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Editorial: Abolish the BRT

The Board of Revision of Taxes must die. It can't be fixed by any blue-ribbon commission or even a federal investigation. Firing the executive director won't cut it - though that's a good start. Replacing the seven-member board doesn't go far enough - though they also must go.

The Board of Revision of Taxes must die.

It can't be fixed by any blue-ribbon commission or even a federal investigation. Firing the executive director won't cut it - though that's a good start. Replacing the seven-member board doesn't go far enough - though they also must go.

No, the agency that sets property values in Philadelphia and handles all appeals must be blown up once and for all.

A new agency needs to be created with independent professionals and qualified assessors, not overpaid, political-party hacks. The agency needs to be accountable to the mayor, not to a backroom cabal of judges and two party bosses.

After all, it is 2009 - high time Philadelphia stopped operating like the "corrupt and contented" town that Lincoln Steffens wrote about more than a century ago.

The BRT is a poster child for all that is wrong with the political culture in Philadelphia, which views pay-to-play and other chicanery as an accepted form of doing business here.

Inquirer staff writers Mark Fazlollah and Joseph Tanfani detailed the BRT's myriad problems and misdeeds in a three-part series that ended yesterday. They found that property assessments are arbitrary, uneven, and favor the well-connected. Incompetence, politics, and corruption have ruled the BRT for decades.

The problems have been raised before - in fact, repeatedly - only to be met with proverbial shrugs. It is enough to make taxpayers want to scream.

The problems begin at the top.

The agency is essentially controlled by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who is also the city's Democratic Party boss, and, to a lesser extent, by Republican Party boss Michael Meehan. They pick the candidates for the BRT board, who are then approved by a committee of city judges.

The seven BRT board members are paid $70,000 to $72,000 each to work a couple of months a year. The 200-person agency includes 78 political patronage jobs.

Board chairwoman Charlesretta Meade, a former Democratic committeewoman, says she wasn't aware that the public agency was supposed to conduct its business in public.

Executive director Enrico Foglia has only a high school diploma and no managerial experience. He is paid $98,336 a year - that's after retiring for two days, collecting a six-figure early-retirement payment through the DROP program, and returning to work.

Fortunately, some outraged City Council members are questioning the legality of some property assessments, or how the city could contemplate Mayor Nutter's proposed property tax hikes at this time. Councilman Bill Green plans to introduce two bills designed to reform or replace the BRT with a system that is independent and transparent.

Let's hope that this time it will actually happen.

Efforts to dissolve or reform the BRT have been going on for a half a century.

In 1978, a Common Pleas Court judge called the city tax system an unconstitutional "hodgepodge." In 1980, then-Councilman John Street proposed abolishing the BRT. In 2002, then-Councilman Michael Nutter proposed splitting the BRT into three pieces, and taking away the board's power to set property values.

Overhauling the BRT will take leadership and political will. The time for change is now.

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