Mayor Nutter and City Council are sending mixed messages about reforming the Board of Revision of Taxes.
While taking good steps to dismantle the broken agency, they are also bending over backward to ensure its patronage workers remain in place.
On the positive front, Council voted 12-1 last week to move a bill out of committee that would replace the BRT with two new agencies, one to handle property assessments under the mayor’s direction, and an independent appeals board.
Nutter then announced the hiring on Monday of what appears to be a solid interim executive director to run the BRT. Richard Negrin is the general counsel at Aramark, the food-service giant. He previously worked as an assistant district attorney and is on the city’s Ethics Board.
Negrin’s best asset is that he isn’t some political insider. He is known for his integrity and independence — qualities often missing at the BRT.
Negrin’s top priority will be to implement fair and accurate property-tax assessments. But he will take over with the proverbial one arm tied behind his back.
It is clear that Nutter and City Council have no intention of replacing the BRT’s nearly 80 patronage employees. While those workers are not the agency’s main problem, they were hired because of their political connections, as opposed to their professional qualifications.
A number of the employees are ward leaders and committeemen. They get paid through the school district in order to evade a City Charter rule that prohibits city employees from working on political campaigns.
It’s a sham set-up, and has been in place for decades. Council and Nutter defend the patronage workers saying they are decent people who have been unfairly maligned. No one is saying the patronage employees are bad people. But it is impossible to reform an agency stocked with workers hired because of who they know, not what they know.
Some of the clerks may be able to do their job, but studies have found the agency is bloated and many of the jobs aren’t necessary. It’s telling that their former boss was a political insider who wasn’t licensed to perform assessments.
As patronage employees, one of their main roles is to get pols elected, and reelected. Clearly, taxpayers should not have to fund a shadow political arm.
Nutter wants to end their political work. However, the mayor has come up with an absurd way to ensure that everyone keeps their job, while making it appear aboveboard. He wants the BRT employees to take a civil-service exam. But the exam will only be open to those with experience as clerks in government property assessing agencies.
In other words, only people who already have the job can apply.
Apparently, this is what passes for reform in Philadelphia.
Many Philadelphians without political connections could do this work. Let them apply, too.