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Philadelphia votes to end BRT

Philadelphians voted in convincing fashion Tuesday to abolish the 156-year-old Board of Revision of Taxes, eliminating a relic of the city's distant past that has come to embody much of the worst of city government.

Philadelphians voted in convincing fashion Tuesday to abolish the 156-year-old Board of Revision of Taxes, eliminating a relic of the city's distant past that has come to embody much of the worst of city government.

By a more than 7-3 ratio, voters approved a charter change replacing the troubled property-assessment and appeals agency with two new city offices later this year.

"This is a very important moment in Philadelphia's history. We've dissolved an entity that is a throwback to the 1800s, an entity that needed to be put out of business so that we can move forward with the hard work of reform," Mayor Nutter said.

The vote deciding the BRT's fate came a year after an Inquirer investigation exposed widespread mismanagement, cronyism, and backroom deal-making at the obscure agency, whose decisions directly affect the pocketbook of every property owner in Philadelphia.

"I think it really sends a strong message that the old way of doing business is not acceptable to Philadelphians," said Committee of Seventy president and chief executive Zack Stalberg. "They want a clean system for figuring out what their property taxes are going to be."

Although the BRT has long served as a refuge for patronage employees and provided plum appointments to big players in both political parties, there was no organized campaign to defeat the proposed charter change.

Lining up in favor of disbanding the BRT were Nutter, most of City Council, newspaper editorial boards, and the Committee of Seventy.

The board itself has acknowledged that its current assessment system is inaccurate and not uniform, and the agency has been working for years on a comprehensive fix.

But the judicially appointed members of the BRT board have vigorously resisted the city's attempts to abolish the agency. And they may well continue their fight now.

In March, members of the board sued the city in an attempt to prevent the charter change from getting on the ballot, arguing that the city lacked the legal authority to strip the BRT of its power to hear property-assessment appeals.

The state Supreme Court declined to intervene in the election, but the court's ruling made no judgments about the merits of the case, leaving the door open to the BRT to renew the suit after the election. BRT chair Charlesretta Meade could not be reached for comment.

If no legal challenge is filed or if a lawsuit fails, the BRT will cease to exist on Oct. 1.

But changes could be in the works well before that. The law now gives Nutter authority to hire a chief assessment officer as early as July 1 to oversee a new Office of Property Assessment. Most of the BRT's 160 employees would be transferred to this new office.

The charter change also creates a seven-member Board of Property Assessment Appeals, which would operate independently of the Office of Property Assessment. Property owners who contend the city has gotten their assessment wrong will go before this board, instead of the BRT, to make their case.

Members of the new board will be appointed through a complicated process involving the mayor, City Council, and an independent nominating panel.

"This is an important milestone, but we all need to be cognizant that we still have a lot of work to do," Nutter said.

Indeed, changing the structure of the city's property-assessment offices does not on its own fix the inaccurate assessments.

Getting those right requires completion of the Actual Value Initiative, a computerized mass-appraisal system on which the BRT has been working since 2003.

"This means the mayor and City Council will now actually have to take responsibility for the broken assessment system and fix it. This is just the beginning of reform," said the Rev. Ken Metzner, a South Philadelphia homeowner who has emerged as a leading critic of the city's faulty property-valuation system.

The BRT has contended it is close to finishing the Actual Value Initiative, but the Nutter administration says there are still far too many inaccuracies in the data.

Despite those flaws, City Council already has approved a 9.9 percent property-tax hike for next year's budget, which Nutter appears ready to sign off on.

"It's really a big, big win for the citizens," Stalberg said of the abolition of the BRT. "Especially with a 9.9 percent tax increase looming, this gives people at least some sense that in time they can begin to trust their tax bill."

The Nutter administration has said it could take two years or more to release new property values citywide.