Controller's blunt talk stirs up anger Critics say Alan Butkovitz has forsaken traditional number-crunching to take politicized stands on issues.

Posted: May 30, 2006

When state legislators held a hearing in Philadelphia earlier this spring about the city's endlessly complex property-tax reassessment program, the witnesses included a who's who of the city's policy wonks, ready for a morning of acronym-laden, algebra-saturated debate.

And then there was Alan Butkovitz, the newly elected city controller. Instead of technical jargon, Butkovitz spoke frankly about politics.

"I want to take this opportunity to state my opposition to term limits for legislators," he said, implying that legislators who supported enabling legislation for the complex project to tax every city property at full market value would reap the whirlwind on election day.

In Butkovitz's telling, the plan was a backdoor tax hike, a dumb idea that would hurt the elderly and smother a red-hot housing market just to rationalize an obscure line on tax forms.

At the hearing, Butkovitz's combative, sweeping tone represented a dramatic break from the chummy style of the controller's 16-year predecessor, Jonathan Saidel. The same combination of sharp elbows and disdain for the received wisdom of the city's policy mandarins has characterized Butkovitz's five months in office.

Critics say the longtime state legislator from Northeast Philadelphia is a ward leader in auditor's clothing, forsaking the number-crunching core of his job for politicized issues that generate headlines.

But in an interview in his office last week, Butkovitz cast himself as a "populist" determined to protect the little guy from elites.

"For people who have more wealth and more education to act as if they're being objective and not really supporting their own interest is naive and dishonest," he said.

"The idea is: If you're worried about the real estate tax, you're a Neanderthal, you're not a right-thinking Philadelphian," he said. "But it's a city of millions, and there has to be policy that works for the masses."

The start of Butkovitz's term has been marked by a series of high-profile political feuds. Even before he was sworn in, he butted heads with Saidel, whom he accused of undermining his transition.

Soon afterward, he clashed with school district chief executive Paul Vallas, over personnel issues - demanding to examine Vallas' credit-card receipts after the schools chief rebuffed Butkovitz's efforts to place key aides on the district's payroll.

Now, his campaign against the reassessments pits Butkovitz against many of the most frequently cited public-policy experts in Philadelphia - not to mention David Glancey, chairman of the city's Board of Revision of Taxes.

"I'm not trying to be anyone's enemy," Butkovitz said. "But I am trying to prod people for policy."

Some of those who have butted heads with the controller appear to feel differently.

Glancey, a former leader of the city's Democratic Party, said he had known Butkovitz for years and was surprised that he had never called before teeing off against the tax effort.

And, Glancey said, Butkovitz's critique may be based on numbers, but the numbers are wrong.

"If what Alan were saying were true, I'd be on his side," Glancey said. "I don't mean he's lying, but he's built up a straw man. He doesn't seem to want to listen to what we're saying."

Brett Mandel, whose Philadelphia Forward nonprofit has advocated reforms including the tax reassessment, said that if Butkovitz's claims about self-interested elites was meant to refer to people like him, it was way off base. Mandel was a policy analyst under Saidel.

"People who live in wealthy areas are not paying tax on the full value of their homes - if these are the elites, it's not in their interest to fix the system," said Mandel, whose own taxes will rise after a reassessment.

Vallas and Saidel both declined to comment. But sources close to both men said they remained cool toward Butkovitz.

In Vallas' case, the tension sprang from Butkovitz's efforts to put top aide Harvey Rice, a longtime Vallas critic, on the school district payroll - where a handful of controller's staff have always resided because the controller also audits schools. Vallas saw it as a nakedly political move that would allow top aides to escape city rules against staff politicking.

Veterans of Saidel's term say Butkovitz has acted more like a pothole-fixing politician than a controller, playing up politics and playing down the real purpose of the office: auditing city government. He hired a community-relations specialist akin to a legislator's constituent-service aide and played up his concern over pedestrian problems on Roosevelt Boulevard and genocide in Sudan. But he hasn't issued any audits yet.

Butkovitz said good government, not political brawling, motivated the clashes with Vallas and others. As for having a constituent-service aide, he intends to have her gather information that might prompt performance audits of government.

Butkovitz said the slow audit flow was mostly the result of large amounts of work being released just before he took over. He said several would be released soon.

Joseph C. Vignola, a former controller who calls Butkovitz a friend, attributes the friction to a culture shock as Philadelphia's establishment grows accustomed to an aggressive newcomer from Harrisburg - and vice versa.

Sitting in his office overlooking City Hall last week, Butkovitz seemed to relish the storm - hinting at plans that might touch off a few more clashes.

Butkovitz said he is doing just what he was elected to do: serving as an advocate.

"I remember as a child, growing up in a very poor family, and I was not a very strong student early on, and the overwhelming sense that I had was nobody cared what I thought," he said. "And now I have a voice on behalf of myself and of the people who need me to serve as their protector."

"My experience has always been: Just make yourself the factor that doesn't change," Butkovitz said. "Why do I want to be the person responding to that wave? Why not shape it and generate it?"

Contact staff writer Michael Currie Schaffer at 215-854-4565 or mcschaffer@phillynews.com.

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