Pay raise in works for BRT - but what about Pa. constitution?

PHILADELPHIA The Nutter administration is processing the paperwork to raise the pay of five members of the Board of Revision of Taxes - even though such midterm salary increases are forbidden by the state constitution.

City Council last month unanimously approved the salary increases to $70,000 a year, and Mayor Nutter allowed the ordinance to become law last week without his signature.

Councilman Mark Squilla, the prime sponsor, said he was hoping the pay boosts for members of the BRT would get it to speed up its handling of more than 20,000 real estate tax appeals, challenging new assessments made under the Actual Value Initiative.

The state constitution specifies that "no law shall extend the term of any public officer, or increase or diminish his salary or emoluments, after his election or appointment."

Asked for comment on that provision, Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald checked with City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith and said in an e-mail that she "does not want to comment on the BRT pay bill."

The constitution's provision is well-known to lawyers for both the city and the BRT, since it was the basis of a Commonwealth Court ruling last year that resulted in more than $600,000 in back pay for five BRT members whose salaries had been reduced by a 2010 Council ordinance.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, particularly for three BRT members - former Municipal Court Judge Alan K. Silberstein, Wayne A. Johns, and Eugene Davey, the BRT's former chief assessor - all of whom began their latest BRT terms after the salary reductions took effect. They now get $150 a day for each day they work.

There are also raises in store for the BRT chairman, former state Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro, whose pay will go from $50,000 to $70,000 a year, and board secretary Robert N. Nix III, from $45,000 to $70,000.

Both Silberstein and Nigro also receive yearly state pensions - about $95,000 for Silberstein and $88,800 for Nigro. For Davey, the new $70,000 salary could actually mean less take-home pay: He'll have to give up a $64,000-a-year city pension.

Assuming, that is, officials don't run afoul of the state constitution.

"There's no question that the constitutional provision applies to this situation," said Kevin Greenberg, a lawyer who occasionally handles BRT appeals. "There's also no question that they're horribly underpaid for the work required right now."

Greenberg suggested "an easy work-around": Board members could resign and then be reappointed by the city's Common Pleas Court judges, who jointly make BRT appointments.

BRT Executive Director Carla Pagan said the agency plans an accelerated work schedule beginning May 1, to hold 14 hearings a week, mornings and afternoons, instead of the five morning-only sessions it has conducted the last four months.