Discussion over Philadelphia’s property tax overhaul dominates Chestnut Hill meeting

In all things, the show must go on. And such was the case Tuesday night at 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ meeting at Christ Ascension Lutheran Churchh in Chestnut Hill. The meeting was supposed to give residents a chance to meet with key Philadelphia agencies to get their questions answered. 

Bass arrived late but she had a pretty good reason. The first-term Councilwoman was asked at the last minute to introduce President Barack Obama for a fundraising event at the Franklin Institute, while Bass’s staff kept the ball rolling. Representatives of several city agencies, including Captain Joel Dales of the 14th Police District, were in attendance to field audience questions.

Once Bass arrived about an hour after the meeting started and shortly after introductions were made, it was clear that audience members had only one thing on their minds, Property taxes.

Most questions centered on Philadelphia’s plan to overhaul how it assesses property taxes. It’s a move that will likely mean high taxes for Chestnut Hill residents.

Richard Snowden: AVI should be delayed

Richard Snowden of Bowman Properties in Chestnut Hill asked Bass about the status of the Actual Value Initiative (AVI) and the Use and Occupancy Tax. Some of the the tax revenues would be used to boost funding for Philadelphia’s public schools.

According to Snowden, property owners and civic organizations in Chestnut Hill are already “reeling” from tax increases in recent years. and AVI could be the straw to break the camel’s back for Chestnut Hill. He said it would be a double whammy to business owners who also own the properties they operate in.

“The option to move out of the city is extremely tempting,” he said. This is because businesses that border the suburbs are hit hard by taxes while businesses just outside the city have it easier.

Snowden, Chestnut Hill’s largest developer, says an exodus of local businesses would result in streets lined with “endless empty stores” and reverse a decade of improvements for the city’s business climate.

Snowden says that the best alternative would be the bill offered up by Councilman Mark Squilla that would delay AVI for another year, providing more time for the situation to be evaluated.

Bass agreed that the issues at hand are complex and that council needs to talk them out, but when pressed by Snowden if she would support the Squilla bill, she indicated that she is still hasn’t decided.

“I can not say yes or no. I need more information,” Bass said. “I’m not going to proceed until I have the information I need.”

Bass made it clear that she wasn’t totally against AVI generating more revenue for the city. “People don’t mind paying a little more in taxes as long as they get their money’s worth,” she said.

How can we help the schools?

Other audience members focused on the School District of Philadelphia, asking Bass if it were possible for other measures to be taken to assist the cash-strapped public schools.

Bass says that without public school funding, Philadelphia has no hope of bringing new young families to the city because skeptical parents won’t be impressed with the education system.

Snowden disagreed with Bass, stressing the need for business growth and stability as a lead-in to city growth. “The school’s won’t be the issue,” he said.

One audience member recommended collecting rampant delinquent property taxes to close up the budget gap, citing the large number of vacant and overgrown lots and rundown properties as proof of absentee landlords who don’t pay their taxes.

Bass agreed that city land was going to waste and that taxes were going uncollected. “We can’t get more land, we can’t annex more land, we can’t buy it, we can’t make it,” Bass said. The city needs to take care of the land it already has, she said. “We don’t have a real comprehensive plan toward land use,” Bass said.

Audience member John Adams recommended that the 8th District under the leadership of Bass should set an example for the rest of the city by starting its own agency to collect delinquent taxes.

Reverend Chester Williams suggested forging partnerships with businesses to help finance books and other supplies for the school district. Large corporations could purchase supplies needed for schools to take budgetary pressure away from city council. In return, corporations would receive a tax break to cover their costs. “You have not because you ask not,” said Williams.

“I agree with you, we need more partnerships in our school district,” Bass said. “We need to make sure (our partners) feel connected to our communities.”

Bass was elected to City Council in November and represents the 8th District, which includes Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Germantown.

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