Does the city value your property correctly when it decides how much you should pay in property taxes? If you live in Philadelphia, probably not.
The Nutter administration is trying to fix this. This summer, it began sending out assessors to determine the actual market values of people’s homes. How do the assessors figure that out, and more importantly, are they going to raise your taxes?To find the answer to that burning question, on a recent sunny day It’s Our Money reporter Holly Otterbein followed city tax assessor Larry Shubert on his rounds.
Larry Shubert is a snoop.As a property tax assessor for the city, he’ll go to great lengths to find out how much your house is worth. He’ll inspect your deed, figure out the age of the bricks in your home, and even sprint around your property. Today, he’s walking around Roxborough assessing houses.“This is going to be the first house that’s going to be a little bit of a challenge because you look at it and you go, ‘OK, What is it?’ First of all, it looks like a one-story from here,” says Shubert. “But I think a side view will give you a better idea. See, now looking from that end it doesn’t look like anything. From over here you got a side door, you got a two-car detached garage. You actually have a half a story.”It’s not easy to trick him. If you thought you’d be able to build that deck without the city noticing, forget it. He’ll watch you from above, too.“We take aerial views of the properties,” says Shubert. “Now this particular property I wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to see anything from the rear or not. Well here it shows that there’s an addition on the back. It’s a sunroom. Now I have to go back and check to see if that’s on our books.”Maybe you’ve seen Shubert or one of the city’s other 65 tax assessors around town. They’re re-assessing all 577,000 properties in Philadelphia, in an attempt to fix the city’s broken property-tax system. For years it assessed people’s homes unfairly and inaccurately.So what are they looking for, exactly?“We’re trying to get the characteristics on each house,” says Shubert. “In other words … bedrooms, baths, kitchen, living room, dining room, basement, whether it’s finished or not, what kind of heat they have.”The assessors’ work will bring some folks’ taxes down, and others’ up — which is frightening for homeowners. Especially because, all told, the city expects to collect more after the re-assessment than before it. That means Shubert sometimes gets yelled at. Even by old ladies. He’s jotting down notes outside of Theresa Conroy’s home in Roxborough when she pokes her head out of the door. He introduces himself, and she warns him not to raise her property taxes — or else.“I’m gonna get pretty damn mad!” she says.This doesn’t keep Shubert from genuinely digging his job. As he walks down the street in Roxborough with Richie McKeithen, the city’s chief assessment officer, they talk about the thrill of figuring out how much homes are worth. Seriously.“When you put a value on the house and it sells for about that, that’s like, wow!” says McKeithen. “That’s almost as good as, like, hitting a number or something. It’s a rush.”It’s a good thing that Shubert likes his job. Because he’ll have to assess 13,000 properties in Northwest Philly, about twice as many as one assessor should have to do. The city’s Office of Property Assessment is understaffed.“When you have 13,000 accounts, it’s a lot. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff to do,” says Shubert, adding that a “25-unit new construction could take me two days.”The Nutter administration says it’s planning to hire about 70 more assessors soon. Still, this raises concerns about the quality of work the assessors will be able to do. The data that Shubert collects is just the first step in the complex process of assessing. The city also must consider how much nearby homes are selling for, and send assessors out again this spring to double-check their data. Mayor Nutter wants to finish this by next fall, which would mean updated property tax bills by 2013. But since fixing the property-tax system will require cooperation among the Nutter administration, City Council and the state, it’s not a done deal.
It’s Our Money is a joint project of the Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation. We work to shed light on where your tax dollars are going.