City budget issues and Amanda St. sewer problems topped discussion at last week's 29th Ward Carrick Block Watch meeting, featuring city council President Gene Ricciardi, district justice Richard King, and State Rep. Harry Readshaw.
For the first time in the 20-year history of the block watch, no police officers attended due to being needed elsewhere.
Ricciardi began the meeting by challenging municipalities to show austere budget statistics similar to the city's: 5.8 percent growth in the budget from 1992 to 2003.
The workforce declined by about 1,000 employees, due mostly to attrition. At the same time, revenues did not grow. One reason is that more than 30 percent of Pittsburgh properties are tax exempt. Another is that 17 of the 24 largest employers in the city pay no business privilege tax.
The city population has declined from 600,000 in 1950 to 330,000 today. Those residents are providing the tax revenue for police, fire, emergency medical services, parks, etc., for the commuters, students, and visitors in the city daily. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the city has spent $10 million to prepare, train, and evacuate downtown in the event of a disaster. For this service, suburbanites, who comprise two-thirds of the city's work force, or 85 percent of the payroll, pay a $10 occupation tax.
Questioned about the merger of the city and county 911 dispatch centers, which city council unanimously approved in a preliminary vote that day, Ricciardi said it will result in a quicker, more cost-efficient, and faster time-to-dispatch system for city residents. Savings for the city include $6.5 million in capital costs, $1 million in operating costs, and $800,000 in salaries starting in 2005.
To a question about the impact on the city dispatchers, Ricciardi said they will keep the same salaries and seniority level when they become county employees after January 1. In the fall, they will move from the Strip District 911 center to the county's 911 center in Point Breeze.
He also commended former county Chief Executive Jim Roddey for his work on the merger.
On another topic, Ricciardi said he drafted legislation that would make landlords responsible for tenant problems, such as rundown and weed-infested yards, barking dogs, wild parties, drugs, etc. After police are dispatched to a home a third time, landlords would be fined for the officer's time.
Earlier that day six managers of large units visited him with ideas and revisions to the draft plan. Riccardi said he will continue to present the plan to community groups for input before formally introducing the legislation.
Addressing the problem of mine shafts in Carrick, Readshaw said seven years ago a plumber called to his house for sewage backup discovered sewage was flowing into a mine shaft.
While boroughs require dye-testing when buying a house, the city does not. “So you have no idea where your sewage is going,” he said. But it's the homeowner's responsibilty to tap into the main sewer line.
Recently, it was discovered that sewage from homes on Amanda St. was being dumped into a hole connecting to a mine shaft. The three homeowners on Amanda St. — Jamie Massung, Larry Lautner, and Dan and Lisa Dittler — were in attendance at the block watch meeting. There are also four rental houses on the street.
The county health department is requiring all the property owners to install new sewer lines. Homeowners insurance won't cover any of the costs, Dittler said, and neither he nor his neighbors can afford the prices being quoted.
Dittler said that while he expects to pay plumbing costs, he wants the city to waive the tap-in fee as the problem should have been resolved when the sewage lines were installed in the 1930s. The tap-in fee ranges from $500 to $3,000.
He also feels he should be reimbursed for all the years he paid Alcosan charges but was not using it. Although a newspaper story stated the homeowners' would be reimbursed about $800 from Alcosan for new sewer lines, Dittler said his understanding was that it would be a credit.
The city has also informed them they must separate the downspouts from the main sewage of the house.
The three homeowners and one of the rental properties are interested in finding one plumber to do the work. Plumbers should call Dittler at 412-882-3702 after 3 p.m.
Massung said she was told the work must be done on each house on consecutive days. If a house opts out, all the sewage would back up in that house.
Readshaw and King told the homeowners to continue contacting the mayor's and Ricciardi's offices, and the Water and Sewer Authority.
King said that while dye-testing probably wouldn't have revealed the problem, city council could pass an ordinance requiring the test.
On another matter, King said the first joint merger between the city and county is the conducting by locally-elected district justices of hearings on arrests by Pittsburgh police and the housing authority.
That resulted from a state Supreme Court determination that Pittsburgh Magistrates Court and the 16 elected district justices were duplicating services, and should merge. When the terms of the two remaining city magistrates are up at the end of 2004, the district justices will be handling all cases. If the state Supreme Court approves, the new name will be Pittsburgh Central Court.
With the change, the city saves money, residents are served better by coordination of services, and the city receives a computerized system. The state-wide district justice computer sytem allows for tracking of warrants and the docketing of all cases.
King, who is also president of the Allegheny County Special Court Judges Association, said the organization favors holding Housing Court hearings in the local district justice office in neighborhoods where the offense is committed.
If handled locally, the district justice could monitor the situation. Residents who want to testify can easily get there. If questions arise, officials can visit the property. If a case is continued with the condition the person remedy the problem, the local district justice and ordinance officer can stop by to see if progress was made.
But Mayor Tom Murphy wants to keep Housing Court centralized.
Taking on the crime reporting role, Herman said there was a purse snatching in the 2600 block of Brownsville Rd., and others last month. There were also five drug busts.
King added that heroin is a “big, big problem,” with armed addicts breaking into homes and businesses. The police, he said, are being asked to do a lot with less resources, and to cover a much larger zone than before.
The block watch's next scheduled meeting will be on May 5, to which county Councilman Wayne Fontana and assistant police chief William Mullen will be invited to speak.