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City must try harder to get rid of abandoned fire hazards

Acres of rotting industrial properties sit with impunity on the city's lists of building-code violators and tax deadbeats. They languish in the haze of uncomfortable realities urbanites have learned to live with until something horrific happens.

It happened on April 9, when fire Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney died in a blaze at the long-idled Thomas W. Buck Hosiery factory.  Afterward, there were the all-too-common reports that the building had outstanding code violations and its out-of-town owners were behind on their taxes.

A grand jury was announced Tuesday to look into the fire, but it must do more than remind Philadelphians that irresponsible property owners are sucking the life out of this city. In the bluntest of terms, the jury's report should lay out the missteps leading up to the tragic loss of life and place unrelenting pressure on all parties to change Philadelphia's shameful distinction as having the worst tax-collection rate among big cities.

Mayor after mayor has promised to rid the city of these albatrosses by stepping up tax-collection and building-code enforcement — the two most powerful tools it has against reckless property owners. To its credit, the Nutter administration has made strides in fighting the abysmal culture in which speculators and other property owners avoid paying taxes or fixing dangerous conditions.

Before last week's fire, the city was already in court with the hosiery factory's New York owners. A May hearing on the building-code violations and a June sheriff's sale for nonpayment of taxes were planned. The city is also moving ahead to create a land bank to put delinquent properties into the hands of new, and presumably better, owners. But while that progress is encouraging, weary Philadelphians deserve more than a few good spurts of action.

Councilman Bill Green has offered a bill that would force the city to begin foreclosure proceedings against property owners a year behind on their taxes. On average, Philadelphia's 107,000 deadbeats are six years behind. Green's bill would eliminate much of the discretion the city has to foreclose on delinquent properties while offering mercy to homeowners earnestly trying to pay.

The spirit of the bill is right. However, it doesn't answer the important question of whether the city should take possession of potentially hazardous buildings it can't afford to demolish. It would also help to change state law to allow the city to seize a wider range of assets from delinquent property owners besides their decaying buildings. That would get their attention.

It's time to finally put this culture of neglect to rest.