The BRT: Your government NOT at work

(Read a school-focused take on the BRT at The Public School Notebook's website)

OK I stole that line from Jon Stewart, but what do you say about the Inky’s phenomenal series about the Bureau of Revision of Taxes – the people who’ve been assessing your homes?

What do you say when:

  • The BRT’s Executive Director who took full advantage of the city’s DROP program only to return to work with a pay raise two days later says he has “nothing to do” with property tax assessments;
  • One member of the BRT’s board became president of Citizen’s Alliance, former Sen. Vince Fumo’s non-profit that was at the center of his corruption trial, and is currently being investigated on abuses including unlawfully increasing taxes on a property that the Senator had allegedly wanted to purchase;
  • Agency officials told reporters that a tax assessor, who had reduced an assessment for the BRT board member above, had “died.” She hadn’t and basically told reporters she was encouraged to reduce the taxes on that board member’s property;
  • Private deals on commercial properties abound including a 44% reduction in the assessed value of the Ritz Carlton from $35 million down to $19.5 million.
  • Two members of the BRT’s board say they don’t know anything about the sunshine law or conducting official business in public?

And there are so many amazing quotes here, quotes you can’t quite make-up like:

Catherine Scott, Local 2187 pres., representing some BRT workers: "I don’t think it’s fair to say none of them work. The level of work varies greatly."

Republican leader Michael Meehan on why the BRT is where old Parking Authority employees go: "At a certain age they can’t be out on the street on a cold day and walking. The BRT is a more attractive place."

BRT Executive Director Enrico Foglia on his non-relationship with Dem. Party Chief/U.S. Congressman Robert Brady: "It’s not like we’re old buddies or nothing like that. I wasn’t real tight with Bobby."

Court of Common Pleas Judge William Manfredi on qualifications of BRT board members: "I haven’t the faintest."

So, as I reported on YPP a couple of times, last year Parents United for Public Education started to challenge the presence of 78-85 BRT employees on the School District payroll, another lovely OPM trick of the agency. At the time, I don't think we were naive about the politics about the decision, but clearly we had no idea of the abuses detailed here.

Since then we’ve spent a year talking to different city and state departments and testifying when we can about the issue. We’re encouraged to read for the first time in today’s story that Mayor Nutter doesn’t think BRT employees belong on the School District’s payroll. But we’ll have to see whether things substantively change.

After all, one of the more distressing quotes might come from the Mayor himself when he says that the agency’s management issues and lack of accountability problems "can wait" while he pushes for full valuation.

"For me, the larger issue is getting the assessment system fixed . . . and being able to ensure property owners that the values we send them are really the values in the marketplace."

Unfortunately, the Inky proves why that assurance just doesn't fly for the rest of us.

My favorite part was our local party cheating on its taxes

This is just so awesome for representing Philadelphia as needing state help to fund our schools to state reps from other counties. Yep this really helps the case for taking Costing Out Study seriously In Harrisburg.

One recently retired appraiser said he regularly was told to review properties after his bosses took calls from City Council members or other politically connected people. They would say: “I got a call on it. Can you check on it?” said the evaluator, who spoke on condition his name not be used. “Go see if you can lower it so they’ll bother someone else.”

In the case of the tax cut for the Democratic headquarters, near Broad and Walnut Streets, former assessor James Luciani said the message was brutally clear.

The story starts in late 2004. With the Center City boom well under way, another BRT assessor more than doubled the building’s market value for the 2005 tax bill, from $325,000 to $650,700.

That was still low. Thomas M. Nocella, a Municipal Court judge who once did legal work involving the building, said the land alone was probably worth about $2 million.

Other buildings on the block were hit, too, by as much as 80 percent.

After the tax notices went out, Glancey said he got a complaint from Democratic Party official Carol Ann Campbell.

In October 2005, Luciani trimmed the building’s market value to $425,000, which cut the party’s tax bill by $6,000.

“I was pressured by my supervisor,” Luciani said. “Did I think it was warranted? No.”

No other building on the block got a reduced assessment, BRT records show.

You are doing a heck of job DCCC.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

It's like on of those puzzles on Hall, err, Hellraiser

Where does it start? With the judges? With the parties? How do we fix it? Maryland supervises the assessments on a state level, with stringent testing; purely a civil service function. New York State has a system like ours, but has a well-funded and administered Equalization Board (ORPS)

One positive thing is that on the "readers' comments" on, a writer kept writing about Russo's (BRT Board) preferential treatment. I'm glad they nailed him, only a few weeks later.

