As window closes on Camden property-tax-appeal deadline, few owners file

Posted: April 06, 2012

For weeks during the summer, dozens of Camden residents protested with bullhorns and signs outside City Hall that their property values and taxes were unjustly high following a citywide revaluation project.

City Council tried to relieve the burden by extending payment deadlines. Tax assessor Frank Librizzi used his outdoor smoking breaks during the protests to chat with residents and try to help them understand the process of appealing.

In the end, though, few residents and business owners followed through.

Camden County Tax Board officials said Thursday that the owners of only about 400 of the 32,000 properties on the city's rolls filed appeals in the three-month window that closed Monday.

This year's number is half of last year's 800 appeals, which city officials said then was much lower than they had expected. Out of those, just 38 were homeowners. It was not immediately known how many of this year's appeals were from homeowners.

Going by the 125 successful appeals last year, only a fraction of the appeals should expect to prevail this year.

"People are complaining," said the city's finance director, Glynn Jones, "but they are not appealing."

That is good news for the city, Jones said. The tax base will remain pretty much the same, keeping the levy steady.

Because more than half of city properties are tax-exempt, only $23.5 million is expected to be collected in taxes. Most of the city's $167 million fiscal 2012 budget is funded through state money.

The reassessment, the first in 18 years, was completed in early 2011, coincidentally just before residents were hit with a 9.8 percent hike in the city tax rate and a 21 percent county tax-rate increase.

It was only when residents received their third-quarter tax bills in August that they noticed both higher assessed values and tax increases - with the revaluation boosting tax increases even more for some property owners.

By then, the appeal period was over, and residents were stuck paying the higher bills until this year's appeal period.

To help people remain current on their taxes so they could appeal, Council passed a resolution that allowed zero interest on property taxes unpaid between Oct. 1 and April 29 for people who could prove a hardship, such as the recent loss of a job, and for seniors on fixed incomes.

Others were allowed to pay a 4 percent interest rate, instead of the usual 18 percent, on delinquent property taxes through April 29.

City officials could not say whether the low appeals turnout this year was due to people not being able to become current on their taxes in time.

"I've been telling people to appeal. If you don't appeal it, that's your fault," said Eulisis Delgado, a Delaware River Port Authority employee who was among the leaders of the summer's protests. Delgado said he had used a lawyer to file an appeal.

Mary Cortes, who led a petition drive last year urging city officials to redo the reassessments on her home and an adjacent lot, but lost her appeals before the county, has taken her case to the state level.

In the last days leading up to the tax-appeal deadline, City Hall appeared no busier than usual.

One man who asked to not be identified because he does business with the city said he sold his two city properties in 2010 just before the tax hikes. Last Friday, he was helping out some city residents with their appeals.

"The revaluation was done at the peak of the market [in 2008], and since then, property values have dropped," he said, adding that when he got involved in real estate in the 1980s in Camden, it seemed like the city, with its waterfront, would be the next Society Hill or Venice, Calif.

"I figured, time was right," he said, "but it never caught on."

The complaint is a familiar one among investors who bought property in Camden.

Eileen Rodan, a suburban enthusiast for urban renewal who was a transplant to Camden during the early part of the state takeover, now has a cynical outlook on the city.

Rodan, who now lives in Gatesville, N.C., said she only recently received notice that taxes on her four Camden rental properties had tripled. Though she agrees with the new values of the houses, two of which are near Cooper University Hospital, she said she believed the steep tax hikes were too much for most city residents to handle.

City officials note that with a 21 percent increase, it was the county tax rate that went up the most last year. The city property-tax rate went up 10 percent. Those increases combined with a new library tax has hit some people hard.

"The county might do the same again this year," said Jones. County spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel said Thursday that the county should pass its budget by May, but she could not say whether there would be a significant tax increase.

The city tax rate went up 4 percent this year.

Rodan is still upset at how the city handled last year's budget shortfall, which prompted the tax increases and led to a wave of layoffs. For weeks, she tried calling various offices at City Hall, but either could not reach anyone or got the runaround.

"You don't have enough staff to pick up the phones?" she said. "I wish the state would take over again."

She points to places such as Wilmington, where developers and investors have been able to turn around large portions of urban decay.

"It seems like it would be ideal with the waterfront," she said of Camden.

But Cortes said that with taxes continuing to go up even as services are declining, she didn't see how the city would draw new homeowners.

"They can't do this to us," she said. "People are going to leave."


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas.

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