Philadelphia prepares to honor a loyal worker

John Elfrey (left) gets a handshake from Mayor Nutter. Elfrey is this year's winner of the Richardson Dilworth Award for outstanding service to the city.
John Elfrey (left) gets a handshake from Mayor Nutter. Elfrey is this year's winner of the Richardson Dilworth Award for outstanding service to the city. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 13, 2013

It's strange, the things that stick with you after nearly three decades working for the City of Philadelphia.

For John Elfrey, there's the bologna sandwich made in a prison kitchen that sustained him during the 1993 blizzard, when he and other city employees worked around the clock to dig Philadelphia out of nearly 30 inches of snow. And there's the raccoon whose sinister stare sent him sprinting from the vacant house he was checking out for the city.

On Tuesday, he will add another memory that should stick around for a while. Mayor Nutter will present Elfrey with the Richardson Dilworth Award for Distinguished Public Service.

"I was shocked, terribly shocked," Elfrey said just a few days after Nutter surprised him with the news. Elfrey, who is quick to give credit to others, had a hard time seeing himself as unusual.

No one who has worked with Elfrey, who started as an account clerk in the Revenue Department in 1985, moved through many posts, and is currently director of operations for the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities, was surprised.

Especially not Nutter.

The two got to know each other when the mayor was on City Council. Quickly, Nutter realized he had found someone with a vast knowledge of government operations who was a stickler for getting things done.

"We're very proud," Nutter said. "He's very deserving."

This is the second year for the award, which Nutter developed after attending a retrospective on Dilworth, the 1950s reform mayor. The law firm that bears his name, Dilworth Paxson L.L.P., sponsors the prize, which comes with a $5,000 after-tax cash award.

The winner of the inaugural award was Carlton Williams, formerly a deputy commissioner in the Streets Department. Williams has since been promoted to commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Elfrey, 56, grew up in Olney, graduated from Central High School, and was working in a dental clinic 35 years ago when he met his wife, Kathy. They live in Rhawnhurst and have a son, John, 25, who is in the military.

With experience in the Streets Department and the Managing Director's Office, and a brief stint as interim L&I commissioner early in Nutter's first term, Elfrey knows almost everyone in city government. His salary is $112,593.

Fran Burns, executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, the state-appointed board that oversees Philadelphia finances, credited Elfrey with ensuring that the city verified that companies with business licenses also were paying their business privilege tax to the Revenue Department and vice versa.

"He's just honest and hardworking, and he's one of the people in city government that you miss when they're not there," Burns said.

Bridget Collins-Greenwald, who heads the Public Property Department, said Elfrey had dealt with almost every city problem, whether a snowstorm, a wild animal, or traffic issues raised by a new casino.

"He is the chief coordinator of the city," she said. "He knows who to call. He knows who should be in the room."

Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or Follow her on Twitter @miriamhill.

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