On Mayor Nutter's orders, the Board of Revision of Taxes, one of the city's largest and oldest redoubts of cronyism, will soon require its 76 patronage workers to abandon their political activities and pass a civil service exam to have a chance at keeping their jobs.
Nutter made the announcement at a City Hall news conference yesterday in which he formally tapped lawyer Richard Negrin, former general counsel at Aramark Corp., as the interim executive director of the agency. Negrin will run its day-to-day assessment operation at an annual salary of $137,000.
"There are few more important issues before us today as leaders of this city," Nutter said. "These reforms will impact all homeowners, all property owners throughout our city by creating a more accurate, more equitable, and more fair property assessment system in Philadelphia."
The moves follow Inquirer stories that detailed the extent of the BRT's faulty assessments and chronicled widespread mismanagement at the agency, which is run by an independent board appointed by city judges.
In October, the BRT's leaders signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nutter administration, temporarily ceding day-to-day control to the mayor. That memorandum was ratified publicly last week, making the mayor - through Negrin - the de facto chief of the BRT, at least for now.
Legislation pending in City Council would abolish the BRT as of Sept. 30, and split it into a new property assessment department under the indirect control of the mayor and an independent appeals board.
But yesterday, Nutter said he would not wait until then to end the peculiar arrangement that has kept BRT clerks off the city's payroll and funded instead by the School District, at a cost to the district of about $4 million a year.
That system, in place for decades, has permitted those workers to evade city civil service rules prohibiting political activity. Qualifications for the positions have been minimal, and typically the jobs are given to applicants recommended by Democratic and Republican officials and ward leaders.
Under Nutter's plan, the School District will continue to contribute about $4 million a year to support property assessments in the city, but the cash will flow directly to the city's general fund, not to patronage employees.
To keep their jobs, the 76 School District workers now at the BRT would have to swear off political activities - such as campaigning for City Council candidates - and take a civil service exam, likely in March. Those who pass would be ranked according to civil service guidelines, with the jobs going to the top-ranked applicants.
In theory, the test will not be limited to BRT patronage workers, and Nutter touted the process as open and competitive.
But in practice, the administration has written such stringent test-qualification guidelines that the testing pool will be dominated by current BRT School District employees. Only applicants who have clerical experience "supporting real estate appraisers for a governmental entity" can sit for the exam.
When questioned, Nutter administration officials denied that they were manipulating the test to ensure that patronage workers kept their jobs. Rather, they said, they were using the objective job qualifications that would best ensure that the city's property-assessment system would not collapse into further chaos.
"It would be a nightmare if you took the entire support staff of the assessment agency and replaced them with some number of clerks, without any experience, from the outside," said Albert L. D'Attillio, the city's director of human resources.
There are political considerations for the Nutter administration to weigh as well. City Council - which has been on track to approve the legislation dismantling the BRT - rose as one last week in defense of the patronage workers, with some members suggesting they would vote against the bill if Nutter did not protect the School District employees on the board.
At the news conference, Nutter seemed to try to address those concerns while stopping short of saying that the patronage employees were guaranteed to keep their jobs.
"I think it's quite unfortunate how some of these individuals have been characterized and their experience minimized, when in fact they are doing their jobs," Nutter said.
Meanwhile, School District advocates questioned why the schools should continue paying the city $4 million a year once the patronage workers are removed from the school payroll. At minimum, they said, the city ought to review its staffing needs and charge the district less if it ends up hiring fewer than 76 clerks.
"In some ways it's as bad as the old system, at least as far as students are concerned. You're still taking money out of the classroom," said Helen Gym, a leader of Parents United for Public Education, noting that most counties do not require their school districts to help fund property assessments.
BRT critic Zack Stalberg, the president and chief executive officer of the government watchdog Committee of Seventy, praised the abolition of patronage at the agency as "a big step," but had some reservations about the new testing mechanism.
"It's certainly appropriate that these workers become civil service employees. But the devil is always in the details, and if the rules are being written so that these existing workers have an extreme advantage over anybody else, then I think that's wrong," Stalberg said.
Over at the BRT, however, agency patronage workers were feeling anything but coddled by the mayor.
"I'm totally disappointed. We're all totally disappointed," said clerk Donna Aument, who will have to resign her post as the Democratic leader of the 33d Ward if she wants to keep her job.
Aument pointed out that clerks are not responsible for the inaccurate property assessments that have gotten the agency into such trouble.
"If one person can show me a property I've assessed, I'll plead guilty. We're tired of hearing we're the scum of the earth. Look, it's almost 5 o'clock and I'm still at work," Aument said.
"We're not the assessors. We're the ants at the bottom of the hill. Why are you killing the little ants at the bottom of the hill?"