Pittsburgh's budget crisis hasn't left city council creatively bankrupt. On Dec. 16, council began considering measures that could help the city's shrunken workforce clear icy streets, and apprehend rowdy criminal suspects without shooting them.
Council President Gene Ricciardi said his office has faced blizzards of complaints that streets aren't being plowed and salted since the city laid off 10 percent of its salt truck drivers. His solution: a return to the saltbox system that Mayor Tom Murphy's administration has gradually phased out.
Ricciardi told council that there were once 2,200 saltboxes placed on Pittsburgh's backstreets in the winter. The city would periodically refill them, and residents of the city's goat paths would team up to salt their own streets, freeing up the trucks to handle larger arteries. But the Murphy administration has whittled the number of boxes down to 200, according to Ricciardi. Murphy's minions have argued that much of the salt gets pilfered by homeowners and used on their sidewalks and stoops.
Ricciardi suggested mixing the salt with cinders to discourage people from using it on their property. As for the cost -- about $150 a year per saltbox -- he suggested that the city "allow people to sponsor a saltbox. ... I'll sponsor the first five in my district." Ricciardi said he knew of homeowners and businesses that would gladly pay to have a box on their street.
Councilor Sala Udin, meanwhile, suggested that the city pay up to $120,000 to arm more than 100 police with Tasers - weapons that fire tiny darts that shock a suspect into submission. The weapon "enables [police] to take down resistant suspects in a non-lethal manner," Udin noted.
Incidents like the June 13 fatal shooting of North Sider Rodney Mathews by Pittsburgh police have led some to suggest that the city's blues are too quick to pull the trigger. Such incidents are always tragic -- and sometimes expensive. Mt. Oliver Borough's insurers recently paid $850,000 to settle a lawsuit related to the December 2002 police killing of Altoona resident Charles A. Dixon. Though the mayor's proposed 2004 budget includes gaps totaling $56 million, Udin said Tasers would be worth the investment.
There are limits to council's creativity. Udin told City Paper he hasn't considered asking criminals to sponsor a Taser. And as yet there's no talk of Tasering salt thieves.