Good governingBy Douglas Heuck and Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writers In this edition, we have surveyed the 15 PG Benchmarks metropolitan areas to find out how they compare on six measures of good government practices. Some of the practices simply show how effectively and efficiently the main city or county in the regions deliver basic government services. Other measures look at how progressive the governments are and how well the governments in an area cooperate with each other. 911 dispatch centers
This measure looks at public safety delivery and government efficiency. Having large numbers of 911 dispatch centers in the main county may keep the municipalities where theyre located happy, but it isnt good government.
That duplication of services risks lives by increasing the chances that an emergency call may be misrouted. It also wastes millions of taxpayer dollars.
In this measure Allegheny County deserves a pat on the back. In 1996, it was the only central county in the 15 PG Benchmarks regions that didnt have countywide 911. Worse, the plan being considered would have created 41 centers that received emergency calls.
That plan, however, was scrapped, saving the county $3-4 million. In its place, the county has created six dispatch centers. The city still has its own.
The six county centers are run by one computer. And the county, as of February, offers what is called "enhanced 911," in which the address and phone number of the telephone from which a call is made is displayed on the computer system.
"We went from the dark ages to state of the art," said W. Brad Magill, the countys 911 coordinator. He credited County Commissioners Bob Cranmer and Mike Dawida with pushing through the improvements.Ambulance response time
In this measure, we look at how quickly the main city responds with "advanced life support," the highest level of emergency response.
Pittsburgh also rates well here, with an average response time of six minutes and 36 seconds. Unlike many other big cities, Pittsburgh currently answers all emergency calls with this high-quality response. Advanced life support means getting at least one paramedic to the scene. Paramedics are differentiated from emergency medical technicians by their ability to administer drugs, intubate patients and interpret electrocardiograms.
The city will be changing its system, beginning this summer, by creating a lower-tiered response team, which doesnt have a paramedic. This is in response to the fact that, of the 54,000 calls the city receives a year, only 20,000 require advanced life support, according to Bob Kennedy, chief of the city bureau of emergency medical services. Paramedics have more than 1,000 hours of training and earn $18 an hour. Emergency medical technicians have 120 hours of training and earn $9.11 an hour. The city will not be eliminating any of its 162 paramedics.Burglary clearance rate
Due to a lack of witnesses and physical evidence, burglaries are typically one of the hardest crimes to solve. But they also are among the most important.
"Homicide is something you see on TV," said Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Mark Ninehouser, who runs the citys burglary unit. But burglaries and car thefts are the two crimes people truly care about, he said. "It affects them directly."
In 1997, Pittsburgh solved 17 percent of its 3,359 burglaries, putting it among the upper tier of PG Benchmarks cities.
The number of burglaries citywide has plummeted in the last decade from 5,935 in 1990 to 3,359 in 1997, despite a drop in the number of officers assigned to the burglary beat. Ninehouser has 12 people investigating such crimes now, compared to 32 in the early 1990s.
"There is no trick to solving them," Ninehouser said. "It is hard work. The only way to solve the crime is to go out and talk to the people."Regional assets tax
The virtue of a regional assets tax is that it creates a vehicle for regional financial support of cultural, entertainment and transportation assets that often are located in municipalities that cannot support these assets by themselves.
With the Regional Asset District in Allegheny County, greater Pittsburgh is among the 10 PG Benchmarks regions that have a regional assets tax, considered to be a chief trait of effective intergovernmental cooperation and regionalism.
The Regional Asset District collects a one percent sales tax in Allegheny County. The proceeds reduce municipal property taxes and support assets including, Phipps Conservatory, the zoo, the libraries and numerous arts organizations. The tax also is making possible the construction of stadiums for Pittsburghs sports teams.
Greater Minneapolis has a different twist, with a revenue sharing plan that allows municipalities to share revenues from new developments, thus reducing competition among governments within the region.Regular property tax assessment
Property tax assessments that are fair and accurate represent a fundamental part of good government. Prompt reassessments are one way of ensuring that.
