DN Editorial: A slow burn

Posted: February 07, 2014

MEMBERS of the firefighters union are angry that a grand-jury report on the 2012 fire that destroyed the old Thomas Buck Hosiery factory and took the lives of two firefighters resulted in no criminal charges.

We can understand their frustration on behalf of the two brave firefighters who lost their lives to a building that was ravaged by cynicism and neglect by two out-of-town investors whose actions suggest an utter lack of regard for safety or responsibility. Now, two families are shattered.

We are outraged, too, but not so much at the lack of criminal charges, which District Attorney Seth Williams says is in part because the cause or origin of the blaze was never determined. We are outraged by the level of dysfunction in Philadelphia government, as detailed by more than 100 pages of the report. It shows what happens when municipal incompetence and indifference meet slippery connivers determined to exploit the weaknesses of the system for their own selfish interests.

In fact, the grand-jury report is a how-to manual for similar scofflaws - a road map to the city's weak points in law, enforcement, licenses, inspections and collections.

From the moment that Michael and Nahman Lichtenstein bought the building in 2008, it was clear they were trouble: They failed to deliver the full purchase price to the seller, multiple insurance policies on the building were canceled when misrepresentations were discovered, they failed to pay taxes and water bills, and, as of now, they still owe the city more than $125,000 in taxes, water bills, and fines and fees. They still own the property, along with others around the city. In fact, at the time of the fire, they owed almost $400,000 in back taxes.

An abridged version of a key paragraph of the report sums up the perfect storm of dysfunction: "L&I repeatedly issued code violations against the property, yet did not follow up and did not require the Lichtensteins to obtain a vacant-property license or sprinkler variance. The Revenue and Law department did little to collect unpaid real-estate taxes and water rents. . . . Despite code violations and tax delinquencies, L&I still issued zoning and demolition permits to the Lichtensteins. None of the departments ever investigated and connected the dots to determine what was glaringly obvious - that the Lichtensteins had no intention of complying with the law."

This is not just about everyone's favorite whipping boy, Licenses & Inspections, although it's clear that the department still has massive problems. This is damning to all of city government - to our ability to function at the most basic levels: collecting taxes, enforcing regulations and laws, imposing our legal rights, and even, according to the report, adequately training fire personnel and fire-safety officers.

Every elected official from the mayor on down should be embarrassed by the dysfunction shown here. We hope that at least one of them resolves to act on the report's recommendations.

Until someone does, every citizen should be frightened that another hulking vacant factory or building could wreak devastation any day. And outraged that the Lichtensteins are probably still laughing.

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