BRT raise to $70K could violate Pa. constitution

Posted: March 19, 2014

A bill passed by Philadelphia City Council last week to boost salaries at the Board of Revision of Taxes to $70,000 a year faces one more significant hurdle: It appears to violate the Pennsylvania constitution.

"No law shall extend the term of any public officers, or increase or diminish his salary or emoluments, after his election or appointment," the constitution says in Article 3, Section 27.

It was the critical language in a Commonwealth Court opinion last year that led to more than $600,000 in back pay for five BRT members. Their salaries had been improperly reduced during their six-year terms, the court ruled.

Council voted, 16-0, last week to raise the BRT salaries to a uniform $70,000 a year. Councilman Mark Squilla voiced hope that the increased pay would lead the board to work longer hours to deal with more than 20,000 pending property tax appeals.

This time, the constitutional provision appears to prohibit those increases.

That would leave the two senior members of the board making $70,000 a year, its chairman making $50,000, its secretary getting $45,000, and three others getting $150 a day for each day they work.

Squilla said Monday that he was aware of the constitutional restrictions on changing salary levels during the terms of the BRT officers, but thought it might be permissible because his bill does away with the current, confusing pay levels, and restores an older salary system that was in place until 2009.

"I just thought if we could revert back to the original plan, there will be no midterm changing people's salaries midstream," Squilla said.

"Except it has the same consequences," Squilla acknowledged. "My goal as a Council person is to get these appeals heard."

Mayor Nutter has been noncommittal on whether he will sign or veto the bill.

By the end of March, after three months of work, the BRT expects to clear about 2,500 appeals, roughly 10 percent of the 23,611 appeals filed by property owners.

"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," BRT Chairman Russell Nigro, a former state Supreme Court justice, told The Inquirer on March 7.

He has declined to answer additional questions and withdrawn a commitment to provide a digital list of the 23,611 properties under appeal.

The seven members of the BRT are appointed to six-year terms by the city's Common Pleas Court judges, usually with backing from Democratic Party leaders.

The three board members now making $150 a day - former Municipal Court Judge Alan K. Silberstein, Wayne A. Johns, and Eugene P. Davey - were aware of the pay level when their current terms began.


warnerb@phillynews.com

215-854-5885 @bobwarner1

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