Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Philadelphia’s city government can be a maze to navigate for both new and longtime residents. A few departments have pretty clear functions. Parks and Recreation manages the city’s public parks, outdoor pools, and 150+ recreation centers. The Office of Property Assessment assesses property values, and the Office of Emergency Management — you guessed it — manages emergencies.

But Philly has more than 100 offices, boards, bureaus, and commissions — and not all the department titles give such strong hints. Some are vague. Others feel interchangeable but definitely aren’t.

Here’s a look at nine corners of municipal government with confusing names, what their functions actually are, and how you can get in touch with them.

(Note: If you’re looking for a specific type of service and unsure who to contact, the city has a searchable online directory.)

Department of Human Services (DHS)

What it does: Serves as the county-level contact for child welfare services and juvenile justice.

“Human services” is a pretty broad term. In Philly, DHS is part of the city’s Office of Children and Families, where its work focuses specifically on “children and youth at risk of abuse, neglect, and delinquency.”

The department investigates reports of child abuse and neglect, places children in foster care, and works with incarcerated parents. It also operates Philly’s juvenile detention facility in West Philly and tries to prevent children from getting involved with the formal justice system.

Don’t mix up the Philadelphia Department of Human Services with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. They are two different agencies.

Pennsylvania’s department addresses a broader set of human services issues, which includes some state-level work related to child welfare and juvenile justice. Pa. DHS operates several assistance offices in Philadelphia where you can apply for public benefits through the state like SNAP, Medicaid, free school meals and home heating assistance.

How to get in touch

  • Phone number for information: (215) 683-4347
  • Phone number for complaints: (215) 683-6000
  • Child abuse hotline: (215) 683-6100
  • Office address: 1515 Arch St.
  • Email address: [email protected]

Office of the City Commissioners

What it does: Manages elections and voter registration for the city.

Even though it doesn’t have “voting” or “election” in its name, the city commissioners’ office is the place to go for anything election-related.

The three-person bipartisan board sets the local policies and practices for voter registration and elections in Philly, ensuring they adhere to state and federal laws. You’ll have to contact their office when you want to register to vote, request a mail ballot, get certified as a poll watcher, or state your interest in being a poll worker. All three commissioners are elected officials who serve in four-year terms.

Some logistical info: Election and voter registration inquiries are funneled into two separate sections of the office. The County Board of Elections can answer questions related to mail voting and other election-related matters, while the Voter Registration Office handles voter registration-related queries.

How to get in touch

  • County Board of Elections:
    • Phone number: (215) 686-3469
    • Office address: 1400 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Room 142
  • Voter Registration Office:
    • Phone number: (215) 686-1591
    • Office address: 520 N. Columbus Blvd., 5th Floor
  • Each individual commissioner also has their email address and phone number listed on the contact page of the City Commissioners’ website.
Philadelphia Municipal Services Building Credit: Screenshot Google

Office of the City Controller

What it does: Audits the city and the school district, recommends ways for the city to save money, and investigates financial fraud and mismanagement in city government.

The controller is an elected official with a four-year term who serves as an “independent financial watchdog” for both the city and the School District of Philadelphia.

The controller produces reports on investigations and audits into various corners of city government and its finances, handles accusations of mismanagement or fraud, and sits on several boards and commissions that manage specific city investments, debt and funds.

Under current controller Rebecca Rhynhart, the office has also published policy and data reports on issues relevant to city life in Philly, like an interactive gun violence map and city budget visualizations.

How to get in touch

  • General phone number: (215) 686-6680
  • Fraud hotline: (215) 686-3804
  • Office address: 1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 1230
  • Email address: [email protected]

Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO)

What it does: Advocates for equity and helps Philly residents with issues like benefits access, housing security, and workforce development.

Founded as a Community Action Agency in 1964, CEO “[promotes] racial equity, greater financial stability, and self-sufficiency for the city’s most vulnerable populations,” according to its webpage.

In addition to advocating for things like eviction prevention and consumer financial protections, the agency funds economic justice and racial equity programs, and partners with nonprofits to offer free help applying for public benefits and free financial counseling.

How to get in touch

  • Phone number: (215) 685-3600
  • Office address: 1234 Market St., 16th Floor
  • Email address: [email protected]

Office of the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO)

What it does: Works to modernize city government and improve the way the city serves Philly residents.

CAO’s stated goal is to make both the city’s administration and the city’s resident-facing operations work more efficiently.

The chief administrative officer oversees 7 departments and offices, including the Department of Records, Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT), and the city’s Service Design Studio, which works with city departments and residents to figure out the best approaches for how the city provides services to the public.

The office also manages a $10-million fund that awards grants for innovative ideas from city employees that can be implemented within a year. Recent grant winners include Parks & Rec forthcoming “reforestation hub” and a plan to improve translation services on the city’s website.

How to get in touch

  • Phone number: (215) 686-5238
  • Office address: 1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 630
  • Most of the office’s units have their direct contact information listed on the city’s website.

Procurement Department

What it does: Helps Philly get the resources it needs to run properly and oversees the city contract bidding process.

The Procurement Department is one of the departments underneath the CAO’s umbrella. It makes sure the city has all materials and services necessary to do government things — think working with contractors to get the supplies, equipment, construction, concessions, or professional services local government can’t make or provide in-house.

The department secures those things for the city by managing and evaluating bids for city contracts. The Procurement Department is also the point of contact for getting a Philly-based business certified as a Local Business Entity, a distinction that gives business preference on certain bids.

How to get in touch

  • Phone number: (215) 686-4720
  • Office address: 1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Room 170
  • Email address: [email protected]

Office of Administrative Review (OAR)

What it does: Handles appeals for city fines, violation notices, or administrative decisions that don’t have to do with real estate or parking tickets.

If you have any billing disputes with the city, your first move should be contacting the relevant department. But if you can’t work it out that way, the Office of Administrative Review (yet another wing of CAO) is generally your next move.

OAR handles disputes regarding taxes, fines, violations, and administrative decisions from the city, like denied residential disability parking spaces or red light camera violations. It also registers burglary systems and helps enforce city code violations.

OAR’s Tax Review Board (TRB) hears appeals for most city bills, refund disputes, taxes, and assessments, with some exceptions. TRB’s core domain is appeals of wage, business income, and school income taxes, or licenses and inspections assessments. The board also handles water bill disputes.

How to get in touch

Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT)

What it does: Hears appeals for real estate-related decisions, particularly property assessments.

The Office of Property Assessment determines how much each piece of real estate in Philly is worth, which is the value used to calculate property taxes.

Owners don’t always agree with those numbers, so BRT — not to be confused with the aforementioned TRB (though we wouldn’t blame you if you made that mistake) — handles disputes over OPA’s decisions. The board also hears appeals on other property-related matters, like eminent domain awards or denied abatement applications.

How to get in touch

  • Phone number: (215) 686-4343
  • Office address: 601 Walnut St., Suite 325 East
  • Email address: [email protected]

Bureau of Administrative Adjudication (BAA)

What it does: Hears parking ticket appeals.

Have beef with the PPA? The Bureau of Administrative Adjudication is the body that decides parking ticket disputes — online, by mail, or in person. It’s also where you have to go if you want a hearing over a booted or towed vehicle. (Don’t ask us where the name came from.)

How to get in touch

  • Phone number: (215) 683-9580
  • Office address: 913 Filbert St.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Thetelegraphfield. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...