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Remove property auctions from the sheriff & put them where they belong

THE PHILADELPHIA Sheriff's Office has long been known as a crossroads of corruption and incompetence. It's where the city's antique patronage system meets the demands of the new age - and fails miserably.

Columnist Ronnie Polaneczky is the latest to reveal how dysfunctional the office can be.

She called and called the office's Real Estate Department recently, only to have her calls go unanswered or disconnected. When she finally did get a human on the line, she was told that there was no one in the Real Estate Department that day.

Which struck Polaneczky as odd, because she had made those calls on her cell while standing inside the department's offices, where she could see several workers behind the counters.

Undersheriff Joe Vignola had a number of excuses: a shortage of employees; an ancient phone system without functioning voice mail; the crush of work in an agency tasked with selling 2,000 delinquent properties at any given sheriff's sale.

Not to worry, Vignola told Polaneczky, better times are ahead. Soon, an electronic filing system will speed things up, making all run smoothly.

Somehow we doubt that.

The Sheriff's Office has been reduced to two main tasks: transporting defendants to and from court, and guarding the courtrooms; and holding auctions to sell delinquent properties to collect back taxes due. What one has to do with the other is lost in time.

This second task keeps tripping the office up. Audits highly critical of the office led to the resignation of Sheriff John Green. Millions in cash was unaccounted for. Federal prosecutors convicted several employees of taking bribes. That was in 2011.

Today, we have a new sheriff in Jewell Williams, who is also a Democratic ward leader. (The words "sheriff" and "ward leader" are often synonymous.) We have complaints, outlined in several Polaneczky columns, about the office's ineptitude in dealing with the public - many of whom are homeowners trying to save their homes. In August, the FBI raided the Real Estate Department, where the feds carried out boxes filled with documents. One employee was put on administrative leave after the raid. The investigation continues.

This is progress?

Clearly, we need to get this operation out of the hands of the sheriff. Before, no department was a right fit for taking over the sheriff's sale process. Now there is.

Council recently created a new Office of Vacant Land, an independent agency designed to oversee the fate of the city's 40,000 vacant properties, with the goal of getting them back into use - for development or neighborhood use. The law gives the office the power to expedite sale of or even to acquire delinquent properties, which will put it in frequent contact with the Sheriff's Office, if they can get anyone there to answer the phones.

Moving the Real Estate Department and its duties out of the Sheriff's Office and over to the Office of Vacant Land will require a charter change, but something tells us the voters would be happy to vote "yes" in a referendum.

The pursuit of tax delinquents and finding new and productive uses of land are vital to the city's future. Let's get it out of the hands of ward leaders and into the hands of professionals.