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With 20,000 property tax appeals, BRT moves slowly

An unprecedented backlog of roughly 20,000 property-tax appeals is delaying millions of dollars in tax payments to the city and School District, the latest development in the ongoing warfare between the Nutter administration and the Board of Revision of Taxes.

An unprecedented backlog of roughly 20,000 property-tax appeals is delaying millions of dollars in tax payments to the city and School District, the latest development in the ongoing warfare between the Nutter administration and the Board of Revision of Taxes.

Several board members appeared to be holding out for a pay increase to work harder at their jobs, and City Council is poised to give them the boost, to $70,000 a year.

Philadelphia voters approved a City Charter change in 2010 to abolish the BRT, a longtime patronage haven whose seven members are appointed by the city's judges, typically from a short list approved by Democratic Party leaders.

But the state Supreme Court restored the BRT, albeit with limited powers. It is now in charge of reviewing appeals from thousands of homeowners, challenging their reassessments under Mayor Nutter's Actual Value Initiative.

The new assessments led to a record 23,611 appeals filed before the deadline in October. The difference between the tax bills on the new assessments and the old ones is $48 million, city finance officials said last week - $22 million earmarked for the city and $26 million for the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District.

But at the rate those appeals have been handled, it would take the BRT more than two years to adjudicate all of them.

Neighborhoods that experienced explosive growth throughout the 2000s, such as Northern Liberties and Graduate Hospital, had the biggest tax increases under Nutter's reform effort. Although measures were adopted to protect longtime residents from being taxed out of their homes, values and tax bills in those areas skyrocketed.

A bill Council passed last year allows homeowners who appeal their assessments to continue paying at their old rates until their appeals are decided.

So until those decisions are made, neither the city nor the School District will receive any additional revenue from those taxpayers.

BRT Chairman Russell Nigro, a former state Supreme Court justice, said Friday that by the end of March, three months into the hearing process, the BRT will clear about 2,500 cases - 10 percent of the pile.

Considering the board's limited hearing hours and tortured compensation arrangements, now ranging from $150 per day for three board members to $70,000 a year for two others, "to say that by the first quarter we've completed one-tenth of the list, I think that's good," Nigro said.

Nigro said he was developing a plan to step up the hearing schedule and get more cases heard. Asked why he had not developed the plan months ago, he said he had been unable to get money for additional staff members and found it difficult to ask board members to work longer hours when three of them are paid only $150 a day.

City Finance Director Rob Dubow said the BRT had been provided all the money it sought to handle AVI appeals.

"Anything they've asked for we've given them," Dubow said. "If they called tomorrow and said we need extra money for three new people, we'd say fine and put that in their budget, too."

Nigro called that statement "a lie," claiming that Council had provided $115,000 to hire more staff members, but that the administration used it to comply with a court order giving back pay to several BRT members.

The BRT has been meeting five days a week, starting at 10 a.m., in its offices at Sixth and Walnut Streets, Nigro said.

Three days a week, the meetings last less than an hour, as the board records its decisions on cases in which the property owners sent in paperwork and did not ask to be heard. Two days a week, the BRT listens to property owners and sometimes their lawyers, the hearings running from 10 a.m. into the afternoon.

As late as 4 or 5 p.m.?

"I doubt it, not if someone is getting paid only $150 a day," Nigro said.

"I don't get on anybody's butt," he said. "I try to get an amount done that's reasonable and fair under the circumstances. . . . If everybody's getting paid $70,000, it's a lot easier for me to go to people and say, 'You've got to step to the plate more often.' "

"Is he saying they took the positions and decided it wasn't enough pay for what they agreed to do?" Dubow asked. "I don't understand that logic."

The unusual compensation arrangements resulted from two court cases and a series of efforts by Nutter and Council to reduce the BRT's pay, once one of the ripest plums in the patronage system, at $70,000 annually for a part-time job.

In 2010, Nutter and Council moved to reduce the pay to $50,000 for the chair, $45,000 for the secretary, and $150 per meeting for the other five members.

Common Pleas and Commonwealth Court judges ruled the city could not reduce pay for BRT members already holding the office. That restored $70,000 salaries for two members - plus back pay of roughly $180,000 each - but left three who had joined the BRT for new terms at $150 a day.

Last week, Council's Appropriations Committee approved bills that would transfer $307,000 to the BRT and restore $70,000 salaries for current and future members.

Councilman Mark Squilla, whose riverfront district was hit hardest by tax increases under AVI, sponsored the bill. He said he hoped it would make the BRT members feel encouraged to finish the hearings by the end of the year.

"My thing was you couldn't have people getting two different salaries on the same board," Squilla said.

The Nutter administration is not saying whether the mayor will sign the bill or try to maintain $150-a-day pay for the three BRT members who joined the board at that level.

"What Nigro is saying is, 'My guys need more money to do all this work,' " administration spokesman Mark McDonald said. "We're looking at a huge amount of time during which they could have developed a plan.

"Forgetting the pay issue . . . what were they planning to do back in November and December and January?" McDonald said. "What was the plan to address this thing they knew about in late October? Was pay right from the beginning an issue? It just strikes me as unseemly that public servants would raise pay - you got to give up more money if you want this work to get done."