Councilmen see link between tax compliance, construction safety

A screen grab from footage filmed aboard a SEPTA bus shows the moment the building collapsed at Market and 22nd streets last month, killing six and injuring 14.
A screen grab from footage filmed aboard a SEPTA bus shows the moment the building collapsed at Market and 22nd streets last month, killing six and injuring 14.
Posted: July 19, 2013

Is there a correlation between tax compliance and construction-site safety?

Members of City Council's Special Investigatory Committee, created to look into last month's fatal Center City building collapse, seemed to think so. The committee held its third hearing yesterday.

"One indicator is if you're not paying your taxes, you're probably not providing a good safety plan," said Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., the committee chairman, referring to comments from demolition-industry experts. "The shame isn't on them for trying to circumvent the system. The shame would be on government for not closing those loopholes."

Members also called for better communication among departments. The Department of Licenses and Inspections, for instance, issues licenses and permits. First-time applicants must be tax compliant to receive a permit or license, but it's the Revenue Department's job to collect taxes and go after tax deadbeats. Various other departments play a role as it relates to construction sites.

"The thing that's sad is [the collapse] could have been stopped across the desk, at that permit issuance if Revenue had communicated with L&I," said Councilman Jim Kenney.

Plato Marinakos, the permit expediter involved in the fatal collapse of a four-story building onto an adjacent thrift store last month, was granted demolition permits in February even though he owes the city thousands of dollars in taxes dating to 2002. He and the contractor, Griffin Campbell, had both filed for bankruptcy.

Frank Breslin, deputy commissioner for the Revenue Department, said the city is working to establish a data warehouse that will allow departments to easily access and share information.

"How many times can you get a payment agreement?" Kenney asked. "I'm in compliance, I get a permit. I'm out of compliance, I get into a payment agreement. I'm in compliance, I don't pay my taxes and I'm out of compliance. How many times can that dance go on?"

Breslin said that generally, a person gets three chances. The first time the city offers a "generous" payment plan. But, if a person defaults on it, he or she is offered a more stringent payment plan.

"The third time, we take a hard-line look at a very large down payment, 50 percent or no payment agreement at all," Breslin said. "We can say: 'Not only are you not eligible for a payment agreement, but if you don't come into compliance, we're going to close your business.' "

The administration was criticized for not allowing representatives from L&I and the Fire Department to attend yesterday's hearing. The Fire Department submitted written testimony.

Meanwhile, the 3-1-1 Contact Center has made a series of changes to the way it handles service requests related to dangerous conditions. The center has updated its information concerning dangerous situations to better assist agents, established a system to ensure requests are processed in a timely fashion, the L&I commissioner receives alerts related to any dangerous conditions and L&I has assigned a department liaison responsible for monitoring and updating information in the 3-1-1 database.

Council intends to issue a report, recommend best practices and introduce legislation to improve the system. Council's next Special Investigatory Committee meeting will be Aug. 1.

On Twitter: @Jan_Ransom


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