Richie McKeithen wasn't afraid to stand up against a boss who asked him to lower a property assessment in Richmond, Va.
The question now is whether McKeithen, introduced by Mayor Nutter Wednesday as his choice to be the city's new chief assessor, can be as tough in Philadelphia, where the politics are arguably a lot rougher.
"I would like to establish an office of assessment that has integrity, one that is transparent, and one that sets fair and equitable values," McKeithen said at a City Hall news conference Wednesday afternoon.
McKeithen, who will earn between $130,000 and $140,000 if City Council approves him for the post, offered few details about his plans, saying he would first focus on winning Council's support. Nutter said he would send McKeithen's nomination to council tomorrow and hoped that its members would approve his nominee before the current session ends June 17. Nutter hopes McKeithen will start the job July 1.
McKeithen is the head of the District of Columbia's property-assessment operation, where he oversees all property assessments and handles numerous other duties he will not have to shoulder in Philadelphia. But his task in Philadelphia is enormous. He must create an entirely new assessment office out of the ashes of the Board of Revision of Taxes, while also managing a switch away from the BRT's antiquated assessment model to a new system.
The BRT was rife with charges of political favoritism, so McKeithen also must transform it into a professional operation whose valuations taxpayers can trust. This process likely will raise taxes for many homeowners, making McKeithen and his assessors a likely target for residents' rage.
The mayor and his staff said McKeithen already has proved that he has the necessary backbone for the job.
When McKeithen was a deputy assessor in Richmond, he testified in a 2003 trial against his boss, chief assessor James R. Vinson. McKeithen told the court that Vinson gave him a slip of paper with an assessment of $320,520 for Vinson's house, a reduction of almost $44,000, and told him to change the assessment to the lower figure. McKeithen said he asked Vinson whether the office should also adjust the assessments on other houses close to Vinson's home, but Vinson responded, "Only if they complain about it."
Vinson was acquitted of misdemeanor charges associated with his assessment reduction but resigned from his job, according to The Richmond Times Dispatch.
When McKeithen began as director of the office of Tax and Revenue's Real Property Tax Administration in Washington, D.C., in 2008, its employees were reeling from an enormous scandal. A small ring of mid-level workers had embezzled nearly $50 million in taxpayer money by issuing property-tax refunds to friends and family members.
Although McKeithen's predecessor, Thomas Branham, was not involved in the crime, Branham was forced to resign for failing to detect the fraud.
Philadelphia residents voted last month to disband the BRT. McKeithen will report to Finance Director Rob Dubow and to Managing Director Richard Negrin. Negrin had previously served as the BRT's interim executive director and had begun its overhaul.