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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The CSB Turns 20 Years Old, Still Takes About 20 Years to Get Around to Handling Residents' Complaints

Yesterday, the author of Mayor Slay's blog posted to inform us all that the Citizens' Service Bureau is now 20 years old. My immediate reaction was one of awe--they've been at it THAT LONG and they still can't fulfill basic functions as an organization? If I was that dysfunctional, illogical, and disorganized when I turned 20, I would have never survived to 21!

Incase you're not familiar with it, the Citizens' Service Bureau is like customer service for the City. Street light burnt out? Call the CSB. Boards have been taken off of a vacant building? Call the CSB. Is your dumpster overflowing, your alley blocked with illegally dumped tires, your neighbor parking on mud on the lawn front of their house, your sidewalk half-ruined by a sloppy City demolition of an LRA building? Call the CSB!

But as anyone who's ever called the CSB knows, it ain't quite that easy. They have a very, very slow turn around time. Partially, this is due to the sheer volume of calls they get; St. Louis is a big city, and maintaining it is a lot of work. But the CSB could run much more efficiently if it was better organized. The biggest problem is that each time somebody complains, a brand new case file is created. CSB complaints are not connected to addresses. For example, imagine that someone had broken in to a vacant building on our block by taking the boards off of it and leaving them off. If I called to complain, then you noticed it and called to complain, then you told your next door neighbor and she called to complain, and then the business owner on the corner saw it and called to complain, that would create four separate reports that would not be linked to each other in any way. Instead of having a file labelled 634 N. Grand, there would be four different reports filed under separate case numbers. There is no way of tracking properties that have repeated problems. And if there are four separate reports, does the Building Division then get sent to the same place four times over? How does that work? The current system does not make sense.

If CSB reports were tied to addresses, it would be possible to see if the problem had already been reported and scheduled for a response. It would also be possible to keep track of problem properties and address them. If people are continuously illegally dumping or breaking boards off a certain building, law enforcement or another agency might be able to address that.

It would also make sense to be able to review complaints by property owner, to establish if there is a major pattern of problems that requires action. For instance, our neighbors on Sullivan who happen to have a City dumpster behind their house get in trouble sometimes when there is too much dumping in it. That may or may not be their fault, but it's not that big of a deal. The CSB Representative could look up all three properties that they own and see that it's not a consistent issue--the dumpster still needs to be taken care of, but it's not a frequent enough problem to warrant significant concern. However, in Forest Park Southeast, trash frequently piles up around the property at 4501 Manchester, which is owned by PJD Investment Co., (which is operated by Dave Renard of the Renard Paper Company. The Renard Paper Company sits directly across the street from 4501 Manchester, but Dave never stops to clean up the trash!). If someone called the CSB to complain about the latest pile of insulation, branches, and broken light fixtures dumped in front of 4501 and left unabated, the CSB Representative might be able to look up PJD Investment Co. and see that they also own properties on Swan, along Manchester, and elsewhere in the neighborhood, and that those properties often have similar problems (illegal dumping, no maintenance, and boards being removed). The records would show that PJD Investment Co. has owned these buildings for years, and so it's not as if they had only just purchased them and had not yet had time to address problems. The records would suggest that PJD Investment Co. is a bad neighbor and a negligent property owner, and the City could take steps to do something about it. I am, of course, wary that this might be mis-used as a form of small-time eminent domain in order to take desirable property away from owners. But optimistically speaking, if CSB complaints were indexed by property owner and punitive actions were taken only where they were really, truly necessary, this could be a powerful tool for getting negligent landlords in line. (Of course, the single most negligent landlord in St. Louis is the City's own Land Reutilization Authority, but that's a whole different essay. Who knows, maybe keep a record of what a mess they make of their own property would do some good?)

One more way that the CSB needs to change is that there should be a way to expedite cases in which there is an extreme problem at hand. Sometimes, a problem as simple as a pile of tree branches or a removed board-up can create great problems. But I cannot count the times I have told a CSB representative that the problem was making life on our block much more dangerous, only to receive fumbled variations on "There's absolutely nothing I can do about it." CSB responses can take weeks and even months to be completed, and they don't come any faster if the issue at hand is causing great personal danger to community residents. You just have to keep walking past that trash-covered vacant apartment building where suspicious people sleep on the porch and lawn every night. You just have to keep walking past the alley full of branches where people hide. You just have to keep hearing the agonizingly slow, screeching metallic rattle of somebody dragging stolen scrap metal down the alley behind your apartment every night, cos the CSB doesn't care if that boarded up building on your block is an active center of theft, they'll get to it when they get to it. If the CSB was really oriented towards making the quality of life better for St. Louisans, it would speed up cases where people or property were in significant danger. This could save lives, and might also help to protect StL's wonderful old buildings from architectural theft and other forms of vandalism.

