Bored of Revision

It's called the Office of Property Assessment, but will it be filled with BRT cronies?

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 7, 2010

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Last week, Mayor Nutter announced the nominees who will sit on the Board of Property Assessment Appeals—the agency that, along with the Office of Property Assessment, will replace the Board of Revision of Taxes on Oct. 1. The 21 candidates, chosen by a separate nominating panel, will be cut to seven by Nutter, then submitted to City Council for approval. The process, part of the BRT’s widely cheered demise, represented, as Nutter said in a press release, “another important step forward in the city’s shared goal of creating a system of property tax assessments and appeals that is just, equitable, and transparent.”

Unsurprisingly, though, the method by which the 21 were chosen was opaque, with the nominating panel backed by various business associations; Councilwomen Anna Verna and Jannie Blackwell were also involved. This didn’t seem terribly different from the BRT’s appointment process, which was dependent upon, according to the Committee of Seventy, “Party bosses, influential ward leaders and political powerbrokers.” Nonetheless, panel chair Tim Roseboro said, “This list [of nominees] reflects countless hours of application review, interviews and spirited discussion. We are proud of our work and pleased with the results.”

What were those results? A host of the well-connected: Among the nominees were Milton Street’s ex-son-in-law, a pair of former BRT assessors, two favored by Verna and Blackwell, and various Palm-lunching realtors and lawyers. While it remains to be seen who will survive Nutter’s culling, such inside baseball seemed anathema to the house-cleaning we were led, perhaps naively, to expect: “The change should be significant,” the mayor said in a 2009 interview with WHYY. “Ultimately we have to restore trust for the general public in whatever entity comes next.”

Of course, the nominees had to come from somewhere, and an overlap between qualifications and connections must be expected, to a degree. Whether or not we wind up with an appeals board that’s as dispiriting as its predecessor, the real issue is not the board itself, but the infrastructure behind it. The BRT employs 150 workers; its seven-member appellate panel was its scowling public face—not the agency itself. While Chairwoman Charlesretta Meade and her compatriots bore the brunt of our loathing, they were the end product, not the sole cause, of a long and busted system.

The root of the problem, for the BRT and its successors, is not obstinate patronage hacks, but a logistically staggering task: a few dozen staffers must judge, in a “just and equitable” way, hundreds of thousands of properties, most of which they will never actually see. Currently, assessors are armed with the most rudimentary information: sale prices, square footage, vague descriptions of condition. (Given such limitations, why wouldn’t there be errors?) Ideally, workers would inspect each property, using knowledge and discretion, along with the numbers, to establish proper tax rates. But such care is unfeasible in a city our size; instead, we get the pipe dream’s polar opposite: computer models, Google Maps and 250 percent increases.

It’s difficult to see how the OPA will overcome this obstacle. Refreshing the appeals board is a start, but more must be done to prevent the necessity of appeals in the first place. Nutter understands this; so does Richie McKeithen, the OPA’s newly appointed head. But as Oct. 1 approaches, details about what changes are actually taking place have been sketchy. One OPA representative told PW that the agency’s only real change so far is its name. And, in the words of the Committee of Seventy, “any former BRT employee who was regularly performing functions and duties related to the OPA’s new responsibilities … will automatically go to the OPA.”

So it seems to boil down to this: The BRT was voted out, but not quite away. Rather, it was renamed and sliced in two. Its staff, for now, remains largely intact. Its most relevant change appears to be in the swapping of its most recognizable employees with new ones—possibly as well-connected as their forerunners—who will join a massive and unwieldy system. Is it cynical to wonder how much the situation will improve?

Whatever large-scale fix the OPA devises will be a long time in coming—at least two years, by the estimate of former BRT Interim Director Richard Negrin (Though given the size of the job and the pace of bureaucracy, two years seems highly optimistic). Until a workable structure is in place, there will be a moratorium on tax hikes; as Nutter said in January, “It is the only fair thing to do.” So when our bills do go up again, perhaps in 2012, we’ll see whether or not our property-tax system has actually been made “fair”—or if one set of problems has given way to another.

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