A primer for WHYY’s city controller debate

Philadelphia’s city controller is charged with fighting against waste, fraud and abuse of your tax dollars. During next month’s primary election, voters will decide if incumbent Democratic Controller Alan Butkovitz is fulfilling that job or should be replaced.

Butkovitz’s campaign is centered around criticizing the city’s new property-tax assessments.

He’s been crisscrossing the city, attending community meetings in areas like Southwest Philadelphia, Point Breeze and Nicetown, to talk about the controversial assessments. At a small meeting in South Philly last week, Butkovitz said the city erred on them. Furthermore, he claimed, Mayor Michael Nutter’s aides aren’t fully revealing how they came up with the numbers.

“They just can’t throw darts at a board and say, ‘I think we’re going to tax you by this amount,'” Butkovitz said.

A woman in the crowd shouted, “That’s exactly what they did!”

Influence, limited power

As city controller, Butkovitz cannot vote to postpone or halt the assessments. But he said it’s his job to hold Nutter’s feet to the fire.

When asked about the highlights of his 7-year tenure, Butkovitz noted his investigations of former disgraced Sheriff John Green’s office and local charter schools — “both of which have been referred to the U.S. Attorney and have been reviewed by them,” he said. “This was unheard of for the city controller’s office.”

For the second time, tax-reform activist Brett Mandel is running against Butkovitz in the Democratic primary. If elected, Mandel said he would audit city departments more regularly and release detailed information about government spending.

Mandel said his greatest accomplishments include co-writing the policy book “Philadelphia: A New Urban Direction” with former Controller Jonathan Saidel, and serving as executive director of Philadelphia Forward, a citizens’ group that pushed for tax and ethics changes.

Charges on either side

Mandel said Butkovitz, who is expected to potentially run for mayor in 2015, is demagoguing about the new property assessments. His complaints don’t end there.

“He’s not auditing every place he should every single year,” he said. “Where we should be saving money, we’re not saving money. Where we should be efficient, we’re not efficient. And that’s because our elected financial watchdog is a lazy political lapdog.”

No surprise, Butkovitz argued that Mandel is dead wrong about him.

Butkovitz said he has recently been completing departmental audits more often. As for his stance on property-tax assessments, he said those who criticize him are wrongheaded.

“The position they’re taking is that the people shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about this issue,” he said. “They should take it from the elites that this is good for them.”

The Nutter administration has said that the property-tax assessments are far more accurate than the old, error-ridden figures that were used to calculate people’s bills, and that they will improve with time.

Mandel isn’t the only opponent Butkovitz is trying to fight off. Democrat Mark Zecca, a former city attorney, is also running for controller. And Republican Terry Tracy is set to face off against the primary winner in the fall.

Money talks?

Zecca has raised considerably less money than the other two candidates, according to campaign finance reports filed in January.

As of Dec. 31, Mandel reported $206,084 on hand, while Butkovitz had $146,681. Zecca, meanwhile, had $14,003.

But Zecca said he shouldn’t be counted out.

“If we’re going to reform politics in this town,” he said, “we can’t focus and emphasize on how many ward leaders you have and how much money you have.”

Zecca said his strength is having 20-plus years of experience in city government, as well as time working for the federal government.

“So the departments won’t be able to give me a lot of baloney,” he said. “Which is important for the controller. I had a record of independence.”

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that Controller Alan Butkovitz has been in office for 12 years. He has been Controller for 7 years. We apologize for the error.

Want to learn more about the race for the city’s chief financial watchdog? WHYY and Young Involved Philadelphia are hosting a debate Thursday night with the candidates. RSVP here.

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