Today, just as in decades past, the BRT is run as a political jobs bank, an operation that has proved far more effective at taking care of the connected than in setting accurate assessments, an Inquirer investigation shows.
Though most major cities and counties long ago turned over the task to trained professionals, the BRT has remained a relic of the city's past, steeped in patronage and controlled by a board largely handpicked by party bosses.
The BRT's offices in the historic Curtis Building are filled with insiders, from the seven board members who run the agency to the workers who answer the phones.
Joseph A. Russo, a friend of former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo's, got one of those board seats, a part-time job that pays him $72,000 a year.
That leaves Russo plenty of time to serve as president of Fumo's nonprofit and stay active in judicial politics, even though that violates city rules.
Nearly half of the agency's payroll is made up of untrained patronage clerks who, like Foglia, owe their jobs to the city's Democratic and Republican organizations. Studies have shown the agency is bloated with such jobs. Nevertheless, to pay for them, the agency takes millions each year from Philadelphia's struggling school district.
At tax appeals hearings, for example, property owners are signed in by William Strykowski, son-in-law of the late State Sen. Francis Lynch and, with 37 years on the job, the BRT's longest-serving patronage worker. He is paid $45,140.
During the hearings, Republican Committeeman Martin McCrossen, from South Philadelphia's 26th Ward, helps keep track of paperwork and tells people to turn off their cell phones. A BRT employee since 2003, he is paid $31,319.
A few BRT workers, like former State Rep. David Shadding, were hired in spite of criminal records, The Inquirer found. Shadding got his $36,300-a-year patronage job after spending five years in prison on a bribery charge.
Today, as Philadelphia looks for ways to plug a billion-dollar budget gap, BRT critics question whether the city can afford to prop up an outdated patronage system, especially one as inefficient as the BRT.
Every year, about $1 billion in property-tax collections depends on the BRT's numbers, yet the city's assessments have been among the most inequitable and bewildering in the nation.
In a recent interview, BRT chairwoman Charlesretta Meade and two fellow members - Robert N.C. Nix III and Russell Nigro - defended the agency's performance and said its move to full-value assessments will solve many of its problems.
At the same time, the three board members acknowledged that the BRT needs serious change.
It would be better served by a more qualified director, they said, someone trained in tax assessments.
As for the clerks, board members said they do valuable work, including property research and inspections. But, they said, they'd rather hire needed property assessors instead of untrained patronage workers forced on them by the party organizations.
"We didn't have the choice with the system as it exists," said Meade, a former Democratic committeewoman.
Mayor Nutter, who as a councilman proposed breaking up the BRT, has become increasingly impatient with the agency's pace and performance. He's not happy with its weak management structure and lack of accountability, but says those issues can wait.
"For me, the larger issue is getting the assessment system fixed . . . and being able to ensure property owners that the values we send them are really the values in the marketplace," he said.
Certainly, he said, it's time to stop using school money to pay BRT clerical workers.
"The only people who should be on the school district payroll should be involved in educating children," Nutter said.
Nutter is not the first to make that argument, but the school-funded patronage jobs live on, despite the best efforts of generations of reformers.
Republican leader Michael Meehan, who acknowledges he controls 15 to 20 of those positions, says he doesn't bother to check qualifications when he steers people to the BRT. He defends the patronage system as a harmless way to fill low-level posts.
"They have to hire them from somewhere," Meehan said.
The reform wave that swept through Philadelphia in the 1950s missed the BRT. Even now, the agency remains one of the last redoubts of pure Tammany-style patronage in Philadelphia.
The who-you-know culture starts at the top, with the seven-member board that runs the agency.
So many old pols have been rewarded over the years with board seats that the place is called "the elephants graveyard," coined in the days when Philadelphia was run by a Republican machine.
For part-time work, the job pays well - $70,000 to $75,000 for about 65 days of work a year, mostly hearing tax appeals. Board members' typical workday ends by midafternoon.
That appealed to Alan K. Silberstein, a former Democratic committeeman and Municipal Court president judge who landed a BRT seat in 2007.
"The hours are good," Silberstein said. "I didn't want something full time."
In an antiquated process that dates from the 19th century, the seven BRT members are appointed by the city's elected judges.
In theory, that was supposed to insulate the board from politics. The result has been the opposite.
James T. Dintino, for example, was a longtime South Philadelphia Republican ward leader until he landed a seat on the BRT in 2005. In October, records show, he was given a $1,500 check from the party for election work; Philadelphia's charter bans city employees from political work.
The current ward leader is his sister, Irene DiLolle, who said it was a mistake. Her brother endorsed the check to her, she said.
Dintino declined to comment for this article.
