The Last Time the City Updated Its Tax Software, DOS Was Hot

This explains a lot.

Mayor Nutter has been pursuing a new property tax assessment system as though he’s Inspector Javert hunting Jean Valjean. Finally, his Actual Value Initiative (AVI) will be rolled out in two weeks, and it’s going to cause bedlam. Nutter knows this, and is now wishing, perhaps, that he’d chosen to get all Javert about something else—like potholes. But it’s too late. The only thing to do at this point is distract people.

So in the same way that Birds of Paradise attract their mates with ostentatious displays of shimmering feathers, Nutter is puffing out his chest, hopping in the thicket and whistling a new tune. This week, he grandly announced an aggressive pursuit of tax-delinquent property owners who bilk the city out of millions each year.

From City Paper:

Nutter described a “new aggressive multifaceted delinquent tax collection strategy” to include a new tax software system and a call center with 55 new employees, which together will cost $40 million and take a few years to put in place. He said the last time the city Revenue Department received a major software upgrade was in 1993.

Wait, wait, wait. Back up. The Revenue Department’s software dates to 1993? As in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Three? As in two decades ago?

In 1993, I was writing my master’s thesis in WordPerfect on a Packard Bell Legend 300SX running MS-DOS 5.0. The computer had two floppy drives—one for 5.25″ drives and the other for 3.5″. It had 2MB of RAM and ran Windows 3.1. This is the kind of desktop I was looking at in 1993:

These were early days, friends. Forget the cloud—there was barely a World Wide Web in 1993. Google didn’t exist. Netscape was a fantasy. Geocites represented the seed of something that would be The Future. Do you see what I’m trying to say here? Life was so primitive, Geocites represented a major step forward. For all we know, using Philadelphia’s municipal revenue software is like working with Lotus 1-2-3 on a giant Commodore.

This explains why, according to a joint project by PlanPhilly and the Inquirer, “Philadelphia runs the least-effective delinquent-property-tax collection system of the nation’s biggest cities”:

In most U.S. cities, the vast majority of those properties would have long ago been seized for nonpayment and sold at sheriff’s auction. Elsewhere, tax foreclosures are routine, even automatic. Property owners must pay what they owe or they can expect to lose their land, often within just a few years. In Philadelphia, that process works slowly when it works at all.

… “[Philadelphia’s level of delinquency] is phenomenally high,” said Frank S. Alexander, a law professor at Emory University and a leading national authority on improving property-tax collection systems. “Those numbers tell you there is a very high rate of nonenforcement. It means that the city has made a decision not to go after these properties.”

The professor might be giving the city too much credit when he suggests the mismanagement is deliberate. After all, this has been going on for 20 years—from one mayoral administration to the next, with varying agendas and priorities. But there is one common thread: the software.

Here’s how I think it went down: Ed Rendell bought the software from the trunk of a car at the Broad Street Diner. Some guy gave him a good deal but it took the IT Department about a year to learn it and two more to train everyone. Employees complained bitterly about mandatory trainings and made mocking references to the software glitches for years. Then, all of sudden (translation: 10 years), someone suggests upgrading the software. A committee is formed to assess the advisability of a software committee vs. a task force. Hours are lost, vending machines depleted. Bottom line: Even if someone could find the money for new software, the thought of getting everyone “up to speed” again—well, maybe the old software isn’t so bad.

It’s hard to imagine the frustration of the IT staff. I’ve watched IT guys beg for new software over the course of a year, maybe two, and they get a desperate, hollowed-out look. What must it be like to beg for new software for 15 years? There are probably toothless men who live in LOVE Park who once worked in the IT Department at City Hall. Then they turned to drink, their wives threw them out … If you see someone in LOVE Park hollering that he once worked in City Hall, let him know: The new software will be in place in five years. Translation: when my desktop looks like this:

man looking into sky at computer