Mayor’s team gets earful from Philly Council over assessments

Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. has said he’s gotten a “butt-whooping” from residents who are furious about their new property tax assessments.

Today, Council gave something of a whooping back to Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration.

The assessments are the centerpiece of Nutter’s plan to fix the old, error-ridden numbers, and they’re expected to drive up many people’s property taxes.

At a budget hearing for the Office of Property Assessment, Council members questioned the accuracy of the assessments, despite all the models involved in calculating them.

“With so many variables, and so many differences, and so many unique natures of properties and neighborhoods,” Jones said, “it’s a wild-ass guess.”

Councilman Mark Squilla said that a large number of properties are under-assessed, meaning they owe less in property taxes than they should.

“There’s one that I just pulled up in the paper,” Squilla said. “They had received two offers at $750,000 … and the assessment comes in at $540,000. This is a major problem.”

Philadelphia’s Chief Assessment Officer Richie McKeithen stood by the city’s work. He said that some mistakes happen during any reassessment, and that the numbers will improve as time goes on.

“By us reassessing every year,” McKeithen said, “we will pick up more information, collect more data and have a better opportunity to come closer … to the actual sale price with the assessments.”

McKeithen also said property owners should ask for a first-level review if they think their assessments are wrong.

Some Council members said Nutter’s aides should have communicated with them more before mailing out the assessments, while others criticized the administration for not providing enough guidance to small business owners who could see large property tax increases.

OPA officials said they’ve fielded several calls from business owners with questions about their assessments, and encouraged others to call them.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass had another bone to pick. She said the Nutter administration should be doing a better job of publicizing the homestead exemption, a small property tax break available for homeowners.

The administration estimated that 340,000 homeowners are eligible for the break, but only 267,000 property owners have applied. To get the word out, the OPA said it has sent applications for the homestead exemption to every residential property, held community meetings and advertised in different publications.

Council members also took Nutter’s team to task over a decision it made involving Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s district, which includes University City, Cobbs Creek and Mantua.

Finance director Rob Dubow said that after a meeting in University City got “particularly ugly,” the administration stopped attending community meetings in the district (although they said they’ve held one-on-one sessions with homeowners since then).

Council President Darrell Clarke said he, too, has been to community meetings that some might characterize as ugly, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped going to them.

“How can you just simply say, because it was a contentious meeting, that we’re not going to go into an entire Council district?” Clarke asked. “I don’t quite understand that.”

Dubow offered to have discussions with Council about the issue outside of the public hearing, and declined to elaborate to reporters afterward.

Does Council’s frustration put Nutter’s property-tax overhaul at risk?

Last year, Council members voted to delay switching to the new assessments. For now, it doesn’t seem like they’ll do that again.

But some Council members are talking about slowly phasing in the property tax changes over a few years.

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