ain't true. Please take a look at the Winter 2008 Pgh Regional Indicators report card (right Chris?)

Here's the link, and one small excerpt:

"When tax rates are combined, only five cities tax at a lower rate
per capita than Pittsburgh. Taxes include all municipal, county and
school levies. source: u.s. census bureau"

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 2:24:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I think MH and I have hashed this out in the past on whether taxes are really high here or not. Haven't we.

but you can look at that... or something from Prof Epple up at CMU who went through it all comprehesively a few years ago. Read it carefully and you will see that the rankings Pgh comes in high on for taxes are not resulting from the city itself, but the school district.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 2:39:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

Looking at the article in PQ, I would like to point out two things.

First, the comparison is set to a group whose selection criteria is not defined in the article. Did they pick the cities to show the picture they wanted to show?

Also, Figure 3 looks tax levied per capita, which is a BS loophole for a city with an over-representation of the elderly and students. I was speaking of tax rates (i.e. property taxes of over 3%). The tax rate obviously comes out lower per capita given that those who don't work don't pay much income tax and that the elderly get a break on property taxes.

That figure has taxes per capita of about $1,250. Let's say you have a house assessed at $100k ($3,000 in taxes) and a household income of $50k (roughly $2,000 in income taxes). If you had four people in that household, you'd be at the figure in the table before you paid your first penny in sales tax or parking tax. And that leaves aside the abomination that is the real estate transfer tax.

But yes, the school district is worse. You'll notice that the report lists school expenditures per capita, not per student. I assume that is a deliberate attempt to hide just how much PPS pays per student given the huge enrollment drop.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 2:55:00 PM  
Anonymous MH said...

I should not have used 'abomination' for the real estate transfer tax. I was speaking in haste. I reserve 'abomination' for the PLCB.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010 3:03:00 PM  
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