Pittsburgh’s ‘clean and lien’ process will be faster because of a simple tech change

Computers > paper.

A row of boarded up homes along Formosa Way in Homewood.

A row of boarded up homes along Formosa Way in Homewood.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

A process that allows the city to clean up properties and put the cost burden on the land owner will be faster now that Pittsburgh City Council has approved a simple tech change, officials say.

Members unanimously gave final approval Wednesday morning to a bill that allows the mayor and director of the Department of Innovation & Performance to integrate the three systems involved in the “clean and lien” process: QAlert, VET and Cartegraph.

Department of Innovation & Performance Director Lee Haller told The Incline that the current process is paper intensive. The requests typically come through 311, Haller said, and, after multiple notices to the property owner, a DPW crew is dispatched to take care of the issue. At the moment, members of different departments, including Public Works and Permits, Licenses and Inspections, have to mail papers back and forth “because the systems that we use are not integrated in a way that data can be shared.”

“This legislation will greatly cut down on the amount of manual staff time to process these requests,” Haller said.

“It’s not a difficult thing to do the integration,” he added. It’s just that no one took the time to do it in the past.

According to DPW Director Mike Gable, PLI sent DPW 1,500 clean and lien and board-up requests in 2016. It’s possible some of those were for the same address, he said. Gable said each request takes about 11 to 12 hours of DPW manpower to complete.

At a Council meeting earlier this month, councilmember Theresa Kail-Smith said she would support the tech legislation but added that she wants Pittsburgh to be more attentive to resident complaints about properties with overgrowth, rodents and other issues.

“We need someone dedicated to going in and cleaning up the property,” she said.

Pittsburgh once had that in the Redd Up crew, which Mayor Bill Peduto disbanded in 2014 amid concerns that the work focused on areas of interest to former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Each of the city’s six maintenance divisions dedicate three people to clean and liens and board-ups, Gable said. He said he believes there’s enough staff in DPW to handle these requests, especially as the city is considering changes that would free up employees for other tasks.

DPW wants to add sensors to the city’s 1,200 trash cans that will alert crews to when the receptacles are full. Instead of having crews driving around and checking out the cans, Gable said these people could be redeployed for purposes like clean and liens. That proposal was introduced to Council this week.

Councilmember Deb Gross said at a Council meeting earlier this month she wants to see data in six months or a year on if the city’s been able to increase the number of clean and liens it performs. Councilmember Dan Gilman, meanwhile, renewed his call for the city to use more open-source platforms, so Pittsburgh isn’t required to change software or pay a company to integrate software down the line.

Haller said two of the three programs involved in the clean and lien process have open APIs already, and the city is already working to address several other processes that could benefit from integration.

“For example, we’re in the process of kicking off the implementation to a new permits and licensing system that will be used across multiple departments,” he said. One thing that will allow the city to do is to track whether a utility has met a moratorium for street repaving and is required to pay for the cost.

“We don’t have an easy way right now when somebody applies for a permit to check that against the moratorium list,” he said. It’s a manual process that will become automated.

These types of data integration will also allow the city to better evaluate performance.

If clean and liens are being processed faster in one area than another, Haller said, the city would be able to identify that problem, be it a resource one or a management issue.

“Having all the data in one system through this integration will allow us to identity those sorts of patterns,” he said. “Right now it’s pretty hard because it’s happening on paper.”