Northeast Times

Dollar signs

As City Hall’s fin­an­cial watch­dog, Con­trol­ler Alan Butkovitz has his hands full while keep­ing tabs on a broke city that needs money, a broke school dis­trict that needs money and a planned change in real-es­tate as­sess­ment likely to have a lot of res­id­ents howl­ing.

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 info@phil­adelphi­ac­on­trol­ler.org ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­ing@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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