Sunday, December 21, 2014

Aggrieved BRT considers ceding some powers to Nutter

The six members of the beleaguered Board of Revision of Taxes defended their management of the agency, the role of patronage in its operations and the performance of their employees at a public hearing this morning, where they faulted City Council and the Nutter administration for Philadelphia's inequitable and inaccurate property tax assessment system.

Aggrieved BRT considers ceding some powers to Nutter

Former Board of Revision of Taxes executive director Erico Foglia (left) retired recently. (David Swanson / Staff file photo)
Former Board of Revision of Taxes executive director Erico Foglia (left) retired recently. (David Swanson / Staff file photo)

The six members of the beleaguered Board of Revision of Taxes defended their management of the agency, the role of patronage in its operations and the performance of their employees at a public hearing this morning, where they faulted City Council and the Nutter administration for Philadelphia's inequitable and inaccurate property tax assessment system.

No vote was taken at the hearing, which was called for the board to consider adoption of a memorandum of understanding that would temporarily cede BRT control of property assessments to the Nutter administration. A final vote has not been scheduled, though board member Robert Nix said it could come within a week.

Instead, the morning hearing was dominated by impassioned remarks from BRT members and employees, who likened recent criticism of the agency to a "mob scene." Board members saved their harshest remarks for the Committee of 70, which has called for BRT reforms, and for the Inquirer, which has for over a year documented the agency's missteps.

"I want you to know that I take umbrage and offense," said BRT Chair Charlesretta Meade, addressing Ellen Kaplan, Vice President and Policy Director of the Committee of 70, who had come to urge the agency to do what it can to repair its damaged image.

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Board member James Thomas Dintino was just as offended by Kaplan's remarks.

"It is my honor that is at stake here. I will not let it be tarnished," Dintino said.

The board members said they had tried for years to adopt a more equitable tax assessing system, dubbed the Actual Value Initiative, but had been thwarted by political interference from Council and by reduced funding from the Nutter administration.

The Inquirer has found serious and systemic errors in early releases of Actual Value assessments, and the Nutter administration has predicted it could take up to two years to iron out the flaws.

In his remarks, board member Alan K. Silberstein defended the role of the agency's 80 patronage workers, who are funded by the School District of Philadelphia and thus exempt from city civil service regulations, which include a ban on political activity.

As in the private sector, patronage workers get their jobs by dint of their relationships and connections, Silberstein said.

"That's the way things work. It doesn't make it wrong," Silberstein said.

If the board does vote to adopt the memorandum of understanding, the BRT would continue to hear appeals from property owners who disagree with their assessments. But it would the Nutter administration, through Finance Director Rob Dubow, who oversees the property evaluators who determine what real estate is worth in the city.

The arrangement is intended to be temporary. City Council is considering legislation that would, following approval from the voters in May, disband or restructure the BRT for good.

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The Philadelphia Inquirer's Chris Hepp, Tricia Nadolny, Julia Terruso, and Claudia Vargas take you inside Philadelphia's City Hall.

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