ON JAN. 23, I called the main number of the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office and asked to be connected to the Real Estate Department, which handles sales of foreclosed and tax-delinquent properties. I had been phoning the department's direct number, but it repeatedly rang and then disconnected.
"There's no one in real estate today," explained the woman who answered my call. "They're all at the sheriff's sale."
"Is there someone I can talk to for just a minute?" I asked.
"No one's there," she repeated.
"Not even one person?" I pressed. "For a quick question?"
"No one," she said.
Well that was odd. Because at that moment, I was standing at the entrance to the Real Estate Department, where I could see several people behind the counter.
For a half-hour, I had been using my cellphone to call the department, to see if any of them would pick up. They didn't. Nor did my calls go to voice mail. Instead, they disconnected. The same thing happened several days prior to the sale as I tried at least a dozen times to get through to real estate. Only once did anyone answer.
The entire experience repeated itself prior to and on Feb. 4, when another sheriff's sale was scheduled.
When I got back to the office, I called bankruptcy attorney Stephen Dunne.
"You were right," I said. "No one answers."
For months, Dunne had been telling me how rarely he's able to get someone on the horn at the Real Estate Department. Not just on sheriff's sale days but on the crucial days prior, when he needs to let the department know that a client has gotten up to date on real-estate taxes or has successfully petitioned the court to cancel the pending sheriff's sale.
Yes, Dunne faxes to the Real Estate Department all the legal documents needed to cancel a sale (the department - get this - has no way to receive emailed documents), but he'd be remiss not to confirm they were received and recorded in time.
"It's like we're supposed to run over [to the Sheriff's Office on South Broad Street] every time we have an issue," says Dunne. "If it's this much trouble for a lawyer who knows the procedures, how daunting is it for people trying to stop a sale on their own? I'm worried that people are losing their property because they haven't been able to get through."
Undersheriff Joe Vignola promises that no one's rights have been violated. By law, claimants have until one hour before a sale to present the legal documents to stop it. But the Sheriff's Office allows a claimant to stop the sale any time during the entire auction's duration at the First District Plaza, 3801 Market St.
"If a property is sold at 10:30 a.m. and you get there at noon with the right papers, we will reverse the sale and notify all parties," says Vignola.
At the last sale, he notes, 20 of the 900 listed sales were stopped. So when in doubt, he says, get to 3801 Market St., papers in hand.
Still, Vignola hears Dunne's frustration. He points to a downsized department in which just nine employees handle up to 2,000 cases a month.
"We've consistently petitioned the city to review our staffing needs," he says. "Our people have stepped up, every one of them. I'm proud of them. But we have an urgent need for at least three more employees."
In time, when new systems are in place that allow for electronic filing of mortgage documents, for example, instead of manual filing, "We may not need the full complement," says Vignola.
Fair enough. But why didn't the employees I saw behind the counter, some of them chatting with one another, answer calls I made, even as I watched them?
"I don't know the answer to that," says Vignola, who promises to look into it. "I'm not saying phones should go unanswered. But the counter is closed on sale days. They might've been doing data entry" while others manned the massive sale.
Vignola himself has a problem with the phone system in the Sheriff's Office.
"It's antiquated. It's terrible," he says. "When I'm on the phone and a call comes in, it goes to voice mail - but I can't retrieve it. That's why my voice mail message tells people to send an email. Then I'll get the message."
Happily, as a result of Dunne's complaint, says Vignola, the Sheriff's Office website will soon indicate that the Real Estate Department is actually closed on sheriff's sale days. Still, callers can leave messages for the department via the Sheriff's Office main number. Vignola promises a callback.
"We also try to monitor our Facebook and Twitter feeds," he says. "So people can get word to us that way."
Seems about as reliable as sending up a flare. But what do I know? I'm a phone gal.