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City Howl Help Desk: That's a bad sign

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services (see Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services (see



Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.

THE PROBLEM: Ephraim Levin doesn't like all those signs

in the grass along Roosevelt Boulevard.

He noticed them a few weeks ago, advertising everything from a furniture store's grand opening to helicopter rides. Things are particularly bad at Grant Avenue, where dozens of small plastic signs were recently stuck into the median strip.

The signs bother Levin, who lives in the Northeast, because, as he puts it, they're "detracting from the beauty of the city" by cluttering up one of the city's main arteries.

Mary Tracy, executive director of the advocacy group Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB), said street signs are a problem throughout the city.

Technically, the Department of Licenses and Inspections is responsible for taking down illegal signs and fining those who put them up, but Tracy said community groups have recently taken the lead.

She points to one Northeast community activist, Margaret Phillipi of the Parkwood Civic Association, who's taken down more than 4,000 by her own count.

Why isn't the city taking down more signs? There's good news and bad news from the city on this one.

The good news is that L&I recently revamped its procedures for enforcing the city's outdoor- sign rules, according to Maureen Blaney, manager of L&I's business compliance unit. Traditionally, the city has issued a $75 fine for each illegal sign. But when it does, it has to wait for the owners to take the signs down themselves. Because a ticket is a code violation, L&I can't take action without a court order.

So, instead, as of last August, L&I has been issuing invoices to violators for the cost of removing their signs. The agency can't charge the full $75 per sign this way, but it can take the signs down itself, and doesn't have to write a ticket for every violation. Think of it as the city charging sign-posters for the upkeep of public property.

Blaney said this has streamlined the sign-removal process: City workers now take down signs in bulk and later bill the owners for the cost. (People can still appeal the invoice charges to the Office of Administrative Review.)

Though many violators are ignoring the city's notices, the Law Department is looking into ways of making them pay up.

That's a challenge because L&I normally backs up an invoice - for, say, fixing up a dangerous building - by placing a lien on the property in question. But these signs are on public property.

The bad news is that even with a better system for removing signs, there's a dearth of city workers to do this sort of work. Most of the manpower is provided by an anti-graffiti task force at the Managing Director's Office, since budget cutbacks have reduced the size of L&I's clean-and-seal unit, which also used to help manage the sign problem.

Blaney said an entire unit could be devoted to illegal signs, especially because the city usually needs to do some research to determine who owns a sign. This creates a vicious cycle - if the city isn't tearing signs down, people have more incentive to put them up.

Tracy, of SCRUB, would like to see the city get creative with its enforcement efforts. She said there used to be small rewards to residents who took signs down themselves, and L&I also sent out people sentenced to community service to take down illegal signs.

L&I officials weren't sure why the bonus program was discontinued, and hadn't heard about the community-service effort.

Tracy also thinks that garbage crews should pull down signs along their routes. Blaney seemed receptive to this idea, though sanitation crews work for the Streets Department, not L&I.

More bad news: Even if the city got creative, and even if it had more staff, Levin shouldn't expect the signs to be taken down from the Boulevard any time soon, thanks to two loopholes in the law.

First, the city ordinance that bans signs doesn't mention those placed on median strips or sidewalks. So as long as a sign advertising a furniture store isn't attached to a pole, there's nothing the city can do about it.

Second, because the Boulevard is a state road, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over it, and the city ordinance doesn't apply.

And don't expect PennDOT to trip over itself in its zeal to put a dent in the problem.

Spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said PennDOT doesn't have the resources to take down signs like the ones Levin is upset about, but will do so if the signs pose a safety hazard.

For now, Mr. Levin, you might have to just pull the signs out yourself. Sorry.

Anthony Campisi report for It's Our Money (

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