A different kind of trash talk

Stephanie and James Griffin, with kids Liam and Zoe, were threatened with a lien to pay trash fines they’d not even incurred. Credit: Griffin family photo.

I LOVE HOW my iPhone lets me shoot videos to share with friends. Or with city employees.

Like the overworked ones in the city's Office of Property Assessment.

They're so swamped, not one of them had time to visit James and Stephanie Griffin to confirm that they own a single-family home and not a multiunit apartment house.

So I figured I'd use my iPhone to create a virtual tour of the Griffin home and share it with the assessors. Maybe it would convince them that the Griffins didn't deserve a lien on their house.

Let's start at the beginning.

The Griffins moved from Atlanta in August 2012 into a three-story Fairmount rowhouse. Within weeks, they were getting notices from the Streets Department claiming they owed fines for trash collection.

They learned that their home had once been divided into two units. But when it was converted back into a single-family house, the city never reclassified it as such. So the city expected the Griffins to use a private hauler for garbage pickup since multiunit dwellings are considered commercial properties and must use private trash pickup.

Over the next year, the Griffins - both 35, with two kids - were fined for using city trash pickup. The fines included those incurred before they bought their house.

This despite their calls to the Streets Department, which referred them to Finance, which sent them back to Streets. Finally, the Griffins landed, correctly, with the Office of Property Assessment.

A sympathetic assessor assured them that a miscoding could be corrected, but not until he inspected the place himself to confirm it was a single-family dwelling. Trouble was, the OPA was so busy, it could be months before he did the look-see.

It seemed like a screwy way to conduct city business, says James, but he and Stephanie are from Atlanta.

"What do we know about how Philly works?" he shrugs.

But then Streets threatened the Griffins with a lien for those delinquent fines, which now totaled $1,197.

"We were so worried it would hurt our credit, we thought about paying the fines and asking for a refund when the coding got fixed," says James. "But everyone we talked to said, 'Don't! You'll never see your money again!' "

So they called the Daily News. I contacted the city. And within 24 hours, an assessor visited the property (negating my need to iPhone it myself). Yes, he concluded, it was a single-family home.

"He was in and out in three minutes," says James, eyes wide. "Three minutes."

At this point in the story, it would be easy to diss the OPA, except that wouldn't be fair.

OPA employees have been working their tails off, assessing properties for the Actual Value Initiative and responding to homeowners' pleas to review them. Meanwhile, the department is terribly short-staffed.

"I'm budgeted for 218 assessors. Last time I checked, we were in the 170s," says the OPA's chief assessment officer, Richie McKeithen. "We're having a hard time finding enough qualified hires."

So I asked McKeithen, couldn't the OPA partner with community development corporations - CDCs - to handle some of the easy verification jobs, like the Griffins'?

Fairmount CDC executive director Rebecca Johnson says her organization, for example, knows its neighborhood properties well, thanks to its own research and use of reputable urban planners.

"It would be no problem to send one of our interns out to a property" - like the Griffins' - "photograph it and send the images to the OPA in whatever format works for them."

McKeithen thinks it's a promising idea, but would prefer that the CDCs work with the Streets Department, because the Griffins' problem was with the home's configuration, not its assessment. And OPA wants to focus on assessments.

"But I'll bring it up in our next meeting" with Streets, he says.

As for the Griffins' house, mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said the coding problem originated with the home's prior owner. From the outside, he says, the home looked like a duplex, but the owner never let an OPA person inside to code it otherwise.

Meantime, he said, Streets Commissioner Dave Perri has temporarily classified the property as an "owner-occupied dwelling." So the Griffins' account will indicate that no payment is due, which in turn will stop the billing and lien process. Once the OPA inspection is finalized, Streets will close the account permanently.

Perri, says McDonald, "apologizes for the difficulties and inconvenience."

"We're ecstatic," said James.

And then he chuckled and showed me the citation they received that day, just hours after the all-clear inspection, fining them another $50 for delinquent trash collection.

One step at a time, I guess.

Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

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