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Pittsburgh is racing to help its lone plumber turn on drinking fountains

A water fountain in a park.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA

As temperatures soar across the region this week, Pittsburgh residents might not find any relief at their local public drinking fountain. Many of the city’s more than 200 fountains have yet to be turned on this summer. According to officials, that’s because the city only has one plumber on staff.

On Tuesday, Pittsburgh City Council rushed a bill to allow the city to partner with the county, school districts or other quasi-public agencies or authorities to offer overtime in exchange for more plumbers.

The measure also allows the city to explore wage increases to hire more of its own plumbers. According to the city's operating budget, plumbers currently earn $28.56 per hour. An active job listing shows the job paying $30 per hour.

But the legislation contends that “the city cannot wait to address plumbing, water and sewer-related issues in its buildings, parks and recreation facilities,” and must rely on outside help this year.

“Residents want their water fountains,” said bill sponsor Councilor Bobby Wilson, whose North Side constituents made him aware that several fountains had yet to be turned on last week.

The city’s lone plumber is responsible for turning on all of the city’s fountains, filling all of the city pools and managing all other plumbing issues that come up. The city is budgeted to have three plumbers, but two vacancies remain unfilled. Wilson cited poor pay as one reason.

To help get more fountains running, City Council rushed the bill through its procedure Tuesday, waiving standard rules to get the measure passed the same day it was introduced.

“It's important to show that council is on board to get this done as quickly as possible,” Wilson contended.

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The city is tentatively exploring partnerships with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Allegheny County to bring on as many plumbers as necessary. The city would reimburse those agencies for overtime hours worked by their plumbers on the city’s behalf.

But the work isn’t as simple as opening a valve, according to Wilson. Some fountains have parts removed during the winter that must be reinstalled before the fountain can be turned on.

“The guts are taken out and they’ve got to put that back,” said Councilor Wilson.

And the fountains aren’t all the same, according to Councilor Erika Strassburger.

“You really have to have intimate knowledge of each and every single drinking fountain to know how to turn it on,” she said.

And for now, that knowledge rests with one person. The city plans to divide the list of remaining fountains into those any plumber could turn on and those that require more expertise.

But looking ahead, Strassburger said the city needs to broaden its knowledge of how to operate its facilities. That includes having more plumbers available to maintain basic services. She noted that this year’s delay in turning on the fountains is not new.

“It's been the case for the last two summers that it's taken a little while, especially now that we're down to one plumber who works incredibly hard, just running from emergency to emergency,” she said.

While the short-term priority is to bring on outside plumbers, Wilson stressed that the city needs to do whatever it can to hire more plumbers of its own.

“It’s not just the water fountains, it’s the restrooms… everyone needs a plumber,” Wilson said.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.