The new BRT data gives the Inky a good reason to blow the lid off of that place with many saved up gems. The paper edition in this case is far superior to the e-dition; with sidebars filled with tons O'Shenanigans.

Joshua Vincent
Phree Philly

Well we could start by asking the Controller's office to audit

but I imagine the ward leader/incumbent who utilizes the exact same practices himself is probably going to be just as quick to snap to that audit as he was for auditing the Parking Authority. Let's see - with phone tag for about 2 years before actually starting sometime around Dec. 2011 - summer 2012 would be about par for the course for his report to come in if it comes in at all - at least based on past performance standards.

Yeah! I can skim the report on breaks between watching beach volleyball coverage for the Summer Olympics.

That is if he's reelected.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

For that matter where's the

Inspector General?

Board of Ethics?

City Council?

The entitlement we see from this type of attitude:

Russo testified that despite his title, he didn't have any real responsibilities. He didn't know Fumo had billed the charity for about $133,000 in personal items.

"I didn't know nothing," he told the grand jury, saying he signed papers without reading them.

can only come when numerous agencies fail - the Controller obviously - but one of many.

Good questions

The Inspector General has a limited budget and serves at the Mayor discretion, as Seth Williams found out when looking at the PPA. The best way to look at patronage systems where a lot of people do a little bit of work but only a few are truly fragarant tends to be detailed performance analysis of work done to personnel costs.

City Council like the BRT as-is because 1.) it "fixes" assesments for the people they really want it too 2.) they can easily blame it as "beyond their control" for folks they don't want to bother for. See below.

The Board of Ethics - well the City Charter says its ok for folks who draw their paychecks from the School District to be political in a way it limits it for normal civil servants so the whole point of is to evade their jurisdiction. Some would argue the BRT exists as much to evade civil service rules as to figure out property tax assesments. Its the jobs, not the work thats important - thats why there are more non civil service clerks than civil service assessors.

As a minor point Russo's non-responsiblities in that quote were at Citizen's Alliance a private but state-funded non-profit, not at the tax funded BRT. His non-responsiblities at the BRT were specifically so he could get a steady paycheck on the taxpayer's dime and not get paid to be a poltical rubberstamp on various non-profits and boards.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

With regards to Russo

yes, you're right. I shouldn't have implied that it meant he was referring to the BRT, but that sort of attitude is what permeates the BRT - a flippant disregard for basic rules of order even when one is wrong. Or in other words, given his approach at his former job, he apparently fit right into the BRT culture.

Great post, great article

Thanks, Helen. And, thanks to the Inquirer authors. This really is incredible.

Two quick thoughts:

1)So, we also learned that while BRT hired Kevin Gillen to calculate residential home values, they didn't for commercial values. That was done separately. Um, why? Given what we saw about the Ritz, that seems especially questionable. What is the back story there?

2)The BRT needs to be eliminated as a separate agency. Nutter has talked about that multiple times before. I think it would take a charter change? Maybe it is time to get that process started (along with the row offices). Bottom line, we can't afford to waste money like this, and we can't afford to have such a terribly run piece of government.

The stated rationale

1. From Eugene Davy, for what its worth, he told me and Ed Goppelt that commercial assessment and residential assessment are very different procedures. There is some truth to that. I'm a member of IAAO and they have truly mind-rattling formulas for different types of property (even casinos), optimum cash flow and locational variance. It is, on the face of it,a different set of calculations, that Kevin Gillen may not have felt able to tackle, though I am not speaking for him of course.

2.An independent agency is supposed to make more sense, as it should be free of outside interference. Having the parties play a role is key. As I said in a previous post, the Maryland assessors are unionized and civil service test-outs. Assessment should be a state function, IMO, as it prevents inter-county cheating and methods of valuation, such as Pennsylvania.

Joshua Vincent
Phree Philly

As I understand it most of the "assesors" are civil service

and work for the city. Its "clerks" who are party officials and relatives that take School District checks that are the issue. Unfortunately the "clerks" outnumber the "assesors". You would think with all those clerks their documentation and filing system would be really, really good.

The BRT has violated state open-government laws for years, hiring contractors, making deals with property owners, and deciding on citywide reassessments without any public meetings or minutes.

