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New Kensington residents vent anger at council meeting

| Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, 1:11 a.m.

New Kensington residents, roused by last month's double homicide in Parnassus, are imploring city officials and the people they serve to address the problems they say are destroying the community.

About 80 residents, most of whom are from Parnassus, piled into city hall on Tuesday with a unified mantra to “reclaim New Kensington.”

The gathering before city council was organized amid an ongoing investigation into an Aug. 20 shooting that left two people dead on Fourth Avenue.

Many of the residents voiced concern that their police force is spread too thin to adequately enforce the growing drug use and violence in the community.

A number of others blamed city officials for ineffectively enforcing the rental ordinance, leading to an increase in vacant and blighted properties and a decrease in property values.

Others challenged fellow residents to become more actively engaged in neighborhood watch programs.

Theresa Lutz of Fourth Avenue said she's seen the steady decline that the issues have wrought on New Kensington in the 25 years she's lived in the Parnassus neighborhood.

“I raised children there,” she said. “I used to let them play out on the sidewalks and take them for walks. It was a great place to live.

“Now, there are drug deals being made on every street, and you can't even blame the police. They have too much on their plate.”

According to New Kensington police Chief Tom Klawinski, the department receives about 1,185 service calls per month. It's a difficult volume to cover, he said, given that the department's staff is composed of 22 officers.

“I would love to have 50 officers,” Klawinski said, “but it just doesn't seem to be in the cards. It seems like it's an issue all across the country.”

New Kensington is looking to slightly increase the size of its police department.

Mayor Tom Guzzo said one of the department's officers will be promoted to detective sergeant by the end of the year. Another officer will be hired to take their place soon after, bringing the total number in the department to 23, with four detective sergeants.

Guzzo said it will help his goal of creating a “more visible police department with more community patrolling.”

“When I was a kid, I used to know all of the officers by name,” he said. “We want our youths to look up at these guys. We never want people to be afraid of the police or be afraid to call the police.”

Several residents said Tuesday that they or their neighbors sometimes don't call police over fear of retaliation.

With a growing number of vacant properties in the city, according to Paul Zielinski, it's become more obvious to perpetrators who is reporting them to the police. Retaliation, he said, includes everything from vandalism to threats.

“I always call if I see something,” Zielinski said, “but it's not anonymous. Everyone on the street knows who is calling the police.”

Others voiced concern with their ability to reach police. Several residents said they'd reported an incident to 911 and police didn't respond.

The probable reason, according to Klawinski, was that callers did not ask to be transferred to Westmoreland County dispatchers, and the department never got the call.

Those who call 911 from their cell phones in New Kensington, he said, are automatically connected to Allegheny County dispatchers and must request a transfer to Westmoreland County.

Guzzo encouraged residents to join their respective neighborhood watches and report patterns of criminal behavior at monthly meetings. Information gathered at the meetings is ultimately submitted to the police department.

Guzzo and Klawinski previously held meetings in which the half-dozen neighborhood watch captains would pass along reports from their neighborhoods.

They stopped meeting following a “communication breakdown” several months ago.

Guzzo said he will look into resuming the meetings.

As far as the two people shot dead in the street last month, Klawinski said he had nothing new to report.

Rental issues

Residents attributed inadequate code enforcement to a decline in property values.

Absentee landlords, they said, don't complete background checks on their tenants and are not around to complete routine property maintenance.

Other residents said the city's two code enforcement officers are overmatched in keeping up with the large number of deteriorating properties across New Kensington — a concern that Guzzo said is valid.

“Our code enforcement officers are magnificent,” he said. “They wear a lot of different hats and do a tough job quite well, but we need stricter enforcement. That's something we need to figure out. The ordinance covers all the bases well enough, I think.”

The city's rental ordinance is designed to prevent landlord absenteeism by requiring a property manager to live within 15 miles of the city.

It also calls for $600 fines for any penalties, which are issued daily until the landlord complies with its regulations.

It does not, however, call for licensing fees for each property or the registration of tenant information, the legality of which would need to be further reviewed, Guzzo said.

Cheryl King of Fourth Street believes landlords and tenants need to be more closely monitored.

“There are good kids here in New Kensington who slumlords won't rent to because they can't afford down payments,” she said. “Then, there are the kids who have $4,000 or $5,000 in cash they can pay up front. The landlords know where that money is coming from, but they don't care.

“That needs to change.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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