Unanswered phones are the least of problems at the Sheriff's Office

Posted: February 17, 2014

JOE PIZZO has a problem: He wants to attend next week's three-day property auction being held by the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office.

"There's a house I'm interested in bidding on," says Pizzo, who has had some success buying, rehabbing and selling properties via public auctions like the ones held monthly by the Sheriff.

The glitch is, he has no money to play with - because the Sheriff's Office won't return the $30,185 that Pizzo paid them four months ago for a property of which the office later reversed the sale.

"I've been to that office five times," he says in exasperation. "The people are always very nice. But each one tells me something different, so what difference does it make? They still have my money."

Pizzo called me after reading Wednesday's column about how the phones in the Sheriff's Office's real-estate department, which handles the sale of seized and foreclosed properties, go unanswered for days. The attorney who alerted me to the problem worried that homeowners might lose their property if they couldn't get a hold of anyone in the Sheriff's Office for help.

In the column, Undersheriff Joe Vignola noted that a homeowner who has lost his property at the auction can nonetheless have the sale quashed by day's end if the right legal documents are secured.

"We will reverse the sale and notify all parties," he said.

In buyer Pizzo's case, the Oct. 4 sale was indeed reversed. But Pizzo says he was never notified. He didn't learn that the homeowner had worked out an agreement with the city Revenue Department to repay her back taxes until he visited the property and found her still living in it.

"I wasn't upset with her," he says of the homeowner, who showed Pizzo the agreement she had signed with the city. "She's an older woman trying to hold onto her house. My heart went out to her."

But he was floored that no one in the Sheriff's Office had bothered to let him know about the reversal.

And now here we are, more than four months later, and Pizzo has yet to receive the refund the office obviously owes him.

"There are more things wrong with that department than just the phones not getting answered," he said.

Michael Abd-hadi feels Pizzo's pain.

Last May, Abd-hadi settled with the Sheriff's Office on a commercial building (with apartments above) that he bought at auction. Abd-hadi paid $16,000 for the building, which was sold to make good on years of city tax liens, and spent the next six months gutting and reframing.

In December, he applied for a $48,000 construction loan to finish rehabbing the rest of the former eyesore, which he plans to rent. That's when he learned that the building still has liens on it - liens that should've been satisfied when he bought the place.

"The bank is ready, today, to give me the loan, but they won't do it until I get title insurance - and I can't get title insurance until the liens are satisfied," says Abd-hadi.

"I've been over this so many times with the Sheriff's Office. They have copies of my receipts, the deed - everything. But nothing has happened. This is totally holding me up."

If the Sheriff's Office has a hard time parting with owed money, it has trouble accepting it, too.

That's according to a lawyer who read my column and asked to remain anonymous because he doesn't trust the city not to screw his clients out of spite if their names appear in print.

"Their property was assessed wrongly, and suddenly their taxes were much higher" than they'd ever been, the lawyer explains. "We met with the Revenue Department in December, signed an agreement for a lower amount, and have been trying to pay it ever since."

But for two months, red tape in Revenue has held up the clients' payment, which is well over $10,000 and sitting in an escrow account, waiting only for the city to accept it.

Meantime, the lawyer has presented all kinds of supporting documents to the Sheriff's Office to show that the clients have done everything they've been asked to make good on their tax bill.

But the property is listed for sale at next week's Sheriff's auction anyway.

"I don't know what else we're supposed to do," says the lawyer. "It's unbelievable."

It's unconscionable, actually. And it makes unanswered phones in the Sheriff's Office look like the least of anyone's worries.

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