The agency’s records are a mess. Assessments have been cut by millions with little evidence to support the decision other than a newspaper clipping, a building diagram — or nothing at all.

Glancey’s settlements violated a BRT rule that said all cuts of more than $150,000 needed full board approval, city audits say. Glancey said he thought he could stand in for the full board.

Guess not.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.


This is some incredible work by the Inky. Hats off to everyone for this.

What's amazing to me is that many of the participants in the story didn't think about how what was normal to them would seem corrupt and/or scary to the outside world.

Not to rehash the excellent points in the article, there was one that I just found mindblowing:

In a private meeting in 2003, the then-chairman of the city Board of Revision of Taxes gave the hotel owners a once-in-a-lifetime deal. He dropped the Ritz’s value from $35 million to $19.5 million, saving it $400,000 a year in property taxes.

The chairman, David B. Glancey, says he can’t remember how he arrived at the number. But he says the break — worth more than $2 million so far — was justified because the hotel was in financial trouble.

“I made a lot of commonsense decisions,” said Glancey, a former Democratic Party chief who left the agency two years ago. He said other BRT members, some still on the board, always signed off on his decisions.

WTF. (I hope that's allowed on this site, if not, I am just not sure how to put it any simplier.)

Let's think about all the different ways in which this one deal is nuts. First, Glancey created his own Tax Increment Financing District. No need to go through an elected body like City Council -- which would have gladly given a similar result I'm sure -- or have the Mayor's Office chime in. Contact David Glancey to reduce your tax bill. Wow.

And how did Glancey come to this brilliant decision. Did he: compare the Ritz Carlton's occupancy numbers to the industry or other hotels in the City using that state of the art software real estate investors and lenders use?

Compare their operating expenses to other similar hotels, confirm that other stakeholders like debtholders, equity owners, the Ritz, vendors had taken a similar haircut? (Since taxes are in first position someone else would have had to pay the full bill.)

Did he review the Hotel's Franchise Agreement to determine if another hotel operator could reflag the Ritz as another hotel, in the instance of foreclosure?

Did he confirm that the Ritz would hire workers who paid City taxes?

Did he check into minority/women/disabled business practices of the Ritz's vendors?

Did he examine the STAR reports and check to see what the satisfaction of guests were to get a sense of whether the Ritz deserved this grant?

Did he hire an engineering firm to confirm that the Hotel was in good shape and had been making capital repairs or an environmental firm to check for potential contamination? (It's not a new building.)

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

He did none of the things that a lender (institutional or governmental) to confirm on the adequacy of their investment. He just winged it. With tax dollars for the City and the School District. He made an independent determination, checking on none of the information above, that the Ritz was more deserving than every other business, homeowner, taxpayer, to get a tax break. So every other hotel is apparently less deserving of his (sorry our) largess.

And the $400,000 gift, did he consider the marginal value of that, i.e., that another Hotel Operator comes in and pays less taxes (either in wages, BRT, etc.) I am sure he cranked out his differential calculus abacus and came to a number. To weigh the probability of all that happening, I am sure he just applied a little Bayesian statistics, discounted the value of the difference using an accepted agreed upon figure and got a positive NPV, to conclude his investment (sorry, again, its our) was worthwhile. (Forget that another hotel operator could have paid more in taxes.)

This in a nutshell is exactly what is so broken about City politics. Incompetent hacks doling out goodies (sorry, our tax dollars) without thinking of the OPPORTUNITY cost of their decisions. So instead of having money to build schools, hire police officers, staff libraries, clean streets, the Ritz, (not every hotel, just one hotel), needed a government bailout. And one person in a dark room without the benefit of all the tools that institutions use to make these complicated decisions just wings it.


And who pays? Everyone else. In the form of higher taxes (to pay for the largess), reduced tax revenues (b/c businesses and citizens expect their citizen to play ball fairly, so they move to places where that happens), and fewer opportunities for all.

This is a phenomenal article and I hope that the discussion doesn't end soon about how to fix the system.

so how can I get a job like these guys have?

seriously, I am SO tired of actually working for a living.

Can anyone introduce me to some of these people? it just isn't fair that I have to work if i can befriend a powerful person and get one of these "jobs" where I get paid barrels of bucks for tasks i'm eminently unqualified to perform.

seriously, whose tushie do I have to kiss, I'll put on lipstick and everything? I mean it: I have student loan obligations, a mortgage, child support, credit card debt.

