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Jeannette Mayor Calls for Cleanup

Thursday, December 30, 2010
By Candy Woodall

Robert Carter stands on Jeannette’s Clay Avenue, pointing to the many, though quiet, intersections along the steep street that serves as the city’s downtown. .

“On Friday nights there used to be a police officer on every corner directing traffic,” he said.

He recalled a busy cityscape that was once a common scene throughout many of the region’s industrial neighborhoods.

“There was so much hustle and bustle here. You could get any type of clothes and cars and appliances you’d want along this street,” he said.

Finishing his first year as Jeannette’s mayor, Mr. Carter said he has worked to re-create the heyday in a city he’s called home during his 52 years.

As a self-proclaimed “man of faith” and “servant” to his city, he said he has to try to rebuild what was once a mass-production epicenter in Westmoreland County and nicknamed “the Glass City” for its many and world renowned glass manufacturing plants.

“I know we’ll never get back to that, but we can at least have it come back to a place where people can still come downtown to shop and eat,” he said.

But before the city can be rebuilt, it needs to be cleaned up, he said.

Describing his leadership style as “direct and to the point,” he began the year by replacing department heads as the city struggled in the red.

“We still had to pay bills from 2009. It became a challenge to try and run a city with zero funds, other than the budget,” he said.

Jeannette’s deficit rose to nearly $1 million during the past three years, he said.

The year’s $4.6 million budget was four weeks overdue and required more than $100,000 in cuts before it was balanced. “Every department took a hit,” he said.

The budget also included a health insurance overhaul for city employees and a provider switch from UPMC to Highmark that was expected to save about $105,000.

“We had to get everyone on the same page and let them know there would be limited spending. We were getting ready to move forward,” he said.

Moving forward wasn’t easy

City council’s first work session of the year spawned such fractious debate about the fire department’s new ladder truck that former fire chief Mike Bertolino left the meeting with chest pains and was ultimately hospitalized. He is now fine.

Then new to the mayor’s seat, Mr. Carter, a firefighter for 37 years, disagreed with Mr. Bertolino about which ladder truck should be purchased.

Using federal grant money, that truck was purchased and was expected to arrive in Jeannette yesterday, Mr. Carter said.

It wouldn’t be the last time during the year that money was at the center of debate in the city.

“Early in the year, it was suggested we file for bankruptcy, which I refused to do,” he said.

“But, yeah, the chips were down.”

In February, council approved a pre-Act 47 review as part of the Municipalities Financial Recovery Act, which provides fiscal support and recovery plans to financially distressed communities.

In July, council hired Delta Development Group Inc. as consultants for the city’s finances.

The Cranberry-based firm also did similar work in McKeesport, a Mon Valley mill town that faces similar fiscal challenges.

Through the state’s Early Intervention Program, which supplies matching grants for the work, Jeannette was able to hire the firm at 10 percent of the $81,875 cost.

Delta’s evaluation will be complete in two months, according to Michael Minyon, who began working as city clerk in March.

Some councilmen have questioned whether the city is already in Act 47, Mr. Carter said.

During a special meeting this fall, council slashed the city’s workforce to hedge against a $440,000 deficit at the end of the year.

“We had to get the budget in line and keep the city solvent,” he said.

He said Mr. Minyon had advised him and council that the city otherwise may have run out of money by November.

“Something had to be done,” he said.

Eight city employees were laid off at the end of September: three police officers, three public works staff members and two part-time parking meter enforcement officers.

“Of course it’s not what you want to do. But sometimes it’s what you have to do,” he said.

Mr. Carter and council members also refused their financial stipends for the rest of the year.

But, ultimately, it wasn’t enough to stave off a budget shortfall.

With a projected $432,000 deficit at the end of this year and $255,000 due tomorrow to the police pension fund, the city applied for a $500,000 unfunded debt loan.

A late payment to the police pension fund could result in penalties and fees to the city, according to solicitor Scott Avolio.

For every month the payment is late, a 7.5 percent penalty may be assessed, with about $17,000 in interest, he said.

The city has made payments to its pension funds for firefighters and other employees, Mr. Carter said.

First Niagara Bank first approved the loan earlier this month and was followed by approval from Westmoreland County Judge Anthony Marsili, Mr. Carter said.

The fate of Jeannette’s fiscal health is now pending approval from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, he said.

Upon final approval, which is anticipated “any day now,” the city will repay the loan during a 10-year period at $61,000 a year, he said.

Raising fees, cleaning up

To further generate revenue, council also voted this month to raise some of its fees, a move that is expected to bring in more than $300,000, Mr. Minyon said.

Earned income tax will be raised by 0.15 percent. Garbage fees will increase from $10.80 a month to $13.50 a month. And the mechanical device fee is doubling from $150 a year to $300 a year.

