Millions in funding for the city and cash-strapped school district remains in limbo because of the slow pace of hearings by the Board of Revision of Taxes, the city's property tax appeal commission.
The BRT has long been regarded as a bastion for what one City Hall insider described as "pinstripe patronage," and its appeals hearings have crawled along since coming to a near standstill in early July, according to Finance Department figures obtained by Philly.com.
In the first two weeks of July, the BRT resolved just 15 appeals, figures show.
But the summer hangover has continued to drag on — the most recent data available showed that the board heard just 24 cases for the last week of August, despite a backlog of nearly 3,000 appeals. With the summer nearly over, the city estimates about $27 million in revenue for the city and school district coffers remains tied up because of the appeal waitlist.
Republican mayoral candidate Melissa Murray Bailey blasted the BRT, calling the board "incompetent" and saying the city should have "anticipated this and planned accordingly." But her Democratic opponent Jim Kenney, the presumptive favorite to win the general election in November, took a softer tact.
"We're hopeful that once BRT gets through these more complex cases that the rate of appeals will pick up before the end of the year," Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said, alluding to a claim by the BRT that it is currently handling appeals for highly-valued properties. "If it does not, our first approach will be to work with the department to find a solution for reviewing these cases more quickly."
Kenney's statement echoes those from the BRT itself, which asserts that the board is busier than ever with complex appeals for multi-million dollar properties. An employee who answered the phones last week said staff had stopped posting their meeting calendar online because "we have too many appeals."
But the issue of unresolved appeals stretches back for months. The Inquirer reported in June that as much as $34.8 million worth of tax revenue for the city and school district was delayed due to property tax appeals. A 2014 law passed by City Council allows property owners to continue paying their old tax assessment until an appeal of the new assessment is heard by the BRT.
The Actual Value Initiative, a 2014 citywide property value reassessment effort saw many historically undervalued properties hit with big tax increases, leading thousands of property owners to appeal their new assessments. AVI, as its name implies, was initiated to bring property assessments to 100 percent of market value instead of a percentage of its market value as they had been for years.
With millions in tax revenue thrown into limbo and a looming school funding crisis, the city and its fiscal overseer, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, have spent months howling for the board to pick up the pace.
"This is a major concern for Philadelphia. Our tax base relies on timely assessments and resolutions of appeals," said Helen Gym, head education advocacy group Parents United for Public Education. "When the BRT doesn't pull its share of the weight, we can't collect revenues and that hurts our schools and our city."
BRT executive director Carla Pagan told Philly.com there is no delay in the appeals process and disputed the Finance Department figures.
"There is not a slowdown, just different types of appeal hearings. The number of cases heard during any given week depend on the complexities of each case and if the appeals have individual or multiple filers," said Pagan. "But in the month of September, the board will hear cases with significant market values where property owners, attorneys and appraisers all testify. This month, most appeals have a market value well over $1,000,000."
According to Pagan, the board's goal has been to tackle 150 appeals per week in September. However, she declined to say if the board had actually met that goal in the first few weeks of this month.
She also reiterated past statements about the board recovering from nearly 24,000 appeals it recieved as a byproduct of AVI.
But the BRT itself is largely responsible for AVI. Once charged with assessing the value of all city real estate, the board's failure to adequately perform that duty for decades was one of the principal drivers behind the reassessment effort. Outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter and council nearly succeeded in eliminating the board altogether in 2009, but a legal challenge ended with the BRT relegated to simple appeal hearings and stripped of cushy salaries.
However, AVI also presented an opportunity for the board to revive itself. Faced with thousands of appeals as the result of the sudden revaluation, Pagan told council in 2013 that the BRT could only handle the workload if its $1 million in salaries for board members and staff was restored. The BRT got the money.
But the Pew Trusts released a report this week analyzing the impacts of the citywide reassessment, finding that 42 percent of those claims were withdrawn before they ever made it before the board.
According to the report, the Office of Property Assessment, a city department that took over the BRT's old property assessment duties, handled thousands of first-level appeals. To date, out of 60,000 homeowners that appealed their assessments, the BRT only ruled on 11,000 cases.
Last Thursday, BRT board members heard cases for about two hours inside a drab conference room on the third floor of the Curtis Center — with three of seven members absent. Much of that time was centered on a single case.
After briefly adjourning, the board members rendered judgments on about two dozen previous appeals before returning to the BRT's stained-wood offices on the same floor.
The board typically convenes three days a week. Each board member collects a $70,000 annual salary.
Sources in City Hall said the reason for the slow pace was simple: The board has historically existed as a haven for politically appointed judges and lawyers and little has changed since the 2009 reform efforts.
Indeed, many of the current board members are refugees of government-reform efforts and political scandals past. Sources described BRT Chairman Alan K. Silberstein, a former Municipal Court president who was stripped of his powers following multiple accusations of sexual discrimination, as a close friend of local Democratic party boss and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's.
Brady declined to comment on the BRT's activities.
It is possible for the state legislature to dismantle the board altogether, but because of political sensitivities, this course has never been actively pursued. Asked if Kenney would push Philadelphia-area legislators to dissolve the BRT, a campaign spokesperson demurred.