I don't even need Foglia's salary: I'll gladly take $72K like Russo, AND I'll "work" (if you can call it that) full time.
I'm gonna call the BRT tomorrow and inquire. There's gotta be something for me.

Three questions

1.) do you have any experience assessing property?

2.) Are you either a Republican or Democratic Party official?
No? Very bad

3.) Are you too old to write tickets for the PPA?
No? Go to PPA first

Brendan you are disqualified on 2 out of 3 counts. But you looked good in the first round.

MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

So what do folks think of the Mayor's comments

'cause I'm kinda struggling with this approach:

Mayor Nutter, who as a councilman proposed breaking up the BRT, has become increasingly impatient with the agency's pace and performance. He's not happy with its weak management structure and lack of accountability, but says those issues can wait.

"For me, the larger issue is getting the assessment system fixed . . . and being able to ensure property owners that the values we send them are really the values in the marketplace," he said.

I mean after this story, where the BRT at the very least neglects their responsibilities and in other cases blatantly abuses their responsibilities, who has any faith in full valuation?

Quite the opposite

At least in theory. Full valuation is based on industry-wide standards. It follows standard rules of using rules of comparable sales data and is therefore less prone to arbitrary manipulation by political hacks for those with political pull.

Whether what the BRT is calling "full valuation" really is "full valuation" is another question but in general its a dramatic step towards applying professional standards so the system is harder to game.

The biggest problem with "full valuation" is basically City Council's timidity to face tough political choices. Currently as the story points out if someone complains enough to their district councilperson, particularly if its someone the district council person see a special benefit in appeasing (contributors, allies), the district councilperson calls the BRT and the person gets their assesement reduced.

One recently retired appraiser said he regularly was told to review properties after his bosses took calls from City Council members or other politically connected people. They would say: “I got a call on it. Can you check on it?” said the evaluator, who spoke on condition his name not be used. “Go see if you can lower it so they’ll bother someone else.”

Basically we more heavily tax people who aren't in the council person's good graces or people who can't afford to hire the "right" law firms in front of the Board of Revisions.

Lawyers Peter F. Kelsen and S. David Fineman won about three-fourths of their appeals. Fineman handled 273 cases and Kelsen 357 between 2003 and 2007, BRT records show.

In three appeals, Kelsen, one of the city’s leading real estate lawyers, got the value of Liberty One reduced by $31 million, a tax saving of $819,000 a year. He got $6.5 million knocked off the Commerce Square building and $9 million off Ten Penn Center.

From 2003 to 2007, Fineman won reductions of more than $150,000 in 34 cases.

The current system is a defacto property tax oligarchy, benefiting the rich and powerful and nickel and diming the working and merely middle class.

While some lawyers have won reductions in nearly three-quarters of their appeals, more than half the homeowners who challenge their assessments are turned away.

The problem is Council currently has a system to appease the loudiest chronic complainers and they prefer institutionalizing injustice to risking pissing off a few, particularly those most used to yelling the loudest or having their way, to make it fairer for those who don't complain. There are systems to average out and ease in or defer big increases in assesments on seniors and folks living on fixed incomes but picking which system you go with takes political courage, something sometimes all too lacking on City Council. Easier to take extra-special care of contributors and allies and a smattering of complainers than to have to claim responsiblity for the process yourself. Its just like the schools themselves. As long as the state controls the schools, you have someone to blame for the kids the system fails. As long the BRT uses a politically manipulated arbitrary system for assesments, you can say "Its the BRT, not me" while using back channels to take care of VIPS and smattering of the loudest yellers.

The solution is to move towards standardized assesment criteria generally, and for some of us a moderate version of the LVT so as to shift more of the tax burden onto commercial activity but to do it in a way that punishes speculation and blight instead of start-ups, as some feel current business taxes do.

So the biggest problem with full valuation is convincing City Council to take direct responsibility for tax decisions that will inevitably unpopular with someone. Our local political system benefits those who practice a politics of passing the buck. Its always easier to tax "someone else" and short of that to say "its out of my hands" when that fails.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

So to be clear

that's kind of my point. The idea that full valuation is going to solve the problems seems kinda moot when the whole system is ridiculously upended by political interference. I don't understand the idea that full valuation comes before or that there's any sort of linear line of attack in such a messed up system.

