Patronage workers at the Board of Revision of Taxes went to court yesterday to try to stop the rush to remake the beleaguered agency, arguing that the takeover engineered by Mayor Nutter is illegal.
For now, the suit argues, control over the BRT - and the tax assessments for all 577,000 properties in Philadelphia - should go back to the BRT board, six people selected by city judges in a highly political process.
"I'm not as convinced and don't have as much confidence that putting it under the mayor would change the world," said lawyer Samuel C. Stretton, who is arguing the case for the BRT workers.
In May, city voters will be asked to kill the BRT and replace it with a new agency to handle appeals. Assessments would be the responsibility of the Mayor's Office.
The Nutter administration has already taken control of the agency's operations, with the BRT board's approval. Stretton argues that the BRT can't do that, and he has asked the court to overturn the deal. City lawyers say it's perfectly legal.
Common Pleas Court Judge Gary F. Divito did not rule on the request for a temporary order blocking the BRT takeover and gave the lawyers until next week to submit written arguments. No new hearing has been scheduled.
Fighting the takeover is a group of BRT clerical workers who got their jobs through connections with the city Democratic and Republican Parties.
They're paid by the School District of Philadelphia as a way to duck the city ban on political activity by municipal employees. Nutter says they would have to give up politics and go on the city payroll if they want to stay at the BRT.
As a group of fellow employees nodded approval, BRT aide Donna Aument, a Democratic ward leader, testified that the takeover unfairly penalized the district-paid workers.
She testified that about 60 of the 76 jobs are held by elected members of the Democratic or Republican committees.
Even if she turned her back on politics, Aument, who makes $36,334 a year after 29 years at the BRT, said there was no guarantee she would be able to hang on to her seniority or even her job.
"I guess I could get my medicine at the city free health clinics," said Aument, 62, who said she suffers from diabetes and is recovering from cancer.
Edward Blizzard, a former city police officer, said he would lose his disability pension if he had to become a city employee.
The BRT's wildly unfair values aren't their fault, they said, stressing that they don't make assessment decisions.
"None of these people have a guaranteed right to have jobs anywhere, whether it be the BRT or the School District," said Suzanne Reilly, chief deputy city solicitor.
Richard Negrin, the new executive director at the BRT, called the lawsuit a "nuisance."
"It's a really small number of individuals doing whatever they can to stop positive change at the BRT," he said.