Waste Management: Run the Sheriff Out of Town

The Sheriff’s Office takes heat over inefficiencies in handling tax delinquents.

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jun. 22, 2010

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If we are still on this “eliminate unnecessary offices and positions” kick, we’re thinking the Sheriff’s Office will be next on the chopping block.

Held by John Green since 1987, the position has been voted on every four years since 1838, but if the Committee of Seventy, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA), Councilman Frank DiCicco and potential 2012 sheriff candidate John Kromer get their way, there won’t be a Sheriff’s Office to vote on. In a 2009 report titled “NEEDLESS JOBS: Why Six Elected City Positions Should Die,” the Committee details recommendations for the elimination of the office, saying “the fiscal crisis gives us a rare opportunity to significantly restructure the government.” Even the Nutter administration is asking the office to cut spending.

The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for several law-enforcement roles, including serving warrants and civil complaints, processing subpoenas, transporting prisoners and conducting sheriff’s sales on foreclosed, seized and tax-delinquent properties. Green collects a salary of $112,233 and leads a department of 242 employees. The office is not overseen by the mayor.

PICA says their recommendations could amount to $13 million to $15 million in savings. (Funny, that’s about how much the city says it needs to cut from the Police Department). Further, PICA tells us the city’s costs associated with the Sheriff’s Office (its budget stands at about $15 million) is 23 percent higher, per capita, than the median of Pennsylvania counties’ equivalent offices.

If that isn’t enough for you, City Controller Alan Butkovitz found, in a 2008 auditor’s report, “poor internal controls over the payroll, personnel and other expenditure operations in the Sheriff’s Office.”

Green plans on retiring before his term ends in 2012, partly because of his enrollment in DROP, at which time he’ll receive a lump sum of $331,744 and then a pension of $8,464 per month, according to a recent report by the Inquirer . He rarely speaks to press, “refused to cooperate” with the Committee of Seventy, according to the cited report, and his office responded to PW ’s requests for comment only to mention the sheriff had no comment.

Eliminating a position isn’t easy, and not just because of the bureaucracy associated with the people in charge. In spite of criticism, there is a job to be done—just not by a sheriff. The Committee of Seventy suggests that the Police Department take over warrant and civil-process services since City Code authorizes it to do so. Prisoner transportation, too, “could be parceled out to the court system or to the Police Department,” since the police, um, already take care of that. The report also cites New York City’s Finance Department as an example of a city agency that is equipped to take care of sheriff’s sales.

Last Thursday, Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced a proposed amendment to the City Charter that would eliminate the Sheriff’s Office if Philadelphia’s voters approved the referendum. The Sheriff’s Office has always been about the ruling party; Since most residents aren’t sure of what the office does, they often vote the party line. Because DiCicco made his announcement on City Council’s final day before summer vacation, he’s set a goal of having this voted on in May 2011. Still, he’s got the Democratic machine, endorsed candidate State Rep. Jewell Williams and, as John McNesby, president of the FOP told the Inquirer, “the wrath of 6,000 police and 14,000 FOP members” against him.

Luckily, there’s still a fourth piece in the puzzle: John Kromer’s idea to surpass Council bureaucracy—if you let him.

Kromer, a faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government and a former director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, tells us a run for the sheriff’s position is an “intriguing idea, no question about it.” Kromer says the city needs to get tougher on tax delinquents. And the only way to do that is to eliminate the office and have the housing role replaced with, possibly, a new agency. At the time of this writing, however, he hasn’t made a decision on whether to run against State Rep. Jewell Williams, the candidate endorsed by Green.

The idea of getting elected to a position you want eliminated may sound a little Jihady, but Kromer’s got his reasons.

“The city really needs a credible threat to use,” he says. “That is, they need to say, ‘If you don’t pay taxes, we’ll take your property.’” To do this, “the city needs a good working relationship between four agencies: the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Revenue Department, which collects taxes, the Law Department and the Sheriff’s Department.” The Sheriff’s Office, claims Kromer, is the weakest link between these four agencies and has proven it doesn’t have the capability to handle tax collection in a higher volume than it already does.

He recently told the Inquirer the solution to this problem would be for the sheriff to design a new sheriff-free system that would acquire all tax-delinquent properties in the city and turn them over to responsible developers. To do this, he says, the sheriff should directly oversee the transfer of these responsibilities and then work with City Council to pass a proposed amendment to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter for submission for approval by the voters of Philadelphia.

What about the duties being fulfilled by the Sheriff’s Office pertaining to tax delinquents and housing?

“Flint, Michigan organized a Land Bank Authority which, at the beginning of every fiscal year, takes over all the tax-delinquent properties for tax collection in sale,” he says, speaking of the Genessee County Michigan Land Bank, which, since 2002 has been responsible for what it calls keeping tax-delinquent properties out of “legal limbo,” taking them over for development and sale. Kromer calls Genesee County’s authority “the gold standard.”

Studies would have to be conducted first, Kromer says, to determine whether duplicating the Midwest program would be the right fit for Philly.

“No one’s addressed these problems before in Philadelphia and it’s never been a campaign issue,” he says. “The sheriff has been elected every four years based on other considerations. There’s an opportunity here because property neglect is so widespread and you can’t find too many examples of the city addressing those problems … I think campaigning on that basis is productive and could educate people on how to solve this issue. It could be a great campaign promise.”

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1. TheCulturalCoach said... on Jul 9, 2010 at 12:45PM

“I would like to point out there were several factual errors in John Kromer's article.
Here are a few facts offered by Crystal Smith, the head of real estate for the Sheriff's Office. The Philadelphia Inquirer has refused to publish a correction.
Why


• Kromer said that the Sheriff doesn't have the capability to scale up the number of tax delinquent properties. The Sheriff does not have the authority to “scale up; that is up to the other city departments whose work he praised in the article. First, the Department of Revenue must identify these tax delinquent offenders. Then the City Law Department must litigate the tax action. Once through the court process, the court issues a decree. It is then, and only then, that the sheriff is able to set the sale and expose the properties to public auction. Every single decree that this office receives is processed and set for sale. The Sheriff doesn’t initiate this action; he only carries out court orders.

Furthermore, the Sheriff’s Department currently has a rigid policy to discourage tax deadbeats from buying property at sheriff’s auction. Prior to a purchaser making settlement with the Sheriff, successful bidders are required to obtain a Certificate of Compliance from the Department of Revenue. This document assures the sheriff that the buyer is not more than one year tax delinquent for any local property. This procedure was put in place to discourage tax deadbeats.”

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