Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

BRT chiefs take back control of troubled agency

In a surprise move, the seven judicially appointed chiefs of the Board of Revision of Taxes refused Monday to renew an agreement that temporarily transferred day-to-day control of the beleaguered agency to the Nutter administration.

Although the implications of the decision are not entirely clear, the upshot is that the same board that oversaw the BRT as it deteriorated into one of the most chronically mismanaged agencies in the city is back in charge of property assessments.

Nutter spokesman Doug Oliver blasted the BRT's appointed leaders Monday, saying they had "reneged" on a verbal agreement to extend the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that transferred control of most of the agency to the mayor's staff.

"The administration finds the BRT's actions completely and totally unacceptable," Oliver said.

He called the decision a "shameless display of self-interest motivated by personal gain," referring to the $70,000 salaries BRT members earn for part-time work.

BRT members are at real risk of losing those lucrative jobs.

Philadelphia voters are scheduled to decide in the May 18 primary whether the BRT - and its board - should be abolished as of Oct. 1.

In recent weeks, BRT members have mounted a vigorous legal campaign to keep their positions, filing a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court that claims the city has no legal authority to completely abolish the agency.

The Nutter administration argues that the BRT's latest move was motivated by nothing more than legal strategy. Further ceding day-to-day control of the BRT to the city might undercut their lawsuit, Oliver surmised.

"Presumably, they are allowing a legal strategy to stand in the way of a fair tax-assessment system," he said.

Even if the BRT's legal challenge fails and the agency is ultimately dismantled, the unexpected revocation of Mayor Nutter's authority there seems likely to ensure further chaos in the city's property-assessment system.

For instance, the BRT could choose to reverse Nutter's freeze on property reassessments. At minimum, the BRT's break with the administration will further delay the work to overhaul the agency's assessments, which for years have been among the most inaccurate and inequitable in the nation.

None of the BRT members returned phone calls Monday. Board chairperson Charlesretta Meade responded to an e-mailed request for comment with the following: "The Board is taking no action with respect to the subject matter of the MOU. Thank you."

With the board "taking no action," the memorandum ceases to have any power.

Signed in October, the memorandum effectively split the BRT in two. One side was to be run by Nutter's handpicked manager, Richard Negrin, who left a lucrative job as a senior lawyer for Aramark to take the position. Negrin had day-to-day authority over the vast majority of the agency's staff. It was his job to oversee property assessments and to begin changing the culture and performance of the agency.

The other half of the BRT remained under the board's control. Its chief function was to hear appeals of property assessments.

But the memorandum ensured that arrangement only for six months. The assent of both parties was required to extend the memorandum.

City Councilman Frank DiCicco - who has called for a property-tax hike to cover the budget deficit - criticized the board's decision.

"This is a further disservice on the part of the BRT to the taxpayers of Philadelphia. Their agency is broken, they admit it's broken, they've been running the show there for a long time and haven't been able to straighten it out," DiCicco said. "Now they want us to continue to live with the problems they created?"

Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe, who plays a key role in appointing BRT members, said she, too, disagreed with the board's action.

"I don't expect that the members of the board will come out looking too good here," she said.

Extending the memorandum, Dembe said, would be the "prudent and professional thing to do."

By letting the agreement expire, the board is now back in control of the entire agency. But with Negrin gone, the board has no day-to-day operational leader.

Not that Negrin was fired. Board members spoke to him informally about staying on, but Negrin said that would be "untenable," expressing doubt that he would have a free hand to restructure the organization.

"I think this place is paralyzed now," said Negrin, who will move to an unspecified position elsewhere in the administration. "I spent a lot of time trying to drive change in this organization in the last few months, and a lot of folks were starting to embrace that. Now I think they're back to square one."

 


Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.

Patrick Kerkstra Inquirer Staff Writer
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