Updated: 9:37 a.m. 5/8/09
By Shannon McDonald
NEastPhilly.com and WHYY partnered last night to host a debate for the city’s three Democratic candidates for city controller, Alan Butkovitz, John Braxton and Brett Mandel. The debate was moderated by WHYY’s Chris Satullo and took place in the John Perzel Community Center, where the Mayfair CDC operates. Among the hot topics were real estate taxes, department audits and the day-to-day duties of Philadelphia’s city controller. WHYY has audio and video clips from the debate, courtesy of Alan Tu.
Audience Question: How would you most effectively serve as City Controller
*Alan Butkovitz: “There has to be a sense of good faith that you’re really solving something.”
*John Braxton: “Impact is the most important. It’s not enough to audit.”
*Brett Mandel: “You have to develop a relationship that’s not a gotcha relationship.”
Tension was high at last night’s debate for the three Democratic candidates for city controller. Incumbent Alan Butkovitz joined his opponents Brett Mandel and John Braxton at a table in the front of the community room at the John Perzel Community Center in Mayfair, where insults flew back and forth and compliments were few.
On more than one occasion, moderator Chris Satullo had to reign the three men in, at one point commenting that the atmosphere had “gone from zero to nasty.”
A common theme of the night seemed to be Braxton’s and Mandel’s questioning Butkovitz on annual audits, the focus of previous debates between the men. Mayor Michael Nutter’s endorsement of incumbent Butkovitz also came up multiple times.
The two challengers took several shots at Butkovitz regarding what they considered his neglect for a major duty of the city controller position.
The debate began with each candidate listing one criticism of his two opponents. Braxton claimed Butkovitz had “politicized the office” as a result of being a ward leader. Butkovitz responded accusing Braxton of making unilateral decisions and being hypocritical, and Mandel of being a “relentless mouthpiece for big business.” Mandel countered his opponents’ critiques by saying he has more than twice the amount of experience as Butkovitz and Braxton, though he is younger than both. Mandel also brought up his time served as director of financial and policy analysis under former City Controller Jonathan Saidel. Mandel said during that time he “reviewed every single audit,” a hot-button issue that came up frequently during the hour-long debate.
ASSESSING DEPARTMENTAL EXPENDITURES
“I think Mr. Butkovitz, on the other hand, is not doing his job,” Mandel said at one point. “He’s not auditing every single agency every single year.”
A large part of the city controller’s job is to audit city departments on a yearly basis in order to determine how and where money is being spent. The audits are used to assess how agencies are handling their funds, if they can do so more efficiently and if the numbers add up. If something seems amiss, a more in-depth performance audit is issued for further departmental evaluation. Butkovitz defended his job, telling his opponents and the audience that during his four years as controller he’s been innovative in the execution of his responsibilities and has managed to cut a third of the city’s deficit.
He was also recently endorsed by Nutter, who credited Butkovitz for his “voluminous” number of audits.
Satullo asked Mandel if, during his time working under Saidel, audits were completed every year. Mandel, who suggested several times throughout the debate that Butkovitz had not been meeting the audit requirements, said that when Saidel neglected his auditing duties he complained internally.
“The city controller provides credibility for the government,” he said. “If you conduct every audit, you gain credibility in Harrisburg.”
Braxton said he thinks there are certain government agencies that need a closer look by the city controller. Among them, he named the money being spent on the war on drugs and crime. The $522 million that have been put toward that, he said, is “ripe for an audit.”
An audience member asked the candidates which they think is the city’s most wasteful department. Butkovitz firmly replied that he thinks the Department of Licenses and Inspections could stand to be reigned in, while Braxton and Mandel agreed that too much money for overtime is being used within the criminal justice system.
WHO SHOULD BE TAXED
It wasn’t just audits that the candidates butted heads over. When Satullo brought up the proposed real estate tax and ongoing issues with the Board of Revision of Taxes, he asked the candidates why they had previously shied away from the topic.
“Where have you been?” he asked them. “All you have to do it walk into a neighborhood in the Northeast and people will tell you how messed up this is,” Satullo continued, referring to accusations of inside dealing, favoritism and general incompetence of the BRT.
The responses came with more dissent among the candidates, particularly from Braxton. “Did you tell the mayor you disagree [with the real estate tax increase]?” he asked the incumbent. Butkovitz told the audience he is opposed to the increase, though Nutter, who had endorsed Butkovitz, is in favor of increasing the real estate tax by 19 percent.
Mandel was the only one in favor of the real estate tax, and said it is currently the most logical option, since a business tax would not yield much revenue due to the current economic state. Butkovitz called the tax unfair, and said, “it’s because of the zealotry of Brett Mandel that the only option on the table is a real estate tax.”
Braxton replied that while it is an important part of the controller’s job to assess taxes and abatements, no one currently in the office is competent enough to do so.
No matter the question, the candidates made sure to point out their own strengths, but never forgot to remind the audience of their opponents’ weaknesses. This was equally true for the audience questions, which attendees wrote down prior to the debate. Some of the inquiries focused on technology and the potential to have a paperless government, departmental waste, strategies for executing plans and governmental checks and balances.
Satullo gave the candidates one minute each to close, asking that they keep it civil and respectful.
Butkovitz emphasized the innovations he said he’s brought to the position, and the decrease in school violence. “There is tremendous opportunity for growth,” he said, “and I look forward to continuing the mission.”
Braxton said the city is in need of moral guidance and is currently not getting forthrightness. Telling Satullo he wants the opportunity to bring leadership to the city, he said, “I’m in favor of change.”
“Our city is in a fiscal crisis,” Mandel said. “We can’t afford to have a city controller who’s not doing his job. I will be your budget bulldog.”
Butkovitz, Braxton and Mandel will face off again in more debates, and finally, on Tuesday, May 19 for the Democratic Primary. The winner will face, in the November general election, Republican Al Schmidt, who was in attendance.