Property tax debate begins; torches & pitchforks to follow?

    It’s not easy to have a grown-up conversation about taxes these days, but Philadelphia needs to.

    After years of effort, the city has finally mailed new assessments to over a half million property owners. They’ll deliver sticker shock to some, a tax cut to others, and confusion to many.

    Over the next three months, City Council will have to approve tax rates to go with the new assessments, and decide whether to adopt some measures that might soften the blow to those most affected. 

    It’s complicated, but three months is plenty of time to understand the issue if you want to.

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    It’s also plenty of time for demagogues to distort facts and misrepresent the truth for political gain.

    It’s a test for local democracy.

    This debate will happen in the middle of a contested primary for City Controller. And as Council deliberates, contenders for the 2015 mayor’s race will be looking to score political and public relations points.

    I’ve long defended City Council’s legislative process as more open and democratic than anything you’ll find in either Harrisburg and Washington. Bills don’t get railroaded here. There are open and sometimes exhaustive hearings, and we’re usually better off for it.

    The mayor’s Actual Value Initiative is really about making the property tax system fairer and more transparent. When you assess half a million properties, there will be some mistakes and inconsistencies. There needs to be a reasonable process for inquiries and appeals, but if the most of the numbers are reasonable, we should get this done.

    If we fan the flames of hysteria, bad things can happen. Pittsburgh’s effort to overhaul its property tax system has descended into a war of lawsuits and political bickering that’s nearly a decade old and far from over.

    Save us from such a fate.

    One place for understandable explanations and reliable information is Holly Otterbein’s Taxipedia blog. Read it every day.

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