This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Whatever you think about the importance of the Bureau of Revision of Taxes, there’s no question that what the city, and perhaps most importantly the Mayor, does with this mess of an agency is a test of leadership and vision that’s under the public – re: media – scrutiny.
The draft statements coming from the Mayor’s appointed task force aren’t entirely encouraging:
The 85-page report, by a task force of City Council staffers and officials in the Nutter administration, is not a ringing call to remake the BRT.
In fact, Council made sure that it wasn’t. The leadership instructed the task force to offer no direct recommendation on how to fix the agency – only alternatives.
One of those possibilities – "Option A" – would make only modest changes, such as improved training for assessors.
Other options would leave the agency intact but allow the mayor and Council to pick the members; or split the BRT into two agencies, one to set values and the other to handle appeals.
"Option D" would wipe out the BRT and put assessments in the hands of city leaders or a new agency. The last three ideas would require approval by city voters, the task force noted.
Which means that significant action on the BRT won’t happen until the 2010 election cycle, way too far down the road.
Meanwhile, half the BRT workers sit on the School District of Philadelphia payroll. The District’s money for these positions to stay on the payroll runs out at the end of this month (the money for the rest of the year was moved by the SRC into a separate fund for non-payroll expenses). The question is what to do next. Here’s the task force’s “analysis”:
In case it’s hard to read, let’s review some of the perplexing moral and ethical questions at stake. On the PRO side of removing BRT workers from the payroll is:
- the District has no money and indeed is facing down as much as $150 million budget cuts; and
- it helps address the fact that people know “these employees are patronage hires who do not add value.”
On the CON side of taking $3.2 million away from kids is: the concern about whether “these employees can ‘test into’ the Civil Service.”
Was the Civil Service test rocket science before?
Last spring the District put out a “doomsday budget” should it not get its full request from the state. Among the penalties laid out: an increase in class sizes and the elimination of more than 130 nurses and counselors. More specifically, the BRT money alone would address these consequences: the elimination of 800 sports teams for kids ($1.1M); the removal of one police officer from the 33 comprehensive high schools ($2M); and the elimination of day care for 385 children ($3.5M).
Hmmm . . . quality daycare, sports teams for kids, school safety, reasonable class sizes, nurses and counselors vs. patronage hires “who do not add value.”
With brazen horsetrading on the politically appointed School Reform Commission, the District is already issuing wavering signals:
School district spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district hopes the BRT workers will be on the city payroll after September.
If not, he said, money will be moved back into payroll funds so the workers can continue collecting paychecks.
"We cannot stop funding of the work they are doing," he said.
Actually the School District can.
In a discussion I had with Kevin Feeley, BRT spokesperson, Mr. Feeley confirmed the School District held final authority over payment for the School District BRT employees.
But if the District keeps the employees on the payroll – and the SRC will meet twice in the next two weeks to make a final determination – then we’ll know that this has nothing to do with educational or civic initiatives. It’s just business as usual at the BRT and city – and our kids will be paying the price for funding yet one more thing besides their education.