In closing, I will leave you with a paragraph I submitted in response to the satisfaction survey that the CSB invites StL residents to fill out after their complaint has received a response. I got this e-mail on November 2. Those of us living around this corner had been complaining to CSB since late summer, when the problem materialized, and it took until November 2 for me to get this response from the CSB. I wrote this in the comments box at the bottom of their satisfaction survey:

"This large deposit of branches started blocking the alley behind Swan over two months ago! The blockage of the alley created a large amount of crime on our corner, from people who knew they could deal drugs and harass neighborhood residents because no police car (or other car) would be able to follow them up the alley. On my way home from work (I can't drive, so I was forced to walk past that corner.), I was cussed out and threatened IN FRONT OF MY OWN HOME repeatedly by vagrants who took to living next to the pile of debris. I explained this to the representative on the phone, but she didn't seem to care, and it still took you guys this long to take care of it (There should be a way to expedite CSB requests in cases where they are causing or contributing to unusually dangerous conditions!). We've already had to move out of that area because it was so dangerous, and you're just now getting around to taking care of that problem?!? That's not acceptable! I don't know how anyone in city government expects people to start moving into St. Louis if we can't even take care of little basic problems like this for people who already live here."


Anonymous said...


There are two additional points to be made to your very interesting posts:

CSB is primarily a referral agency, and the referrals can happen in a variety of ways through a variety of additional actors. Work crews are assigned by the service agencies (Streets, Recreation, Forestry, Trash, etc). Those agencies have their own set of procedures in assigning and covering work crews; for example, Forestry has extra work crews during certain times of the year to handle excess work. CSB also works with individual NSOs to make referrals to agencies, including designations of priorities. My understanding is that there are a certain number of priorities available within a specific time span. Also impacting referrals and work assignments is the local alderman. Some aldermen work closely with the NSOs to identify priorities, as well as handling referrals on "normal" issues. According to one study of city services conducted in the early 1990's, many city service departments have specific routines that allow aldermen to designate priority issues and concerns.

The linking of problems with repeat offenders is more complicated. In my experience, it has come when I have specifically asked CSB to write on the complaint for a service supervisor in one of the departments to contact me, or when I have waited and talked to a supervisor when they are on site. This usually gets a low-level and temporary solution--ie. mailers attached to door handles on proper trash disposal, etc.

More drastic designations of property owners or residents as nuisance properties comes from the city counselor's office; this is a priority for them in the sense that there are 1 or 2 staff lawyers designated to deal with these issues.

Perhaps Joe Frank former city employee and current PHD student will delve into these issues in his dissertation on city services. One hypothesis is that the issue really is the volume of service requests. In this sense, all of the other mechanisms to identify priorities are political solutions on top of the CSB process; they are more or less equitable dependent upon the resources allocated in the political process. Other studies have shown that there can be clear race and class bias in the allocation of city services (nationally, not in St. Louis specifically, although this could also exist in St. Louis).

I always wondered whether a community-level, quasi-privatization of services would work, particularly if there was some incentive to make it work in the sort of low-income communities where these services issues seem to prevalent.

Will Winter

Joe said...

Hi Claire and Will,

I do intend to explore some of these issues in my research.

To be fair, CSB has a new manager - Cindy Riordan, formerly Anna Ginsburg's assistant at NST - who is VERY much committeed to improving and upgrading the system and the response time.

She has limited resources, of course, and faces some resistance at the departmental level. But, I'm confident she can really make the CSB a much, much more efficient organization. Just give her time.

In the meantime, she and others (City Counselor, Building, Police, etc.) have made some progress on the streamlining of the problem properties process. With technical help from CIN, they've developed an internal web-based tool to maintain and track all the several thousand properties on the problem properties list.

Obviously, it's a big job, made all the more difficult by the lack of an integrated property information system. But, eventually, I think progress can be made.

Remember - nothing happens quickly in a bureaucracy!