Mayor Street vigorously defended yesterday his decision to claim $111,000 in raises that he had forgone since 2004, while critics blasted the maneuver as dishonest and possibly illegal.

Street said the city's financial condition had improved to the point where he felt comfortable taking a 2004 raise and three cost-of-living increases that he also passed up until now.

"At the time, I made a decision where I was not going to take the raise, and I didn't. Now I'm in a position to assess the overall finances of the city, the workforce, and a lot of different issues, and I think it's appropriate," Street said in an interview after a police appreciation ceremony at City Hall.

"I don't understand what the fuss is about."

The fuss, critics said, is about political deceit and the stoking of citizen cynicism.

"The mayor got credit from the public for turning down a big pay raise. Then, by the end of the term, he took it," said City Controller Alan Butkovitz. "It undermines the credibility of the government."

For some of those who have long been frustrated with Street, news of the retroactive raises was a fitting capstone for an administration that is seen to have struggled in its final years.

"This guy just doesn't seem to have a shame bone in his body," said Brett Mandel, executive director of Philadelphia Forward, an organization that promotes tax cuts and good government. "I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror if I'd done the things he's done."

Others wondered what the legal basis was for the payments.

"I think it's outrageous. It's basic political dishonesty, and I really question whether or not it's legal," said David Marston, a former U.S. attorney and Republican candidate for mayor. "It's like he has the power to control the money-dispensing process, and he decided to dispense himself a little more."

All of which hurts the city's reputation and fuels citizen skepticism, said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, the nonpartisan government-watchdog group.

"The real meaning of this, the $111,000 aside, is that it's this kind of action that makes people cynical about government and, frankly, draws negative national attention," Stalberg said, noting that the story was carried by the New York Times and other publications.

The $111,000 is the difference between the $146,000 salary Street has received for the last four years and the salary he would have received with a 2004 raise to $165,000 and cost-of-living increases approved by Council after that. Street's 2007 salary would have been $186,000.

Butkovitz has asked the City Solicitor's Office to supply a formal opinion on Street's use of retroactive raises, which he expects to get shortly. But Butkovitz said that informal discussions with the Solicitor's Office had convinced him the raises were legally permissible.

Because pay increases for all city employees require a change order to take effect, Street never had to explicitly reject his raise. Rather, he held off on filing his change orders until last week, when his chief of staff filed four orders on the mayor's behalf.

"I didn't make up my mind that I was going to accept the raise until the last minute," Street said.

The accounting was easy. Finance Director Vince Jannetti said his department had been allowing for the mayor's full salary, even without formal word that Street would claim his raises.

Asked why, Janetti said: "Because it may have come up."

In 2003, Street vetoed the City Council bill that granted him and other elected officials raises of about 15 percent. Union negotiations were approaching, and the city's fund balance of $91.3 million was less than a third of what it is today. Given those conditions, Street said at the time, he couldn't support the raise.

"While I value and respect the work of elected officials, I believe providing raises of such magnitude is inappropriate and sends the wrong message to our constituents and employees," Street's 2003 veto message read.

Circumstances have changed, Street said yesterday.

"We were struggling along back in those days, we had a big fight about tax reductions, and I didn't think it was appropriate to do at the time," Street said. "Were we in a different position [today], I probably would not have accepted the raises. I'm entitled to them. And I don't think that there's anything wrong with it."

To be sure, even at the full level of $186,000, Street's salary is far from excessive, given the demands of the job and the pay offered mayors in other big cities.

"It's almost a 24/7 job. Nobody else has a job quite like that. Whether it's Rizzo or Rendell or Street or Mayor-elect Nutter, they all earn their money," said Thomas Paine Cronin, former president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

In the view of some, the problem isn't the raises or even their retroactive nature. Rather, it's that the raises were not announced and accompanied by a formal opinion from the city solicitor.

"It just looks like he's doing something that is a little bit less than kosher, shall we say," said lawyer Walter M. Phillips, who is chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and was chairman of the Philadelphia Ethics Board under Mayor Bill Green.

City Council President Anna C. Verna declined to comment.

"In 11 more days it'll be a dead issue," she said.

Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.

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