LAST WEEK, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) released a report calling for the consolidation of Philadelphia's four row offices. The city's fiscal watchdog estimates that streamlining operations and moving responsibilities from row offices to other departments would save between $13 million and $15 million a year.

But what really jumps out at us is the number 503. That's how long, cumulatively, that those offices have existed without governance change: the city commissioners (established 1867), the clerk of Quarter Sessions (1838), the registrar of wills (1874), and the Sheriff's Office (1954).

It's as if the Fire Department still showed up to burning buildings on horse-drawn carts.

PICA's report suggests folding the duties into other offices, which means the current offices would no doubt close.

Fiscally, the case for consolidation is open-and-shut. According to PICA, other counties provide comparable services at a much cheaper rate than does Philadelphia.

But the fact is, though not addressed in the report, consolidating these offices could also improve functions.

The clerk of Quarter Sessions ($4.6M) handles administrative duties for the court system. The registrar of wills ($3.5M) probates wills and appraises estates. The Sheriff's Office ($15.2M) transports prisoners, collects bail, provides court security and sells foreclosed property. The city commissioners ($9.3M) run voter registration and local elections. Total combined budgets: $32.6 million.

Functioning better could mean, for example, that the bail collection and prisoner transport that the sheriff handles could come under the direct control of the prison and court systems. Cases could be processed much more quickly, without an extra layer of bureaucracy.

There are arguments against consolidation. In a city with a history of corruption, one could argue that the row offices should remain independent, out of the mayor's control.

In order to consolidate the row offices, the mayor will have to work closely with City Council (and get voters to approve). He'll also have to take on the Democratic Party establishment, which essentially controls these four positions.

It's been a while since either of those things has happened. But it was a lot more recently than 503 years ago. *