Committee of Seventy calls on BRT to cede power immediately

The charter change voters approved yesterday dismantling the BRT does not fully go into effect until Oct. 1. But the Committee of Seventy wants the agency to hand over the reins before that, at least as much as possible.

Take a look at the watchdog group's press release below.

PHILADELPHIA – May 19, 2010 – In the wake of Philadelphia voters’ elimination of the Board of Revision of Taxes, which will take full effect on October 1, 2010, the Committee of Seventy urged the embattled agency to immediately surrender its power to assess the value of all city-owned properties.

In October 2009, the BRT agreed to only hear assessment appeals and ceded its assessment responsibilities to the city’s Finance Department. Last month, the BRT refused to extend the agreement and reclaimed its power to assess properties.

Zachary Stalberg, President and CEO of the non-partisan organization that champions effective government, said it is time for the BRT to respect the voters and property taxpayers by also:

• Foregoing an appeal of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to keep the BRT-elimination question on the May 18 ballot.
• Working in cooperation with the new Chief Assessment Officer, who will head the new Office of Property Assessment and whose initial four-year term will start on July 1, 2010.
• Ensuring a smooth transition of its assessment appeals responsibilities to a new and separate Board of Property Assessment Appeals, whose seven members will begin their initial terms on October 1, 2010.

“Given the public’s complete lack of trust in the BRT, prolonging the inevitable will only inflict further damage,” Stalberg said. Noting that the fallout from the BRT scandals is still continuing, he cited gross inaccuracies in the property assessment system as a key factor in the opposition by 7 of City Council’s 17
members to a temporary 9.9 percent property-tax hike, which some have said could face a legal challenge.

“Regaining the taxpayers’ confidence will take a massive overhaul of the assessment system and the people who administer it,” Stalberg said. “The soon-to-be-extinct BRT shouldn’t force Philadelphians to wait until the lights go out to start that process.” Members of the BRT include Chairwoman Charlesretta Meade, Esquire, Secretary Robert N.C. Nix III, Esquire, the Honorable Alan K. Silberstein, the Honorable Russell M. Nigro, Howard M. Goldsmith, Esquire, and Anthony Lewis, Jr.

According to Stalberg, the BRT’s decision to reclaim its assessment powers stopped “dead in its tracks” progress that was underway to restore public confidence in the agency and its performance. He cited an April 2010 report by Richard Negrin, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter as the Executive Director of the BRT’s assessment function in December 2009, describing the start of “a new culture of open communication, collaboration and professionalism” among the agency’s employees. Stalberg said that a cultural change is essential to the success of any new operation, given the gross mismanagement and political favoritism reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Negrin’s report also stated that the national search for a highly-qualified Chief Assessment Officer (CAO) of unquestioned integrity had narrowed the field to three potential candidates. The CAO, who must be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council, will begin a four year initial term on July 1, 2010. Stalberg urged the mayor and Council to conclude the confirmation process before Council’s summer recess.
Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a bid by five BRT members to remove the BRT-elimination question from the May 18 ballot. Since the lawsuit only questioned the city’s power to abolish the BRT’s responsibility to hear assessment appeals, Stalberg said that an appeal of the high court’s ruling would not impact the transfer of the agency’s assessment duties.

“The BRT should abandon any thoughts of appealing the Supreme Court’s ruling,” Stalberg stated. “Accepting the voters’ decision would be the clearest evidence yet that they have the interests of Philadelphians at heart,” Stalberg concluded.

The Committee of Seventy is a non-partisan organization fighting for clean and effective government, fair elections and informed citizens. See for more information.
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