Monday, September 15, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Help Desk: Sure, you can fight that ticket. Come back in seven months.

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services. Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.

Help Desk: Sure, you can fight that ticket. Come back in seven months.

City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services. Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.

The problem: Joe Snyder got a ticket for not shoveling his sidewalk after the second big blizzard in February.

This was frustrating for Snyder because, he said, he did shovel his walk.

He thinks he understands what happened. Snyder lives on a corner property in Fox Chase. He said a city contractor plowing his street piled snow on his corner, covering the corner curb cut and making it impossible for him to clear the sidewalk again.

Naturally, Snyder tried to fight the $50 ticket. He sent in his request for an appeal, didn't hear anything for a while, and then. . . got slapped with a $25 late fee. The city said he hadn't paid the ticket or sent in his request for an appeal.

Snyder then turned to Councilman Brian O'Neill, who represents his district.

An aide from O'Neill's office helped him put a halt to the accumulation of late fees, and got him a hearing date before the Office of Administrative Review, the arm of the Finance Department that hears most administrative appeals in the city.

But the hearing is in November. It will practically be winter again when Snyder finally gets his day in court.

What the heck is going on here?

First things first: The snow pile.

Though Streets Department plows try to avoid packing snow on corners, Deputy Commiss-

ioner for Transportation Steve Buckley said that sometimes there's just no other place to put the snow.

Buckley said the department could provide SWEEP officers, who issue most violations, with additional training to help them determine whether property owners made a good-faith effort in clearing their sidewalks.

He added that residents who have been plowed in by the city should appeal their fines.

That is, of course, what Snyder said he did. But the city apparently didn't get his request for appeal, and when he finally got a court date, it was seven months away.

Councilman O'Neill believes that Snyder will eventually manage to get the fine eliminated. He said he's not sure why the city didn't log his constituent's appeal properly.

Paula Weiss, executive director of the Office of Administrative Review, said that she couldn't explain Snyder's apparent paperwork problems, but that if Snyder describes them to the hearing master on his case and the master finds him credible, the fines can be reduced or eliminated.

As for the seven-month delay, Weiss agreed that it's a long time to wait for a simple administrative hearing.

And it's not a onetime problem. Average wait times for code violation appeals hearings have increased dramatically in recent years. A few years ago, appeals were heard between 30 and 45 days after the city received a notice. Now, it's not unusual for people to have to wait six months or more, she said.

Weiss blames the growing hearings backlog on two factors: An increase in the number of code violations being written, and a cut in the number of hearing masters who adjudicate these cases.

Six or seven years ago, the city wrote up about 60,000 code violations a year, she said. This fiscal year Weiss expects the city will write more than 100,000. The number has gone up as Council has added more rules to the city code, such as bans on talking on a handheld phone while driving.

About 10 percent of tickets get appealed to her office, which handles appeals of citations ranging from failing to recycle to excessive noise and smoking in prohibited areas.

Unfortunately, while her office's workload has grown larger, its staff has gotten smaller. Budget cuts forced her to reduce the number of part-time hearing masters that her office brings in on a given day; it used to have five on hand, now it's three or fewer, depending on the day.

Weiss said that the hearing masters are scheduled to adjudicate as many as 60 code violations a day - and that's not all they do. They also handle appeals on matters such as denied residential handicapped parking spots, red-light camera tickets and some tax bills.

Hearing masters make $35 to $40 an hour, with an annual pay ceiling between $12,000 and $20,000.

They receive special training. Most of them hold day jobs as accountants. (A separate staff hears parking ticket appeals.)

Though Weiss is looking to hire another part-time hearing master to tackle the problem, that will still leave the city with one fewer person than it had a year and a half ago, and more appeals than ever. So expect the backlog to continue.

Mayor Nutter's office didn't return a request for comment on the appeals backlog and whether his administration has plans to address it. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 keeps funding for hearing masters flat at $54,000.

As for Joe Snyder: Sorry, Joe, we tried, but it turns out your seven-month wait is completely typical. Try to remember to show up for your hearing.

Hope it's not snowing that day.

Have a problem getting services from a city department, or an idea for a more effective way to get things done? Let us know about it at www.thecityhowl.com, or write: City Howl c/o the Daily News, 400 N. Broad St. Philadelphia, PA 19130.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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