City property-tax system slowly getting fairer

Democratic Convention
Mayor Nutter

Years of disappointing delays and controversies have kept Philadelphia from getting a fair property-tax system, but the Nutter administration is making assurances that a new assessment process will be in place in time for the next city budget.

Now, City Council must pledge to enact the long overdue reform. Members cannot buckle to pressure from constituents who have benefited from an inequitable system that allowed owners of higher-priced properties to pay less than those with more modest properties.

Owners in up-and-coming areas will likely be angry that their property-tax bills will be higher than they have been. But they should remember, as should Council, that for years they coasted on the backs of others who didn’t get an assessment break. The system was so disgracefully imbalanced that two identical houses right next to each other could get vastly different bills.

The danger of Council members backing away from this genuine tax reform increases as their 2015 reelection season approaches. They know the assement system based on guesses and favors must fade into the past. But they don’t want to antagonize voters facing a tax increase.

Council showed it can act judiciously last spring when it put off implementing the Actual Value Initiative because it was incomplete. Mayor Nutter had wanted to use AVI to capture untapped value from properties to produce additional revenue for the schools, and to make permanent two previous property-tax hikes. Instead, Council raised a business tax as well as the property- tax rate for the third time in three years.

The administration wasn’t finished compiling new assessment figures, but asked Council members to take an extraordinary leap of faith by passing a budget without knowing how taxes would affect property owners. That wasn’t fair because property owners would receive their assessments and property-tax bills so late that they wouldn’t have had enough time to figure out their personal budgets.

The new assessment figures were supposed to be available in late summer. But because Council delayed the program’s implementation, the administration had to revert to old 2011 property-value figures to write the budget for the current fiscal year.

The new timetable makes more sense. The mayor promises to have the numbers ready by December. Residents are scheduled to get their assessments in February, which should give them plenty of time to appeal if they believe the values are not accurate.

New assessments will give Nutter reliable figures for his next budget, to be introduced in March.

For an added guarantee that the process remains on track, the state law allowing last spring’s delay required that AVI be implemented in the new city budget.

It has taken Philadelphia decades to get this far, but now there are no more excuses to further delay giving Philadelphians a fairer property-tax system.