Well full value is complete system

its not case-by-case and its based on set criteria that can be criticized for consistancy. The current system which built around years of defacto case-by-case reassesments.

I'm not sure what you mean. If you are going to collect taxes to have to set criteria for who pays that are consistent.

FWIW my favorite Controller incumbent that begins with a "B" and ends with a "z" told me personally that its OK that the current assesments give CC a break and overcharges people out in the neighborhoods because CC is "more vibrant" and therefore deserves the break and besides people in the neighborhoods are only being overcharged a little. There was not even a hint of irony.

MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

I get that full valuation is supposed to be consistent

and I agree completely that the entire city is out of whack, but as you point out here:

Currently as the story points out if someone complains enough to their district councilperson, particularly if its someone the district council person see a special benefit in appeasing (contributors, allies), the district councilperson calls the BRT and the person gets their assesement reduced.

So my question is why this is seen as a necessity before an overhaul of the BRT rather than concurrent with. My question has less to do with full valuation rather than the Mayor saying that management and accountability issues "can wait."

Well patronage without injustice just wastes money

and so setting consistent criteria (some would say different ones - cue Joshua and the LVT) is the first step towards breaking an abritrary system devolving towards ever more open kleptocracy. You can't take apart corrupted assesment adjustments until you set the criteria the first assesments were based on.

I think the Mayor's right, until Council is willing to commit to a set of criteria, the lack of system will always invite political manipulation. Until you decide whether you are going to measure in inches or centimeters, its going to be hard to analyze why Joe the Carpenter installed so many doors that are so crooked they won't open on your house.

I would back it up one step and say first - absolutely - protections are needed to protect against too drastic raises in property taxes for the elderly and vulnerable. That would be the first step to making a systematic process poltically possible but Council will avoid that because more than anything they want some other institution, even an obviously corrupt one to "take the blame" for decisions they would rather not own up to.

But as you can see, I'm sometimes deeply, deeply skeptical that many of the people who exercise power in local politics in this town remember the reasons they originally ran for office. Look at DROP. Look at why schools for the majority don't really improve. Council is full of people who don't know what else to do with themselves, but find the position very convenient for their real estate/consulting side businesses. The mayor at his worst is merely the smartest of a circumspect bunch who feels the "strong mayor" form of government means he gets to ask the questions, not answer them himself.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

As Dan pointed out

just from a cursory reading of these voluminously damning reports, there's a real concern right now that we would be getting full valuation for residential but not for commercial properties. And since the whole thing is going to be revenue neutral, we need assurance that households aren't going to be picking up the slack from still-undervalued commercial properties. This may be part of Helen's concern that the current real value initiative won't take us all of the way (along with the other reorganization/patronage issues).

commercial underassessment

Two things have happened in the last 30 years, IMO:
1. Commercial and industrial assessment appeals professionals can make mincemeat out of the (oh so obviously) unqualified governmental assessors who can't spend the time and money (or their employers, the gummint won't) to defend their assessments in private session or court.

2. The commercial and industrial tax base is legitimately deflating faster than the residential tax base. Where Conshohocken once was a mill town, it is now a Class A office space destination.

For example, in the early 90s, Lehigh County reassessed, and the commercial share went from around 40% to around 30% after appeals. That means residential takes the brunt.

A more vigorous defense of the actual non-residential values by government agencies (like in Maryland or some other states) keeps the residential burden at a proper and fair level.

Joshua Vincent
Phree Philly

Another serious uniformity clause issue

In New York commerical property is charge at much higher millage rates than residential property. We can't do that here because of the uniformity clause.

New York City Property Tax

I always start my talks or papers in New York with this quote form the late Dr. Dick Netzer:

"To talk about 'good' and 'tax policy' in the same breath when you're talking about the New York City property tax is impossible," said Dick Netzer, an emeritus professor of public administration at New York University and a leading authority on city's property taxes. "It's a foul institution.1"

NYC has four classes (soon to be five) of real property. The assessment ratios are different (sort of the current Philly system. then, the tax rates are different. Then, they have a phase-in at different percentages of value.

The stated intent was to provide "tax relief" to homeowners. The end result is actually high taxes for single family residential in some of the eastern outer boroughs (Bronx, Brooklyn, most of Queens) than in analogs in Staten Island or Manhattan. why? One may also map a racial and/or income component.

