Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
Last night's debate between Republican controller candidate Terry Tracy and Democratic incumbent Alan Butkovitz at the WHYY studios had audience members chuckling as the opponents verbally sparred — but the debate, while long on aggression, was short on substance. Perhaps owing to the dry nature of, er, "controlling" — the department is charged with auditing city finances — an unfortunate amount of time was spent arguing over issues that were generally outside the purview of the office, like education, tax policy, and the sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works.
Butkovitz came off as particularly aggressive, attacking Tracy for having only lived in the city for one year, tying him to the immensely unpopular Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and questioning his mathematical abilities. He repeatedly stated that his own record spoke for itself, asserting that he had realized $25 million in savings for the city through an audit of the city's emergency services.
Mayor Michael Nutter's spokesperson Mark McDonald said the administration "had no idea" what the Controller was referring to, saying Butkovitz's audit had made recommendations that EMS and fire services were already working on or implementing. "We have a new billing agent and thanks to suggestions from a consultant hired by the Finance Department's budget office, we are making real improvements in the collections area," he added in an email.
Meanwhile, Tracy seemed to have difficulty crystalizing the specific problems he had with Butkovitz's tenure, often veering off on tangents. While alluding to Butkovitz using audits as political tools to assail his opponents, he halfway suggested that the Germantown Settlement fiasco could have been prevented by the controller's office, but stopped short of actually saying the incumbent had failed in his duties. And, although he raised the issue, Tracy failed to really hammer home the most oft-repeated criticism of Butkovitz: that he fails to conduct mandatory annual audits of each city department. UPDATE: Butkovitz's office says that departmental audits are conducted annually as required.
In some ways, Butkovitz did a better job of indicting his own performance.
"When I came into the office in 2005, 96 percent of the office's budget was devoted to financial audits," said Butkovitz. "We brought performance audits to Philadelphia. The financial audits might help you catch crooks … but the performance audits let you know whether people are getting what they're supposed to out of these services."
Though Butkovitz meant for this statement to demonstrate how he had evolved the controller's office, most Philadelphians would probably agree that "catching crooks" is exactly what voters want city auditors to focus on. Given the string of recent raids and indictments conducted by the FBI's local corruption task force and others, it doesn't seem like there's a shortage of targets. The single instance of rooting out political fraud mentioned by Butkovitz was an audit he conducted in 2011 that revealed criminal waste and fraud in the Sheriff's Office. That report was released just a few weeks before the FBI would begin making arrests following its own extensive probe of that office.
Tracy's shining moment was a closing question to Butkovitz about whether his much talked about mayoral ambitions would result in him resigning mid-term to run for higher office.
"You can't count on me necessarily finishing the term," said Butkovitz, "but there's a lot to be decided."
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