Controller Primary: Rebecca Rhynhart Looks to Challenge Incumbent Alan Butkovitz as City’s Fiscal Watchdog
The district attorney race isn’t the only big race in the upcoming primary election. On May 16th, voters will have the chance to choose between two Democrats running for the office of city controller. Rebecca Rhynhart is challenging incumbent Alan Butkovitz in the primary election. She seeks to oust Butkovitz from the post he has manned since 2005.
Rhynhart has a Master’s in public administration and a public sector background in municipal finance and as a credit analyst. She was hired by Mayor Michael Nutter in 2008 and worked as city treasurer and budget director during his administration. The Kenney administration decided to keep Rhynhart on and created a cabinet position for her. Rhynhart served as chief administrative officer and was in charge modernizing city government by overseeing 11 city agencies and 1,000 employees.
Rhynhart resigned from the position in order to run for controller and wants to bring an overhaul to the office in charge of auditing and identifying financial waste in city government.
“I’m running because I want to have a greater impact on the city,” Rhynhart said. “I realized after working in various senior positions that if I was going to lead the change that I want to happen to make this city run better, then I need to run for office.”
Rhynhart believes politics and loyalty to the local party machine are influencing the controller’s office. “[Butkovitz] is someone who has been part of the political machine for some time,” Rhynhart said. “I feel like Philadelphia deserves more, and I’m not going to let that sort of old party machine run what our city is going to become.”
She added: “He’s been in office since 1990 as a ward leader, and I think that prevents him from really taking the tough stances that are necessary.”
Rhynhart supports the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. However, she believes proper spending and accountability will keep the city from having to raise taxes in the future. “We shouldn’t be in the position where the only option is to raise a tax,” she said. “We will save millions of dollars and that’s money that will be available for priorities instead of just raising taxes.”
Rhynhart believes modernizing the city government is a key way to help streamline politics in Philadelphia and save large amounts of money. “There’s so much opportunity to improve how the city is doing things and to save so much money,” Rhynhart said.
She also wants to tackle the city’s pension and delinquent tax problems, two issues she says are costing the city millions. Rhynhart wants to start auditing immediately and cites the Philadelphia Parking Authority as audit number one. Rhynhart told Spirit News the PPA’s budget surplus is intended to be distributed to the school district, and when the state took over the PPA in the early 2000s, estimates projected $40 million per year for the district. Rhynhart says last year they received around $10 million and cites political motivations as the reason the office hasn’t been audited. “I would audit the Parking Authority, and I think it’s a real shame it hasn’t been audited,” Rhynhart said. “One of the biggest concerns is being able to have a quality education for their kids here, and it’s not okay to let politics as usual in Philadelphia get in the way of money going where it should go.”
Incumbent Controller Alan Butkovitz served in the PA House of Representatives for 15 years before becoming controller in 2005. He’s earned a reputation as a fiscal watchdog who isn’t afraid to directly butt heads with the mayor from time to time.
According to his website, his office is responsible for identifying approximately $800 million in potential revenues and savings for the city. He also successfully audited the sheriff’s office, which uncovered millions of dollars’ worth of questionable financial transactions, and ultimately led to the U.S. Attorney’s office filing charges against people connected to the Sheriff’s office.
Butkovitz made headlines earlier this year when he publicly asked former Mayor Nutter and Former City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell to pay back money to the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, which Butkovitz says was improperly spent. The former mayor denied the allegation and told reporters Butkovitz was “desperately fabricating an issue.”
According to Butkovitz, he’s the right person for the office.
“I think we’ve built a very strong team in the office,” Butkovitz said. “We are able to get more into the meat of things — the content of the economic growth strategy for the city of Philadelphia — and I think we are doing an increasingly strong job as the leading anti-corruption local agency.”
Butkovitz agrees the PPA needs to be audited and says he would be willing to do it, but he is more interested in auditing the Philadelphia Development Investment Corporation (PDIC). “The PDIC has never been audited, and they are the agent for most of the city’s economic development policy,” Butkovitz said.
According to Butkovitz, his relationship with Mayor Kenney is less volatile than with the Nutter administration. “The Kenney administration has been more receptive and open to dialogue, even criticism, than even the Nutter administration was,” Butkovitz said. “I think the Nutter administration decided early on that if they had 100 percent dominance of the news cycle, they would maintain high popularity. They would fight tenaciously to avoid any kind of critical remarks.”
Butkovitz also believes there is room for modernization and brought up many aspects created in the controller’s office during his tenure, such as video auditing and apps that allow people to take pictures, and report waste directly to the office.
He was quick to point out that Rhynhart has had some troubles with modernizing city services during her previous role in the Kenney administration. “As chief administrative officer, she invested over $1 million dollars in a new CGI computer system, then had to back out and cancel it after six months and abandon it,” Butkovitz said.
Butkovitz also says Rhynhart took money away from L&I during a time when the department was struggling to ramp up efforts to combat dangerous buildings and demolition practices and instead put the money into programs like 311 that have yielded questionable results.
According to him, the price tag is very high to completely upgrade the city systems to more modern programs. “No administration has been willing to commit what is estimated to be $125 million or more to do a full implementation of a new system,” Butkovitz said. “The technology in Philadelphia is more of an obstacle than a help.”
Butkovitz also wonders why Rhynhart would leave a position within the administration where she had the power to make the changes she talks about, to become a watchdog of fiscal expenditures done by the mayor’s office.
“Rhynhart was the chief administrative officer where she had the mandate to do these things and she quits mid-stream without having any credits to her resume, and before that she was the budget director where she made these critical decisions.”
Butkovitz describes Rhynhart as an insider and told Spirit News he believes she was set up by Nutter to oppose him. “It sounds like the things Rhynhart is talking about are aspirational to the job she left,” Butkovitz said. “The controller audits. Under the city charter it’s the finance director that’s got control of the city’s accounting. She’s part of that team, so why would you go from the inside to the outside so that you could criticize when you have the power?”
Butkovitz says that he has a passion for the controller’s office and has established a department full of talented people looking for new solutions to save the city government and taxpayers money by eliminating waste.
“I think I’ve got a real aptitude and passion for this job and have developed a lot of expertise about how to do it in creative ways,” Butkovitz said. “I’m really excited and engaged. We’ve attracted an extremely smart [group] of young people and we’ve found new ways to approach things.”