Despite the current reassessments ordered in April 1997 by Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr., no plan is in effect in Allegheny County to have regular reassessments after the current process is completed and goes on the books in the 2001 tax year.
That is an issue which could be addressed in the administrative code, the operating rules for the county. And that code will change on Jan. 1 under the new home rule charter.
Regular assessments "certainly should happen, but theres nothing right now that forces it to happen," said Paul Leger, assistant county manager.Workers compensation
The city of Pittsburghs cost of providing medical care and compensation to employees injured on the job is the highest among 15 PG Benchmarks cities, at $3,681 per city employee. Each dollar spent on workers compensation means less money for other critical city services.
And excessive claims often means inadequate safety and risk management programs.
Ineffective cost controls, an overly bureaucratic system of claim settlements and loopholes in the states employee-friendly workers compensation legislation traditionally are to blame for Pittsburghs high costs. The Pennsylvania Heart and Lung Act of 1935, for example, allows police and fire workers to receive 100 percent of their pay tax free. Without taxes, the salary of an injured firefighter is equivalent to 133 percent of that persons normal take-home pay.Culture is also to blame
"A lot of people look at the city like it is a big gold mine," said Carla Pomper, the citys assistant director of employee compensation.
The citys biggest problem is the mountainous number of employees who receive workers compensation but do not work. They account for $10.7 million of the $13.1 million in total claims the city paid in 1998. Almost half of those employees are more than 64 years old. Some have been receiving workers compensation since the 1970s.
And it can take as long as two years to remove some of these employees not working from the workers compensation rolls, even in cases where a doctor gives the worker a positive medical evaluation.
Four years ago, 925 active and former employees received workers compensation. Now, that number is down to 829. The total claims cost, though, hasnt changed much. In 1994, the city paid out $13.3 million in claims. In 1998, it paid $13.1 million.
Administrative costs, on the other hand, have plummeted more than 30 percent in that time, from $3.8 million to $2.5 million, a drop that can be attributed to a cost-cutting move the city took in 1995, after Mayor Murphy made cutting workers compensation costs a top priority. That year, the city selected Allegheny General Hospital to provide a new managed care program for workers injured on the job. Under the new program, the city pays AGH a predetermined monthly fee for each employee receiving workers compensation instead of the traditional method of fees for services performed.
In Arizona, cities have to pay injured workers the equivalent of 66.6 percent of their salary. In Phoenix, though, the city uses sick leave to supplement an employees pay to 100 percent.
In Atlanta, the city pays workers 100 percent of their normal salary, but only for six months. After that, compensation decreases to 66.6 percent. Of the 1,800 new claims filed in Atlanta last year, 1,500 came back to work within seven days.
By implementing a new managed care program, Pittsburgh hoped to cut burgeoning compensation costs, provide more efficient care, return workers to their jobs more quickly and curb abuses. Much of that has happened.
The city now knows the status of each claim, allowing it to manage injuries better. Case managers are ensuring that employees receive proper care, and the workers who bounce back quickly from injuries are returning to work faster because of a new focus on vocational rehabilitation and retraining. The last few years, the city has been able to increase the number of full-time employees working light duty, meaning they remain productive without straining themselves physically.
But the citys reserves remain low. Only $6 million sits in a trust fund set aside for future workers compensation costs. Also, the city needs a better employee safety program, so it can prevent accidents before they happen.
The mayor met with several department directors last month to get a handle on the frequency and cause of accidents city wide. The directors goal is to reduce the frequency of accidents in the police, public works, fire, EMS and General Services departments by 10 percent.
Several PG Benchmarks cities have created a risk management office to identify safety problems and develop prevention programs.
"It makes a big difference," said Ellen Velasco Thompson, risk director for the city of Minneapolis.
Pittsburgh has no plans to create a risk management office, although the idea is being studied. A 1996 study recommended that such an office coordinate the workers compensation functions currently shared by the personnel, general services and law departments.
Assisting in the research were Point Park College students Maria Carpico, Jeffrey Jones, Ronald Kaplan, Shawn Melvin, Matthew Monaghan, Seth Rorabaugh, Marlene Urso and Holly Voto.