Reassessing city services

Firefighters protested in Council chambers last fall. Wholesale reevaluations of city services have been rare.
Firefighters protested in Council chambers last fall. Wholesale reevaluations of city services have been rare. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: January 16, 2013

By Jim Kenney

City Council will soon begin discussing one of the most important questions it's dealt with in a generation: how to create a more equitable property tax system. But as part of this debate about how we are levying taxes and collecting revenue, we should address an equally important issue: what we're spending taxpayer money on and whether we're getting what we're paying for.

The city's Actual Value Initiative has initiated a reassessment of the nearly 600,000 commercial and residential properties in Philadelphia, some of which have not been assessed since the 1980s. The goal is to create a system that is fair to all homeowners without inhibiting the exponential growth some neighborhoods have seen since the mid-1990s. It is an incredibly important and overdue process.

But for the system to become fair, some homeowners will have to see dramatic increases in the amount they pay (even as many others see decreases). While everyone should pay his fair share, we should not ask property owners to pay more than the city needs to provide services and meet its obligations.

The problem is that we don't really know what services we should be providing, or whether the services we do provide are achieving their goals. This is a critical point that has been missed in this debate. While we have not had a citywide property reassessment in almost 50 years, it's been at least that long - if not longer - since we thoroughly reviewed the cost and quality of the services we provide.

Philadelphia has changed dramatically since the 1950s, and we must ensure that we are providing the right services at the right levels today. Regrettably, there is no system in place to make such an evaluation.

It's unfortunate that in the Nutter administration's rush to get the Actual Value Initiative introduced and passed, it made hyperbolic claims about an impending calamity that have now been disproved. By refusing to act until a final assessment was complete, Council prevented the adoption of a wildly excessive 1.8 percent property tax rate. But the administration's push for the higher rate made it clear that it was setting tax rates to achieve a predetermined level of spending.

Although Philadelphia is obligated by federal and state law to pay for certain services, we should not decide how much we want to tax until we know how much we need to spend. And City Council can properly provide checks and balances only if we have a discussion about services first.

As part of the Actual Value Initiative, I propose that we comprehensively review city services. Automatic funding increases are no longer tenable in an environment in which revenue sources are declining and tax rates are on the rise. Zero-based budgeting, in which each department provides a line-by-line justification of its annual budget, has been adopted at the state level and elsewhere. It should be in place here, too.

Some services undoubtedly will need more funding. Some may need less. Regardless, a substantive discussion about what we can and should be doing will be good for the city, its residents, and our future.


Jim Kenney is a Philadelphia city councilman at large. His website is www.jameskenney.com.

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