Gold Standard: Streets Dept. gets it done with less

As the recession wreaks havoc on government budgets at all levels, public officials are being asked to do more with less. In Philadelphia, no department has met that challenge better than the Streets Department.

Almost 30 years ago, the department had more than 3,200 full-time employees to clean and repair streets and bridges and collect our trash. Today, it has 1,800, a whopping 44 percent less - 7 percent in the last three years. A decade ago, its budget was $256 million, adjusted for inflation. Today it's $113 million - a 57 percent decrease.

Granted, the city's population has declined modestly over the years, but the number of streets the department is responsible for - 2,500 miles - has remained the same, and the amount of trash has decreased only slightly.

How has the department done it?

Spurred by necessity, it's used technology and made smart strategic choices. But even before the ravages of the current recession, the Streets Department had to find a way to make due with less.

Elimination of a federally funded public-sector jobs program in the late 1970s, prior recessions and 16 years of tax cuts have a taken a toll on the Streets budget. Higher wages, pensions and health-care costs have left less money to hire new employees. And the rising cost of the criminal-justice system has diverted money to police, prisons, courts and the district attorney.

While the library, police and fire have strong constituencies to watch their backs during budget battles, Streets has had to fend for itself.

In short, it was forced to find better ways to collect trash and tend the city streets with fewer hands on deck.

One of those ways was better use of technology. For example, the department began deploying larger trucks years ago. This lets it collect more trash per truck with the same three-man crews. The increased capacity has resulted in greater productivity, fewer trucks and trash runs - and thus fewer sanitation workers.

More recently, the department applied this same concept of increased capacity to its trash cans. Technology has given rise to the solar-operated compactors that now populate Center City streets. The 475 compactors handle not only trash but recyclables, too. Each has a capacity of 200 gallons, compared with the 60-gallon capacity of the 700 litter baskets they replaced.

Since the compactors don't have to be emptied as often, the number of collection runs has dropped from 17 a week to just five. The department has been able to cut its Center City collection unit from 33 employees to eight.

A strategic decision is also making a difference. Mayor Nutter has made recycling a priority, and it's paying off. Garbage diverted from landfills to recycling bins is money in the pocket - the city pays $65 a ton to dump in landfills, but gets $25 a ton for recyclables, which will jump to more than $50 shortly as a result of a new contract.

Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson, who has headed the department for the past six years, serving two mayors, has seen firsthand the impact of the change in administration priorities. Since 2007, there has been a 57 percent increase in recyclable tonnage, and the city's diversion rate of trash to recyclables has climbed from 6.5 percent to almost 16 percent. Every section of the city has shown a significant increase.

And the diversion rate will undoubtedly continue to grow as the department deploys another round of new technology. The department's enforcement officers are now equipped with handheld monitors that allow them to automate the process of writing citations for residents who don't recycle - or, for that matter, cut their weeds or shovel their sidewalks - and download pictures for evidence, avoiding arguments. The result will be greater compliance, higher revenues and a cleaner city.

Granted, there are things the Streets Department no longer does, like leaf collection and bulk pickups. In some cases, organizations like the Center City District have assumed responsibilities the city used to handle. And the budget crunch has slowed down street repavings and pothole repair, particularly after this harsh winter.

But by using its shrinking budget as an impetus to change rather than simply complain, deploying technology and capitalizing on smart administration priorities like recycling, the Streets Department's core mission is still intact.

Phil Goldsmith writes "The Gold Standard" column for It's Our Money. He was city managing director, 2003-2005.