Back at the BRT

Why Jacob Lambert should've waited to write his screed about city taxes.

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 8, 2010

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For the record: This is NOT retired Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro.

Editor's note: In early January, PW contributor Jacob Lambert wrote how a tax reassessment on his Bella Vista home had made him feel less positive about Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, he went before the BRT to appeal the reassessment.

On the morning of January 13, I walked with my neighbors Max, Lauren and Joel to the Curtis Center, where we would plead our separate cases to the BRT. The four of us live on the same Bella Vista side street, and we all faced sudden tax increases. As we hurried against the cold, Joel told us what to expect: your address would be called, you’d rise to state your case, and a few days later, the board would respond. If you were lucky, you might avoid a screwing. This would be Joel’s third appeal in as many years; his previous attempts had yielded tiny reductions from a wildly inequitable bill. He had not been lucky.

By 10 o’ clock, we were in a faceless hearing room on the building’s third floor. On the left was a bank of leather chairs on a wood-paneled dais; below sat a wide, heavy table—where we’d each make our arguments—and beyond, rows of chairs filled with our fellow-appellants: women who’d dressed for the occasion, guys who plainly hadn’t. Most distracted themselves with notes, photographs, printouts; a few had brought dubious-looking lawyers.

Soon enough, four members of the BRT emerged and took their seats: a band taking the stage without applause. Harvey Levin, the lead singer, welcomed us, adding that the proceedings “should not be adversarial.” He outlined a few matters of procedure, and then we were off: an address was called, and the entreaties began. There were elderly couples, teary women, a peevish old man who never removed his coat. One man’s house sat beside a filthy, noisy highway; another spoke of “toxic chemical rat-poisoning,” said that he had no kitchen, no heat, and a gaping hole in the wall. One woman admitted that she shouldn’t have paid a million-plus for her Queen Village home; the owner of a notorious Bella Vista mansion pled hardship. Through it all, the board emitted an air of concerned ennui; after all, they’d heard it all before: please don’t raise my taxes. “You’ll receive our decision within ten days,” said Levin.

All the while, I wondered when my case would be heard. At around 12:15, I glanced at one of the clerks. He was holding a sheet of paper; from a distance I could see the PW logo. It was a printout of my column, which had run that morning (subhead: “The BRT Isn’t Just Corrupt and Dishonest…”). He gave me a sideways look, holding back a smirk. My neck constricted, and a thought crossed my mind: Oh Shit.

Naturally, I was called last—the BRT equivalent of icing the kicker—and my neighbors stayed to watch. I won’t mention the article, I thought; maybe the clerk is the only one who’s seen it. But I was barely seated before the board member on the far right spoke: “Mr. Lambert, before we begin, I’d like to know: do you think that I am corrupt and dishonest? Because if you do, I’d like to recuse myself from your case.” His wounds were theatrical.

“Well, I guess you’ve read the piece,” I said, pushing out what might’ve been a smile. “But I wasn’t talking about you specifically, sir. I think you’re overestimating your role in my thinking when I was writing it.” I squinted at his nameplate. “I don’t even know who you are.”

Loftily, he informed me that he was “retired Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro,” and he wasn’t quite finished. “Do we remind you of”—he looked down at his own printout—“‘a drowsy pod of Steadman lizards?’” Did I think that he was Claude Rains—the crooked senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which I had referenced in the article? I said something about being “free to write whatever I want to,” too frazzled to respond that "No, a better classic-film comparison might be Bette Davis in All About Eve: hammy, sarcastic, and on the way out."

The other members, though amused, seemed anxious to get on with it, and I was soon repeating what the other 20 or so appellants had said that morning: it was too much of an increase at once; if it stood, my wife and I would pay far more than larger houses in our neighborhood; we simply couldn’t afford it. I mentioned the sinking feeling of opening your mail to find your taxes more than doubled. They seemed sympathetic, with Robert Nix III adding, “You know, it also doesn’t feel too good to be held up as everything that’s wrong with Philadelphia.”

Two weeks later, I got my response: our taxes would go from $1,663 to $2,829—a hefty increase, but $1,200 less than originally proposed. My neighbors received similar breaks. Our relative pleasure, though, was tempered by an announcement made days later by Mayor Nutter: “There would be an immediate moratorium on all reassessments until each and every parcel of land in the city can be assessed anew,” the Inquirer wrote on Jan. 26. “The 18,000 city properties that received reassessment notices in 2009 are not covered by the moratorium.”

As I write this, there is movement in City Hall to extend the moratorium to those 18,000 households—my own, my neighbors’, the man with the hole in his wall—that have been clubbed by an unfair and scattershot assessment system. Councilman Frank DiCicco has introduced a resolution to repeal all 2009 reassessments, and while its chances of passing are uncertain, I, for one, remain hopeful. After all, I didn’t expect much of a reduction to begin with. And as Bette Davis said, “I’ve been lucky once. I’ll be lucky again.”

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