Pa. oversight board chair says City Council should approve property tax plan

While Philadelphia City Council wrestles with controversies surrounding Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposal to go to a property tax system based on market value assessments, the chair of the state board overseeing the city’s finances says Council should make the change now.

Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority chairman Sam Katz dropped by Council chambers Wednesday, when a Council meeting on the thorny issue was postponed because there was no agreement about how to proceed.

Responding to reporters’ questions, Katz said he hopes Council approves the move to market value assessments now, three years before Council members have to run for re-election.

“I think the iron is hot,” Katz said, “and every year you get closer to the next election, the risks to voting for something that will have impacts on people raises the specter that you lose support for it.”

While most agree Philadelphia’s assessments should be updated, Nutter’s proposal faces an unfortunate timing problem. Council has to decide whether to adopt the plan this month, but actual assessments won’t be finished until the fall, so nobody knows what their tax bills will look like.

When Nutter held a news conference Thursday to advocate for the plan, Jeff Hornstein showed up to hand reporters leaflets opposing the idea. Hornstein said he represents an alliance of 15 neighborhood groups calling itself the Tax Fairness Coalition.

While he favors the move to market value assessments, Hornstein said it was always understood that would happen when the city had completed property assessments and could tell residents what the impact on their bills would be.

“We took it on faith that they were going to get this assessment project done,” Hornstein said. “Now it’s clear they’re not going to get it done, and they want to say to us, ‘Buy a house now, and we’ll tell you how much it costs a month after you buy it.’ And that’s just a ridiculous way to make policy in the fifth-largest city in America.”

Hornstein said Council should wait till next year to consider the plan when the assessments are in. Nutter told reporters Thursday the city would face lawsuits if it had updated property assessments in the fall and sent property owners bills based on old, inaccurate values.

Katz said Council can consider whether to adjust rates so that the shift doesn’t raise new revenue, but it should proceed to a fair and accurate assessment system.

“Whether there’s a tax increase or not seems to me to be a separate issue from whether we fix the assessment process,” Katz said.

Council could consider the assessment plan as early as Tuesday, but so far consensus on the issue has proved elusive.

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