Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Will the public have a say about property-tax changes?

Will there be a legitimate public debate about the city’s new property-tax system before it’s set in stone?

Will the public have a say about property-tax changes?

Former City Controller candidate Brett Mandel said there won´t be a real public debate about property-tax changes because of awkward timing. The Nutter administration disagrees.
Former City Controller candidate Brett Mandel said there won't be a real public debate about property-tax changes because of awkward timing. The Nutter administration disagrees. Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer

Will there be a legitimate public debate about the city’s new property-tax system before it’s set in stone?

If there isn’t, timing might be to blame. 

The Nutter administration is in the midst of fixing the city’s broken property-tax system, which has incorrectly valued people’s homes for years. It expects to mail out notices this fall informing owners of their new property values.

But under state law, Council must set a property-tax rate by June 30. Tax bills are calculated based on this rate as well as how much properties are worth according to the city.

This means that the new rate will be law before residents have a key piece of information — how much their homes are worth — and so they won’t know exactly how their property-tax bills will be affected. According to the Nutter administration, the numbers simply won’t be ready by this spring.

In a press release, former City Controller candidate Brett Mandel said this awkward timing will shortchange the public debate about property-tax changes, which have the potential to seriously affect residents, neighborhoods and development throughout the city.

“We taxpayers just won’t know how much extra we will pay until it is far too late to protest,” said Mandel, who has been critical of the Nutter administration in the past. He filed a lawsuit last year that asked the Common Pleas Court to declare that the current property-tax system is illegal, but it was dismissed.

Mandel added that it is “absolutely necessary” for the city to fix the property-tax system.

Rob Dubow, the city’s finance director, disagrees that there won’t be a real public debate about property-tax reform.

“I think there can be a full debate,” he said. “The underlying concept is something that everybody understands.”

Dubow argued that the public already has enough information to discuss specifics, like whether some residents will need property-tax relief. Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald added that people will be able to weigh in on the new property-tax system at Council’s budget hearings this spring.

But some Council members have also expressed concern about the timing of the property-tax changes. Last month, Councilman Bobby Henon said,  “I would not want a single person's property tax to raise in this calendar year without having all the proper information.”

David Glancey, former chairman of the Board of Revision of Taxes, has also said the timing is troubling. He’s worried that the state won’t pass “enabling” legislation, which would allow the city to provide property-tax relief to residents, in time for this issue to be discussed while Council is considering a budget.

Dubow pointed out that if residents think their new property values are wrong this fall, they can appeal them. But will they have the power to do anything about the city’s property-tax rate at that point?

“[If] they’re unhappy about the tax rate, then they can, you know, talk to their elected officials,” said Dubow.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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