Silberstein, another former committeeman, controlled numerous patronage jobs from 1988 to 1999, when he ran Municipal Court.
Seats on the tax board aren't advertised. Judges typically are fed names by political bigwigs like Brady and Meehan.
The judges, many of whom lean on the political machines to get elected, generally go along.
President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe says judges are more independent now than in the past. But when it comes to a low-profile agency like the BRT - not considered one of the juiciest plums - she says many judges are happy to go along with whatever the party leaders want.
"Most people think, 'No harm, no foul,' " Dembe said.
Candidates submit their names to a committee headed by Common Pleas Court Judge William J. Manfredi, a longtime friend of Fumo's.
Asked to describe qualifications for the jobs, he said, "I haven't the faintest." He said his committee simply passes along candidates' names to the rest of the judges, who make the appointments in "as conscientious and as responsible a manner as possible."
All the same, he said, most consider this duty a hassle, and would be delighted to be rid of it.
Fumo was best man at Manfredi's wedding, and for years the two were partners in a Center City apartment building. But Manfredi said Fumo didn't have any more influence than other politicians.
"Bob Brady, Vince Fumo, John Perzel - you go through a list of all political people, I'm sure they had or tried to have some influence," Manfredi said.
BRT members say they indeed seek the blessing of party leaders when trying to win a seat.
Meade said she was a political unknown, so she had to contact 90 Common Pleas Court judges and get recommendations from powerful friends, including Gov. Rendell and former Mayor W. Wilson Goode.
Nix, son of a former Pennsylvania chief justice, had it easier.
"Practically, do I have an advantage?" Nix asked in a recent interview. "Sure, my father was in the judicial system. But I will say this: If Bobby Nix didn't have a business degree from Wharton School, wasn't an attorney, then Bobby Nix shouldn't have been appointed."
For his part, Brady says he makes dozens of calls to lobby individual judges but doesn't always get what he wants.
Sometimes judges assure him they'll support his candidates, Brady said, but then break those promises when they vote behind closed doors. The balloting is secret.
As far back as the 1950s, critics have said the selection process taints the judges, insulates the BRT from public accountability, and allows bosses to pull strings behind the scenes.
"The public is convinced that some of the court's appointments to that board are made primarily, if not solely, for political reasons," state Chief Justice John C. Bell Jr. told the state's judges in 1961.
The result, Bell said, was diminished public confidence in the "impartiality and wisdom" of judges.
'I didn't know nothing'
Even among the political insiders on the BRT, Russo stands out.
"He's a soldier in Fumo's army," said former BRT chairman David B. Glancey.
In 1999, while a BRT tax assessor, Russo became president of Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, the South Philadelphia nonprofit that was at the center of Fumo's federal corruption case.
Russo testified that despite his title, he didn't have any real responsibilities. He didn't know Fumo had billed the charity for about $133,000 in personal items.
"I didn't know nothing," he told the grand jury, saying he signed papers without reading them.
Given the close relationship with Fumo, Glancey says, he was surprised in 2004 to learn that Russo, a BRT tax assessor, was being given a spot on the board.
"I thought that was too political an appointment," Glancey said. "My [next] reaction was, 'This was going to happen.' End of story. Nothing I could do about it."
For Russo, politics is business. As a city employee, he is not allowed to participate in campaigns. But he does.
"Joe Russo is someone judicial candidates go to for assistance in the various levels of campaigns," said Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Susan I. Schulman, who paid Russo more than $6,000 to distribute her sample ballots during the 2005 election.
According to BRT employees, Russo also has taken judicial candidates to ward meetings and escorted them through the BRT offices to get their petitions signed.
Russo did not report the payments on his financial-disclosure forms, as required by law. That's a potential firing offense, say city ethics officials.
After Fumo's conviction on 137 corruption counts, the state attorney general sued to seize control of Citizens' Alliance.
On a separate issue, the city Inspector General's Office is investigating whether Russo, on Fumo's orders, intervened to help jack up the taxes on a property in South Philadelphia. Fumo wanted to buy it; the seller refused.
Russo did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, or to written questions.
"While we would like to respond to these questions and explain these circumstances, it would be inappropriate to do so until the conclusion of the investigation," Russo's lawyer, Arthur Donato Jr., wrote in an e-mail.
A helping hand
Ricky Foglia's lucky day came when someone passed his name to Anita Kelly, the late state legislator from Overbrook.
"Somebody told her I was out of work, which I was, for 14 months," said Foglia, who had hurt his back while working as a tailor's helper. "And she asked me if I wanted to be involved in politics."
It was the early 1970s. Foglia became a committeeman in the 34th Ward, the fiefdom of George X. Schwartz, a ward leader and City Council president at the time.
