The departure of a city official only occasionally deserves comment; the announcement that Licenses & Inspection chief Fran Burns will be leaving the agency surely rises to one of those occasions, if only that it marks the evolution of a city department.
For a long time, L&I has served as the Wild West of city government — which, in this city, is no small feat. The agency was a hit parade of scandals. In the 1990s, L&I supervisor Frank Antico was convicted of racketeering, extortion and fraud after using his position to get gifts and favors at topless joints, brothels and a bar. He also aided his son, who ran a strip club.
Not many years later, 13 city inspectors were charged with racketeering and extortion for taking cash to "expedite" plumbing contracts.
Given its work, L&I is likely to frustrate as many people when they're doing their job than when they're not. But the management of the agency under Burns, who took over in 2008, has been steadily improving, in its service and its standards, both operational and ethical. Burns' management has introduced efficiencies that have made dealing with the agency much less painful.
But mainly, she proved that the Philly way of doing business can be on the straight and narrow. (Even though we do kind of miss the outrageous behaviors of the past, for their entertainment value, if nothing else.)
Mayor Nutter needs to keep this forward momentum when he replaces Burns at L&I; she will now serve as executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, the city's financial overseer.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled program of city outrages:
A Daily News "It's Our Money" report revealed Thursday that taxpayers have been footing the utilities bill for the upscale Water Works Restaurant for the majority of its business life. The restaurant, which leases its city-owned location, has been the beneficiary of the city's failure to properly bill the restaurant for gas, water and electricity, and estimates are that taxpayers have paid more than $200,000 in electricity alone from 2006. Estimates on the total taxpayer gift to the restaurant are hard to come by, since it took four years for a meter for the property to be installed.
Two out of the three utilities in question are actually city entities. You'd think that the city would be doing regular audits of all its bills instead of blindly writing checks year after year.
And speaking of audits, what is the city controller's role in this mess? This kind of mistake is exactly the kind of red flag he and his staff are charged with discovering. But Thursday, the only communication out of the Controller's Office was a press release announcing an audit of the city's Department of Public Property that found that the values for city-owned real estate have not been assessed. That audit was for fiscal year 2008-09, which makes it fairly useless. The Controller's Office says it is working on a backlog of audits because of short staffing, and hopes to catch up by the end of the year.
The Controller's Office is supposed to be the city's fiscal watchdog. Obviously, they can't catch everything, but given this latest outrage, we'd say they deserve the same kind of criticism that they're used to dishing out. n