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Monica Yant Kinney: The BRT is just so Philadelphia

For two hours Monday, Enrico "Ricky" Foglia sat quietly as City Council members grilled his pals at the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT), the patronage farm where party hacks eat high on the hog.

For two hours Monday, Enrico "Ricky" Foglia sat quietly as City Council members grilled his pals at the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT), the patronage farm where party hacks eat high on the hog.

Foglia, a pinky-ring-wearing doppelganger for The Sopranos' Uncle Junior, is BRT executive director.

In the real world, fancy titles are bestowed upon the educated and qualified. But this is Philadelphia, so Foglia is neither.

Here, a high school grad who goes way back with the Democratic Party boss, earns nearly $100,000 as a glorified payroll clerk. In the nation's sixth largest city, the CEO of the independent government agency charged with the monumental task of setting tax values for 577,700 properties can't even legally appraise a one-room shack.

"Mr. Foglia," Councilman Bill Green finally asked, "what is your job description?"

Foglia, who has had decades to ponder the question, turned to the BRT's administrative services director sitting nearby. "She reports to me. I report to my chairman."

Green raised an eyebrow and fired back, "So you have one employee reporting to you?"

Foglia mumbled as Green dug deeper: "Does the BRT need an executive director?"

Need? Foglia paused.

"From what I understand," he said, "since God was born, they've had an executive director."

So the Lord divined this mess?

I don't buy it. Neither did Green.

"A lot has changed," he replied snidely, "since God was born."

What was will always be?

But has it? Reading The Inquirer's BRT series this week, one could determine that what has been will always be because powerful Philadelphians prefer political cesspools to the Jersey Shore.

The property-assessment agency has been contentedly corrupt practically since its founding in 1854.

Judges control coveted BRT appointments. Political machines control many of the judges.

When pesky civil service rules threatened to pull the plug on BRT employees' political moonlighting, the agency created a separate class of patronage gigs funded by the school district. Today, the BRT has one of these patronage clerks for every assessor, when what the agency really needs are more assessors.

Despite the bloated staffing, my colleagues Mark Fazlollah and Joe Tanfani reported, the BRT fails miserably at most of its tasks.

More than 9,000 properties haven't been reassessed in 20 years. Similar homes on the same block have wildly different values.

Pols call seeking relief for friends or, in the case of former State Sen. Vince Fumo, tax hikes for foes. If you're a VIP, your wish is granted.

Records, if kept, vanish. Secret deals benefitting the connected are hatched in private, in apparent violation of the BRT's own rules.

BRT chairwoman Charlesretta Meade earns $75,000 for just 65 days of work each year. She claimed not to know the agency is legally required to meet in public - and she's a lawyer.

Broken beyond repair?

In 1960, city Democratic Party boss Bill Green Jr. blocked reformers' attempts to blow up the BRT.

This week, nearly 50 years later, his grandson the councilman is introducing legislation to either kill the BRT and move property appraising into City Hall or allow the agency to remain independent, but with a board appointed by the mayor and City Council.

"What we have now," Green told me, "is no accountability."

John Street tried to abolish the BRT in 1980.

"The independent thing," he recalled yesterday, "wasn't working."

The future mayor gave up when the solutions proved just as vexing.

Putting property assessment under the mayor's thumb provides no assurance of purity in this city. If you don't believe him, try it.

"I guarantee you," Street predicted, "it won't be long before someone will say [the work] is being politicized there, too."