Is Harrisburg going to kill Mayor Nutter’s property-tax plan?
Today, Council is yet again debating Nutter’s plan to reform the broken property-tax system and raise an additional $94 million for the school district in the process. But Nutter needs Harrisburg to pass several bills before he can push through his proposal. A crucial one would let the city adjust its millage rate, which is used to calculate property-tax bills.
At a hearing this morning, Council members Bill Greenlee and Mark Squilla asked the administration what the back-up plan is if Harrisburg balks.
LAST YEAR, Rachel Shapiro had a dispute with a contractor and took her case to Common Pleas Court. She lost.
She appealed the decision to Superior Court, and then … nothing happened. The case hasn’t moved forward, and it’s been 15 months.
What’s causing the holdup? Common Pleas Judge James Murray Lynn.
When someone appeals a judge’s decision, the judge must provide a written explanation, called an opinion, for the appeal to proceed. The opinion is due 60 days after an appeal is filed.
Lynn, after ruling against Shapiro, has kept this appeal on hold for more than a year. Not that Shapiro should take it personally: According to court records, Lynn has two other unwritten opinions holding up appeals that have been sitting on his desk for 12 months and 15 months, respectively.
Even the opinions he has written recently have taken him a while to get to: The two he wrote this year were both due in early 2011. And the two he wrote in 2011 took him nine months and 18 months, respectively
Other judges don’t take this long. We randomly checked the records of 16 of 32 Common Pleas judges who hear civil cases. Most took about two to three months on average to file opinions. A few took four to five months.
This week, the People's Board takes on the question of vacant land in the city, and what could or should be done about it. And on this week's It's Our Money podcast, People's Board member Kiki Bolender (speaking for herself!) talks to us about some of the proposals being considered by the city.
This should be fun.
Tonight at about 7:45 p.m., the Center City Residents' Association is hosting a panel discussion on the city's proposed property-tax overhaul. I'll be the panel, along with Chris Satullo, WHYY's VP for news and civic engagement; Brett Mandel, a taxpayer advocate and former City Controller candidate; and Lewis Rosman, Mayor Nutter's legislative affairs director.
It will take place at the Academy of Vocal Arts, located at 1920 Spruce Street. The event is open to the public, so feel free to come and heckle us ask smart questions.
Despite what Joseph Heller’s famous protagonist Capt. John Yossarian thinks, you can escape a Catch-22. Just ask Philadelphia resident Evelyn Piner.
In February, “It’s Our Money” reported on legal advocates arguing that Philadelphia’s court system, the First Judicial District, is unjustly saddling people with large debts they don’t actually owe. The problem, critics say, is that many of the court’s records are deeply flawed.
We spoke with several debtors, including Piner. She was stuck in a Catch-22. Last year, the First Judicial District sent her a letter saying she owed $900 in forfeited bail for skipping a hearing in early 1990. But that didn’t make sense, she said, because she was in prison at the time. Plus, a 1993 letter from her former probation officer stated that she was “not in any type of violation or bad standing.”
When it comes to large vacant buildings, developer Tony Rufo knows how to spot potential.
More than a year ago, Rufo transformed the shuttered Nathaniel Hawthorne School into the Hawthorne Lofts: 53 units of luxury loft-style condominiums. The development offers floor-to-ceiling windows, a roof deck with a stunning view of Center City and ultra-low taxes thanks to a 10-year tax break from the city. According to Rufo’s website, every unit has sold.
But 2 miles south, just around the corner from South Philadelphia High School, sits a very different kind of Rufo property. The hulking, vacant warehouse at 12th and Jackson streets, purchased by a company linked to Rufo in 2007 for $2.5 million, has been a trouble spot.
The former paintbrush factory that spans over an acre is covered with hundreds of broken windows. The facility is poorly lit. Illegal dumping and graffiti are rampant, says Kim Massare, president of the Lower Moyamensing Civic Association.
“It’s a space that people feel they need to avoid,” Massare says.
Property maintenance isn’t the only problem. Rufo’s company hasn’t paid property taxes on the warehouse since 2009 and owes the city $168,363.
As Philadelphians listen to the mayor and Council haggle over a new property-tax system and the School District’s need for $90 million from the city, it may be time for some fresh ideas on sources of revenue. One of the freshest also happens to be one of the oldest: Go to nonprofit institutions, which pay little or nothing in property taxes, for more help.
More than 2,000 charitable organizations, including large nonprofits like Penn, Blue Cross and Thomas Jefferson University, are exempt from most property taxes. One 2001 Inquirer report estimated that about 25 percent of the city’s total property value is off-limits to the tax collector.
A recent court ruling could help the city reinstitute Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs), voluntary contributions that nonprofits make to cities under the reasoning that nonprofits use city services. In 1995, the city was able to collect $9 million in PILOTs from more than 40 nonprofits; the schools received a portion of that.
But in 1997, the state passed Act 55, which made it easier for institutions to get tax-exempt status, and the city lost some of its leverage to negotiate for PILOTs because challenging an institution’s tax exemption became harder. By last year, just nine nonprofits contributed, for a total of $383,700. But the state Supreme Court ruled this month that the Mesivtah Eitz Chaim summer camp in Pike County was taxable because it didn’t relieve the government of some of its burden; this ruling re-introduced the possibility that the city could challenge the tax-exempt status of big nonprofits, and thus maybe extract some much-needed revenue.
Toward the end of April, Elizabeth Simmons got three violation notices — for infractions committed on three dates, beginning in December — from Licenses and Inspections. The violations cited “unfit structures” in her house, such as a collapsed roof and walls, and said that if Simmons didn’t demolish the house, the city would do so and charge her.
Simmons was shocked. Her roof and walls were just fine. She quickly realized the city’s mistake: The address listed on the violations, in North Philadelphia, was nowhere near her home in Southwest Philly. But she was still worried that she could be held responsible for the cost of the demolition.
Simmons visited the property in North Philadelphia and found it had already been demolished. Property records show that the owner, a different Elizabeth Simmons, owed the city $4,417.71 in property taxes.
So Simmons made the trek to City Hall to get the situation straightened out. The city sent her on a wild goose chase, from Licenses and Inspections to the Department of Records to the Prothonotary’s Office and back to L&I.
“Every department is like, ‘I don’t know,’” she said of her experience at City Hall and the Municipal Services Building.
Last week, Council grilled school officials about their plans to balance the budget and wholly restructure the district.
But reporters Doron Taussig and Holly Otterbein still have three gigantic questions that they want to hear answered before the district moves forward, which they explore in this week's podcast.
Why do the schools need the extra money to come from property taxes? How will the district's restructuring plan save money? And what is Harrisburg's role in this?
Workforce development: It doesn't sound sexy.
So maybe that's why Gov. Corbett's cuts to Philadelphia's workforce development system have went unnoticed by many. Critics of the Corbett administration say they'll have a huge impact even though few are watching.
Read about it in our Daily News article below. And check out the WHYY reports on the policy changes to state-funded jobs programs, as well as the impact of cuts. We partnered with the station for these two stories.