One of Foglia's fellow committeemen was an up-and-coming former carpenter: Brady, who became ward leader after Schwartz went to jail in the Abscam scandal.
Foglia was hired as a patronage clerk in 1972, a job he held for nearly 17 years. He was then appointed to a BRT panel called the Board of View, which hears appeals in condemnation cases.
In 1991, Foglia was named the BRT's executive director, suddenly placing the former clerk and high school graduate in his first managerial job.
Glancey, who was BRT chairman, says "you can clearly surmise" that Brady suggested Foglia's promotion to the BRT top job.
"And of course they accepted it," Glancey said, speaking of himself and his fellow board members. "It was the political realities of the times."
Foglia, though, said he didn't ask Brady to put in a word for him. "If he did, I know nothing about it," Foglia said, adding that board members interviewed him and gave him the job.
"It's not like we're old buddies or nothing like that," Foglia said. "I wasn't real tight with Bobby."
Brady declined to comment.
The BRT organizational chart says Foglia supervises every one of BRT's 200 employees, including all the property evaluators. But the chart, he acknowledged, is not quite right. Because he's not a trained assessor, he doesn't supervise the agency's professional staff.
"If you look at my title, it says CEO," he said, "but mostly I deal with personnel."
Even there, he hasn't always run a tight operation.
In 1994, three female employees filed a lawsuit alleging that a frat-house atmosphere of sexual harassment pervaded the BRT and that Foglia and other supervisors did nothing to stop it.
Male workers guzzled booze, passed around pornography, and fondled female clerks, the suit said. One woman said a male coworker grabbed her in a headlock, telling her he liked women with "loose hips."
"It was like being in a taproom with a bunch of drunken sailors," one of the women testified. The city denied the allegations but settled the case for more than $450,000.
Foglia said he was cleared of wrongdoing and was never disciplined. In fact, he earned several raises in subsequent years.
Foglia has been on the BRT staff longer than any of the patronage clerks. As executive director, he oversaw the hiring of three-quarters of the workers currently on the school district payroll.
He says he sees his role, in part, as helping decent people get jobs, the same way he was helped.
"These people are my family," he said.
Sixteen and a half months ago, Foglia left his BRT post under the city's early-retirement DROP program, collecting a $104,950 pension payment. Two days later, the board hired him back, with a $6,536 raise.
"I asked to come back," Foglia said, saying he realized he'd made a mistake in retiring. "All those years, I think I deserved it."
In an interview, Meade, Nix, and Nigro said they did not seek a more qualified director because they heard Fumo was looking to fill the job with an ally. Foglia was a safer bet, they said.
"Ricky's not going to be there forever," said Nix.
Eventually, Nix said, the board will find a topflight expert in property taxes.
Foglia insists he does a good job and keeps the agency running smoothly.
"There's a lot over here to do," he said. "I know this place inside-out."
A patronage dinosaur
In Philadelphia, Republicans and Democrats don't fight over the patronage system; instead, they share in the spoils.
Under a traditional arrangement, most of the 78 patronage jobs are under the control of Democratic leader Brady, with a smaller slice set aside for the GOP's Meehan.
Workers are hired for their political ties, not their knowledge of property appraisal. They handle tasks like answering phones, pulling deeds, and filing paperwork.
The BRT has far more of these jobs than do other such agencies.
In Montgomery, Bucks, and Chester Counties, for instance, there are no clerks serving the assessors.
In 1981, experts hired by the city found that the BRT had "an unusually high proportion" of clerks.
Nothing changed. Today, clerks outnumber the assessors.
Salaries aren't high, averaging $33,600, but the positions carry attractive benefits.
In more up-to-date assessing operations, hiring is based on merit, not politics. In Maryland, for example, all property assessments are done by the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, headed by a trained assessor appointed by the governor. Nearly all the jobs, from clerks to assessors, are chosen through civil-service rules.
"If property owners don't feel the system is fair and accurate, we lose credibility and the whole thing goes down the tube," said Bill Stansbury, an agency deputy director.
Not so in Philadelphia. In filling openings at the BRT or other patronage agencies, like the Philadelphia Parking Authority, Meehan worries more about candidates' comfort than their qualifications.
"Most of the people at the parking authority are actually writing tickets," Meehan said. "At a certain age, they can't be out on the street on a cold day and walking.
"The BRT is a more attractive place," he said.
Names are passed up the chain from committee people to ward leaders to the party chairs, who send them over to the BRT. The school district pays the salaries but doesn't make the hiring decisions.
In an interview, Brady said he merely recommends job candidates to the BRT.
"They can do how they see fit," he said.
