Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Hope we've been a Help

Sometimes, when our phone line was particularly quiet, we’d get worried that you had run out of neighborhood problems, and we couldn’t be useful anymore. On the other hand, that’s what we wanted, right? If you stopped calling, it could mean only good things. But then, someone would call to say that dozens of stray cats were camping out in an abandoned RV on a vacant lot. And we’d feel silly. Run out of neighborhood problems? In Philly?

Hope we've been a Help

Sometimes, when our phone line was particularly quiet, we’d get worried that you had run out of neighborhood problems, and we couldn’t be useful anymore. On the other hand, that’s what we wanted, right? If you stopped calling, it could mean only good things. But then, someone would call to say that dozens of stray cats were camping out in an abandoned RV on a vacant lot. And we’d feel silly. Run out of neighborhood problems? In Philly?

The City Howl Help Desk is closing its doors for now, but we’re going to leave you with some lessons we’ve learned from looking into your quality-of-life complaints these last couple of years. We’ve broken these down into tips for you, and for the city. Thanks for trusting us with your gripes.

For the city

Communicate! We hear it from neighbors all the time: The city’s ignoring me. But when we dug into the complaint, it often turned out that the city actuallyhad listened — the resident just had no idea. The city has to do a better job of explaining to citizens exactly what it can or can’t do, and how long it will take. Sometimes the city is hesitant to tell residents what it can’t do, 3-1-1 director Rosetta Lue once told us. Well, the city has to get over that.

Tell the man on the phone that the city might not demolish that rotting, abandoned house next door, even if it is attracting raccoons, because the city takes down only "imminently dangerous" houses. Tell him how to find out whether an inspector visited the house, and what was decided. Otherwise, he’ll wait and wait for that bulldozer, and he’ll lose a little more faith in his government.

Or tell the woman complaining about the dark, bottomless sinkhole that the city fills those holes only during warm months. Let her know that, even if it’s cold out, someone at the city should still make the hole safe — and if no one does, then she should call back. Otherwise, she’ll be livid next month when she sees nothing’s changed.

Take one for the team. We understand that doing extra work, outside your job description, stinks. But one of the most frustrating things a city employee can do is tell a resident, "It’s not my problem." Philadelphians are tired of being passed from one agency to another, and city employees, when contacted about a problem, need to be more willing to take initiative to get that problem solved — not just look for reasons to say it’s someone else’s responsibility (even if it is).

Last year, a manhole sat open in Queen Village for six months because every city agency said it wasn’t responsible for it. The agencies weren’t lying — it was an abandoned manhole. It didn’t change the fact that it was dangerous and needed to be fixed. Finally, Peco stepped up and covered the hole.

For you

Keep at it. If you called the city about a problem a few weeks ago and haven’t seen any changes, one of the simplest things you can do is follow up on your complaint. Sometimes problems fall through the cracks; following up is a great way to get it back on the city’s radar.

Know the city’s rules. This city has so many annoying quirks, like those completely incorrect signs in South Philly that tell you "No Parking — Street Cleaning." It’s hard to keep track of what’s legal and what’s not. But if you know what you don’t have to live with — like, say, a backhoe parked on your street every night — then you can really tackle the problem head-on. If you’re not sure if something’s legal or not, call the city and ask. And don’t be shy. This stuff is public information ,and you have a right to know about it.

Work with your neighbors. We’ve dealt with a bunch of "bad neighbor" problems, and we’ve noticed that people sometimes bypass talking with neighbors and go straight to the city. If your neighbor is scary, that makes sense. But if you do feel comfortable approaching your neighbor, try to reach out to him or her first. People get upset when they realize the neighborhood’s been complaining about them but no one’s bothered to knock on their door, and then they won’t want to cooperate when someone finally does come knocking.

Again, thanks for reading. Keep fighting for your neighborhoods — we’ll be on our blocks doing the same.

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.

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Holly Otterbein:
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