OUR OPINION: Spending Money To Make Money

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Philadelphia’s property-tax collections are a mess. So are its land records. So is its building-code enforcement. So is its bail enforcement…. Do we see a pattern here?

All these monetary woes stem from two things: vast amounts of data poorly managed, and collaboration between different agencies poorly managed. The resulting losses are staggering: $470 million in unpaid property tax, $1 billion in skipped bail, an undetermined amount of unpaid fines, incalculable losses from land left unproductive.

The first problem is serious enough. The City of Philadelphia never entered the computer age in a serious way. Its various departments’ IT systems often can’t talk with each other. Vital reforms like actual-value tax assessment have been hobbled for years because raw data still cannot be crunched.

No other business that handles real money these days does so without state-of-the-art information technology. How can a bank keep track of yours and a million other customers’ credit-card purchases in real time? How can an airline tell you’ve got the seat you paid for when you arrive at the airport – one of 100,000 passengers that day between 100 different places around the world? Well-designed computer networks.

Philadelphia’s government needs a new generation of technology if it is to pay its bills. It can’t afford leaky data systems any more than the Water Dept. can afford leaky pipes.

To its credit, the Nutter Administration has invested heavily in upgrading the City’s IT – $64 million into the Technology Division for FY 2011-12, up from $38 million in FY 2008-09. A few results are already visible; the Managing Director claims all City-owned property is now in a single database. We hope to hear much more good news on this front, preferably tomorrow.

But computers alone won’t do it. Agencies must be trained to work in unison if they’re to tackle mammoth catchup tasks like back property-tax collection. And since these agencies all have other ongoing work to do – they’ll probably need to budget extra staff and resources in order to bring in extra money. This is true even amidst a large budget crisis – in fact, it’s especially true then. When you need rain, pay the rainmakers.

At first glance, the Administration has not funded its rainmaking offices this way. Its various financial-office budgets are down 31% over the last three years. Licensing & Inspections is down 20%. The Law Dept. budget is down 13%. Perhaps it was trying to spread the pain evenly during a severe recession.

If so, it was a short-sighted move. Inspectors, auditors and attorneys are needed to bring home this bacon. If we want more bacon, perhaps we should hire more of them. Throwing money at a problem isn’t always an answer. It is unlikely, though, we can ever collect the huge sums now owed the City if we don’t invest in this challenge.

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