City representative explains property assessment process to Wissahickon residents

In recent weeks, representatives from the city’s Office of Public Assessments have been making the rounds of Northwest Philadelphia civic groups in an effort to explain the inner-workings of the city-wide property assessments being conducted under the auspices of the Actual Value Initiative.

Richie McKeithen, chief assessment officer for the OPA, stood before the Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association last Monday, providing details about how his office is conducting the assessments. Throughout his presentation, McKeithen emphasized that elected officials – not the OPA – will determine what is to be done with his office’s findings.

“I’m just the guy who values the property,” he said.

Fundamental goal of citywide assessments 

McKeithen began his presentation by explaining that the fundamental goal of his office is to establish a market value for approximately 577,000 commercial and residential properties in the city that, when multiplied by a tax-rate yet to be determined, will determine the taxes owed by property owners.

Alluding to the historical significance of the mass appraisals, McKeithen noted that the city has not conducted a city-wide assessment in a long time, if ever. Going forward, he said that the OPA hopes to evaluate properties every year.

For the current assessment, the city was broken into approximately 400 to 500 Geographical Mapping Areas. Within each GMA, The OPA looks at several years of sales activity in these pockets to evaluate the housing market, which will allow the office to incorporate recent market fluctuations. After accounting for foreclosures and interfamily sales, his office has a better idea of what a specific property would sell for.

Speaking to residential properties, McKeithen said that within the GMAs, only similar home types are used for comparison – i.e. row homes with row homes, and twins with twins.

“We want to compare apples with apples and oranges with oranges,” he said.

Fieldwork procedures

With the preliminary steps completed, McKeithen said his office moved to conducting fieldwork.

Fieldwork includes following-up on properties that have what he called “permit activity” – approved modifications issued by Licenses and Inspections. In addition, the fieldwork allows assessors new construction in neighborhoods, additions, home condition, and “amenities” that are not officially on file.

Furthermore, this process allows assessors to speak with residents in order to glean more information about specific properties.

Referencing long-standing complaints about iniquity of assessments, McKeithen assured WNCA members that his office is “only interested in capturing information in a fair and equitable manner.”

As of last week, McKeithen said that the fieldwork process is nearing its end, with approximately 98-percent of field inspections complete.

At this point, the OPA is transitioning to a “modeling” phase, wherein the values of individual properties are beginning to be predicted. When this is complete, the information will be given back to evaluators to make sure everything is correct, to include the random testing of results.

Work will finish by the end of July or early August.

McKeithen said that all results of the assessments will be made public by Sept. 17. Property owners will be notified of any change in valuation of their property, which will afford them time to appeal their new assessments.

The appeal process 

With 550,000 of the assessed properties expected to change in value – both higher and lower, McKeithen noted – an appeals process with three gradations was designed for property owners to challenge the assessors’ determinations.

The first level of the appeal process can begin directly with the OPA. McKeithen said that this will provide residents with an opportunity to speak directly with their evaluator to arrange for an inspection.

A formal appeal with the Board of Revision of Taxes will continue to be available.

Lastly, a petition can be filed with the Court of Common Pleas.

When all appeals are filed and considered, the tax roll-books for this year will be closed, with the process to begin again the following year.

Once the current assessments are completed, McKeithen said, “I don’t expect a lot of change to happen year-in and year-out.”

Expect to see ‘fair to large’ increases 

Addressing resident’s concerns about unfair assessments resulting from unlicensed renovations to homes, McKeithen said that this situation is a “big problem” in Philadelphia.

He said that License and Inspections is responsible for the code enforcement authority, as the OPA is limited in his determinations from public records or from exterior assessment.

Allowing that the permit process is largely an honor system, he said, adding that his office has some measure of ability to estimate interior renovations, but this is dependent upon tips from neighbors, which doesn’t happen very often.

“Realistically, very few people call us up to tell on their neighbors,” he said.

At an East Falls Community Council meeting earlier this week, James Aros, a property evaluation supervisor for the OPA, spoke in place of McKeithen. While referencing many of the same points, he did address expectations of coming assessment in East Falls.

Aros said that while final values are not finalized and was unable to comment specifically. On a broader scale, he said, many residents can expect to see “fair to large” amounts of increases in assessments across the city.

He was quick to point out, however, that “higher assessments do not actually equal higher taxes.”

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