“These moves will help the city move forward,” Mr. Carter said.

If moving forward has been the mantra in Jeannette this year, cleaning up has been the method.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has conducted two investigations in the city during the last few months, said Katy Gresh, spokeswoman for the DEP’s southwest regional office.

Recently the DEP inspected the Monsour Medical Center property at the corner of Pennsylvania Boulevard and Route 30. The 146-bed hospital has been vacant for four years.

“It’s just been sitting there falling apart,” Mr. Carter said. “People have been going in and vandalizing it. It’s not safe.”

Medical waste and discarded needles were found on the property this fall, Ms. Gresh said.

“Public safety is of the utmost concern. We’re advising people to stay away from the facility while we initiate a clean-up,” she said.

Mr. Carter said the DEP entered the property with a search warrant, claiming it is in foreclosure and going up for sheriff’s sale in the spring.

“We’re taking care of the city’s eyesores, one by one,” he said.

Another of those eyesores is the old Jeannette Glass Co. plant.

The 32-acre property comprises two parcels between Chambers and Bullitt avenues, with its manufacturing facility sitting like a rusted monument, gnawing at Mr. Carter’s patience.

“I’d love to see it turned into an outdoor performing space, a place to bring people together, a recreational space, another place of employment, anything,” he said.

At the behest of owner Abe Zion, who bought the property for $4 million in 1983, Mr. Carter and Mr. Avolio traveled to New York in August to discuss the property — a trip that sparked debate in the city once again.

Councilman Jeff DePalma, supported the mayor and solicitor going to New York to talk to Mr. Zion, pointed out that Mr. Zion has paid more than $1 million in taxes during the last 20 years. Mr. Zion has been a good taxpayer, he said, dolling out $68,000 a year in property taxes.

Mr. Zion, 85, declined comment.

For nearly 20 years, local leaders said they tried to engage Mr. Zion in discussion, hoping he’d do something with the old facility, which is falling apart.

John Skavio, CEO of nonprofit Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland County, said the group got close a few times, but talks ultimately went nowhere.

He last communicated with Mr. Zion in 2007, he said.

Mr. Carter said Mr. Zion first approached him at the beginning of the year with a phone call to congratulate him on his election.

He said Mr. Zion told him he wanted to do something with the property, and Mr. Carter saw it as a breakthrough.

“It’s been a long time coming, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to get that property cleaned up,” he said.

During the August trip, Mr. Zion signed two good-faith agreements that allow the city to access his property for beautification efforts.

“I consider it a victory … .” Mr. Carter said. “It probably saved $15,000, and we still have a dialogue nobody has had with him.”

DEP steps in

DEP is also working on a dialogue with him.

Inspectors took soil, air and water samples at the deteriorating site in October, while workers from the city’s health department determined the safety of the aging facilities.

Earlier in the year, DEP scientists discovered levels of arsenic in the soil to be above normal standards, and the October inspection revealed possible soil contamination from asbestos and lead, according to Ms. Gresh.

“Those substances can cause health problems,” she said.

They can also result in possible air violations, she said.

If Mr. Zion is found to be in violation, he could face fines and be legally required to clean up the property, she said.

The DEP has not yet reported its complete findings to council or Mr. Zion, Mr. Carter said.

“We’re in a holding pattern with Mr. Zion while we wait for results,” he said.

As the city works to clean up its old industrial yards, it has also tried to keep its own house in order.

At least three lawsuits have involved city employees — one with the former city clerk was dismissed in August, another involving the police chief was settled in October, while a pending lawsuit involves the fire chief.

Jeannette fire Chief Randy Dubich waived his right to a preliminary hearing on a charges in November stemming from a September incident in which a woman said Mr. Dubich tried to remove some of her clothing and groped her at the fire station when she went there to apply for a job, the complaint states.

A formal arraignment is scheduled for Jan. 26 at the Westmoreland County Courthouse.

A city fireman for 16 years who was promoted to chief in February, Mr. Dubich is now suspended without pay.

Fire Captains Mike Bertolino and Joe Matijevic are in charge of the department during Mr. Dubich’s suspension, Mr. Carter said.

Mr. Carter said he doesn’t see that kind of news as a black eye for the city.

“It’s more like a speed bump,” he said.

In the end, though, it’s all about continuing to move forward, he said.

“I’m one person who’s not afraid to say, ‘Yeah, we have issues,’ ” he said. “We also try to take a pretty active stance on those issues.

“[This year] was very challenging, but it was also very rewarding. We learned a lot and took care of a lot this year to make sure next year will be a lot better,” he said.

Candy Woodall, freelance:
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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