Many Philadelphia property owners are already agitated about recent increases in real-estate taxes.
Last year, City Council passed and Mayor Michael Nutter signed a bill increasing the tax by 9.9 percent for two years.
This year, Council and the mayor enacted a one-year, 3.85-percent hike to help the ailing School District of Philadelphia.
In 2012, the city will implement its actual-value initiative, which will assess properties at their market value. Council will set the tax rate, expected to be about 1.4 percent.
It’s no secret the city wants more money for its coffers and those of the school district.
There undoubtedly will be winners and losers under the new system, with Center City and Chestnut Hill property owners possibly taking the biggest hit. Far Northeast neighborhoods like Somerton, Parkwood, Torresdale and Pine Valley could experience the same pain.
“You won’t be able to get through to the operator at City Hall,” said City Controller Alan Butkovitz, an opponent of the actual-value initiative. “People will be having nervous breakdowns.”
The one possible saving grace is the Board of Revision of Taxes, which hears appeals of reassessments and has developed a reputation as friendly to property owners.
Butkovitz, 59, of Castor Gardens, is in his second term as controller. The Democrat was elected in 2005 after serving 15 years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
The controller’s office is charged with auditing city government. Often, the controller is a thorn in the side of the mayor.
Butkovitz recalls controllers Alexander Hemphill, Bill Klenk and Jonathan Saidel all clashing, respectively, with Mayors James Tate, Frank L. Rizzo and Wilson Goode.
The current office, Butkovitz contends, doesn’t just criticize Nutter or identify waste, fraud and abuse. It’s moved out of the shadows of the district attorney’s office.
“We have been more than a controller’s office,” he said in a late-July interview at his office in the Municipal Services Building.
“We’re solving problems, not just pointing out problems.”
City agencies, in general, have responded to his staff’s investigations, according to Butkovitz. Reports have found such problems as sick-leave abuse by prison and revenue department staff, overtime overpayment in the streets department, $10,000 missing from the petty-cash fund in the sheriff’s office, and lackluster planning for the Robin Hood Dell East concert series.
“The controller’s audits are not a joke,” he said.
As for Nutter, Butkovitz gives him an “A” for being truthful about the budget challenges, but he gives the mayor a C for managing the budget and delivering services.
The controller cannot set policy, but he can weigh in on important issues.
In 2009, he was an enthusiastic backer of Councilwoman Joan Krajewski’s proposal to create a tax-amnesty program. Implemented in the spring of 2010, the program brought in more than $60 million.
In March, Butkovitz testified in front of City Council in favor of creation of a rainy-day fund. It’s better, he believes, to have money in reserve than to attempt to, as Nutter has done, generate revenue with unpopular proposals such as a tax increase on sugary soft drinks and extra fees for collecting trash.
Voters will decide in November whether to approve such a fund.
As for the city’s five-year budget plan, Butkovitz has a couple of warnings for the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA).
For one, the controller remains “skeptical” that the school district has solved its financial and management woes, and he wants the School Reform Commission to provide greater oversight. He questions why the district seemed to simply approve mass layoffs to help solve a deficit of more than $600 million.
“It was like chopping limbs off a tree,” he said.
In addition, Butkovitz worries that the national economy will remain stalled.
Internationally, the United States is in competition with the likes of China and India for jobs and markets. At home, greater use of automation and technology means less of a need for workers.
The federal government could make cuts that would affect city programs and services. “There’s a lot of uncertainty financially. Washington might take a meat cleaver to a lot of our assumptions,” Butkovitz said.
The good news?
Butkovitz said Philadelphia could potentially be a great port city by attracting international traffic. It would help, he added, if the Delaware River could be further dredged to allow for larger ships.
Also, he said, the city is a national leader when it comes to hospitals and universities, adding that he’s hopeful of an expansion of the health and pharmaceutical industries.
And he’s confident that the new City Council will be an effective one. There will be at least six new members in January, and he points to fellow Democrats Mark Squilla and Bobby Henon as two contenders who are smart and tuned in to the city’s issues.
Butkovitz plans to run for a third four-year term in 2013, and he’s not ruling out a run for mayor in 2015. He would have to give up his controller’s job if he does run for another office.
The controller is excited about the free “Philly Watchdog” application now available on iPhones.
It was the idea of Brian Dries, the office’s communications director. Philadelphians can send reports of waste and corruption directly to the controller’s fraud unit.
Incidents of fraud can also be reported by calling 215-686-8888 or e-mailing email@example.com ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org