BRT ramping it up on Phila. tax appeals

Posted: April 24, 2014

PHILADELPHIA The board that hears Philadelphia's property tax appeals has finally started mowing down a huge backlog of cases after City Council approved a bill last month giving pay raises to most of its members.

Since the bill passed, the Board of Revision of Taxes has ramped up its hearing schedule, clearing more than 600 appeals a week, said Carla Pagan, executive director.

Before the bill passed, Pagan said Tuesday, the seven-member board, appointed by the city's judges, was hearing about 150 cases a week.

"It's a challenge when there are seven people hired to do the same job and they don't make the same pay," she told reporters after testifying in a Council budget hearing. "That bill removed that obstacle."

The sudden surge in productivity, however, will not come fast enough to allow city assessors to complete a hoped-for annual reassessment this year - and next year remains in doubt as well.

The city's chief assessor, Richie McKeithen, told Council in a budget hearing this month that the BRT had failed to give his office a full schedule of appeals to be heard.

"It's kind of hard for us to plan . . . from day to day, week to week, what our activities will be," he testified. "We have to take the approach of just handling and answering nothing else but appeals until we . . . have something where we can plan and work around."

The Office of Property Assessment completed a citywide reassessment last year as part of a massive overhaul of the city's broken property tax system, a system formerly overseen by the BRT.

McKeithen said he had hoped to conduct a reassessment every year to keep the value of the city's 579,000 parcels as current as possible, and the BRT's sluggish and uneven pace on appeals was one obstacle.

McKeithen is not sure reassessment can be completed for next year, either. OPA set up its own process for property owners to challenge assessments, but blew its deadline of completing those reviews by last fall; McKeithen told Council in early April that 3,000 cases were still pending.

After the shock of restructuring the property tax system and shifting the tax burden around the city, the BRT received about 23,000 appeals last year - the most ever.

Pagan said Tuesday that she believes the BRT would finish hearing residential appeals by Labor Day, but resolving more complex commercial and industrial appeals would take longer.

OPA was created after Mayor Nutter and Council moved to abolish the much-maligned BRT in 2009. But the BRT was spared by a state Supreme Court order and established as an independent panel to hear assessment appeals.

Nutter and Council then slashed the board members' pay from $70,000 a year to a $150-per-diem rate. After a series of ordinances and lawsuits, two members were left making $70,000, a chairman was making $50,000, a secretary was getting $45,000, and the three remaining members were receiving $150 a day.

The Council bill put all the salaries back at $70,000. The Nutter administration has been processing the pay changes, even though the state constitution forbids a pay alteration in the middle of a public official's term.

The number of appeals - and thus the amount of work the board members will have - is expected to drop considerably in future years.


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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