Howard: Given city’s inability, Pittsburgh should seek private firms for snow removal

By Giles Howard

The city’s response to last week’s snowstorm illustrated that government is better suited to… The city’s response to last week’s snowstorm illustrated that government is better suited to making regulations and collecting tax dollars than it is to providing services. Although it’s important to praise the employees of the Departments of Public Works and Public Safety for their admirable efforts, it should be recognized that city politicians failed once again to prepare Pittsburgh for a major snowfall.

For instance, Pittsburgh’s road salt budget for 2010 is $559,640 — down $400,000 from last year. This drastic cut in the road salt budget might seem like a small issue to some readers, but it is indicative of how government priorities differ from taxpayer priorities.

Importantly, the road salt spending wasn’t reduced as part of an across-the-board budget reduction. City revenue for 2010 increased by more than $5.6 million and city expenditures increased by almost $10 million, so we know that the cut in road salt spending wasn’t brought about by a fiscal crisis.

Indeed, the budget of the Department of Public Works Bureau of Operations — the bureau responsible for snow removal and road salt purchasing — is the only division of Public Works to have its budget cut this year.

If you listened to city politicians, though, you’d never guess that the road salt budget was cut as government officials consistently promise that they will do better at snow removal in future years. For instance, after the city failed in the cleanup of another major February storm in 2008, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl declared a “War on Snow” and promised to do everything possible to “make sure the city does a better job keeping streets free of snow and ice,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Fast forward to last week and the Mayor admitted that the city didn’t have enough resources to clear Pittsburgh streets just as he issued a call for private contractors to contact the city if they could help in the snow removal effort.

In criticizing the city’s response to the snowstorm and the evident discrepancies between what politicians say when people are looking and how they construct a budget when people are not, it’s important to recognize the work of Public Works employees who did their best during the storm. These employees pulled 12-hour shifts to clear city streets, but they were betrayed by a city government that doesn’t have its priorities straight.

The response to the storm and the conflict between the priorities of politicians and those of the people demonstrates that we would do well to pay private firms to provide us with those services we previously thought of as necessarily governmental in scope. It would cost residents a great deal less to contract with a private firm to remove snow than it costs in taxes to the city, because such a private firm wouldn’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a diversity commission.

I also suspect that no private firm would employ individuals like Shawn Beck, union steward for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2719, who complained during the storm that city meter readers were being asked to shovel snow around city garages without “the training that they need to be shown how to properly shovel snow,” he told the Post-Gazette.

The logistics of private firms being hired by individuals or neighborhoods to plow streets would have to be figured out, but delegating snow removal to private businesses is at least worth a shot in light of the city’s absolute inability to cope with snowfall. A private solution to snow removal would have the added benefit of allowing private citizens to set their own priorities and determine how their money is spent — thus giving Pittsburghers control over a process that government consistently fails to execute efficiently.

Continue the conversation at Giles’s blog, www.gilesbhoward.com/blog/, or e-mail Giles at [email protected]