TARGETING THE SHERIFF: Committee Of 70 Takes A Swipe With A Surrogate

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THIS IS the correct picture of 2130 Montrose Street mentioned in a John Kromer column printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, incorrectly blaming the Sheriff’s office for the fact the property remains vacant. In actuality, this property is in the property bank of the Office of Housing & Community Development, once chaired by Kromer.

BY JOE SHAHEELI/

If a nonprofit, dependent on heavy contributors, believes it can remain independent of the influence of those benefactors, then its officers are living in la-la land. They’d soon be out of business if they failed to consider the business needs of their chief supporters.

The Committee of 70 knows which side its bread is buttered on. Its heavy contributors are banks and law firms deeply involved in the commerce of real estate.

They’ve been rebuffed on more than one occasion of making a killing in Sheriff sales, however, because the Sheriff has rules.

These include opening Sheriff sales to everyone in this city, whether it be a newly arrived legal immigrant, a one-man contracting firm looking to rehabilitate a shell, or family looking for its first home.

Before Sheriff John Green took over the office, Sheriff sales were attended mostly by lawyers who were representing banks foreclosing on properties. There were many buildings up for auction, but often fewer than two score bidders in attendance. Sheriff sales were a closed club. If you bid as an outsider, you learned quickly you couldn’t buy the property more cheaply than the mortgage it held. A bank lawyer would pop $200 above your last bid.

Under Green, Sheriff sales attract huge crowds. If you attend one, you will see a cross-section of every kind of citizen we have in this city. The Sheriff successfully reached out to all Philadelphians to make opportunities for them.

So what does the Sheriff do, in addition to these sales, that makes the Committee of 70 believe its major crusade for “reform and good government” is to get rid of the Sheriff and his posse?

Let’s look first at what else the Sheriff does daily and the scope of his responsibilities.

The Sheriff executes the laws for the courts and carries out their judgments. His Office serves writs and warrants – by the thousand, and all without incident. He is responsible for transporting safely, from prisons inside and outside the county, approximately 1,500 prisoners a week … of which fewer than 50% get their day in court. The others are transported guards back to the prisons from which they came. It’s a cumbersome system with many flaws – none of them under the Sheriff’s control. Yet focus on Job One for a moment: Not one prisoner has escaped in the last 25 years.

When was it the last time the Sheriff has lost a prisoner in transport? At the same time, the sheriff’s deputies are those seen in every court, providing security for the judges, juries and those in attendance.

All this happens without incident because the Sheriff’s Office and its deputies are highly trained individuals who handle their duties in a very professional manner year around.

Eliminate the Sheriff and his deputies and who will fill in with the same professional training to do these duties? Replace them with police? That won’t save the millions of dollars the Committee of 70 believes would be saved by eliminating this office.

The dailies have yet fully to understand the wide responsibilities the Sheriff’s office is saddled with, chiefly by the courts. The Sheriff’s office was criticized by reformers for its overtime payments. Yet these critics did not bother to investigate the underlining cause … that deputies assigned to the courts were not free to leave their posts until the judge working that courtroom decided to call it a day. With many judges, that means longer-than-normal hours.

Nevertheless, the Sheriff did take a look at his overtime and initiated a new overtime reduction plan, saving $150,000 so far. It is on pace to cut overtime cost by more than the 25% requested by the City administration.

He has done this by serving notice on judges to use any opportunity that arises to cut court time. The plan, now in place, reduces the number of deputies assigned to Family Court. Green has started a second shift for Traffic Court, which has evening hours, and staggered starting times for deputies to accompany varying courtroom schedules. The Sheriff will also rotate deputies on an as-needed basis to prisoner transportation, to allow for the expedited return of detainees to various prisons.

The earlier schedule had been put into effect two years ago by the Sheriff in response to overcrowding in Philadelphia prisons, enabling the Sheriff to transport large numbers of defendants to more courtrooms.

Managing other folks’ offices isn’t sexy, however, and tends not to grab headlines. To ensure it gets the biggest propaganda response from its efforts to eliminate this essential branch of government, the Committee of 70 depends on others to spread its misinformation further in the press.

Take, for example, an article by John Kromer, which appeared in the Inquirer’s opinion pages on Jun. 22. Kromer has a pedigree of sorts. He is a former director of the Office of Housing & Community Development. Currently, he is on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. In his article, he claims he is not taking sides as to elimination of this office, but he incorrectly and wrongly blames the Sheriff for the delinquent properties that should have been pressed into the Sheriff sales.

Anxious to do the Committee of 70’s bidding, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial department came up with a picture of a couple of dilapidated, boarded-up houses on Montrose Street, one of them supposedly 2130 Montrose Street in South Philadelphia.

Kromer, blaming “the flawed tax-collection system,” claimed that house was purchased in 1986 by a development corporation that now “owes the City nearly $16,000 in taxes.” The blame for that should go directly to the City’s Revenue Department, for not consigning that property to the Sheriff for sale. It is an upcoming neighborhood, with ready takers.

Unfortunately, or on purpose, the Inquirer picture in Kromer’s article was not that of the property he questioned. The correct picture is shown in this article. Not only was the property wrong, but Kromer’s 2130 Montrose Street is under the control of the Office of Housing & Community Development – his alma mater.

Whoever is to blame, either the Inquirer or its photographer, Kromer should have called some of his former employees to get the facts correct. Kromer’s history of new housing starts, or of rehabbing houses to enable poor families to move into them, is poor. Much of his history in that office purportedly concentrated on working with developers.

How can he or the Committee of 70 blame the Sheriff for other departments’ vacant properties? The Sheriff does not have the power to confiscate them, only to sell at his monthly sales those properties handed over to him by the City, or by banks and mortgage companies.

Yet Kromer had the audacity to write to Sheriff Green on Jun. 21 to “request his support to organize a team to undertake this project to raise from non-municipal sources the funding needed to complete … a detailed transition plan to close out the Sheriff’s office.”

Continued Next Week….The People Who Shape The Committee of 70.

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