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Tax board's lips sealed over raises

The Daily News has a lot of questions for the seven members of the Board of Revision of Taxes, five of whom recently secured pay raises from City Council and Mayor Nutter.

For instance, does the BRT believe that the pay raises are legal, given that the state constitution prohibits changes in public officials' pay in the middle of their terms?

Will the board members, whose raises were prompted by a spike in tax appeals in the first year of a new city program, give those raises back when their caseload returns to normal?

Why do board members, who took their oaths of office knowing what their pay would be, need higher salaries?

There could be sound answers to all these questions. But if BRT chairman Russell Nigro has his way, we won't hear them.

"Neither I nor any board member will give you any statement whatsoever and will not be interviewed," Nigro said in a voice mail, "and in addition, do not call Carla Pagan, the executive director. She will not speak with you, either."

Surprised that the leader of a taxpayer-funded board would refuse to take questions from the press, the People Paper went to yesterday morning's BRT hearing, in which property owners made their cases for lower taxes before the board members.

But Nigro did not attend.

"I don't know where he is today," BRT member Eugene Davey said at the meeting. "It's like anything else: People have commitments or are taking the day off."

Asked whether he thought the raises were legal under state law, Davey said he's not a lawyer.

Asked whether the board members will need the higher salaries after this year, when the caseload is expected to shrink, Davey said that "there's always going to be appeals because markets go up and markets go down."

"You can probably count on tens of thousands of appeals every year," said Davey, whose pay will go from $150 per day to $70,000 per year.

The pay raises, introduced by Councilman Mark Squilla, give all BRT members, who are appointed by the Court of Common Pleas, salaries of $70,000. Previously, two members made $70,000, Nigro as chairman made $50,000, the secretary made $45,000, and Davey and two other members made $150 per day.

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said the pay raises have been processed for all board members except Nigro and Robert Nix III, who have not yet submitted the necessary paperwork.

After the Actual Value Initiative property-tax reform effort, in which the city reassessed every parcel in the city, the BRT received 23,000 appeals from taxpayers on their new valuations. The board typically receives only a few hundred or thousand cases per year, and Squilla said his bill was aimed at helping the board plow through the mountain of appeals.

Pagan, the executive director, said in a Council hearing last week that the board ramped up its productivity after Nutter let the pay-raise bill become law without his signature. The BRT now expects to complete all residential cases this fall, Pagan said.

Nutter in the past has unsuccessfully sought to abolish the BRT and to cut its pay. The state Supreme Court threw out the pay cut, citing the constitutional provision that prohibits increasing or decreasing a public official's pay midterm.

But the enormous backlog of appeals has bogged down Nutter's Office of Property Assessment, and the administration so far has not challenged the pay raises.

"We want the work done, and they're going to get their money," said McDonald, Nutter's spokesman.