Mayor Nutter and City Council are sending mixed messages about reforming the city's Board of Revision of Taxes.
While taking good steps to dismantle the broken agency, they also are bending over backward to ensure that its patronage workers remain in place.
On the positive front, Council voted 12-1 last week to move a bill out of committee that would replace the BRT with two new agencies, one to handle property assessments under the mayor's direction, and an independent appeals board.
Nutter then announced the hiring on Monday of what appears to be a solid interim executive director to run the BRT. Richard Negrin is the general counsel at Aramark, the food-service giant. He previously worked as an assistant district attorney and is on the city's Ethics Board.
Negrin's best asset is that he isn't some political insider. He is known for his integrity and independence - qualities often missing at the BRT.
Negrin's top priority will be to implement fair and accurate property-tax assessments. But he will take over with the proverbial arm tied behind his back.
It is clear that Nutter and Council have no intention of replacing the BRT's nearly 80 patronage employees. While those workers are not the agency's main problem, they were hired because of their political connections as opposed to their professional qualifications.
A number of the employees are ward leaders and committeemen. They get paid through the school district in order to evade a City Charter rule that prohibits city employees from working on political campaigns.
It's a sham setup that's been in place for decades. Council and Nutter defend the patronage workers, saying they are decent people who have been unfairly maligned. No one is saying the patronage employees are bad people. But it is impossible to reform an agency stocked with workers hired because of whom they know, not what they know.
Some of the clerks may be able to do their jobs, but studies have found that the agency is bloated and that many jobs aren't necessary. It's telling that the BRT's former boss was a political insider who wasn't licensed to perform assessments.
One of their main roles as patronage employees is to get pols elected and reelected. Clearly, taxpayers should not have to fund a shadow political arm.
Nutter wants to end the BRT workers' political work. However, the mayor has come up with an absurd way to ensure that everyone keeps his job, while making it appear aboveboard.
He wants the BRT employees to take a civil-service exam. But the exam will be open only to those with experience as clerks in government property-assessing agencies. In other words, only people who already have the job can apply. Apparently, this is what passes for reform in Philadelphia.