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Pittsburgh City Council considers strengthening garbage code enforcement

A blue sign reads "Don't be a litter bug!"
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council is weighing how it can do more to clean up the city’s streets and sidewalks. A bill introduced by Councilor Bob Charland Tuesday would allow trash inspectors to issue tickets for certain code violations, skipping a lengthy court process that often results in dismissal.

“As it stands right now, an inspector needs to see a trash violation three times and then go to court before something can be done,” Charland said. “The way that this would work is, it's like a parking ticket for trash.”

Under Charland’s proposal, trash inspectors could issue a “quality-of-life ticket” to those found violating the city code that regulates trash and recyclables. Those violations include accumulation of garbage on a property; improper storage of trash cans; setting out trash cans before 6 p.m. the day before collection or failing to store them after collection by 10 p.m.; and failure to separate recyclables from waste.

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Fines are set based on the number of previous violations. The first violation will incur a $35 fine; a $50 fine would follow a second violation in the same year, and a $100 fine would be levied for a third violation in the same year.

A ticket would be issued on-site as well as mailed to the property owner, or in some cases the tenant of a property. If a landlord can produce a signed lease addendum that explains city rules surrounding trash collection, the ticket will be issued to the tenant.

The bill also sets out an appeal process.

Residents don’t need to travel far to see examples of the city’s litter and trash problem. Charland, whose first term in office has focused on other city code-enforcement issues, called the issue a “throughline” that unites all parts of the city.

“The city needs to be cleaner,” Charland said, describing the current enforcement process as “a wildly inefficient system.”

Though the bill is designed to clean up streets citywide, it could also tackle a problem that exists primarily in Charland’s district, which includes South Oakland and neighborhoods south of the Monongahela River: trash left behind by college students moving in and out of apartments.

In the city’s Oakland and South Side neighborhoods, city sidewalks often are blocked with loose items left behind after the school year ends at colleges and universities, sometimes several days before trash collection.

“It’s a huge problem in two parts of my district,” Charland said. “You can’t just put everything out on whatever day you leave … you might need to come back to the property or plan ahead and make sure you’re putting everything out on trash day.”

Charland noted that landlords have also emptied dwellings of belongings left behind by tenants, and in doing so blocked sidewalks for days.

“It’s an unbelievable amount of effort for our environmental service workers to clean up during those times,” Charland said.

Earlier this year, Charland requested the city controller’s office complete an audit of the city’s trash code-enforcement procedures. He said that report will inform additional legislation in the future.

Other municipalities across Pennsylvania have passed similar legislation to establish a ticketing process for certain property maintenance violations. Last year, Erie increased its quality-of-life ticket fines in an attempt to gain more compliance.

But in Pittsburgh, Charland said the approach is less about punishing residents and more about empowering trash inspectors to enforce the city code and clean up streets and sidewalks.

“It's incredibly disheartening for [inspectors] to see a violation three times, take someone to court and then have the case be dismissed because the person took care of it the day before a court happened,” he said.

Council is expected to discuss the bill as soon as next week, though Charland said he plans to seek more community input on the measure before bringing up the bill for a vote.

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.