Breaking up with a tax break is hard to do

A confession: For many years, I got free HBO.

It wasn’t stealing, really. We got HBO at no cost for a few months as part of some long-ago promotion.


When the cable-company guy came to the house to turn off the premium service (as they still had to do back in those days), he spent a sweaty, scratchy hour fighting with some pine trees in our back yard. Finally, he came down, handed me a sheet and said, “Here, sign this.” He told his bosses our premium channels were gone, but they weren’t really.

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So, for several years, we got free HBO as well as Prism (remember that?). Then Comcast bought out our little cable firm, and the free ride was over.

This was a nasty shock the first time I noticed. But what could I do? I could hardly called Comcast to complain about my little secret benefit coming to an end.

For a very long time, a number of pretty well-off condo and townhouse owners in Center City Philadelphia and nearby gentrified neighborhoods have been getting the tax equivalent of free HBO.

Because the city’s property assessment system was so broken, their homes were assessed at values that lagged far behind their skyrocketing market values. They got a tax break, subsidized mostly by poor slobs who overpaid taxes on homes in struggling neighborhoods where property values had eroded.

Since Mayor Nutter took office in 2008, he’s been talking about fixing this problem, about giving the city a full, fair reassessment. This idea goes the three-letter acronym of AVI (for Actual Value Initiative), but many city homeowners prefer to call it by various four-letter words.

What’s really riles people is that Nutter, unlike most politicians, is no longer pretending that, once reassessment dust happens, his government will get no new revenue.

Looking at the fiscal train wreck known as his city’s school system, he’s proposes that $94 million bucks churned up by the reassessment should be sent to the schools.

This has condo owners pulling pitchforks out of their closets. And it has that stunning band of hypocrites, City Council, playing to the howling crowd.

It is tough to lose your free HBO. I get it.

But, fact is, property taxes in the city will remain comparatively low, even after reassessment. Just ask someone from South Jersey.   And every learned, objective panel that has looked at the city’s tax system has said it would be better to get more revenue from the property tax, and reduce reliance on the city’s crazy business taxes.

Finally, kvetch as you want about city schools, if they truly implode, that nice house of yours will be worth a ton less than it is now.

Property taxes, levied fairly and spent wisely, are an investment in property values, not an attack on them.

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