Inquirer Editorial: Is this a stickup?

Russell Nigro, the BRT chairman, with other members in 2009. File
Russell Nigro, the BRT chairman, with other members in 2009. File
Posted: March 18, 2014

Acting like political stickup artists, members of Philadelphia's Board of Revision of Taxes are getting a bigger paycheck out of the city by threatening to derail hard-won tax reforms. City Council unanimously granted the raise last week, which would give BRT members nearly twice the city's median household income for part-time work.

And it's not as if these people are starving. Some tax board members also collect fat government pensions.

The board got its way with a work slowdown at a critical juncture in the tax reform process, threatening the city and schools' ability to provide services.

After the city changed its corrupt assessment system to base taxes on actual property values, taxpayers filed an unprecedented 23,611 appeals. The flood was expected because the system raised values, and ultimately taxes, on homes in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Northern Liberties and Graduate Hospital. The reform seeks to bring fairness to property assessments, ending an era in which two identical houses right next to each other could have vastly different tax bills.

Mayor Nutter and Council attempted to eliminate the BRT, which oversaw the troubled old system, but the Supreme Court ruled that the board should continue to hear tax appeals.

Now the BRT has decided only about 10 percent of the post-reform appeals. At that slug's pace, it would take two years to finish the job, putting money for police, trash removal, and schools in limbo. Owners appealing their assessments are allowed to pay taxes at the old, lower rates, which is holding up more than $48 million in potential yearly revenue.

But the BRT doesn't seem interested in speeding up the appeals without hefty raises for most of its members. While two senior board members make $70,000 a year, one makes $50,000, another $45,000, and three others $150 a day. The lower-paid members knew that when they took their jobs.

Asked if the board would work more hours to meet the demand, board Chairman Russell Nigro told The Inquirer, "I doubt it, not if someone is getting paid only $150 a day. ... 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.' "

Nigro, a former state Supreme Court justice who stands to get a $20,000 raise, might as well have said, "This is a stickup." If the city didn't cough up the dough, basic services would be threatened.

Reformers knew it would be hard to change Philadelphia's old, erratic property tax system. Nutter and Council tried to ease the transition by protecting low-income families and longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. Harrisburg granted partial exemptions.

But in spite of these good efforts to bring fairness to property taxation, Philadelphia remains vulnerable to gangster-style politics.

Instead of rewarding the BRT's strong-arm tactics, Council should have hauled the board members into a hearing and forced them to explain themselves to the public. Nutter should veto the bill before anyone hands over the money.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|