Road Work

Allegheny County’s Department of Public Works fielded fewer calls to repair the bane of nature’s fury, also known as the pothole, this year, according to a news article. As to how reliable the science of tracking complaints are (for instance, when a driver hits a pothole, do they know whether to call PennDot, the county, or the municipality and does the recipient of a wrongly-placed call tell the caller to redirect their ire to the proper place, and, if so, does that indeed happen?) but the article says that the County itself took 59 calls this winter, 54 in 2012, and over 100 the two previous years, including 2010 when the blizzard hit.

The County’s CAFR provides operating indicators and capital assets for Public Works’ functions (they are way in the back of the document) and that data shows that from 2002 to 2011 the County did not add a lot of infrastructure: it had the same amount of lane mileage (818), the same mileage of paved streets (395), the same number of bridges less than 8 feet in length (181), the same number of bridges between 8 and 20 feet in length (149), and added 1 bridge greater than 20 feet in length in 2006, bringing its inventory to 192. It has 9 fewer vehicles than it did in 2005 (130 now), and added 59 pieces of heavy equipment since 2005, bringing the total to 430.

The operating indicators show that in 2011 the Department spent 298k man hours on winter road maintenance (all activities) and purchased 19k tons of salt to melt snow. The high water mark (maybe the high snow mark is more apropos) was in 2010 when the man hours for winter road work topped 374k and nearly 27 tons of snow melting salt was purchased (based on the tonnage bought and the price paid by the County a ton averages about $50).

Which Road Will the County Take?

Wages and health care: those are the two "biggies" for Allegheny County as it negotiates with collective bargaining units representing more than 5,100 of the County’s more than 7,000 employees. Both the County and at least one union leader are in agreement on the importance of wages and health care, and for good reason: personnel and fringe benefits are typically the largest share of expense for government. Based on the County’s 2013 financial plan and the statement of revenues and expenditures personnel and fringe benefits represent 53% of the general fund, 46% of all funds (general, debt service, liquid fuel, and transit support).

One of the bargaining units with whom the County is negotiating represents personnel who do a lot of the County’s road work (spreading rock salt and asphalt) which is housed in the Public Works Department (a good portion of that Department is being spun off into a new department called Facilities Management). Based on Public Works’ 2013 budget of $19 million, $13.1 million is tied to personnel cost and the remaining $5.9 million is identified by the County as non-personnel (services, supplies, materials, repairs and maintenance, and minor equipment). Note that Public Works has almost 70% of its departmental budget into personnel and fringes, higher than the County as a whole.

One of the "Strategic Goals" for the Department is for "Continuous Improvement" and within that goal is an emphasis for the Department to "practice greater fiscal constraint". It’s not clear exactly how the fiscal constraint is to be practiced, but one way would be to be judicious with labor agreements, including the one that would be executed with the aforementioned union representing the road workers.

Upon seeing the County’s initial offer of annual 2 and 2 ½ % raises over the four year contract the union head said it was "…hard to swallow that the county‘s best offer is less than what the city gave under Act 47 (state supervision)."

Pardon us, but we did not know that a local government had to be under state watch to be restrained with its spending on labor contracts. Perhaps the County has learned something from watching the events at the City-County building and does not want to jump into the same fiscal boat. Overly generous contracts and above the norm legacy costs are what got the City into Act 47 and state oversight-is the County supposed to follow suit? Will they?

Pittsburgh’s Spending Dilemma

The Pittsburgh Public Works Department claims it does not have enough manpower and equipment to deal with the snow problem and cannot hire more people because of spending constraints. This in a city that was looking to tax college tuition in order to make payments on massively underfunded pensions and that has enormous bond debt obligations and that has no problem finding money to make very generous longevity pay for public safety employees.

One of the City’s primary responsibilities is to maintain streets and make it possible for people to get around to work, doctors and shopping. Yet because of spendthrift, poor management policies for years it now finds that it cannot do what the citizens need. Maybe the citizens should long ago have demanded a bit more responsibility in fiscal matters.

One wonders if they are beginning to get it.