Cheat Sheet: The (not-so-beloved) row offices

Departments: Row offices

Time and Location: Tuesday, April 20, 10 a.m., City Council Chambers (4th floor, City Hall).

Sheriff John Green

What are row offices? In addition to the big-ticket elected positions everyone knows about, Philadelphia voters elect officials to four independent "row offices": the Register of Wills, the Sheriff, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, and the City Commissioners. These offices (for specific details, see below) have existed in their current form since 1954. Some, such as the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, date as far back as 1682.

What they do: The City Commissioners run city elections by overseeing voter registration and polling places; the Register of Wills handles wills and marriage licenses; the Sheriff is in charge of prisoner transportation, serving warrants, and running “sheriff sales” for properties that have been slapped with a lien for failing to pay real estate taxes; the Clerk of Quarter Sessions handles record keeping for Philadelphia courts, including sentencing information and trial documents.

2010 budget adopted budgets: City Commissioners ($8.7 million); Register of Wills ($3.2 million); Sheriff ($13 million); Clerk of Quarter Sessions ($4.8 million).

Why they matter: The city's row offices have long been a point of controversy. Many reform groups -- including the Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia Forward, and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) -- have called for the positions to be abolished, arguing that the offices are inefficient and a major haven for patronage. Instead of electing these offices independently, critics want to fold the functions of the agencies into other departments. PICA estimates this could save between $13 million and $15 million per year.

Were these budgets cut in 2009? One of the biggest criticisms of the independent row offices it that they haven't done enough to cut costs. The Register of Wills reduced it's budget by $200,000, but the other row offices are on target to spend the same amount as last year. In fact, the Sheriff is expected to spend about $2 million more than originally allocated.

Proposed 2011 budget: City Commissioners ($8.7 million); Register of Wills ($3.2 million); Sheriff ($13 million); Clerk of Quarter Sessions ($4.8 million). The offices propose their own budgets; the mayor has no control over them.

Notes for the hearing: Expect a lot of questions about the operations of the departments, especially the well-publicized failings of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Also, it will be interesting to see how aggressive Council members are about the idea of consolidating the departments, as has been suggested by reformers. Many of these independent election officials, such as City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione, are extremely powerful forces in local politics. That could make some Council members skittish about challenging them.

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