A non-uniformity clause may or may not reduce tax on poorer homeowners. New Orleans has the lowest residential property taxes of most any major city, and sheesh they aren't benefiting. New York towns like Rochester have a different approach, a higher tax on non-residential. It has had little effect on actual tax bills and is a negative for small (i.e. non mobile) business.

In any case, as I've always said, the suburbanite delegations of both parties won't lie down over the uniformity clause in this state. Constitutional Convention, anyone?

Joshua Vincent
Phree Philly

You have no opposition from me

Commercial owners absolutely have had power to move the goal posts in way residential owners have not. More than half of homeowners appeals get turned down but a handful of succesful and connected lawyers win reductions 3 times out of 4. Basically poltical corruption has become a tool for the rich and powerful to bend property taxes in a more regressive direction. Folks on City Council cite concern about "gentrification" to defend a system that in practice exports wealth from homeowners back to corporations on a massive scale - in effect making the class divide a reality all the more direct and disruptive.

And when that process does not make the rich richer fast enough, we have the 10-year tax abatement!

And when faced with a mayor asking for 20% property tax increase, Council's big solution - instead of finally hammering out protections as precursor to fairer assesments - for homeowners is for the city to borrow at usuary rates against deeply regressive sales taxes.

I get why its important to question the first round of "fair market assesments" critically at every step, but obviously moving to assesments based on criteria than can be objectively challenged is the only way forward. Continuing to do the same as we have done so far to get here is basically endorsing the system we have now so it can continue to worsen and amplify in its inequities.

Boy, Kevin Gillen and Econsult is going to be busy, resetting the bar for commercial property tax assesments to help the mayor get his version of fairer property taxes through while simultaneously consulting for City Council on how to stop them.

And speaking of contradictory takes on the same problem, Councilman Bill Green thinks Nutter's proposed tax rates on known to be unfair old assesments in obivious contraditiction to the newly released faire market assesments will get the city sued.

To do so, Green argued, was to court a class-action lawsuit, given that BRT's own consultants have proven conclusively that the system is broken.

"This is great data, it's great information," Green said, slapping a BRT report. "It's also a plaintiff's lawyer's dream."

At one point, Green asked Charlesretta Meade, chair of the Board of the Revision of Taxes, if the current assessment system was fair.

"I don't think so," Meade acknowledged.

But my Councilwoman swore up and down that the same new assesments which Green fears will invite lawsuits for showing how unfair the current system is 1.) will only be implemented over her dead body and 2.) are not going to be her responsiblity for figuring out how to make safer for owners who might see increases. If people's taxes are going to go up - its going to be the old fashioned way - through sneaky reassesments that she can blame on someone else.

[Meade] argued that the BRT's job was solely to set accurate property values, and that it was up to council to enact legislation that would protect homeowners from any unduly sharp increases in their tax bills.

Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell was not swayed by that argument.

"I can't sit by and let that happen on my watch, not without doing everything we can to speak out against it, complain against it, tell people what their public recourse is," Blackwell said. "It's just not fair."

Jannie, you just can't say the new system is unfair when the old system is obviously worse. You have to actually stick out your neck and pick a system that is itself more fair. What you are in fact saying here is you want the tax burden shifted on poor people in way that can't be traced back to you, not that you have a serious intention of protecting anyone.

Again Dan's point about wanting to see a system where more of the burden is shifted back to commercial properties and off of residential is according to Joshua exactly what the LVT approach is about. I'm beginning to feel like people should just take one position and stick to it.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

Levels of corruption

I once wrote an essay here that talked about the different levels of corruption.

I'm a little offended by patronage jobs especially when they are given to people who do little work.

I'd rather see a world without patronage. But it is not the worst thing. As the young political organizers among us know, it is really hard for progressive political activists to make a career in politics and we need activists. If some of them had 35k jobs working at the BRT I'd give it a bemused smile.

But I'm really offended by businesses getting handed a massive tax break by the chair of the BRT who violated every tenet of fairness and procedure in offering that tax break.

Do you all realize that the Inquirer got that story because David Glancy is not even embarassed by what he did? He's freaking proud of it. He's boasting about his own influence. He's going to frame this story and put it up on the wall.

I sure hope that somewhere, somehow, someone can find a personal benefit he received from The Ritz's tax break so that our new DA or the Feds can throw his sorry ass in jail because he is a thief who has stolen from all of us.

