Saturday, August 23, 2014
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Paying top dollar, but why?

Why should taxpayers in Philadelphia pay top dollar to carry out routine government functions like running sheriff's sales, conducting elections and filing deeds and other court papers?

Paying top dollar, but why?

Along with launching a 311 call center, seen here, Mayor Nutter needs to modernize City Hall by eliminating wasteful, elected row office jobs.<br />
Along with launching a 311 call center, seen here, Mayor Nutter needs to modernize City Hall by eliminating wasteful, elected row office jobs. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Why should taxpayers in Philadelphia pay top dollar to carry out routine government functions like running sheriff's sales, conducting elections and filing deeds and other court papers?

The price tags for these functions are inflated, in part, because they're handled by four independent row offices headed by six elected officials.

So these row offices - Sheriff, City Commissioners, Clerk of Quarter Sessions and Register of Wills - are a vestige of City Hall days gone-by that Philadelphia can afford no longer.

That's the compelling conclusion of a report from the city's fiscal oversight agency. The study by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) bolsters the case for getting rid of the offices - a move that could save taxpayers wasted millions now spent propping up political and patronage fiefdoms.

In March, the government watchdog group, Committee of Seventy, issued its own call for eliminating the six elected posts and consolidating the functions under the city's mayor.

Mayor Nutter also is considering the move as part of what he has pledged will be "a complete restructuring and reform" of municipal operations - all the more urgent now, given the latest budget woes.

While each of the row offices has come under attack in recent years for various shortcomings, the PICA study for the first time quantifies the potential savings from scrapping what Seventy calls "six obscure and patronage-laden . . . elected positions."

PICA found that the spending by the four offices was above the median cost for the 14 other most populous Pennsylvania counties.

City taxpayers pay a premium that runs 20 percent higher for the Sheriff John D. Green's office, more than 50 percent higher for Clerk of Quarter Sessions Vivian T. Miller's office, and nearly double at the three-member elections agency under its chair, City Commissioner Margaret Tartaglione, and double for Register of Wills Ronald R. Donatucci's office.

By eliminated the elected posts and moving their functions to city agencies or the courts, PICA says the city could save up to $15 million a year if costs were brought in line with the median spending.

In addition to citing the costs, PICA officials note that due to their independent status the row offices currently operate largely under the radar with too little accountability.

Even as Seventy credits Donatucci with a customer-friendly approach - and the elections board made the trouble-free conversion to new voting machines - as a group, the row offices often come under fire.

Sheriff Green's tongue-in-cheek motto - fake it 'til you make it - has seemed an all-too-realistic description of his stewardship when audits rapped his internal controls on handling money. Ditto for Miller in the clerk's office.

For their part, the city commissioners recently have been faulted for overpaying election workers and personnel policies. And the Register of Wills' all-patronage operation "reinforces the stereotype of patronage and corruption," according to PICA.

What PICA recommends hardly qualifies as a radical reform, since Allegheny County voters made the move four years ago. The state's second-largest county saves about $1.2 million a year after eliminating several offices.

In Philadelphia, the only plausible explanation for retaining these row offices would be that city leaders want to remain stuck in the past - and they're happy to stick taxpayers with the bill.

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The Inquirer Editorial Board's Say What? opinion blog showcases the work of the editors and writers who produce the newspaper's daily and Sunday opinion pages.

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