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BRT is kept alive by court

It said only the legislature could abolish the board. But the city can strip it of the power to assess, leaving it to hear appeals.

Philadelphia residents may have voted to abolish the Board of Revision of Taxes in May, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Monday that the board could continue to exist and hear property tax appeals.

However, the court said, the city is able to take from the BRT control over setting property values.

In a 27-page opinion written by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, the court said the city could not get rid of the appeals board because only the General Assembly has the authority to do so.

The legal victory for the BRT throws a roadblock into Mayor Nutter's effort to eliminate the agency, which has been plagued by accusations of corruption and insider dealing.

But it did allow Nutter to hang on to a major piece of his effort, upholding the city's right to split the board's assessment and appeals duties. This means the mayor can move forward with creating more accurate assessments.

In the spring, Philadelphians by a wide margin voted to abolish the BRT and replace it with two agencies, the Office of Property Assessment and the Board of Property Assessment Appeals.

The move to change the BRT' came after an Inquirer investigation last year exposed widespread mismanagement at the agency, whose decisions directly affect the pocketbook of every property owner in Philadelphia.

BRT Chairwoman Charlesretta Meade and members Robert N.C. Nix III, Russell M. Nigro, Alan K. Silberstein, Howard M. Goldsmith, and Anthony Lewis Jr. asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether the city had the power to get rid of the BRT or take away its appeals function.

Managing Director Richard Negrin said Monday night that the ruling was disappointing. But he said the court left the more important part of the city's effort intact in allowing the mayor to pick a new assessor and begin repairing the city's broken property valuations.

"We would have loved to have gotten all of it, but the key thing here is to fix the property assessment function of the city," said Negrin, who served as interim BRT director before taking his current job. "It affirms everything we've done in that regard."

William P. Murphy, one of the lawyers for the BRT members, said the ruling was a measure of vindication for the much-criticized board.

"It demonstrates they were doing the public a service," he said, adding that he instructed them not to comment while the suit was pending.

"They endured silently when it was difficult to do that."

He said the board's determination to press for a decision before Oct. 1, when the new board was supposed to start work, had saved the city a lot of problems. If the new board had started hearing appeals, the decisions would have been invalid.

"They spared the public a mess that would have happened if they hadn't done what they did," Murphy said.

The ruling invalidates the part of the city ordinance that created a Board of Property Assessment Appeals to replace the seven-member BRT, a holdover from the 19th century. The members are chosen by city judges in a closed-door process heavily influenced by political leaders.

Castille, in Monday's decision, said the General Assembly intended for local judges to have some role in appointing the people who oversee property-tax appeals.

Because of the ruling, the BRT will continue to hear appeals of property owners dissatisfied with their assessments. Taxpayers have the right to appeal the BRT's decisions in Common Pleas Court.

"Their opportunity to do a great deal of mischief is gone," Negrin said, predicting that there would not be a huge volume of appeals over the next year.

In July, Richie McKeithen, a Nutter appointee, became head of the Office of Property Assessment and is working toward creating a new system for assessments.

Last week, Nutter sent the list of his appeals board nominees to City Council for approval, but that request is in limbo as a result of the court's ruling.

Negrin said that Meade's term expires soon, and that Nutter will work with the chief judge of Common Pleas Court, Pamela Pryor Dembe, to replace Meade with a candidate who wants to reform the agency.

He said the administration is considering trying to have state law amended to give the city the power to do away with the BRT.

Nigro, a former state Supreme Court justice, declined to comment.

Silberstein said, "I'm very pleased with it," but referred all other questions to Murphy."We're delighted that the court agreed with us in our position that the city did not have power to totally abolish the board," said Howard K. Goldstein, who argued the case with Murphy.

The court declined to rule on whether Council and Nutter should have been allowed to reduce the annual salaries of the BRT chair and secretary from $75,000 and $72,000 to $50,000 and $45,000.