Property tax scofflaws are robbing from kids

Posted: July 10, 2012

WE ALL KNOW the problems of the city's schools: the thousands of kids who drop out, or the thousands who are failing, or those who do graduate but with a subpar education that prepares them neither for college nor the workplace.

Why don't we hold those responsible for this situation more accountable? We're not talking about teachers or administrators, unions or management, or even students and parents. We're talking about the 100,000 people who own properties but aren't paying their property taxes, and thus robbing the schools of the money they need. More than $500 million is now outstanding, with about half of that owed to the school district.

The city is vowing to step up its efforts to collect, by hiring a new collection firm. But the city is working against an abysmal history of collection — and now, about 19 percent of all properties owe back taxes.

According to an Inquirer report, $5,000 is owed on the average tax-delinquent property and the bill is seven years past due. Taxes on more than 13,000 properties are delinquent 15 years or more. The resulting culture of noncompliance and irresponsibility will take a while to turn around. And make no mistake: That culture has taken more than the scofflaws to create; the city has been complicit, too. But although this complicity may be disguised as "compassion," it's time to recognize that selective compassion harms far more people than it helps. It harms those who are responsible and do pay taxes, and it harms the city as a whole. Meanwhile, it's also time that the city and the school district started drawing a more direct line between the scofflaws and the struggles of the schools.

By not paying, the schools are shortchanged, and must make program cuts that have a direct impact on education. For example, the latest budget crisis, which has grown from a $218 million shortfall in the 2012-13 budget to one that could be as high as $282 million, will force more drastic choices: closing schools, possibly cutting full-day kindergarten as well as music, athletics, and summer school, among others. That's not even mentioning personnel cuts, for nurses, safety officers, aides and others who provide important support services to any school.

These kinds of cuts — on top of past years of similar cutting — have a direct impact on children's lives, on their futures, and on their safety. If you're a scofflaw, you're not just refusing to pay your property taxes. You're robbing from children.

How low can you get?

As the city rolls out yet another set of plans to improve collections, we think the Nutter administration should use one powerful weapon that it has at its disposal: shame. The city should not be afraid to name names. (We'll start naming names in the next few days.) Put names and faces of scofflaws on billboards around town identifying them as the enemies of education. Publish their names and addresses on the city website. (Right now, property-tax information can be accessed via the Office of Property Assessment, but only by address.)

With another property-tax increase, and a new property-tax system around the corner, there's almost a certainty that more people will fall behind. That's why it's time to wrestle this problem to the ground, now, however painful it might be.

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