Pa. court says city can't cut pay of tax revision board

Posted: March 23, 2013

Having already failed at killing the Board of Revision of Taxes, the City of Philadelphia has learned that it also can't cut the pay of the property-tax appeals panel.

The 7-0 vote by Commonwealth Court is a rebuke to Mayor Nutter, who in 2010 got City Council to pass legislation that cut the BRT chair's salary from $75,000 to $50,000, and gave members without titles just $150 for every day they attend a BRT meeting or hearing.

Nutter's actions followed an Inquirer series that detailed deeply flawed assessments and political influence at the BRT. The mayor and Council also pushed a referendum question on doing away with the agency, which voters overwhelmingly approved. But in September 2010, the state Supreme Court ruled that only state legislators have the power to take away BRT appeals oversight.

That kept the agency alive, although the effort did succeed in a crucial way. Under the old system, the BRT oversaw both assessments and appeals. After the referendum, the city created the Office of Property Assessment to handle valuations. That office recently reassessed most of the city's property's in an effort to create a fairer system.

In the meantime, the pay cut question went before Commonwealth Court for two of the BRT members, while the remaining plaintiffs' cases were pending in Common Pleas Court.

In the opinion issued Wednesday, Judge Bernard L. McGinley said the city could not reduce BRT pay while current panelists remained in office.

The justices based the opinion on the idea that BRT members, who are appointed to six-year terms by the city's judges, are public officials. State law aims to protect such officials from political interference and so protects their salaries, the court said.

The city argued that because the BRT's duties had been halved with the creation of the Office of Property Assessment, the salary reduction was appropriate. But McGinley countered that the lower pay was put into place before duties were reduced.

Wednesday's ruling specifically applied to Russell M. Nigro and Howard M. Goldsmith. But Nigro, in an interview, said he thought the decision would also determine the cases of fellow plaintiffs Charlesretta Meade, former BRT chair; Robert N.C. Nix III, who was BRT secretary; Alan K. Silberstein; and Anthony M. Lewis. Meade is no longer on the BRT.

Nigro, a former state Supreme Court justice, said he felt vindicated. He said the pay cut was merely a failed effort to get him and others to quit. If the city wanted to lower BRT pay, it could have created an ordinance that affected only those who served on the board after the law passed, Nigro said.

"They had a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and they chose to do it the wrong way," Nigro said.

The city still could petition the state Supreme Court.

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Nutter, said the city would review the decision.


Contact Miriam Hill at hillmb@phillynews.com or 215-854-5520. Follow her on Twitter @miriamhill.

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