Phila. leaders in no rush to fix BRT

Posted: June 05, 2009

Change rarely comes quickly to Philadelphia's government, and it is beginning to appear that reform of the Board of Revision of Taxes will be no exception.

Despite Mayor Nutter's and City Council President Anna C. Verna's month-old pledge "to reform, restructure, or dissolve the BRT as quickly as possible," little progress has been made.

Though both leaders say they remain committed to addressing the agency's structural problems, they have not yet created the informal working group that will examine the agency. And talk of unprecedented summer Council sessions to accelerate BRT changes has faded.

"There's been no slippage. We're going to do what we said we're going to do," Nutter insisted in a recent interview.

But the urgency that prevailed in City Hall after Inquirer articles documented mismanagement and possible corruption at the agency is gone.

That worries those who want serious change.

"There's a very limited window of opportunity to deal with any scandalous situation, especially in Philadelphia," said Zack Stalberg, president and chief executive officer of the Committee of Seventy, the city government watchdog group.

"After that window closes, people feel like they can continue to get away with doing things the way they've always done them."

If Council does not address the BRT before recessing June 18 and does not reconvene until its next scheduled meeting in mid-September, that window could close, Stalberg said.

Verna dismissed that concern and said she remained committed to restructuring the agency, but at a pace that suits Council.

"We do not yet know how long the process will take, but it is much more important in my view that we do it correctly rather than quickly," she said.

Asked what work had been done on the BRT in the last month, Verna said Council had been focused on the budget and other business.

"I've talked to the mayor about it. I don't know if you've noticed, but we've been extremely, extremely busy with other things. We've had one public hearing after another," Verna said.

Other Council members said they would not let the prospect of BRT reform slip away over the summer.

"I think there's a real strong commitment to address this in the fall," Councilwoman Maria Quinoñes Sánchez said. "A few of us have been very, very adamant that this be resolved, that we don't waste this opportunity."

But Council members say the job could take many months. After the task force does its work, there will be public hearings. Then, if the city tries to disband the agency, a public vote will be required, which likely would not make the ballot until May.

"This is a serious thing to be messing with. In my view, we shouldn't rush it, because if we do we're going to make mistakes," Councilman Bill Green said.

To be sure, dissolving or restructuring the BRT is replete with major technical and political obstacles.

Nutter and Council must vet the agency's new batch of property assessments, weigh the fate of 80 patronage workers (including some with ties to Council members), and consider whether property assessors should work for the mayor instead of for an independent agency with a board appointed by city judges.

Though Nutter would not say when the task force will begin its work, Verna "hopes" to announce the appointees by June 18, she said.

Unlike some past task forces and reform commissions led by well-known business and community leaders, the BRT working group will likely consist principally of Council and administration staffers.

Such a group may be better equipped for nitty-gritty work than a high-profile commission, but it could lack the independence and clout needed to keep the BRT a high priority.

"Barring a summer Council session," Stalberg said, "the best thing would be a strong, independent-minded task force that would come back in the fall with a set of recommendations so compelling that Council and the administration can't ignore them."

He added: "The insider model is almost destined to fail. The only people with the ability to keep this on the radar screen are people who are independent and can't be silenced. Staffers can be silenced at any time."


 

For past stories on the Bureau of Revision of Taxes, visit http://go.philly.

com/brt


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

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