Are informal tax appeals helping or hurting?

DAVID M WARREN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mayor Nutter: Office expected more informal reviews.
DAVID M WARREN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mayor Nutter: Office expected more informal reviews.
Posted: September 26, 2013

IS THE city's new process for reviewing property-tax appeals helping or hurting?

The Office of Property Assessment is facing a massive backlog of informal "first-level reviews," which Mayor Nutter's administration created as part of the Actual Value Initiative property-tax reform effort. OPA expected to be done with the reviews by now but has gotten to only about half of the 49,000 that were filed by property owners this year.

Meanwhile, the Board of Revision of Taxes, the official route for appealing property taxes, has received only about 1,800 appeals with two weeks to go before its Oct. 7 filing deadline. The board expected to receive more than 50,000 appeals this year.

Now, about 25,000 Philly property owners whose informal reviews have not been completed must decide whether to appeal to the tax board before knowing the outcome of the reviews that they were told would be finished first.

The city this week sent out letters to those residents, advising them that they can appeal directly to the tax board. And they must - if they want the opportunity to challenge their assessments in court. Only tax-board rulings, not OPA reviews, can be appealed to Common Pleas Court.

For AVI critics, the scenario is an I-told-you-so moment.

Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district saw the highest average increase in taxes under AVI, said many of his constituents thought they appealed their assessments when in reality they've only requested OPA reviews.

"People were confused and said, 'I already did the appeal,' and you say, 'No, you didn't do the appeal. You did the first-level review,' " Squilla said.

Squilla said the administration used the OPA reviews to circumvent the tax-board process and "tell people that, 'Well, there's hardly any appeals; therefore the assessments are accurate.' To make AVI look better."

City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a frequent Nutter antagonist, said the confusion could lead to some residents not having their complaints heard by an outside entity, rather than "going right back to the agency that made the mistake in the first place."

"The whole process for [the administration] has been to control the whole thing because they wanted to come in at the numbers they've projected," he said. "What we have to be concerned about is people losing their legal rights, losing their ability to have an independent review."

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald denied the assertion that the informal reviews are used as a means to improve AVI's image, calling it "an absurd comment."

"OPA simply has provided a new and additional service," he said. "The letters that were sent out this week make it very clear that the city wants to help any property owner preserve their right of appeal."

McDonald said the administration had actually expected to receive more informal reviews. The backlog, he said, resulted from "staffing issues" at OPA and the transition to a new process.

"More time is being spent on each one . . . more than they originally thought," he said. "This work is very complicated."

All of the informal reviews will be completed before tax-board hearings begin in January, he said.

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN

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