I agree with you here

This isn't an issue about patronage (not that that word is overly quaint) but an enterprise that has done a dramatic amount to render this city unlivable, not with any shame but apparently with a certain amount of relish and bravado.

The Glancey Paradox

He is demonstrably proud of his wheeling and dealing. Most city officials are; they seem under the impression they are tycoons of some sort (OPM, I guess). Of course real tycoons make mincemeat out of them and we all lose.

Glancey also pushed hard for Actual Value; he wanted it to be his legacy; his public meetings on that point were dead on. Very odd.

So: the Glancey Paradox, starring Matt Damon

Joshua Vincent
Phree Philly

Yes, he has been consistently against revaluation

and I've consistently told him that I think he is absolutely wrong about that. It is not a minor issue, either as everyone here has been pointing out.

Full valuation makes it a bit easier to figure out if you are

being screwed.

If I look at the valuation of my house now, I can't immediately tell if it is utterly out of whack because there is on easy algorithm to figure out the relationship between market value and the city's value.

When they use a market value that is supposed to have some relationships to what you paid for the house or what an appraiser said it was worth when you refinanced, you will be able to tell if the city's appraisal is totally out of whack.

But Helen is right that if we don't fix the system, knowing that we are getting screwed will be a cold comfort.

Full Value Helps Expose Mistakes

At least for residential. all in all, this process has to move forward. Seizure of the commercial valuations have to be in the public interest though.

Joshua Vincent
Phree Philly

So more on Russo

Not in giving arbitrary deals in assesments to the connected but in jacking up the assesments on someone State Senator Fumo wanted to make pay for not selling a building he wanted for a charter school.

Oh and some choice emails.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

BRT school budget update

The School District finally published its full FY2010 budget book.

Note that on page 332 (of the book itself), the BRT will have 80 full-time employees budgeted in at a nominal $114,000 increase. I have disputed the Inky's figure of $3.8 million as the BRT's cost for schools. Though accurate for the FY08 school year, it doesn't match our claim that the BRT actually costs more. The budget book makes clear that in FY09 the BRT is expected to cost the district a cool $4.46M in FY09 -a 17% increase this year alone from last year!

INTERESTING legal question to BRT on school payroll

Check out Notebook blogger and Ed Law Center's Len Rieser post on whether the BRT is legally entitled to place employees on the District's payroll.

He notes:

So, if it were revealed that the District was paying the salaries of (to pick a few possibilities from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles) 80 Baby-Stroller Rental Clerks, or 80 Rug Inspectors, or 80 Theatrical Variety Agents or Jugglers, most people would see a problem. And they’d be right, even if the District were to point out that there are great opportunities in the rug-inspecting business, or that jugglers are in desperate need of employment. The law just doesn’t seem to give the District the authority to pay people to do things unrelated to educating children.

Rieser also notes that the PA Supreme Court case Danson v. Casey states that the "School District has no power to levy (or collect) taxes, even for educational purposes, except to the extent that City Council authorizes it to do so."

And since we know Council hasn't done that, the question remains, are BRT employees legally allowed to be on the District payroll?

Its possible Council did approve it at one point

after it all it was their family members and ward leaders that were going to be getting the jobs. That was the Philadelphia way and at the BRT, the Controller's office, the City Commissioner's, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, the Parking Authority thus it largely remains. Worth investigating, though.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

WOW! Put this guy on the BRT payroll

because who else at this time could make the pitch for patronage over professionalism but a future BRT employee?

As many scholars have noted, the patronage system, although vulnerable to corruption, has two advantages over a unionized, civil-service work force: It is probably less costly overall, and it is directly responsible to voters. Columbia University political scientist Ester Fuchs found that Chicago avoided the kind of fiscal crisis that bankrupted New York City in the 1960s partly because its patronage-dependent local party could discipline municipal unions.

Likewise, in his fine history of Philadelphia's economy, University of Pennsylvania Professor Joseph Gyourko notes the high costs of today's heavily unionized, civil-service-protected public sector as compared to the old machine system. "That machine was more corrupt," he wrote, "but it appears to have been able to transfer resources more efficiently."

This isn't an argument for ending civil service or city unions. But it is a cautionary tale about reform. Political parties need to reward followers, particularly if they are to cope with powerful interests, such as businesses and unions, that have such incentives at their disposal. In short, parties need patronage.

