Byko: Councilwoman Quinones Sanchez ignored rules on homestead tax break

Philadelphia city councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez.

Over a four-year period, from 2014 to 2017, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez took an improper, tax-saving homestead exemption, costing the city $1,643.88, according to data provided by the Department of Revenue at my request.

The homestead exemption was created in 2014 to offset expected increases in real-estate tax bills due to the Actual Value Initiative. It slashes $30,000 off the assessed value of a home, with the proviso that the person taking the discount owns the house and lives there.

Since 2014, Quiñones-Sánchez has taken the deduction on a property she owns at 2036 N. Hancock St. That reduced her bill by $402 in 2014 and 2015, and $419.94 in 2016 and 2017. The current tax bill for the property is $1,169.62.

The problem is, she doesn’t live there and hasn’t for years. Her current address is in the 2200 block of North Howard Street, according to voting registration records. That means 2036 N. Hancock no longer qualifies, and when a property no longer qualifies, the city must be notified within 45 days. That was not done.

Her move from the Hancock Street house, which she still owns, wasn’t a secret. It was public knowledge to many who follow politics.

In a March 30, 2014, story about an arson and burglary at the vacant Hancock Street address, the Inquirer reported that Quiñones-Sánchez and her husband, Tomas Sánchez, made a politically correct “move from the North Hancock rowhouse six months ago to a home two blocks away.” That was done so he could challenge State Sen. Christine Tartaglione. (He did, and came in third.)

That’s where they’ve lived since.

When I questioned Quiñones-Sánchez, she first suggested there were other people with her name and I might have the wrong owner. She backed away from that claim fast. As we talked, it became clear the use of 2036 N. Hancock for the exemption was not a mistake or an oversight. It was deliberate and she feels she’s done nothing wrong.

She was entitled to one exemption, she said several times. “I could get the exemption transferred” to where she now lives “if I wanted to.” But she didn’t.

Had she transferred the exemption to her current home, we wouldn’t be having this uncomfortable conversation.

To her, since she is entitled to one exemption, it doesn’t matter which property she claims.

But to the city, it does matter. You can claim the deduction only for a home that you occupy.

The Office of Property Assessment, in conjunction with the Inspector General’s Office, keeps an eye on homestead exemption claims, “using a combination of sources,” including tips from taxpayers, Chief Assessment Officer Michael Piper told me. That’s how I found out about Quiñones-Sánchez's fraudulent exemption. 

“If you want to talk about the technicality because I am not living there while it is being refurbished, you are entitled,” she said. “But get the facts. I am entitled to one.”

That is not the fact in dispute. I tell her she could be taking the exemption for the current home, which is owned by her husband. “But we’re not,” she said, adding she had hoped she would soon be back at her old address.

“So technically, I should have switched it over and then switched it back if I decide to move back to the house? That’s your issue? That I should do all of that?” she asked.

It’s just a matter of playing by the rules, I said.

She wasn’t impressed. Some of us color inside the lines, others think of themselves as artistes.

Technicality or not, as I see it Quiñones-Sánchez falsified the record.

The OPA website warns about penalties for filing false information.

“Any person who files an application that contains false information, or who does not notify the assessor of a change in use which no longer qualifies as homestead property” can be required to pay the taxes which would have been due, plus interest, plus a penalty of 10 percent and “if convicted of filing a false application can be guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree.”

I think Quiñones-Sánchez owes the city $1,643.88.

Prosecution is optional.