PHILADELPHIA City Council voted unanimously Thursday to boost pay for members of the Board of Revision of Taxes to a uniform $70,000 a year, hoping the raises will spur longer working hours for the board to handle a backlog of more than 20,000 property tax appeals.
"Our theory was that if everyone got paid the same way, they would all work as hard as everybody else and we would get [the appeals] done," said Councilman Mark Squilla, the primary sponsor of the bill. "Our residents deserve speedy and fair trials on their assessments, and the city deserves it too."
The board, known as the BRT, is a panel of seven, appointed to six-year terms by Philadelphia judges, usually with backing from Democratic leaders.
For decades it was the primary agency assessing the value of city real estate, and positions were among the top prizes of the patronage system - $70,000 a year for jobs that were considered part-time.
The Nutter administration and Council moved to abolish the BRT in 2009, with approval from voters in a referendum. But the state Supreme Court ruled that the agency should survive as an appeals panel for property owners who disagree with their assessments.
A subsequent series of Council ordinances and lawsuits over back pay left the seven BRT members with four different pay levels: two senior members getting $70,000 a year, a chairman making $50,000, a secretary getting $45,000, and three others making $150 a day.
The new legislation - still needing approval from Mayor Nutter, whose aides have been critical of the package - would standardize everyone's pay.
That would mean a $20,000 raise for Chairman Russell M. Nigro, a former state Supreme Court justice who now gets $50,000 on top of his $88,800-a-year state pension.
Former Municipal Court President Judge Alan K. Silberstein, one of the $150-a-day members, would go to $70,000 on top of his state pension of $95,000 a year.
But it would mean a pay decrease for Eugene P. Davey, who was the top appraiser for the agency, a civil service job, until his retirement in 2008. Davey has a $64,000 city pension but would have to give it up to accept the $70,000 salary, though he'd make out better collecting the pension and $150 a day.
The board has been working on appeals almost every weekday since January, with hearings beginning promptly at 10 a.m.
Three days a week, the board records its decisions in 40 or 50 cases where the property owners sent in paperwork but did not want to appear in person.
Two days a week, the board schedules hearings for property owners, but just 15 or 20 cases a day, most of them settled before the hearings occur. This week, the board heard from two homeowners Tuesday and two more on Thursday, and the hearings were over before noon.
In an interview last week, Nigro estimated that by the end of March, the board would dispose of 2,500 cases, roughly 10 percent of the 23,611 appeals filed before the deadline last October.
"Everybody on the board wants to do this job, wants to get this inventory done, but I really can't go to board members and say I want you to do all this work but I can't pay you," Nigro said.
With the pay increase, Nigro said, he has a plan to deal with the backlog.
"It will be hard because we've lost so many months on the front end, but I think we can eliminate the vast majority of the inventory by year's end," he said.
Council passed a bill last year allowing property owners who appeal their new assessments to pay at last year's rates until their appeals are decided.
But many mortgage companies have worked the new property assessments into monthly mortgage calculations, whether the assessments are under appeal or not.