Nutter’s credibility gap on property tax reform

    Is Council ready to go along with Mayor Michael Nutter’s property tax reform proposal?

    It’s too soon to tell, but in a hearing that lasted more than three hours Monday, I can’t recall a single Council member expressing active support for the Actual Value Initiative or the way it’s been handled so far.

    Not all were caustically critical, and the toughest questions came from three or four members whose districts include gentrifying areas where some property owners are looking at huge increases.

    But there was general skepticism of the new values the city’s Office of Property Assessments have developed. What bugs me is that I couldn’t tell from listening whether the new assessments are, on the whole, credible. And that matters a lot.

    Several Council members had stories to tell of values that just didn’t sound right to them — the unnamed lady in Francisville whose modest home went from an assessment of 40-something-thousand to $450,000.

    They are not just numbers

    Richie McKeithen, the city’s chief assessor, could have helped himself and the mayor by occasionally showing a touch of empathy. When confronted with a tale of gross unfairness or a ruinous tax burden on some elderly citizen, he too often sounded like a bureaucrat talking about how the assessments conform to “industry standards.”

    The truth is that many people who will pay higher taxes have been underassessed for years. And even longtime residents who will struggle to keep up with taxes in gentrifying communities do have a valuable asset to show for the rise in neighborhood property values.

    Whether they should have to pay higher taxes because they own a valuable home that generates no income for them is a policy question. It’s the nature of property taxes that we expect people to pay just for the privilege of owning something valuable.

    But there’s this nagging question that ran through the hearing, and plenty of coverage and commentary since the new assessments were revealed: What if the assessments are really badly done, widely inconsistent and unfair?

    Attend to the specifics

    When you assess a half-million properties, there will be some mistakes. Given the scale of the undertaking, there would have to be at least hundreds of assessments that are clearly wrong. And, as McKeithen said, the city is offering you a couple of chances to appeal that should catch obvious errors.

    But what if tens of thousands of assessments are way off? Because city officials respond to critiques with general explanations of their methodology rather than getting into the details of a complaint, it’s hard to tell what to think.

    I find myself torn between being impressed with McKeithen and his crew as credible, straight-shooting professionals, and remembering the many episodes of jaw-dropping incompetence I’ve seen the city Revenue Department display over the years.

    It’s smart to fix the property tax system, and Council shouldn’t let imperfections prevent them from taking a big step toward fairness. But the administration should look carefully into the specific cases Council members have brought up, and either explain the values they’ve generated or correct the errors.

    A credibility gap unaddressed only grows wider.

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