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Karen Heller: 78 city staffers who have Council's ear

Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and said, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."

Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and said, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."

Folks, in Philadelphia, that concept perished years ago.

If you thought otherwise, consider City Council's attempt Wednesday to abolish the incompetent hackatorium known as the Board of Revision of Taxes, which an Inquirer series proved has failed to properly and equitably assess the city's 577,000 properties for decades.

Faulty assessments affect owners and renters alike, while robbing city coffers of desperately needed money. The BRT's incompetence was bad news for us all, its reform sorely needed - 20 years ago.

Mayor Nutter wants the board abolished. After initial resistance, BRT leaders voted unanimously Wednesday to transfer powers to the Nutter administration.

And Council? At a certain moment, the committee hearing made a hard left toward Looneyville.

Did the principled members of Council rally on behalf of the nearly 1.5 million Philadelphians they collectively represent?

No, they did not.

"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," The Inquirer's Patrick Kerkstra reported.

Instead, members made speech after impassioned speech, nine in all - Tony Awards have been won for lesser performances - about the 78 BRT patronage positions that political bosses doled out like so much celebrity swag.

Those employees are paid by the Philadelphia School District to avoid rules banning political activity by city workers. That frees them to campaign for candidates such as - wait for it - City Council members.

Council dithered and flailed that those 78 workers would be tossed out on the cold city streets a week before Christmas, most likely by Scrooge McNutter.

Bah, humbug.

That was never going to happen. If the last hard year has shown anything, it's that the administration has been ruthless about cutting almost everything - except city jobs.

"I can't support any BRT legislation if we don't protect employees," protested Jannie Blackwell, the most emphatic member of Council on this matter. "If you don't commit to that, then I can't commit to you."

Bill Green introduced the legislation, then exhibited dubious wisdom when he coaxed colleagues to approve the measure as a future bargaining chip with the mayor. That's one warped approach to reform.

"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.

Instead of Lincoln's glorious vision, what we have here is government of the politicians, subsidized by the people, for the city employees.

How is it that every argument, every budgetary issue, every effort to achieve reform, ultimately gets reduced to putting the needs of 27,355 city employees over the 1.5 million people they serve?

After so many soliloquies for the beleaguered few, Council moved out of committee a bill for the obvious: Blow up the BRT. Which is scheduled for a vote Thursday, seven months after Nutter and Council President Anna C. Verna said the entity should be dissolved or reformed. If approved, the measure would be on the ballot for the May 18 primary. Which, if approved, would mean the BRT would be abolished Sept. 30.

Council's vote was 12-1 in favor, Blackwell the lone holdout. She was still so worried about those 78 patronage workers.

Blackwell is known as the champion of the underdog. Perhaps she should consider the needs of Philadelphia's true downtrodden: property owners at the mercy, and I quote from the Inquirer series, of "one of the most unfair and chaotic property-tax systems in the nation."