But patronage is defensible only under three conditions: the jobs are real, not invented; the workers are qualified to do them; and they show up and do them efficiently. If, on their own time, workers also help solve neighborhood problems and get out the vote, the party and the city are better off.

I kind of get what Mr. McLaughlin is saying except he forgets a couple of things:

  • I think the point of a three part, year-long investigative effort by the Inquirer is that there's questions whether these jobs are real. If the ED can't explain his job and is barred from doing exactly the function of his place of service, maybe that job isn't so real. Or maybe if three people work 10 days and get paid $50K plus benefits, maybe that job isn't so real (although they apparently do irritate the RDA which makes them partially worthwhile). Or maybe if you put 80 employees on a school payroll but don't have them report to or be hired or supervised by the District, maybe those jobs don't feel so real.
  • Mr. McLaughlin points out that patronage is OK if the workers are qualified. Isn't that the problem with patronage in the first place? If they were qualified and did their job why would you need patronage?
  • And Mr. McLaughlin forgets that our messed up property tax system is apparently the direct result of BRT workers defining "solving neighborhood problems" as getting out votes, taking revenge on political rivals and bestowing political favors, and letting the rest of the city languish in an oppressive and unfair tax system that has rendered Philadelphia, compared with other growing cities, frankly unliveable.

Yeah, he makes some big

Yeah, he makes some big jumps in his logic.

You could still have civil servants able to get out the vote in their neighborhood if you modified ethics rules. It might be a smart thing to do. That isn't the same as party leaders being able to hand out jobs as a way to keep control and loyalty of people.

For the record

as someone who is habitually big on hammering on patronage in this city, I think following the letter of the law the City Charter sets the bar a little too high in terms of disallowing civil servants what i consider First Amendment protected free speech political activity but then completely screws us by having row offices and agencies like the BRT and the RDA and the Parking Authority where none of the rules apply. Those agencies then waste so much money or are so politically manipulated they sometimes actually block effective civil service based city services from working or taking hold. Look at L&I and the building code, for example.

I think Dan describes that line pretty well.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

To be clear about this guy's argument

1.) He's basically more politely saying that patronage jobs can be easier to summarily fire people en masse from than unionized workers during budget crisis's like we have today. I doubt many civil service employees who actually take pride in their work take a lot of comfort from that response.

2.) that means some political boss takes responsibility for that hiring and firing. In the instance of the BRT Chairman Brady and Chairman Meehan would have to step up and say "these guys have botched fair and professional property assesments and we can't afford this kind of waste and manipulated assessing when are schools are underfunded to the tune of $1 billion according to the Costing Out Study and at a city level we are talking about being forced to layoff police and fire fighters". The way patronage works at the BRT is not like that. Noone steps up and says "I'm responsible for this and I personally make damned sure my political hires pull their own weight". Instead the party leadership uses the fig-leaf of the committee of judges to distance themselves from how screwed up the BRT actually is. City Council in turn distances itself from responsibility of how BRT assesments effects city budget decisions because its just too handy to say "Its the BRT, its out of my hands", all the while some of those same councilmembers have not been shy about calling in favors for contributors and allies at the BRT.

3.) Patronage being relatively "efficient" depends on the concept of parties being competitive. If Party A screws up at running the dog catcher, you hire Party B. But Party B, the Republicans, has basically decided that their national strategy revolves around abandoning cities and urban populations entirely. Not surprisingly they have become largely irrelevant locally. The local Republican Party basically only exists to demand its share of the patronage pie as it does at the BRT. In the case of the Parking Authority they take more than their share of the pie but leave just enough for the Dems that they can buy a complicit silence.

In Philadelphia at the BRT, we are better off in terms of both cost and fair, standardized assessments with having qualified, unionized people assessing our properties, no matter how much this particular author dislikes municipal unions.

P.S. Mere speculation on my part, but is McLaughlin by chance a Republican who likes the PPA and thinks the way forward is to have more Republican dominated patronage mills like the Parking Authority? Certainly the reference to Tate would support that. I would say the Republican-dominated PPA has been very good at collecting revenue and spending it in house on bloated "management" and PR contracts, not so good delivering that revenue to the schools.

P.P.S. Google would seem to indicate that my gut level instict is correct.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

That's why it's so ironic

that the Republican ward leader would be quoted as saying that the BRT is perfect place for PPA employees to retire to.

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