In the wake of a residential property reassessment that raised taxes on many homeowners, and an audit that found flaws in the city’s property valuations, Philadelphia is looking to replace the leader of its Office of Property Assessment.

The move represents a reversal for Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, which had defended Chief Assessment Officer Michael Piper and his office amid growing criticism.

The search for a new chief assessor emerged Tuesday when the job was posted on the city’s job board. It comes in an election year for mayor and City Council — and weeks before the city is expected to finalize assessments that will take effect in 2020.

Kenney’s administration chose to launch a national search to replace Piper because Council members have not voted on Piper’s nomination to another term and would prefer a new leader for the office, Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Kenney, said Tuesday.

“In light of that preference, it is prudent that we move forward quickly to nominate a new chief assessor, to lead OPA in its important tasks and to ensure public confidence in OPA’s work,” Dunn said.

Piper has held the role since 2014, leading OPA and setting market values for all 580,000 of the city’s parcels; those values are used to calculate property tax bills.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke called last month for a leadership shake-up at OPA, including a new chief assessor. In response, Kenney’s office said it would be unfair to turn assessment officials into political scapegoats.

Piper’s job has been in limbo since last June, when his four-year term expired. Under the city code, the mayor nominates a chief assessment officer and a majority of Council must approve the appointment. Kenney submitted a resolution to grant him another term, but no Council member introduced it for a vote.

“The findings of an independent audit City Council commissioned in 2018 made perfectly clear that a dramatic restructuring of the Office of Property Assessment is urgently needed," Clarke said in a statement Tuesday in response to the job posting. "All efforts by the administration to reform OPA policies and procedures are welcome.”

OPA has faced mounting criticism in the last year from property owners and Council members after a reassessment of residential properties increased the median assessed value of a single-family home by 10.5 percent, with many property owners receiving even larger increases. The audit commissioned by Council and released last month found the city’s assessments do not meet industry standards.

Another report by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office, also released last month, found that OPA has improved in recent years, but reached conclusions similar to those of the independent audit. And an Inquirer analysis found that more than 165,000 residential properties, more than a third of those in the city, were overassessed and their owners are paying more than their fair share in taxes.

Wide Disparities in Property Assessments

An Inquirer analysis from last summer showed that more than 165,000 residential properties — 35 percent of the city’s total — are overassessed, paying more than they should in property taxes. Owners of lower-priced homes tend to be overassessed, while owners of higher-priced homes often pay too little in taxes.

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SOURCE: Inquirer analysis of Office of Property Assessment and State Tax Equalization Board data
JOHN DUCHNESKIE / Staff Artist

The Kenney administration has disputed findings in the audit, the controller’s report, and the Inquirer’s analysis, and defended its assessment practices as fair and within industry standards. In response to the Council-commissioned audit, OPA hired its own consultant to review its assessments and make recommendations. Last month OPA issued its own list of changes and improvements it planned to make.

While it works on those improvements, OPA said it would scale back plans for a project that would revalue all of the city’s properties this year. Instead, the city will use an analysis of market trends to update assessments; some properties could still receive market value increases or decreases when assessment changes are mailed to owners this spring.

Piper said in an email Tuesday that he did not have any comment on the job posting for his replacement. Kenney, however, praised his work.

“I have always known Mike Piper to be a dedicated public servant,” the mayor said in a statement. “Mike has been tirelessly devoted to the work of OPA, and to personally hearing and addressing the concerns of thousands of property owners. His door has always been open, and he has attended countless community meetings."

Chief Assessment Officer Michael Piper (left) speaks at a Center City Residents Association meeting last year. Piper and his office have faced criticism since a reassessment of residential properties completed last year resulted in tax hikes for may homeowners. (Credit: Erin Arvedlund)
Erin Arvedlund / File Photograph
Chief Assessment Officer Michael Piper (left) speaks at a Center City Residents Association meeting last year. Piper and his office have faced criticism since a reassessment of residential properties completed last year resulted in tax hikes for may homeowners. (Credit: Erin Arvedlund)

Piper’s annual salary is $157,185, according to city payroll records. The new job posting did not include a salary estimate.

The posting stipulates that applicants have at least four years of experience as a director or deputy of a government assessment office that oversees at least 200,000 parcels. That requirement represents one year more than the level of experience Clarke said he’d like in a new chief assessor. Clarke has also asked that the city use “a nationally recognized executive search firm” to recruit a new chief assessor and at least three new deputy assessors.

“We need to make sure that every property — from the 60-year-old brownstone in Sharswood to the multimillion-dollar Rittenhouse mansion — is assessed accurately for the purposes of fair and efficient taxation," Clarke said Tuesday.