Property-tax overhaul: It's taking forever!

Posted: July 19, 2012

THE NUTTER administration announced last week that the release of the city's new property assessments, on which property taxes for 2013-14 will be based, will be delayed a few months. Turns out the computer system the city uses to calculate assessments can accommodate only one set of data at a time, and now that City Council has decided to delay the mayor's Actual Value Initiative for a year, officials need to load all the old data back in.

The sound you will hear next is our eyes rolling heavenward.

This is exactly the kind of thing that concerned us during the months-long battle over AVI between the Nutter administration and Council. Nutter wanted the new property assessments put in place this year; Council pushed back, concerned about questions that only grew in number. Eventually, there were so many unknowns that Council decided, reasonably, to hold off for a year. Getting it right this time was important enough to justify keeping in place a system that has been broken far too long. But we were always worried that delay would breed more delay. After all, the whole mess has been more than 10 years in the making.

And there are folks in town who would rather not see AVI go through at all — their properties are underassessed, and they're paying less than their fair share in taxes. Some members of Council won't want to tick off those property owners, and they'll want to do so even less as an election approaches.

That's why its imperative that the mayor, Council and everyone else in town not tolerate delays that put the ultimate passage of AVI at risk.

Delaying the release of the new assessments is a big deal. A big part of the reason Council had as many questions as it did about AVI is that it didn't have the data to figure out what would be a reasonable millage rate, or who would benefit and who would get hurt under the new system. The lack of data also made it hard to determine which policies to put in place to counteract unwanted consequences, like "smoothing," homestead exemptions and gentrification adjustments.

Remember all the confusion this spring as Council realized that AVI could shift much of the city's tax burden from commercial-property owners to homeowners? Then worried small businesses might actually get slammed? Then debated whether a gentrification protection, aimed to help long-time, lower-income residents of fast-developing areas, might actually benefit wealthy homeowners in Rittenhouse Square?

A good deal of that confusion stemmed from the fact that Council didn't have the actual assessments. Next year, at least, Council won't be asked to pass AVI without having seen the data. But this new delay will still leave Council with less time to pore over the new assessments and less time to debate policy options. The delay will also, frankly, leave angry homeowners with less time to lobby Council to scrap the whole plan. We'd rake Council over the coals if it caved to such pressure, but the city should still allow a fully informed public debate.

The city needs to make a priority of releasing assessment data as soon as possible and then moving AVI forward as quickly as it responsibly can. We'll be watching closely to see that future delays — whether justified or not — don't start to pile up. The city's taxpayers should do the same.

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