Cleaning up the BRT mess

Interim Executive Director of the BRT, Richard Negrin, left, stands behind Mayor Nutter, right, after a moratorium was ordered on property assessments. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)

Citing faulty data, the head of the city Board of Revision of Taxes has frozen assessments on most properties in Philadelphia for up to two years.

Interim BRT executive director Richard Negrin has been on the job only for little more than a month, but he did the right thing. Mayor Nutter agreed with him.

It tells you what a mess the city’s property tax system must be for Negrin to take such a drastic step. It confirms the compelling findings in The Inquirer series last year that detailed how the BRT is corrupt and broken.

Assessments are uneven, with some people paying more than they should and others paying less. Some properties have not been assessed for 20 years, while the well-connected gamed the system to get special deals.

Negrin said his main focus will be to clean up the data. He found basic facts wrong for many of the roughly 570,000 properties, such as how many stories a house has.

Before the Inquirer series last year, Nutter had proposed raising property taxes 19 percent, plus another 14.5 percent from the original rate in the following year. He was forced to scrap that plan as it became clear the BRT was a joke.

At the time, BRT officials were boasting about a new computer system that would fix the problems with assessments. The agency spent six years and $8 million on the new software. It has since been determined that the program is useless. It will be junked.

What a disgrace.

In addition to getting new computer software, it is clear the BRT needs professional employees.
Many workers are political hacks — ward leaders and committee members — hired by the heads of Democratic and Republican parties. Their main job is to work on election campaigns and do constituent services. At the BRT, time cards are optional.

Some workers are suing to keep their jobs and political status. In reality, property owners should be suing the city for years of waste, incompetence, and poor assessments at the BRT.

The good news is that the city is finally taking steps to essentially blow up the agency. Voters will get a chance to approve the changes in the May 18 primary.

The other good news is that Nutter seems to have the right person in charge of cleaning up the agency. Negrin, an attorney by training who served on the city’s Board of Ethics, seems like a straight shooter without deep political ties. How refreshing.

He appears to be charting the right course to instill public confidence that the assessment system is fair and accurate. Negrin has redrawn the organization chart, is searching for a new chief assessment officer, plans to tour assessment agencies in other states, and is training the staff.

One concern is that it is unclear how long Negrin will remain in his role if voters approve revamping the agency in May. He should be given the time and authority to see the job through.