PHILADELPHIA When Jerry and Barbara Cohen of Jenkintown received a $150 citation in the mail from the City of Philadelphia in May for leaving litter on a Queen Village street, they ignored it. Couldn't be them. They had not been in the city in months.
But when they received a second notice - with a $40 late penalty tacked on - in September, they took notice. Jerry Cohen called the city to explain and complain.
The response he got was indisputable: City workers had found a Tuesday Morning catalog with his wife's name and their address on it in one of five trash bags that someone had left at Fifth and Bainbridge Streets in May. They even had photos of the catalog to prove it.
The workers also found the names and addresses of three other people. They were also being held responsible for the pile of litter on Bainbridge.
"It's the most unbelievable thing I've heard in my life," Cohen said. "They are closing down schools, and this is what they are spending their resources on?"
But littering is a big deal in Philadelphia.
Streets Department spokeswoman June Cantor said workers who respond to litter complaints were trained to look for evidence pointing to the identities of the scofflaws. Then the city goes after them.
In fiscal 2013, which ended June 30, the department wrote 957 citations for littering violations. Cantor, however, could not say how many of those people appealed, paid up, or simply ignored the citations.
She said there was "no direct correlation" between a citywide campaign to make Philadelphia cleaner, called "UnLitter Us," and the number of citations issued.
"Citations were down in 2012 from the previous year and up in 2013," Cantor e-mailed without citing numbers. "This could be for many reasons."
She said she could not explain what happened in the Cohen case.
Jerry Cohen said he believed that someone in the Cohens' apartment building picked up the catalog from the main recycling bin, where dozens of magazines and catalogs are tossed each week, and that it somehow ended up in Queen Village.
He has requested a hearing to appeal the citation, and said he plans to see it through.
"The city is in dire straits, but they sure aren't getting my money," he said.
The couple have learned a lesson.
"Now we know to rip off the labels," he said.