Forget the cinema, we’ve got all the science-fiction action we need right here in Center City.
Continually defying death and annihilation, the Board of Revision of Taxes has proved itself to be the T-1000 of city agencies, impossible to destroy under any circumstances. Remember how in Terminator 2 Arnold Schwarzenegger kept shooting and blowing up the T-1000 but it refused to die, instead reconstituting itself from a pool of liquid metal? No matter what tricks and ploys the city pulls out of its sleeve to eliminate the BRT, the board manages to gather itself back together and soldier on.
So far the Nutter administration has tried stripping the board’s power, slashing members’ salaries, calling for their resignations and holding elections in which 71 percent of the public voted for the BRT’s complete abolishment. The city’s tried everything short of freezing board members with liquid nitrogen, but if the Terminator is any guide, they wouldn’t find that any more of a hindrance than the attacks they’ve already weathered.
Because the next time citizens appeal their official property-assessment values, guess who’ll be there to hear their pleas? None other than our new, all-time favorite invulnerable chunk of bureaucracy, the Board of Revision of Taxes. Yes, despite all the obstacles thrown in its path, the BRT will continue to play a relevant role in property valuations in Philadelphia.
How’d they do it this time? After all, residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of annulling the BRT in May and creating two separate agencies for assessing properties and hearing appeals. The city spent all summer setting up an Office of Property Assessment and Board of Property Assessment Appeals, and seven new nominees for the appeals board were set to be approved by City Council last week. But in a shocking turn of events, the state Supreme Court ruled last Monday that the city was powerless to strip the BRT of its ability to hear appeals.
Darrin Pinkett, a local realtor who had been tapped to serve on the new appeals board, was surprised by the state’s decision. “I thought it was pretty much a done deal,” Pinkett says. “I was under the impression that the BRT was a city department that city would have control over.”
Instead, the court ruled that only the state government can put the BRT to sleep once and for all.
“It was very disappointing. I’m hoping they can work something out where I can still serve,” Pinkett adds.
The Mayor’s Office has tried to put a positive spin on the ruling. “You always hope to have a decisive, comprehensive win, but as you parse through the opinion you realize that you really got everything you needed and validated everything you were fighting for,” says Managing Director Richard Negrin, noting that the city’s move to separate assessments from appeals was allowed to stand. “[The BRT] was hearing appeals of their own assessments,” he says. “If they had overturned that piece, I think we’d be talking about something very different.”
Note that wildly inaccurate assessments are what led to the exposure and unraveling of the BRT in the first place—most houses in Philadelphia are undervalued, which costs the city hundreds of millions in tax dollars.
Richie McKeithen, head of the new assessment office charged with cleaning up the BRT’s mess, says there’s still no timeline for a re-do on property values. “We’re at a point of trying to clean up a lot of our data,” McKeithen says. “We’ll set out a plan and do field inspections, march throughout city as much as we humanly can to collect and correct data.” Last winter, the city had estimated that it would take about two years to come up with new values, but the process has been stopped and started several times thanks to the BRT’s repeated efforts to claw its way back into power.
Despite the BRT’s amazing resiliency, all good movies must come to an end sometime. While the T-1000 was a more advanced Terminator than Schwarzenegger, Arnold did defeat it in the end by blasting it into a pool of molten metal. The BRT is a more advanced form of intractable bureaucracy, resistant to whatever efforts this city can throw at it. But the agency as we know it will eventually fade into the history books through attrition if nothing else.
Four of the seven board members who were around while the BRT gained its reputation for crookedness, cronyism, corruption and incompetence are already gone—two were replaced last spring, and there are currently two more vacancies due to recent resignations, including Chairwoman Charlesretta Meade’s quiet departure two weeks ago. A request for comment to the BRT’s office was not returned, unsurprisingly.
But it’s not just the personnel that’s at issue; it’s the method of appointment and a power struggle between the three branches of government. The appeals board was to be appointed by agreement between the mayor and City Council, whereas the BRT members are assigned by judges in a process that in the past had been marred by an emphasis on political connections over qualifications. The Nutter administration is hoping his picks will be considered by the judges for the two current openings.
President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas Pamela Dembe says the next two BRT appointees likely won’t come until November at the earliest, and she hasn’t seen the list of mayoral nominees yet. “Going forward, if we treat it like a business based on what skills are needed and how do we get applicants that have those skills, it can be a different kind of thing,” Dembe says regarding allegations that the appointments have been too political in the past.
The mayor’s nominees hope they get chosen, too. “I believe my contribution would be the same in whichever capacity I would be appointed or enabled to join the board,” says lawyer and realtor Sherman Toppin, another presumed member of the stillborn appeals board. “I’m eager to serve the citizens of Philadelphia.”
If he does, it will be under a label that has become infamous in the city: Ladies and gentlemen, your Board of Revision of Taxes!