City's still dodging property tax problem

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer


City's still dodging property tax problem

October 13, 2011

By Brett Mandel

The city doesn't want to talk about its unfair property taxes, so it changed the subject. It hired a big law firm that seized on technicalities to block those trying to get the tax system fixed.

The facts here are clear: The city is forcing the owners of similar homes to pay dramatically different tax bills. But despite that and a continuing budget crisis, the Nutter administration entered into a six-figure contract with a big-time Center City law firm to fight me and other property owners who tried to compel it to end decades of unfair tax practices.

While there's overwhelming evidence that city property valuations could hardly be less fair if they were picked out of a hat, a judge ruled that our lawsuit couldn't be heard because we aren't "aggrieved." Essentially, we aren't being allowed to compare our homes' assessments with those of other, similar homes, but only with their market values. So, no matter how unfair the system is, we can't do anything about it in court as long as our properties' true values exceed their assessed values for tax purposes.

That's nonsense. By that reasoning, there's no legal recourse if the city looks at 10 homes that are worth $100,000, values nine of them at $10,000, and values the 10th at $99,999. Put another way, if you and I live in identical, adjacent properties, and you pay twice what I pay in property taxes, you can't complain as long as our assessments are below market value.

The fact is that nearly every property in Philadelphia is "undervalued" to some extent when assessments are compared to market prices. But while some properties might be valued at 30 percent of their true value, others are valued at 10 percent or less, with significant consequences for their tax bills. That is not fair, and it's almost certainly not even legal.

Along with the other longtime Philadelphians who brought the lawsuit, I say this to the judge: Trust us, we are plenty aggrieved.

It's been said that "the law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship," and this legal fight will continue. But even as it does, real estate taxation in Philadelphia will remain as unfair as it ever was.

So while we assess our legal options, we call on Mayor Nutter to tell us why this system shouldn't be fixed immediately. Regardless of any court action, Philadelphians need to know when it will be put right. So we're asking the mayor to tell us:

When we will see preliminary new property valuations that show the Office of Property Assessment is on the right track.

How City Council members can be expected to set new property tax rates this spring - before they know the new valuations and therefore the impact on their constituents' tax bills.

What he will do to ensure that vulnerable homeowners are protected from unreasonable spikes in their tax bills in the transition from an unfair system to a fair one.

And, finally, how he is going to get this done even though city officials have been promising but failing to fix the problem for decades.

The other plaintiffs and I want to end decades of tax injustice, and it's not clear that anything short of a court order will achieve that. Until we fix Philadelphia's system of real estate taxation, we will not have justice.