"This shows that there's a new emphasis by the city government on enforcing collection of unpaid taxes," Butkovitz said. "The city has had this culture of 'just don't worry about the unpaid bills,' and those bills have accumulated to the point where we can't afford it anymore."
The pending payroll deductions, publicly proposed in July and formally enacted in September, follow an Inquirer report last summer that detailed more than 1,000 property-tax delinquencies among city employees and their spouses.
Since then, over 400 tax-delinquent workers have paid their debts in full or entered into voluntary payment agreements with the city. Only employees who have not entered into such agreements despite multiple warnings from the city will be subject to the forced deductions.
Unlike the federal government, the city has no authority to garnish the wages of most Philadelphians who owe back taxes. But a 1937 state law gives the controller authority to withhold income from the paychecks of tax-delinquent city workers, a power that has gone unused for decades.
While the initiative may send tax delinquents a signal that the city is cracking down after decades of lax enforcement, the debts owed by city workers are mere drops in an ocean.
As of December, there were more than 127,000 Philadelphia property owners who were delinquent or past due on property taxes alone, with a collective debt - including interest and penalties - of $488 million. Those figures are up from $425 million owed on about 100,000 properties at the beginning of the 2009 tax year, according to city records.
That rising tide of delinquencies is frustrating for Nutter administration officials, who have launched a host of tax-collection initiatives in the past year, such as publicly shaming big-business tax debtors by routinely bringing such delinquencies to the attention of the press, and increasing audits of parking garages and other city businesses.
City officials say tough economic times are largely to blame for the rising delinquency rate, as well as spreading word of an anticipated property-tax amnesty this spring that will wipe out delinquent-tax penalties and some interest.
"Collections always become more challenging when the economy gets weaker, which of course makes it even more important for us to step up our efforts," said administration finance director Rob Dubow.
The city has also adopted rules that will require future municipal employees who owe city taxes to enter into payment agreements before they are hired. The Inquirer's analysis of payroll- and property-tax records last summer found at least 160 current employees who owed the city taxes at the time of their hiring.
Butkovitz said yesterday that city employees who fall behind on their taxes in the future would also be subject to wage withholding. And those who are in payment agreements that they fail to live up to will eventually join the wage-withholding list as well, Butkovitz said.
"We're going to continue to update this list," Butkovitz said.
A number of tax-delinquent city workers, including some of those with the oldest and biggest debts, are not covered by the new payroll deductions because of special circumstances.
Martin Cabry, for instance, a senior aide to Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, owes the city just over $100,000 in unpaid property taxes, penalties and interest. Despite a 2009 salary of $55,615, Cabry has failed to pay the taxes on his West Philadelphia home for 25 of the last 26 years.
Cabry, who has experienced serious medical problems, filed for bankruptcy in mid-September, thus protecting his paycheck from the city withholding initiative and staying any city foreclosure action on his home.
Democratic ward leader and Register of Wills patronage employee George Brooks is also among the ranks of biggest city-employed tax delinquents. Brooks, who was paid $64,539 in 2009, is 22 years and $15,000 in arrears on a North Philadelphia apartment building he owns. But his debt is being handled by an external collection company, and Brooks is in a payment agreement with that firm, which protects him from paycheck withholding, according to the Nutter administration.
Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or firstname.lastname@example.org.