Thomas Micozzie’s already considerable tax bill just increased about $50 on his two-story house, valued at about $130,000, in the Westbrook Park section of Upper Darby Township.
The latest bump hits home to Micozzie in particular: He signed off on it. He is the mayor of the region’s largest municipality outside of Philadelphia, and Upper Darby is one of more than 50 towns in the region that raised tax rates in January.
Property tax rates in Pennsylvania have been rising, along with their unpopularity. The average real estate levy rose 28 percent in the last decade for homeowners in Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties. That change amounts to an average increase of $1,387 in a homeowner’s annual bill, according to an Inquirer and Daily News analysis of state and local tax data and Nielsen housing data.
School taxes, driven by increasing costs, constitute the majority of property-tax levies. But Micozzie and other municipal officials say their expenses are rising as well, and they often feel pressured to rein in costs as constituents complain about school levies — something with which they have nothing to do.
While property taxes are the primary means of funding local government and schools in Pennsylvania, a movement to eliminate them gained momentum in November when voters approved an amendment to the state constitution. While total elimination may be unlikely, because the tax is a fixture in nearly every state, some lawmakers are moving ahead with proposals to make that happen.
The state’s system of assessing properties creates a naturally occurring system of unfairness and likely is a factor in the levy’s unpopularity; more than 200,000 people in Southeastern Pennsylvania are paying more than their fair share in taxes because counties go decades between reassessments.
“The reliance on property tax is the most archaic system for funding municipalities,” Micozzie said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s not a fair and equitable solution when you need needs in the community, paving streets, providing police protection.”
Upper Darby’s total tax rate has increased more than 52 percent since 2008, translating to an increase of $2,200 to the average tax bill.
In Micozzie’s case, $1,720 of his $5,252 bill goes to the town, and that’s an unusually high local share. The total bill — including municipal, county, and school portions — for a home of the same market value in Upper Merion Township is $1,900, of which just $158 goes toward municipal taxes. But Upper Merion’s taxes also rose substantially in the last decade, by nearly 35 percent, or more than $1,100 on the bill of a median-value home.
Local government officials such as Micozzie may dislike the property tax, but they are also stuck with it. State law offers few alternatives. Micozzie said he has looked into relying more on earned income tax than property levies, but too many of the township’s more than 82,000 residents leave Upper Darby for work.
A September Franklin and Marshall College Poll found that Pennsylvania voters saw taxes as one of the state’s top issues, with better than 10 percent ranking it as the most important.
But not every town has had to succumb to the inevitability of politically unpopular tax hikes. Media Borough, for example, has not changed its municipal tax rate in 12 years.
“It hasn’t been magic,” said Brian Hall, president of the borough council.
The downtown area, with a thriving restaurant and retail district on State Street, has helped bring in increasing amounts of business tax revenue. Earned income tax revenue has increased in recent years as well, Hall said, because the walkable borough of about 5,300 has attracted new residents who are increasingly well-to-do.
“We recognize that Media is in a really good spot,” Hall said. “And we also recognize that part of that is because it’s in a really sweet spot. We are close to the Blue Route, and so the area has expanded and has made Media much more viable as a bedroom community or a commuting area into the city.”
Most of the more than 40 towns and boroughs in the Philadelphia region that have not raised the municipal portion of their tax bill in the last 10 years are smaller. Many of them do not have police or fire departments — a key factor that can increase budgets — instead relying on help from the state or neighbors.
As with the schools, towns confront rising costs that are outside of their control, including police and pension expenses. State law gives officials no other option but to raise property taxes, according to a Pennsylvania Economy League report published last year about municipal financial distress.
“Residents logically believe their municipal taxes are sufficient to pay for whatever the community deems is an appropriate level of services and municipal management,” the report stated. “But those taxes are largely subject to restrictions set by state law that make them inadequate.”
The state’s laws governing property assessments can also lead to problems for towns and taxpayers. Counties are not required to reassess properties regularly, which inevitably leads to unfair tax burdens for some homeowners and breaks for others. In Delaware County, officials are beginning a court-ordered reassessment that will take effect in 2021.
Meanwhile, in Upper Darby, Micozzie is just thinking ahead to this summer, when the school district will set its budget and tax rate for the coming year. If taxes increase, he said, he expects to receive phone calls from frustrated residents.
“The school tax is coming in July,” he said, “and I’ve got to give things up because I get hammered.”
This article contains a correction.