MOVE OVER, Philadelphia Parking Authority! There's a new city agency vying for the title of most-hated bureaucracy.
Landlords are raging against the Philadelphia Gas Works - some are vowing to sell their properties - following Friday's Daily News article about how the city-owned utility uses liens to shake down landlords for their deadbeat tenants' delinquent gas bills.
Horror stories abound. F-bombs are dropping left and right.
"I'm so angry at this s---hole of a city, I can't wait to get the hell out," said Chris Nicopoulos, who recently was informed that PGW had placed a nearly $6,000 lien on a Center City commercial property he rents out. The gas was used by a former tenant in 2007, he said.
"How am I supposed to go after somebody five years later? It's absurd," Nicopoulos said.
"I'm even getting calls. It's pretty incredible," said state Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, who introduced legislation last month to remove PGW's ability to collect old bills by filing liens. "If they're going to behave this way, the authority has to be pulled. They're basically saying, 'Suck it up.' "
For about five years, PGW has been using a state law governing municipally owned utilities to pressure landlords into paying their tenants' bills - often years after the tenants have left. Landlords call it a scam, nothing short of legalized extortion. Some say that the tactic could chase responsible landlords out of Philadelphia.
"It's total chaos with them. You can't win," landlord Donna Cattalo said of PGW, which filed $2,200 in liens on her Port Richmond building for a former pizza-shop tenant who didn't pay his gas bill.
Cattalo, who teaches culinary skills to prison inmates and hopes to use the rental income for her retirement, said that PGW's policy is grossly unfair.
"I've always taken care of my properties, and you feel violated when people do this to you and your hands are tied," she said.
Landlords in these situations apparently have little recourse. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has been dismissing such cases, saying it doesn't have jurisdiction over municipal liens.
Saul Victor, who owns Pearlstein Furniture on Girard Avenue and rents three nearby apartments, tried unsuccessfully to sue PGW in small-claims court after being hit with a $3,600 lien for tenants who skipped out on a bill in one of his efficiencies.
"I don't know how the gas company could do this to me. How can they get away with this?" he asked. "They just leave the gas on."
Victor, 73, said that PGW should keep a closer eye on its gas distribution, because, unlike other landlords, he's not writing a check to clean up his former tenants' mess.
"It's crazy," he said, "but what can you say? It's Philadelphia."
In recent years, PGW has collected about $27 million annually through the property-lien program, but that figure includes resident-owners, too.
Dan Murray, PGW's vice president of customer affairs, defended the policy yesterday. He said that PGW is "extremely aggressive" in shutting off gas to nonpaying customers but that PGW workers often can't get access to meters without landlord cooperation.
Murray recommended that residential landlords enroll in a PGW cooperation program that protects them from such liens. Landlords can also keep the gas in their own name and include it in their tenants' rent, he said, or monitor gas usage by insisting that tenants allow the landlords to be added to the bills as a third party.
Baby-sit them, basically.
Because once the gas is distributed, PGW has to collect the money from somebody, Murray said, or "all the other ratepayers in the city pick up the tab. Is that fair?"
Landlords like Nicopoulos see it differently: The person who uses the gas and whose name is on the account should pay for the gas. Period.
Common sense? Sure. But that's not what the law says. And PGW wants its money.