Those "recommendations" go to Foglia, Brady's old colleague. How many have been rejected in Foglia's 18 years as BRT director?
"Maybe two," Foglia said. "A couple of them didn't even have their high school diplomas."
These patronage workers, which cost $3.8 million a year, are carried on the school board payroll under a decades-old political deal.
The official explanation: Schools get the biggest cut of property-tax revenues, so it's only fair that the district help pay the collection costs.
"That's been the cover story over the years for the public and the media," said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia watchdog group.
The backstory: The split payroll is necessary to keep the patronage pipeline flowing. That's because city workers - including the seven members of the BRT - can't be active in politics, under a 1951 charter rule that was supposed to end the machines' hold on City Hall.
That ban doesn't apply to the school district or other patronage-friendly agencies.
As a result, the BRT has been a virtual jobs bank for the politically connected.
Today, about three dozen of the school board workers are members of the Democratic or Republican committee.
Vincent Naimoli, a committeeman in a Fumo-controlled ward in South Philadelphia, has worked at the BRT since 1987. The ward chairman, Domenick DeMuro, worked at the BRT until he left for a job on Fumo's Senate staff; he now works for State Rep. Bill Keller.
Politicians have an interest in keeping the BRT's patronage machine running smoothly: They want to reward party workers who successfully turn out the vote on Election Day.
Former Democratic ward leader Helyn Cheeks, 83, has worked for the BRT since 1993; before that, she worked for 30 years in a patronage job in the register of wills' office.
Cheeks still works as a committeewoman in her 47th Ward in North Philadelphia. In 1992, then-Councilman John F. Street praised her along with several ward leaders: "They went out on the street for me." Cheeks declined to comment.
Lorenzo McCray, 62, a BRT worker since 1985, helped turn out big numbers for Street during his first mayoral campaign, in 1999.
Two current ward leaders are working at the BRT. Donna Aument, 60, has been a clerk since 1982, now making $36,344. Because she's on the school payroll, she is free to keep up her political work as Democratic leader of the 33d Ward in the Juniata section.
On the Republican side, 39th Ward leader Nicholas Marrandino was hired by the school district for a BRT job in 2002 despite repeated convictions between 1973 and 1993 for receiving stolen property. Marrandino, who declined to comment, left the BRT in 2005 and was rehired in March.
Meehan said he was not aware of Marrandino's record when he pushed him for the job.
All applicants, including the BRT patronage workers, undergo criminal background checks but are not barred unless they have committed serious crimes within the previous five years.
Former state representative Shadding got a job at the agency in 1997 despite a federal conviction for attempting to bribe a parole officer.
Shadding declined to comment: "You got all the information on me," he said.
Brady dodged questions about whether he helped Shadding get in at the BRT, saying only: "I think people with criminal records should have a second chance."
These low-level patronage jobs also serve as a kind of feeder system for the real work of the BRT - setting property values.
Dozens of the clerks, after getting in-house training, have graduated to positions of authority at the BRT, Foglia and board members said.
For example, the board's acting chief assessor, Barry Mescolotto, is the son of a former committeeman. He started as a patronage clerk, got a degree at Temple University, and switched to a job as a city-paid evaluator.
The board members say patronage works as a kind of apprenticeship program that's produced some fine assessors. But if they could get the school-district money with no strings attached, they say, they would do things differently.
"If we had an agreement that we could use that money for anything we want, would we use it for evaluators?" Nix asked. "Absolutely."
'Very quiet up there'
Not surprisingly, for years critics of the patronage pipeline have wondered what the BRT workers do and how hard they work.
Retired Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Katz served on the tax board in the early 1980s. Back then, he said, few employees showed up.
"I'd walk by, and it was very quiet up there," he said. "It was like a hospital."
A top union official says the work ethic is stronger now but still far from perfect. She blamed a lack of supervision.
"It's not that management hasn't been told that people aren't working; it's that they don't act on it," said Catherine G. Scott, president of Local 2187 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents the tax board's non-patronage workers.
"I don't think it's fair to say none of them work," she said. "The level of work varies greatly."
Board members say they stopped the worst abuses by installing a swipe-card system to track employees' comings and goings.
"Years ago, maybe they were ghost jobs. But that hasn't been the case for several years now," said board member Dintino, the former GOP ward leader.
He and other BRT members say the patronage workers handle many important duties that help evaluators, such as visiting properties and looking up records.
"They're the nitty-gritty," Dintino said. "They're the soldiers of this army."
To read the series online and check out special interactive features, go to http://go.philly.com/brt
Contact staff writer Mark Fazlollah at 215-854-5831 or firstname.lastname@example.org.