"They're going to have to take some decisive action, because right now the BRT doesn't have any credibility, and that means people are going to lack confidence in the whole property-tax system," political consultant Larry Ceisler said in an interview.
Nutter spent yesterday plotting his next steps.
A longtime critic of the BRT, Nutter proposed getting rid of the agency more than six years ago, when he was still a councilman.
Yesterday, though, his administration was unwilling to say quite yet what reforms they had in mind. "City Council and I are in agreement that substantial change is needed at the BRT," Nutter said through a spokesman.
Councilman Bill Green was not content to wait. He released copies of a bill that, if adopted, would disband the BRT and split its functions three ways. As an alternative, Green has drawn up a bill that would keep the agency intact but give the mayor and City Council the power to appoint BRT board members - instead of the city judges who now do so.
His proposals were assailed by BRT spokesman Kevin Feeley, who argued that it would be dangerous to give the mayor and City Council - who set property-tax rates - even indirect authority over the assessors who set property values.
"Those who believe that the property-valuation system can be fixed by combining those duties under one roof should be careful what they wish for," said Feeley. "There's potential for mischief when a branch of government controls both the assessing and taxation function."
But as The Inquirer series documented, the BRT has its own history of mischief-making, reducing assessments at the request of city power brokers and serving as a jobs bank for political bosses.
And for decades, the agency's property assessments have been wildly inaccurate, creating a system wherein some property owners have paid too much, while others have paid too little.
Despite that, some on Council said yesterday that any changes to the BRT should be made slowly and carefully, and preferably after the city concludes what has been a wrenching budget process.
"We've got a budget to deal with. The BRT's been a problem for a long time. We'll deal with it, but not right now," said at-large Councilman Frank Rizzo.
Majority whip Darrell L. Clarke agreed.
"Given the big challenges that we have with this budget, I don't think there's enough time to put on top of that this very difficult issue of reforming the BRT," said Clarke, who stressed that significant changes will have to be made to the agency.
Any serious structural reform of the BRT will require changing the City Charter. Any change in Charter, however, must be approved by voters. That process can take a while, and Council members yesterday suggested that such a proposal probably would not make the ballot until May or November of 2010.
Nutter, though, may not have the luxury of taking his time.
For one thing, his proposed budget and five-year spending plan hinge on temporary property-tax hikes. That would be a tough sell even if homeowners had confidence that their properties were correctly valued. But as long as BRT's credibility is in doubt, Nutter's property-tax proposals will be all but impossible to get through Council.
For another, Nutter's political strength is largely built on his reputation as a reformer. Maintaining that may mean taking on the BRT.
"This administration has to come to grips with whether or not it wants to be a reform administration. If it does, he cannot duck the BRT," said former Managing Director Phil Goldsmith.
There are risks in publicly wrangling with an agency like the BRT, which shelters so many patronage workers. But in Ceisler's view, the payoff for Nutter would be worth it.
"If he was elected mayor to eliminate waste and corruption and to create transparency, well, here's a perfect opportunity. He's been handed the BRT on a silver platter," Ceisler said.
It was unclear yesterday what would become of the new BRT property assessments if Nutter and City Council move to disband the agency.
The tentative new Actual Value figures, as they are known, were developed with a new statistical model that was created in part by respected independent consultants. So far, the new assessments appear to be much more accurate than the old ones, which are still in use.
But the new figures are not yet perfect, and it is plausible that their long-delayed adoption will be pushed off yet again if the BRT is disbanded and its property evaluators are moved into a different city department.
"It is quite a coincidence that the calls for the abolition of the BRT come one week after it has submitted Actual Values for all the properties in the city to mayor and council," said Feeley, the BRT spokesman. "After all, once Actual Values are implemented, that would shift the onus to mayor and the Council."
The transition to Actual Value will require Council and the mayor to set a new property-tax rate, a politically charged decision that City Hall has managed to avoid for 18 years.
"That's the real resolution of the problem: Setting accurate values, which is what Actual Value does, and then setting an appropriate tax rate," Feeley said. "It does not appear that folks in City Hall want to tackle that."
Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or firstname.lastname@example.org.