Friday, April 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Help Desk: No block captain? No trash can.

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services. Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.

Help Desk: No block captain? No trash can.

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services. Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.

THE PROBLEM: Clifford Hritz wants another trash can for his block.

Hritz moved to a new home in Point Breeze a few months ago. Shocked by the amount of trash on the street, he's taken it on himself to sweep it every other day.

Though the block already has a garbage can, he'd like one on the other end of the block to cut down on how far he has to walk to throw trash away. Since he fills about two bags' worth of trash each week, he figures each can would get about one bag.

When he contacted the city to request a trash can, Hritz was told the request had to go through his block captain.

But his block captain moved away shortly after Hritz moved in, and wasn't replaced. Hritz doesn't understand why a block captain would need to approve a trash can, anyway.

HOW TRASH CANS WORK. There are several different types of city-issued trash cans in Philadelphia.

Center City has 500 of the new, Big Belly solar-powered trash cans. The Streets Department also deploys 700 cans along neighborhood commercial corridors, like Grays Ferry Avenue. The trash can on Hritz's block is from this program.

If his block got a second trash can, it would come from another Streets Department program, which let block captains "adopt a basket" by promising to take care of it.

Deputy Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said the department has block captains manage neighborhood trash cans to prevent them from becoming a nuisance. The block captains make sure the trash cans don't become a magnet for "short dumping" (in this case, residents filling the cans with household garbage). And they're responsible for making sure they don't get overrun with trash.

No block captain, no neighborhood trash can. Where are all the block captains? Hritz's block isn't the only one that would have a hard time getting a trash can under these rules.

To become a block captain, you need to get a petition signed by at least 50 percent of the neighbors on your block. Williams said about a third of the city's 18,000 blocks have captains. He'd like to see half of Philadelphia's blocks organized that way, but that's going to take some time.

According to Wanda Jones-Heading, administrator of the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, which runs the block-captain program, the city tries to recruit 300-400 new captains a year - though last year it managed to sign up only 201. At that rate, it'll take a decade to reach Williams' goal.

In the meantime, unorganized blocks miss out on some city services. Besides the trash-can program, block captains commit to running at least three block cleanups a year with supplies from the city, like rakes and brooms.

Why should the city require blocks to have captains to receive these benefits - especially given the program's less-than-stellar participation rate? Why can't Hritz just sign for a trash can himself? The city believes that to monitor a trash can or organize a cleanup, you need "buy-in" from the neighbors.

Former City Councilman Ed Schwartz thinks the city is right about the value of block captains. He'd like to increase block captains' prominence.

Schwartz, head of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values, applauds the work of the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee. But he said the city could be more aggressive in recruiting them, and work to better integrate them into city programs and with each other.

Schwartz's group has tried to help with this by setting up the Phillyblocks listserv, an online forum where block captains and other neighborhood activists discuss common issues.

He also recommends the administration of block captains be moved to a different department, like the managing director's office, to take into account block captains' growing list of unofficial responsibilities, like communicating with police, L&I and 3-1-1.

Though the city sets up regular meetings with block captains, the model Schwartz points to is a program run by Councilman Curtis Jones.

Jones hosted the third annual block captain boot camp over the weekend for his Council district's block captains.

He calls his boot camp "an intense training program." City officials representing departments from Parks and Recreation to Streets talk about neighborhood problems and give out information on city resources.

Jones has also taken it upon himself to recruit more block captains by asking the people who send the most service requests into the city to volunteer.

But without a citywide recruiting campaign - a difficult proposition given budget constraints - where does this leave Hritz?

Williams, the deputy Streets commissioner, promised to have the department touch base with Hritz, in the hopes of reorganizing his block.

But Hritz said he's not interested in taking on a formal role for now. As a new resident, he's not comfortable taking a leadership role. And he doesn't want to be out front facing his block's crime problems - one day last week saw three break-ins.

Until someone does step forward, though, there won't be a trash can on Hritz's corner.

Have a problem getting services from a city department, or an idea for a more effective way to get things done? Let us know about it at www.thecityhowl.com, or write City Howl, c/o the Daily News, 400 N. Broad St. Philadelphia, Pa. 19130.

About this blog
Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

It's Our Money contributors

Tips? Comments? Questions?
Contact:

Holly Otterbein:
215-854-5809
hm.otterbein@gmail.com
@hollyotterbein

It's Our Money
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected