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After pay raise, BRT picks up the pace

Behold the motivational power of money.

After Mayor Nutter allowed a controversial bill to become law that increases pay for most members of the Board of Revision of Taxes, the panel is suddenly plowing through the 23,000 property-tax appeals it is tasked with adjudicating in the wake of last year's citywide reassessment.

BRT Executive Director Carla Pagan told City Council today that the board is now hearing 500 to 600 cases per week, compared to the 100 to 200 it was hearing before the pay raise went through. The board now meets 14 times per week, up from three to five, she said.

Pagan said all appeals for residential properties are expected to be resolved by the end of September. (There is not yet a timeline for commercial properties, which can take longer.) At their initial pace, the BRT would have taken years to get through its case load from this year.

No member of the board joined Pagan at today's Council hearing on the agency's budget. But Pagan said the bill, which set salaries for BRT members at a uniform $70,000 - a big increase for some - was the reason for the increased productivity.

"It's a challenge when there's seven people hired to do the same job and they don't make the same pay ... so that bill removed that obstacle," Pagan said. "The removal of that obstacle facilitated" the quicker pace, she said.

Before Nutter let the pay-raise bill become law without his signature earlier this month, the BRT members' pay varied greatly: The chairman made $50,000 per year, the secretary $45,000, two members had $70,000 salaries, and three made only $150 per day.

Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill that made them all $70,000, saying that he hoped it would speed up the board's work. BRT Chairman Russell Nigro, in his most recent public comments on the issue, told the Inquirer last month that he "can't go to board members and say, 'I want you to do all this work but I can't pay you.' "

But the bill appears to violate the state constitution, which prohibits officials from having their salaries changed in the middle of their terms, and could be challenged in court.

That provision was the basis for a state Supreme Court decision last year that overturned a pay cut for the BRT that was pushed by Nutter, who earlier in his administration tried to abolish the board altogether.

But Nutter now appears to be going along with the pay hikes. Although he has criticized the BRT members for implying they won't do their jobs without raises, he declined to veto the Squilla bill and has not said he will back a challenge of the pay raises in court.

All members of the BRT, who are appointed by the Court of Common Pleas, were aware of what their pay levels would be when they took office.