Monday, August 31, 2015

The Gold Standard: How to catch a deadbeat

As City Councilman Frank Rizzo tells it, he got the idea at a Bustleton Civic Association meeting.

The Gold Standard: How to catch a deadbeat

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As City Councilman Frank Rizzo tells it, he got the idea at a Bustleton Civic Association meeting.

"They were discussing some zoning-code variances," Rizzo said, "when someone asked why a particular person should be granted a variance when he doesn't even pay his taxes."

Good point, Rizzo thought.

He subsequently introduced legislation, which received a public hearing last week, that would require anyone seeking a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to submit a "certification from the Department of Revenue that all of a person's taxes are current or subject to a payment agreement."

Score one in favor of common sense. With a deficit in the $125 million range staring it in the face, the city needs to find every leverage point it can to make sure it's collecting what it's owed. Why should someone be able to get something of value from the city when he owes back taxes?

Enter the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which recently released its list of the top 25 ticket scofflaws.

The reigning scofflaw king was Robert Faraco and his company, Faraco Knife Grinding Services, of Montgomery County, which owed $40,580 for 430 tickets, according to the PPA. Although Faraco's company isn't Philadelphia-based, its fleet of 20 vehicles is frequently in the city because his clients include many Philadelphia restaurants.

Most law-abiding businesses would consider parking a cost of doing business. Faraco, however, apparently believes that his employees have the right to park where and when they want - and he seems rather proud to be atop the PPA's list. He told Channel 6 that he views his refusal to pay his tickets as a "protest." (It's unclear what he's protesting.) And he said that he'd have to "be more sneaky" in the future. (Given the PPA's reputation for fierce enforcement, Faraco's eagerness to publicly stick it to the authority tells me that he isn't the sharpest knife in his company's drawer.)

The PPA is taking Faraco and other scofflaws to court. It recently recovered $30,000 from New Century Travel, the No. 5 delinquent on its list.

But collecting parking-ticket money shouldn't be the only goal here. For a city hungry for cash, it should be just a starting point.

Do Faraco and his company have a business-privilege license? Have they paid business taxes to the city, and if so, have they paid the right amount? The same can be asked of New Century Travel and others on the list.

You have to hope that the city Revenue Department lost no time comparing its data with the Parking Authority's list. Refusal to pay for parking might suggest a refusal to pay for other things, too.

Revenue Commissioner Keith Richardson tells me that his department is working much more closely with other public agencies like the Parking Authority, the Convention Center, the Redevelopment Authority and others to check that their vendors are up to date with city tax obligations.

But the opportunities for interagency cooperation go beyond agency vendors.

State Reps. Bill Keller, John Walters and John Taylor have asked PennDOT to close a loophole that allows vehicle owners to reregister their cars without taking into account whether they owe any money in tickets. Good idea - and why not make sure they don't owe taxes, too?

There are so many ways to game the system, and there always will be. But the city still needs to think creatively about how it can close the loopholes. One way to do that is for different parts of the government to work together.

In part, that will require technology that lets departments and agencies share information quickly. And it will also require commonsense ideas like the one in Rizzo's legislation. We need to make sure that we're connecting all the dots in the city bureaucracy.

Remember, Rizzo got his idea at a civic-association meeting, not from some fancy task force. If you have any ideas, please send them to It's Our Money at dtaussig@phillynews.com.

In the meantime, if someone like knife-sharpener Faraco wants to thumb his nose at Philadelphia taxpayers, the city should be doing all it can to make sure he eventually pays through it.

Phil Goldsmith writes "The Gold Standard" column for It's Our Money. He is the former managing director for the city of Philadelphia.

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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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