Phila. property reassessment protests meet reality

Laverne Johnson shouts her opposition to the Actual Value Initiative at a rally Thursday at the Comcast Center.
Laverne Johnson shouts her opposition to the Actual Value Initiative at a rally Thursday at the Comcast Center. (TROY GRAHAM / Staff)
Posted: June 04, 2013

Laverne Johnson stood on the sweltering plaza in front of the Comcast Center, using a bullhorn to shout her opposition to Mayor Nutter's property-tax reform, the Actual Value Initiative.

"Comcast pays zero in real estate taxes, while yours are going up, up, and away," she intoned in Thursday's 90-degree furnace. "AVI must go down."

(The Comcast Center skyscraper, at 17th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, has a 10-year tax abatement available to all new construction.)

Behind her, a smattering of protesters, mostly activists from the rapidly gentrifying Graduate Hospital neighborhood, stood holding signs.

As protests go - especially those involving property taxes, a subject known to stoke outrage in the hearts of Philadelphians - this one was small, and perhaps symbolic of the quiet end coming to the once-fierce fight over the property-tax system.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, Council's only member to explicitly advocate halting AVI this year, and Councilman Mark Squilla, who pushed successfully in 2012 for a one-year delay, both said they saw "no political will" to stop AVI again.

"Even though I didn't think there was last year and we were able to do it, this year there isn't even an inkling," Squilla said. "And I think a lot of people just want to get it done so we don't have to do this every year."

The political will might be lacking, but not because the citizenry has greeted AVI with open arms.

Earlier this year, after property owners received their new assessments, a cry arose at community meetings across the city, and opponents were quick to point out some head-scratching anomalies.

Since then, two independent studies - one commissioned by City Controller Alan Butkovitz and one conducted by a coalition of neighborhood civic groups - have found the citywide reassessment at the heart of AVI to be flawed and inaccurate.

Despite that, AVI appears destined to become law when Council passes a budget this month. In fact, the formerly nuclear topic of property taxes has been subsumed recently by the effort to find millions for the struggling School District.

Butkovitz said the only way to stop the implementation was "a legislative solution, which is rapidly expiring" or filing a lawsuit, "which it doesn't look like anyone is going to pick up the ball on."

AVI's inevitability, Butkovitz said, comes down partly to political reality. Council had to get the state's permission to delay AVI last year, and doing so again would have been a long shot.

More important, Council passed a bill last year requiring AVI to go online in 2013. Because Nutter surely would veto any new effort to delay, Council would need the veto-proof support of 12 of its 17 members.

"It's akin to needing 60 votes in the [U.S.] Senate to break a filibuster," Butkovitz said. "They've had an uphill battle with the 12-vote requirement."

The administration, though, has been arguing all along that the assessments are largely accurate, or at least comfortably within industry standards.

About 49,000 property owners filed for a "first-level review," asking the Office of Property Assessment to take another look at their values. With 579,000 parcels, that's less than 10 percent of owners questioning their assessments.

The deadline for filing a formal appeal with the Board of Revision of Taxes isn't until Oct. 7, and Butkovitz and others still predict large numbers of appeals that could cost the city millions.

Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, said not enough elected leaders "were convinced the new assessments were less accurate than the old assessments."

"I think the jury's still out," he said.

Ruben said the focus now had to be on improving the assessments for next year, giving the public more information on the process, and protecting people vulnerable to large tax increases.

"You have to watch out for the middle class that has invested in the city and, I think everyone agrees, started a turnaround," said Stephen Huntington, a lawyer who convened the Crosstown Coalition, a neighborhood group that raised multiple alarms about AVI's impact.

Much of the debate has focused this year on softening the affects of AVI. Squilla and Johnson, whose districts are the hardest-hit by tax hikes, have introduced bills to phase in tax changes and defer large increases for eligible homeowners.

Council will spend the next month debating those bills, along with others that would provide various kinds of tax breaks and ultimately determine the tax rate.

A Council study released in April found that with the right mix of tax breaks, as many as 72 percent of homeowners could receive lower bills, and that bills for just 10 percent would rise by more than $400.

But distrust and opposition have remained. For the protesters at the Comcast building, AVI's seemingly relentless march to implementation was not discouraging.

"If it wasn't but one person out here, we'd still be doing it," said M. Shikomba, an outspoken opponent. "I'm going to keep going until the bill passes - and even after that."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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