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Inquirer Daily News

Archive: May, 2012

POSTED: Wednesday, May 23, 2012, 10:25 AM
Appellant Rachel Shapiro. (Courtesy of Rachel Shapiro)

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.

Juliana Reyes @ 10:25 AM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 10:42 AM

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.

Doron Taussig @ 10:42 AM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 5:09 PM

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.

Holly Otterbein @ 5:09 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 2:31 PM
In February, "It's Our Money" reported on legal advocates arguing that the court system was unjustly saddling people like Evelyn Piner (pictured) with debts they don't actually owe.

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.”

Holly Otterbein @ 2:31 PM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 11:34 AM
Tony Rufo (above) is tied to companies that owe back taxes.
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.
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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.
Rufo is tied to other problem properties. According to city records, multiple companies linked to Rufo, including TR-Philadelphia LP and TR-Jackson LP, own at least 22 properties on which they owe the city $290,596 in back property taxes dating to 2009. The companies are linked to Rufo through court records and addresses.
One of those properties is a large, vacant warehouse in Kensington, owned by a company linked to Rufo called TR-Gretz LP, that neighbors say is a nuisance. Shortly after Kensington’s Thomas Buck Hosiery factory tragically burned down, killing two firefighters, TR-Gretz LP paid the nearly $21,000 it owed in taxes on its own Kensington factory.
Rufo also owns five properties under his own name. On those, he’s up to date on his real estate taxes.
It seems there are two Rufos: There’s the Conshohocken-based luxury residential developer who’s been behind dozens of high-end units and has been credited with revitalizing the Hawthorne neighborhood. And there’s the landowner with deadbeat companies connected to him that collect properties around the city but don’t obey property maintenance or tax laws.

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.

Juliana Reyes @ 11:34 AM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 11:03 AM
Thomas Jefferson University Hospital enjoys nonprofit status. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

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.

Daily News Editorial Board @ 11:03 AM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 8:32 AM

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.

Juliana Reyes @ 8:32 AM  Permalink | 0
POSTED: Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 10:23 AM
The district's Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon, School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos and Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen recently testified in budget hearings at Council chambers. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

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?

Holly Otterbein and Doron Taussig @ 10:23 AM  Permalink | 0
About this blog
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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