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Summer workers help fight Mon Valley neighborhood blight

| Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, 4:26 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
Summer workers Ryan Gindlesperger, Dalton Coddington, Thomas Gindlesperger and Maurice Oliver trim grass around a guide rail in Clairton Park.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
Summer workers Brandon Ethridge and Matt Andrejcak rake grass trimmings along Auburn Street in McKeesport.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
In McKeesport, summer workers Anthony Perciavalle, Dylan Ernst, Chavez Snooks and Rhavez Snooks clear thick weeds and grass from the yard of a dilapidated Collins Street home that will be demolished this summer.

Mon Valley communities are reliant on the helping hands of summer workers as they battle blight through maintenance projects.

In third class cities such as McKeesport and Clairton — once-thriving mill towns that decreased in population and economic activity with the decline of the steel industry in the 1970s and '80s — cityscapes have changed over the years.

Many neighborhoods that were lined with well-kept homes transformed into urban decay where residential properties are separated by overgrown lots and dilapidated structures. With an increase in problem lots and a decrease in staff to maintain them, the cities rely on young workers eager to gain job experience during their time off from high school and college.

“Our public works department is bare bones,” Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi said. “They prioritize on snow removal, grass-cutting of city-owned properties and potholes throughout the year. Summer help gives an opportunity for some of our youth to make a few dollars and supplement what public works is doing.”

In Clairton, the youth crew cuts grass, trims weeds, paints curbs and assists in general cleanup. In McKeesport, most of their tasks involve the removal of grass and weeds.

“This opportunity gives teens and young adults a chance to learn the responsibility and appreciation of earning an honest dollar,” McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said. “Young people have a tendency to spend their money a little differently when they've earned it — when it's not their mom's or their grandmother's.”

Clairton public works operator Eric Fusco said summer work programs are structured to teach local youth to thrive in a job setting.

“You have to have discipline here,” he said. “You have to be on time every day. They're learning accountability and responsibility. When you're in the public, you are in the public eye representing the city of Clairton. We preach that to them when they start.”

Cherepko said McKeesport benefits from the summer help's experience just as much as the individuals who are working.

“They're an asset in what we're trying to do here,” Cherepko said. “Our most common calls in the summer are overgrown, vacant lots. These kids are helping us fix that problem.”

McKeesport city administrator Matt Gergely agreed it's a win-win setup for the workers and the city.

“Hiring these kids is extremely beneficial to the city financially because they're able to complete a lot of work with less strain on the city,” Gergely said. “They do a great job, and they work extremely hard. It's made a big difference, and it's saved the city an incredible amount of money by not having to pay benefits and full salaries for enough workers to get everything done in the summer months.”

Anthony Perciavalle of McKeesport said local teens appreciate being able to work for their hometown government.

“It's a great job,” Anthony said. “We get to clean up the city and make it a better place to live.”

Taron Patterson, a McKeesport public works employee who supervises the youth crew, said it's nice to see young people taking an interest in their city.

“We don't have enough guys out here to clean up this city and give it everything it needs,” Patterson said. “We're doing our best to clean up these neighborhoods and make them look better.”

Public works director Steve Kondrosky explained that summer workers have more leeway to tackle neighborhood blight because they don't have defined contractual roles in the public works department.

“These young gentlemen have an opportunity to go on private property that our own public works department is not permitted to do,” Kondrosky said. “They help clean up our neighborhoods in the areas that have been neglected by homeowners, former homeowners or people who left the properties vacant. There are people who take great pride in their own properties, but can't handle what's next door on their own.”

Clairton public works foreman Dallas Nelson, who supervises the youth, said summer workers ease the pressure on full-time staff to address every concern that residents report to city hall.

“We can get to things we wouldn't have the time or the manpower to get to,” he said. “We are addressing issues with blight and abandoned properties, while maintaining the park and the ball fields.”

Full-time workers run heavy equipment while the youth crew follows up with trim work and additional tasks.

Workers said city residents understand that blight is a problem and most are appreciative of the youth's efforts.

“It helps the image of the city, while putting a little coin in the summer help's pocket,” Nelson said.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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