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City takes first steps to abolish BRT

Progress has been slow and there is little apparent enthusiasm for the work, but city political leaders are moving steadily toward abolishing the Board of Revision of Taxes.

Progress has been slow and there is little apparent enthusiasm for the work, but city political leaders are moving steadily toward abolishing the Board of Revision of Taxes.

The leaders of the beleaguered agency, which for decades has presided over a wildly inaccurate and inequitable property-assessment system, voted unanimously yesterday to immediately cede many of its powers to the Nutter administration.

Hours later, City Council, by a 12-1 vote, moved out of committee a bill that would replace the BRT with two new agencies, one to handle property assessments under the mayor's direction, and an independent appeals board.

In the short term, Mayor Nutter and his staff are now responsible for much of the BRT's operations. They have key decisions to make soon, such as what to do with the agency's patronage employees, and whether to continue reassessing properties before a more accurate assessment system is adopted, which could take years.

In the long term, Council's vote signaled that it will likely approve a bill abolishing the BRT at its next session, scheduled for next Thursday. After that, Philadelphia voters would decide the agency's fate in the May primary, with a ballot question that would dissolve the BRT on Sept. 30.

Together, yesterday's votes suggest that BRT reform, which has been discussed for years, may be at hand.

That development follows Inquirer stories documenting the extraordinary inaccuracy of property assessments in Philadelphia and widespread mismanagement at the BRT.

"I think there's definite momentum. The sins that have been attributed to the Board of Revision of Taxes were so awful that even the politicians realized it was time to get on board," said Zack Stalberg, executive director of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

And yet, for a while yesterday, Council seemed close to derailing the legislation over fears that about 80 patronage workers at the BRT would lose their jobs. The workers are paid through the Philadelphia School District payroll to skirt rules that ban political activity by city employees.

Council members wasted hardly a moment yesterday discussing or debating the broader impact of the legislation, which stands to affect every property owner in the city. Instead, they focused on whether the administration would do enough to preserve the livelihoods of the patronage workers, some of whom owe their jobs to Council members.

"I can't support any BRT legislation if we don't protect employees," said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who secured a position for at least one BRT patronage worker. "If you don't commit to that, then I can't commit to you."

Speaking for the Nutter administration, Finance Director Rob Dubow repeatedly refused to divulge plans for those workers, though he promised to have an answer before next Thursday's anticipated final vote.

The BRT patronage jobs are typically doled out on recommendations from Democratic and Republican elected officials and ward leaders, according to city Republican boss Michael Meehan and lower-level Democratic Party officials.

Former Councilman Angel Ortiz said one of the perks of serving on Council was the ability to award BRT patronage jobs, though he said he had never taken advantage of that perquisite.

After Blackwell's remarks, eight more Council members urged the administration to preserve the patronage workers. Several suggested delaying a vote until the matter was resolved.

But Councilman Bill Green, who had introduced the legislation, persuaded his colleagues to vote even though the fate of the workers was unclear. He urged Council members to use the leverage of future noncooperation with Nutter to persuade him to protect the jobs.

"Those are 85 real people that pay for their groceries and heating bills with those jobs," Green said afterward when asked why the debate had focused on the patronage workers.

"The goal is not to put people out of work. It's to reform our property-tax system. The administration has been obtuse at best on this point, and, frankly, I think the mayor ignores Council's views on this at his own peril," Green said.

Nutter and Council have for the most part worked cooperatively on the BRT legislation. Green's initial bill was modeled on a proposal that Nutter made years earlier. The final bill, though, would give Council a stronger role in determining who would manage assessments and appeals than the administration had initially hoped for.

Yesterday's BRT vote to hand over property-assessment powers to the Mayor's Office was a public ratification of a pact signed behind closed doors in October.

The new vote, taken to address the Sunshine Act violation of the pact's signing, followed a tumultuous hearing last week at which BRT members faulted the media, Council, the Committee of Seventy, and the Mayor's Office for the board's problems.

There were no such dramatics yesterday, though, and the BRT's vote session lasted five minutes.

Some BRT critics said that although yesterday's votes were welcome, dissolution of the agency was only the beginning. The goal, they said, was accurate and fair assessments, which will require plenty of work regardless of who is running the assessment operation.

"Clearly, there has been progress, and that has to be seen as a good thing," said Uri Monson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. "There's a long way to go, though, before we know what the end product will be, and whether or not it will be good enough to regain the trust of the citizenry."

Fixing the BRT

What's Next

The Nutter administration has assumed temporary control of the agency's day-to-day property-assessment duties, including supervision of most Board of Revision of Taxes workers. The mayor and his staff must now decide what to do with BRT patronage employees, and whether to continue spot-reassessing properties before more accurate citywide assessments are available.

City Council is expected to vote next Thursday on legislation that would abolish the BRT on Sept. 30. Council approval is considered likely, but it is not guaranteed.

If Council approves the bill, city voters will have the final say. A question seeking voter permission to abolish the agency would appear on the ballot in the May 18 primary.


If voters approve the ballot question, the BRT will be split into a new Office of Property Assessment, under the indirect control of the mayor, and an independent assessment-appeals board.

The mayor, with Council's consent, would appoint a chief assessment officer to run the Office of Property Assessment for a four-year term. In an attempt to insulate that official from political pressure, he or she could be fired only for cause.

The seven members of the Board of Appeals would be appointed by the mayor, with Council's consent, from a list of nominees compiled by yet another panel. The elaborate appointing mechanism is also intended to shield the board members from political pressure.

The Board of Appeals members would be paid - $50,000 for the chair, less for other members - but they would earn less than the $75,000 that most BRT members are paid.

Abolishing the BRT would not by itself improve the city's inaccurate real estate assessments. The Office of Property Assessment would be expected to complete an assessment overhaul begun by the BRT years ago, or start all over again if it determined that effort - known as the Actual Value Initiative - is fatally flawed. Administration officials have predicted that getting the numbers right could take as long as two years. EndText