The seven members of Philadelphia's Board of Revision of Taxes yesterday flatly refused Mayor Nutter's request that they resign, saying they saw no reason to do so despite news reports that detailed chronic mismanagement and ethical lapses at the agency.
Standing six abreast - Joseph A. Russo was absent - they said they would fight for their jobs, which pay $70,000 to $75,000 a year for part-time work.
"I take it as a personal affront, quite frankly," said member Russell Nigro, a former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice.
Though jointly funded by the city and the School District of Philadelphia, the BRT is an independent agency with a board appointed by city judges. Charged with setting property values, it affects everyone who pays Philadelphia property taxes.
Nutter has no direct control over the agency, and he cannot fire the board members. But that did not prevent him from trying to publicly shame them into stepping down yesterday.
"I am asking them to resign . . . and put in place an interim board in an effort to restore a sense of confidence and more fully examine the operational, managerial, and governance structure of the BRT," Nutter said, citing Inquirer articles that detailed the agency's inaccurate property values, political manipulation, and long history as a patronage dumping ground.
But City Council President Anna C. Verna said the mayor was acting too hastily.
Common Pleas Court Judge William J. Manfredi, head of the committee that screens BRT appointees, said he did not think the judges would remove their picks from the board just because of the mayor's request.
And the School Reform Commission, which pays the BRT $3.8 million a year to fund the salaries and benefits of 78 patronage workers in clerking jobs, would commit only to a "thorough and objective assessment" of that long-standing practice.
Nevertheless, Nutter pushed aggressively ahead.
"The time for change has arrived. The BRT as we know it cannot continue to function in this fashion," he said.
The mayor also proposed two BRT bills that, unlike longer-term solutions that would require a ballot measure, could yield quick changes if Council approved.
One would eliminate the salaries of board members; the other would give the Nutter administration direct control over some of the agency's funding, a step the mayor said would lead to more "openness and transparency."
Nutter said the bills were the first in a series of "short, medium, and long-term" measures to restore public trust in the agency.
BRT members took issue with those proposals, as well.
Board chairwoman Charlesretta Meade opined that Nutter "needs a triumph."
"I believe he feels we are an easy target," she said.
A lawyer for the absent Russo said Russo would not quit, either.
The Inquirer reported that Russo is active in judicial campaigns in violation of city rules. In a separate matter, the city Inspector General's Office is investigating allegations that while working as an assessor he intervened to raise taxes on a property on the order of then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.
Nino V. Tinari, Russo's attorney, called the reports of political activity overblown and the allegations of tampering incorrect.
Board members refused to take questions from two Inquirer reporters at the news conference, saying they were disappointed with the newspaper's articles about the agency.
Although Meade said the allegations raised in the articles were "disturbing to all of us," she argued that Nutter's response was inappropriate.
"It seems to be overkill to demand that all board members have to resign," she said.
The board contends it has taken major steps to right the BRT, most notably with the release last week of new assessments for properties citywide. The BRT considers its new valuation method, the Actual Value Initiative, a significant improvement.
"What we want to do is have an opportunity to improve the system. That's all I ask, is that we have the ability to complete the process," board member Robert N.C. Nix III said.
Council seems inclined to give them that opportunity.
Nutter was unable to find a Council member willing to introduce his BRT bills.
"The BRT is a real problem, but it has been a problem for years," Council Majority Leader Marian Tasco said. "You're not going to solve it in a week. The problems are systemic."
Verna said her chamber would take up changes to the BRT once the budget was finished, possibly with a rare summer session or two. Council is typically in recess from mid-June to mid-September.
When Council does restructure the agency, it will base its work not on Nutter's bills, Verna said, but on those introduced yesterday by Councilman Bill Green.
One of Green's bills would abolish the BRT, moving property appraisers into a city department overseen by the mayor. A separate, independent board would hear assessment appeals.
His other bill would leave the BRT intact but strip city judges of their power to appoint the board and give that responsibility to the mayor and Council.
Green, a frequent Nutter critic, said it was "the height of irresponsibility" for the mayor to try to oust BRT members amid the transition to the new assessments.
Both of Green's bills would require a ballot measure, which Philadelphians would likely not get a chance to vote on until May.
Yesterday, though, other BRT critics were clamoring for changes that could be achieved more quickly.
Helen Gym, head of Parents United for Public Education, called on the SRC to choke off its funding for 78 clerks at the agency, thus eliminating BRT patronage jobs now filled by the city's Democratic and Republican Parties.
Under a long-standing political arrangement, the school district carries the patronage workers on its payroll, which circumvents the ban on political activity by city employees.
"They can't shy away from this because they are directly implicated in this whole thing. This is serious," Gym said.
New SRC chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. declined to be interviewed for this article, pleading for more time to study the situation. He issued one statement Tuesday, promising that the board would act "in the best interest of children."
Yesterday, Archie said in another statement that the BRT needed to be "more efficient, equitable, and professional," but he still didn't say whether he would kill the patronage jobs.
Gym said it sounded to her as if school leaders were stalling.
"It may be new to Bob Archie. It's not new to the school district. It's not new to the city of Philadelphia," she said.
"When they say, 'We will take a little time, trust us,' it raises a question for a lot of people because they themselves are political appointments."
The Nutter administration did not have a direct response when told that BRT leaders declined to step down. Mayoral spokesman Doug Oliver said he did not know how or whether Nutter would press his case.
If he does, he will be wading into uncharted legal territory.
"I'm not familiar with what the mechanics would be to do that, and it's never come up," said Manfredi, a judge for 26 years.
Ethics Board executive director J. Shane Creamer Jr. said that under Philadelphia law, any city employee can be removed for violating the ban on participation in politics.
But he said that law had, to his knowledge, never led to the removal of an official.
Read the "Tax Travesty" series and look up the new and current values for nearly any property in the city. Go to http://go.philly.com/brtEndText