Having served as chief deputy sheriff for five years, I find that the Inquirer's Nov. 14 editorial does not accurately describe the operations of the office we've spent so much time working to improve.
Many of the problems you cite date back 30 years, to other sheriffs' administrations. Yes, we did inherit an office with serious problems, including carryover of an ongoing federal investigation. Our full cooperation with that investigation to root out any taint of financial or operational illegalities consumed much of our focus in the early years of the Williams administration. Your editorial completely dismisses the significant reforms and operational improvements that have moved the office forward under Sheriff Jewell Williams.
A few facts that you ignored:
In an era of increasingly serious domestic threats, we enhanced protection of the court system with additional staffing at the new Family Court. We are now in the process of putting deputies in City Hall, which has been underprotected for decades.
Each year we transport 94,000 prisoners to court without a single escape. In 2016 we took over the service of criminal warrants to ensure warrant servers had proper training and experience. As a result, 4,400 felons have been arrested, including some wanted for murder.
The increased staff and equipment required for this additional security was paid for with millions of dollars of new fee revenues that were generated by Williams' initiatives, with the permission and agreement of the city Finance Department.
Apart from this revenue, the sheriff has increased tax receipts to the city's general fund. When Williams became sheriff in 2012, the office collected only $27 million in delinquent taxes and fees. For the last three years we have provided more than $60 million each year in delinquent tax monies. At the city's request, we have added additional tax sales to the property auction calendar. At the same time, we instituted procedures to preserve the rights of property owners. We also conduct seminars to teach prospective buyers how to buy at a sheriff sale so they are aware of the potential risks.
When Williams took office, the average time a new buyer had to wait for a deed ranged from 60 to 120 days from the sale of a property. Today, virtually all deeds are available within 30 days.
Operations were so dysfunctional in 2012 that the First Judicial District ordered the city and the sheriff to hire additional people needed to achieve that 30-day deadline. When the Nutter administration refused to hire additional clerical support, we complied with the order by using personnel service contracts. Having proven their value to the city, these people have been moved to city civil service positions, whose salaries and benefits are paid for by sheriff fees, not taxes.
Part of the problem in the past was due to understaffing on both the law enforcement and civil side. The office was also working with an archaic Management Information System. Under Williams, the office has installed a state-of-the-art MIS that allows us to efficiently track the millions of dollars in transactions associated with the sale of more than 7,000 properties annually, process thousands of warrants each year, manage human resource systems for 371 employees, and document our responsibility for the citizens who use our court buildings and City Hall.
Your editorial also misrepresents other controller audits done of our office. Yes, we have been criticized once for failing to account for petty cash, but you failed to mention we no longer accept cash at the office or the sale, and we have never been cited under the Williams administration regarding the use of sick time.
Meanwhile, Williams has aggressively sought to find people who were victims of foreclosure and owed excess money from the proceeds of the sale. To date, a record $12 million has been paid to these people. And finally, above and beyond the call of duty, the office has distributed more than 4,500 free gun locks to families who want to keep their children safe from life-threatening firearm accidents.
The Inquirer ignores the fact that the Sheriff's Office is not a department of the city. We are not mentioned in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, but fully comply with city procedures when city tax dollars are spent. However, like many other sheriffs in Pennsylvania we are an independent elected office governed by state laws and the court's rules of civil procedure.
There is a very good reason for the sheriff to be independent. We must be agents of the court, not the government. It would be prejudicial to defendants if courtrooms and the courthouse were secured by the same police force that made the initial arrest. In addition, we are the neutral broker in foreclosure sales rather than having the taxing authority — the agency seeking to take a property — conduct the sale of homes.