Photo | Jeff Fusco
For the first time since Mayor Nutter took office, the City of Philadelphia made significant, measurable progress over the past 18 months in its long-running fight against the property tax delinquency epidemic.
The total debt owed the city and School District of Philadelphia in unpaid property taxes fell over the past year, edging down $10 million between April 2013 and April 2014, according to a Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly analysis of city tax data. The total number of property tax deadbeats declined as well, dipping about 1,400 over the same period.
To be sure, the gains are modest given the massive scale of property tax delinquency in Philadelphia; nearly 96,000 delinquent parcels and $512 million owed, figures that dwarf those in all other big cities except Detroit.
But it’s notable nonetheless that the city managed to stop — for a time at least — the spread of tax delinquency (the epidemic has grown quickly in most years of the Nutter administration), and more notable still that the city is now reducing the total amount owed.
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UPDATE: The below has been clarified to reflect the fact that PlanPhilly was concerned only with issues around the built and natural environments, as they wrote in their post. Another clarification: My original title for this post was “Top 5 Things Planning Nerds Care About,” but I chose to make it more positive. Readers of PlanPhilly, in my experience, are all very bright. Who else would read devotedly about planning and zoning?
In order to create a more perfect Philadelphia as we move toward an election year, PennPraxis and PlanPhilly presented PlanPhilly’s readers with a list of what they described as the “most important issues facing Philadelphia’s built and natural environments” and asked their readers to answer one important question: “Which three of these issues do you feel are the most important for Philadelphia’s future?”
“We’ll use this information to help shape research and civic engagement by PennPraxis staff and reporting by PlanPhilly journalists,” writes Evan Croen, PlanPhilly’s website administrator and A Person Who Moved Here From Brooklyn.
The survey results showed that the top 5 issues are:
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Philly.com has a story today that offers mixed messages about the results of the Actual Value Initiative, the property tax program that was put into place to fix a broken system. What was broken about it? The assessments were all wrong, and many of them were wrong because they were too low. Many homeowners were paying property taxes that were dreamy and terrific because they were a pittance, and that was great for them. But they were not an accurate reflection of the marketplace of the value of their home. A program to reassess was a long time coming, but it was Mayor Nutter who finally had the cojones to make it happen.
Now philly.com has two headlines (for a single story) that are sure to piss people off, but not for the right reasons.
Headline No. 1: Thousands of Philly home owners missing out on tax break
Headline No. 2: Final score on AVI: 54 percent received property tax increases
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When you think of people who owe property taxes, you imagine an out-of-town landlord who doesn’t care that his blighted building is falling apart. You don’t tend to think of a major public agency that owes millions of dollars, but that’s the story here: SEPTA owes the city almost $22 million. Given that much of the city’s property taxes go to the schools, and given that the city is ready to sell its soul to fund the schools, it’s a bit of a surprise to learn it’s giving SEPTA a pass on that hefty bill.
It doesn’t seem as though the city necessarily wanted this to become public. Here’s how philly.com’s Sam Wood puts it:
A new 30-year agreement between the transit agency and city goes into effect on July 1 and it absolves SEPTA of the requirement to make good on the delinquency, which came to light in data collected by an economist at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government. Philly.com recently obtained the data.
And here’s the least persuasive answer to the question of why SEPTA hasn’t paid its taxes–an answer that sounds like something a kid would say when asked why he didn’t turn in his homework:
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Screenshot of Blasius Chocolate Factory via Google Street View
Look at the recent posts on their Facebook page and you’ll find nothing but support for Blasius Chocolate Factory. That’s because city officials showed up on Wednesday to force the business to cease operations, an order the Factory continues to ignore.
Apparently, the Venango Street business owes more than $12,000 in delinquent property taxes — money that owner Phil Kerwick believes he does not owe since the factory is only opened half the year.
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Chris Sawyer over at philadelinquency has performed another of his data dumps (in a good way) this year by releasing three files that you can download and own. Here’s what he’s got:
1. OPA RECORDS.csv – contains all the basic characteristics of each property in Philadelphia, its owners, the OPA mailing address, and summary information from the Department of Revenue
2. REVENUE RECORDS.csv – contains the full entire listing for every OPA account number in the OPA RECORDS file as you see it when you browse the Department of Revenue’s property tax website.
3. VALUATION RECORDS.csv – contains a history of valuation changes for all OPA accounts that are listed in the OPA RECORDS file, including tax exemption codes and historical assessments.
Once the files are downloaded, they’re yours to keep, so you don’t have to go digging around phila.gov to get the info. Which can be exhausting.
Downloads are here.
The city’s new tax relief program, PHL Tax LOOP, is part snappy acronym; LOOP stands for Longtime Owner Occupants Program (oh, to have been a fly on the wall during City Hall acronym idea meetings). Those people who have owned their property since at least 2003 and are up to date on their property taxes are eligible, as long as the property hasn’t ever had a tax abatement.
There are income requirements and specs for what kind of properties qualify for the tax break, but based on the city’s preliminary estimates, 80,000 properties are eligible. Those 80,000 will get info packets in the mail, but if you don’t receive one automatically, that doesn’t mean you aren’t eligible.
Nutter’s statement indicates his acknowledgement of one of the few AVI hiccups: “Our new property tax system is fair and accurate for all Philadelphians – but fairer and more accurate values meant large Real Estate Tax increases for some homeowners.”
Advocates of AVI prior to its implementation claimed that such inequities would ultimately get resolved — precisely with programs of this kind. It should certainly help.
For more information, go to the city’s LOOP site or call 215-686-9200.
Photo of Allan Domb in the lobby of Parc Rittenhouse by Laura Kicey
Property manager/owner/developer Allan Domb, who is also the president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors (GPAR), has become passionate about property tax collection. Last week he attended the City Council meeting during which Bill Green presented legislation that would encourage the mayor to sell tax liens to private companies. Domb, who ideally would like the property tax rate to be 1 percent rather than 1.34, testified at the meeting in support of the bill, which passed 15-2.
Domb told us that when he looked into areas where the city might save money, he kept running into the issue of real estate delinquencies (all municipal delinquencies total $1.6 billion). “Fifteen percent of the population doesn’t pay property taxes,” he said. Even more galling, “40 percent of those delinquent owners are investors who don’t even live in Philadelphia.”
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Councilman Bill Green was the sponsor of the bill. Photo via phila.gov
City Council approved a bill yesterday that would allow the city to hire private agencies to collect on past-due property taxes. If it seems like the city could be doing a better job of collecting, that’s because, well, it could: After all, Camden and Trenton — both of which sell liens to private collection agencies or investors — collect roughly 10 percent more than Philadelphia does.
As with much Council business, this bill may have been a waste of time (guys! I’m kidding!). Nutter already has the power to sell liens to private agencies, according to the Inquirer’s Troy Graham. He writes, “Councilman Bill Green said he sponsored the bill in part to spur the Nutter administration to consider using this tax collection ‘tool’” — a tool that is already in Nutter’s quiver. So it was just a reminder?
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