Alan Butkovitz: Incumbent City Controller from Castor Gardens

City Controller Alan Butkovitz at the Real Estate Taxation Conference held on Feb. 23, 2007 at Temple University. Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Forward. By Christopher Wink

This Thursday, NEastPhilly.com is co-hosting with WHYY a panel discussion among the three Democratic candidates for city controller — incumbent Alan Butkovitz and challengers John Braxton and Brett Mandel. Butkovitz and Mandel both have ties to the NEast, so we sat down with each. See the first with Butkovitz today and our interview with Mandel tomorrow.

Alan Butkovitz is likely among the best-known city controllers in the position’s half-century Philadelphia history. That might not be saying much for the usually quiet head of the city’s auditing department, a position created in 1951, but Butkovitz  has taken to action.

When he’s not overseeing the city’s finances, the first-term city controller hangs his hat in Castor Gardens. Indeed, like one of his chief challengers in May’s Democratic primary, Brett Mandel, Butkovitz has deep ties to the Northeast. With two candidates for a citywide office holding ties to the Northeast, that makes it a story for NEastPhilly.com.

NEast Mag interviewed both Butkovitz and his opponent Mandel and will share their interviews here on NEastPhilly.com.  The incumbent is first, as seen below. See our Q&A with Mandel tomorrow.

Name: Alan Butkovitz Raised: Wynnefield, West Philadelphia Lives: Castor Gardens, Northeast Philadelphia Position: Incumbent, City Controller Education: Overbrook High School, Temple University undergraduate, Temple University law Family: Wife, Theresa, two children, Rachel and Edward

Transcript of interview was edited for length and clarity.

  1. You grew up in West Philadelphia. What brought you to the Northeast? In 1973, I was married and between Temple and Temple Law. I was interested in politics and these neighborhoods, Bustleton and Somerton, they were just newly populated – new legislative districts. They were mostly Republican then, but I thought Democrats would have a good chance, [laughs] even though Mike Stack just won it for the first time [for Democrats] in 2000. My wife and I wanted to strike out on our own and get away. Everything in Somerton was new. We still had houses recently converted from farms. There was a house, nearby there were chickens and ducks. That was pretty interesting for two city kids, that still within the city limits we had farms. In 1986 we could afford to buy a house and that’s where we could afford it. I thought I was done with politics and moved farther into the lower Northeast. The prices were much more affordable than living in an apartment father up. We had a child, so we moved to a duplex in Fox Chase, a block from Pennypack Park. We felt like it was part of our backyard. Back in, you know, those early ’80s, my wife walked to the park. Now people might think you’re crazy. It was like being in Oz.
  2. How does the Northeast you found in 1973 compare with the one in which you live today? The Northeast has gone through two generations of development. What was a young neighborhood, like Oxford Circle or Rhawnhurst, post World War II, well now a lot of that generation died out and became much less homogeneous. Twenty years ago, Rhawhurst was a concentrated Jewish neighborhood, now it’s very cosmopolitan. We are still going through a period of Rhawnhurst taking on heavy Russian influence. When in 1990 I was elected to the state legislature, that legislative district of Oxford Circle had the highest concentration of senior citizens in the state . . . By 201o, it is inevitable there will be strong demographic changes played out.
  3. Why should Northeast residents care about the city controller’s race? The majority of the city’s middle class lives in the Northeast. The city controller’s job is to look out for the tax payer. What we’ve done is bring both a lot of attention from performance audits in efficiency and value for the dollar for critical services. We are identifying ways to balance the city budget without bringing large city tax increases. That puts me at odds with [Democratic primary challenger] Brett Mandel on real estate tax increases. He proposes full real estate value reassessment, which is something I oppose. That has the potential of triggering rate shock in growth neighborhoods and triggering a middle class exodus.
  4. What have you done for Philadelphians, particularly Northeast residents? I think we are a very strong advocate for critical services like police and fire, something the Northeast is very conscious about. We have worked on getting ambulances to respond on time. We have audited departments to see how much money the city is letting go out the window. . . We have had a big emphasis on life and safety issues, police, fire and the safety of schools and rec center building. Life wasn’t always in the controller’s bag of tricks. [Previous City Controller] Jon Saidel brought in performance audits rather than getting tied up year by year on department audits. Department audits are where you find routine low-value issues. It’s very common to find very loose control on petty cash. If you never look at it people will think they can steal money with impunity, and the charter says that we have to audit each department. But we’ll get the biggest bang for the buck with these larger performance audits. They’re more efficient and what others around country are doing.
  5. What are these performance audits? With performance audits, you look at the mission of each agency, you get to compare them with what they’re doing and give a recommendation that can be felt in the 21st century. Now Saidel felt hampered by [the department audits], so he couldn’t do as much [of the performance audits]. When I came in [2005] 96 percent of the time of his office was mandated. He couldn’t do what he felt was more interesting. We reshuffled the deck, so we didn’t fight the rules, but we found ways to use the most time for the most good. The charter mandates duties [like department audits], so we put department audits on a two-year cycle, instead of every year. That fulfilled the city charter, but we are not precluded from finding ways to save $47 million a year from the rescue squads, not a $700 petty cash problem. We get to it and wag our finger but $46, $47 million is more important than $700 dollars.
  6. Any guesses why two men with ties to Northeast Philadelphia would want this job? [Laughs] Now why is Brett from the Northeast? Brett doesn’t live in the Northeast. Brett lives in Center City. I have a connection [in the Northeast]. I live there with my family. . . You know, Hillary Clinton in every state she ever went to, she had a connection. She’s from New York, Pennsylvania, Little Rock. That’s just an old political technique. If he wants to say he’s from the Northeast, well, what makes him so sure?

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