by Lou Mancinelli
There are more than 17,000 accounts associated with vacant Philadelphia properties that owe the city and School District of Philadelphia property taxes.
Ten thousand of those accounts have been delinquent for more than 10 years, according to a 2010 report by the Penn Institute for Urban Research. In all, the city is owed more than $70 million.
That problem, among a number of others, like 5,300 deposits to Sheriff’s Office accounts worth more than $716 million that cannot be reconciled with bank statements or other records, are among those longtime Mt. Airy resident John Kromer thinks he can resolve.
Kromer’s campaign to be Philadelphia’s last sheriff in the upcoming May primary elections has received incredible amounts of press for what is normally an under-the-radar race. John Green enjoyed a 20-year run before his office became engulfed in scandal during the past six months.
Kromer’s plan to eliminate the position is supported by the Committee of Seventy, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority and Councilman Frank DiCicco.
“If this system was working, more of the lots would be taken from the owners,” Kromer said during an interview last week. “The fact that there are thousands shows it’s not working.”
Kromer, a consultant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, who served as Mayor Ed Rendell’s housing director from 1992 through 2001, where he supervised more than a billion dollars worth of public investment in Philadelphia, plans to fold the Sheriff’s office and its responsibilities into the offices of the Mayor and City Council.
His “transformative vision” to reorganize the department, which now operates independently of the Mayor and City Council, is for it to function as a unit within a preexisting city department, like the Department of Revenue. For that vision to become law, it would have to be approved as a resolution by City Council and pass a voter referendum.
The Sheriff’s Office’s more than 200 employees provide courtroom security, transport prisoners, serve warrants and subpoenas, and conduct sales on foreclosed, seized and tax-delinquent properties.
Kromer said the office’s problems “stem from the top, not from the uniformed civil service workers.” He said those workers could be reassigned within city departments to provide the same services they do now. The top 17 authorities within the office are exempt from civil services and keep no vacation or sick records, he said.
“After working in cities like Allentown, which is besieged with absentee investment owners, it’s easy to see the flaws in the current Sheriff’s Office,” said Kromer, who since 2001 has worked as a consultant assisting municipal governments, nonprofit organizations, and institutions in using available resources to support strategic investment in older cities,
Kromer’s plan has its critics, like candidate and community activist Cheri Honkala and Councilpersons Curtis Jones, Jannie Blackwell and James Kenney. They maintain the office can be fixed and could serve as an entity to help those in danger of losing their homes. None of the critics could be reached for a comment by press time.
Still, in March, acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley announced that the Sheriff’s Office would cede some of its authority to the Nutter administration. Large financial decisions will require the approval of certain city officials, pointing towards the notion that the future of the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office may be short-lived, whoever becomes the next sheriff.
“You can think about occupied properties and displacement,” Kromer said, “but you can also think about vacant lots, scofflaws and lenders.”
Kromer, 63, was raised in New England and stayed in Philadelphia after coming to the city in 1966 to attend Haverford College, where he majored in Russian.
After college, he worked for neighborhood organizations in Chinatown and Washington Square. He helped fight a project to expand the Vine Street Expressway and worked with the Redevelopment Authority to transform Washington Square when South Street was still considered a risky real estate investment market.
He said the Sheriff’s Office is not working quick enough to move on sales of the thousands of foreclosed properties available each year. When the office was managed properly, he said it handled close to 100 sales a month.
A good example is the weed-filled vacant lot at 532 W. Mt. Pleasant Avenue. According to Kromer, that lot has been tax delinquent since 2007. The owner owes the city $12,000 in back taxes.
“An efficient system would put that property up for public auction,” he said, adding that the owner of the lot, which is situated in a prime real estate market, does not live in Philadelphia.
He said mismanagement and leaders who pursue their own agendas rather than what’s best for the city have led to the scandalous state of affairs at the Sheriff’s Office. Kromer claims that to make it right, the office needs to be eliminated and be made an appointed office that reports to the Mayor. He said its budget should be reallocated not increased, as Deeley has proposed.
“I already have a job,” said Kromer, who predicted that if he did win and was able to eliminate the position, he would return to his consulting work, but not before installing a workable system with officials he claimed would do the job with respectable levels of professionalism and accountability.
“It’s fashionable to badmouth the city,” Kromer said. “Clearly, the city is struggling, but there is a level of professionalism that is more than adequate.”
Kromer said he thought he could have more of a direct effect on fixing the bungled sheriff’s operations and the city’s tax collection issues from the inside, as opposed to a consultant on the outside.
He also said that various city agencies are coming together under the Nutter administration more effectively than they did under other administrations, such as the Rendell administration he worked for in the 1990s.
“The more agencies are required to collaborate, the less likely it is one individual could break away and establish an individual fiefdom,” he added
In the meantime, Kromer, a Weaver’s Way Co-op member, enjoys living in Mt. Airy with his wife, Kathleen Nelson, and being a father to his 24-year-old son.