AVI provides pulpit for ambitious pols, but it could be a mess

Posted: March 15, 2013

AS CITY COUNCIL and Mayor Nutter gear up for what is sure to be one of the trickiest budget seasons in years, some City Hall observers say the politics of property-tax reform could prove to be a real mess.

Council opted to delay the Actual Value Initiative last year because reassessments were not done. A year later, political angst remains as Council prepares to debate the tax rate and how to protect property owners who'll be hit with huge tax hikes under the new system, based on market values.

"For a lot of parts of the city, this is going to feel catastrophic and even crisislike," said Sam Katz, chairman of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, which oversees city finances. "Crisis tends to force the political class into action."

Elected officials who are rumored to be 2015 mayoral candidates and freshmen members - particularly those representing the most affected districts - are positioning themselves early as the budget season kicks off Thursday, when Nutter presents his budget to Council.

Nutter wants $1.2 billion in property taxes, the same as this year. But already, members like Councilman Jim Kenney, a potential mayoral candidate, have proposed bringing in less money.

"I view what I'm doing right now as my job," said Kenney. "Am I looking at [2015]? Yeah, but my view is to move the ball, get first downs and keep moving the ball forward."

He and Councilman Bill Green, another potential candidate, want the lowest possible tax rate under AVI. Green wants to eliminate a $30,000 homestead exemption, approved by the state last year with the help of state Sen. Anthony Williams, a likely mayoral candidate. Williams said the effort was unrelated to any mayoral ambitions.

Then there's City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a vocal AVI critic, also rumored to be eyeing the mayoral race. He echoed concerns raised by Councilmen Mark Squilla, Kenyatta Johnson and Kenney about the accuracy of assessments. Butkovitz wrote Nutter last week requesting assessment criteria.

In response to those concerns, Nutter said at a news conference, "I think it is unfortunate if that is an effort to just basically scare the hell out of people."

Some call it smart politics for ambitious pols to take a stand on AVI, but the question is will the politics trump smart policy?

Take Squilla, the freshman member who led the charge to delay AVI last year, a move that will likely not be forgotten come Election Day. He represents the 1st district, which includes Center City, part of South Philly, Northern Liberties and Fishtown - some of the hardest-hit areas. He has proposed phasing in the changes over four years. Nutter and some Council members argue that tactic would delay breaks for those who've overpaid for decades.

After years of talk, the city is finally moving ahead with the "biggest tax reform in history," Nutter told the Daily News. The old system was severely broken, inaccurate, plagued by politics and was based on fractional assessments. To further complicate things, AVI follows several years of tax hikes coupled with a financially troubled school district.

"It really should be about fairness, and if someone's agenda supersedes that, we're being irresponsible in our electoral obligation," said Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, adding that the focus should be on residents. "What I don't want to see is obstructionist politics."

On Twitter: @Jan_Ransom

Blog: PhillyClout.com

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