Northeast Times

Tax message hits home on Tulip Street

— Law­makers set up po­di­um on porch to rap Nut­ter's plan for prop­erty as­sess­ments.

State Sen­at­or Mike Stack dis­cusses prop­erty taxes with Ta­cony homeown­ers, Thursday, April 26, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

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Two North­east le­gis­lat­ors said the city’s plan to re­as­sess prop­er­ties is noth­ing more than a back-door tax in­crease that will hit loc­al homeown­ers hard, and they want the city to do more to col­lect what is owed be­fore it hikes taxes.

Stand­ing on the front porch of a Ta­cony home last Thursday, state Sen. Mike Stack (D-5th dist.) and state Rep. Mike McGee­han (D-173rd dist.) said they were in­tro­du­cing le­gis­la­tion that would soften the im­pact of rising taxes.

May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter re­cently an­nounced a plan to re­as­sess prop­er­ties in the city. Some val­ues will go up and some will go down, but the move is ex­pec­ted to gen­er­ate mil­lions of dol­lars for a city that’s hard up for cash.

Those new as­sess­ments aren’t ex­pec­ted to be fi­nal­ized un­til fall. In the mean­time, the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion has been prod­ding City Coun­cil to ap­prove le­gis­la­tion that would per­mit tax rates to be es­tab­lished in line with the new as­sess­ments.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­jec­ted that the new as­sess­ments would bring in roughly $90 mil­lion in new rev­en­ue — rev­en­ue tar­geted for the School Dis­trict of Phil­adelphia — and trans­late to a roughly 8.5 per­cent in­crease in the city’s total prop­erty-tax rev­en­ue.

Nut­ter has re­jec­ted the claims of some Coun­cil mem­bers that his plan amounts to a tax in­crease; he has in­sisted that rising prop­erty val­ues will help boost those rev­en­ues. But Stack said last week that, al­though he sees the ne­ces­sity for prop­erty re­as­sess­ments, Nut­ter’s plan is ill-con­ceived.

“It’s a knee-jerk grab for rev­en­ue,” Stack said from the porch of Geor­geanne Labovitz’s house on the 7000 block of Tulip St.

The law­makers have in­tro­duced bills that would give own­er-oc­cu­pied prop­er­ties an ex­emp­tion from in­creases to city and school taxes.

Fur­ther, Stack’s meas­ure would give home-own­ing seni­or cit­izens with an­nu­al in­comes of $60,000 or less the op­tion to de­fer pay­ing tax in­creases un­til they sell. Those who have lived in their homes for 20 years or more would get the same break, and re­cently un­em­ployed homeown­ers would get one-year de­fer­ments, with what is owed col­lec­ted at the time of the prop­erty sale.

Stack also has in­tro­duced a bill that would bar the city from rais­ing prop­erty taxes if its over­all tax-col­lec­tion rate were less than 95 per­cent.

The sen­at­or said Phil­adelphia res­id­ents already have en­dured two tem­por­ary tax in­creases. If the city wants more money, he said, it should go after de­lin­quent tax­pay­ers who owe $472 mil­lion, not the people who have been keep­ing cur­rent.

“We pen­al­ize re­spons­ible tax­pay­ers,” he said.

“People who main­tain and im­prove their homes are the people who will be hurt by this tax in­crease,” McGee­han agreed. “Phil­adelphia is a tax-killer of a city.”

Labovitz said her taxes have gone up each year for the last three years. She cri­ti­cized city ser­vices — for ex­ample, she sees few­er fire­men and po­lice these days, she said — and she’s look­ing for a part-time job to help pay her taxes.

“You can’t keep tak­ing from us,” Labovitz said.

It’s not the le­gis­lature’s job to en­force tax col­lec­tion in Phil­adelphia, McGee­han said. His col­league Stack sug­ges­ted that the city needs to be more ef­fi­cient in its col­lec­tion of taxes.

Taxes are owed on 103,000 prop­er­ties in Phil­adelphia, ac­cord­ing to Mark Mc­Don­ald, spokes­man for May­or Nut­ter.

City Con­trol­ler Alan Butkovitz, while ad­dress­ing mem­bers of the Great­er Bustleton Civic League on April 25, said that 20 per­cent of the prop­er­ties in Phil­adelphia are tax-de­lin­quent.

Stack put the total tax bill owed the city as of last year at more than $470 mil­lion.

Much more had been owed. A tax-am­nesty pro­gram in mid-2010 brought in more than $70 mil­lion, and the city has in­tens­i­fied its ef­forts to col­lect the past-due taxes, said Deputy Rev­en­ue Com­mis­sion­er Frank Breslin.

Col­lec­tion agen­cies have been en­gaged. City em­ploy­ees who had owed taxes either paid up, worked out pay­ment plans or had their salar­ies gar­nished. City gov­ern­ment re­tir­ees will have their pen­sions gar­nished if they don’t pay their taxes. You can’t do busi­ness with the city, get a job with the city, or get a zon­ing vari­ance if you’re not cur­rent with your taxes, Breslin said.

The city nudges first-time de­lin­quent tax­pay­ers. Soon, those who haven’t paid this year’s taxes, which were due March 31, will get calls and let­ters from the city re­mind­ing them of their ob­lig­a­tions.

Last year, more than 12,000 prop­erty own­ers were told they were late and re­ceived word of what would hap­pen if they didn’t pay by Dec. 31, Breslin said. To avoid hav­ing in­terest and pen­al­ties tacked on to their bills, and to keep li­ens from be­ing slapped on their prop­er­ties, about a third be­came up to date with their pay­ments, Breslin said.

As of March, he ad­ded, de­lin­quent tax­pay­ers still owe the city $418 mil­lion.

The city’s fisc­al year starts on Ju­ly 1. From Ju­ly 1, 2009 to March 2010, the city col­lec­ted $145 mil­lion in de­lin­quent taxes, Breslin said. Dur­ing com­par­able nine-month peri­ods in suc­ceed­ing years, he said, the city brought in $163 mil­lion and $174 mil­lion.

More de­lin­quent prop­er­ties are quickly be­ing brought to sher­iff sale, and the very threat of that pos­sib­il­ity has in­duced some de­lin­quents to settle up, he said.

Butkovitz, dur­ing his re­cent meet­ing with the Bustleton civic group, said that tak­ing over a prop­erty isn’t a guar­an­teed way to re­cov­er back taxes.

ldquo;There are parts of the city, if we took the prop­erty, we couldn’t give it away,” he said.  ••

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Know if you owe?

If you want to work with the city, do busi­ness with the city or get a zon­ing vari­ance, you have to show you’re cur­rent with your taxes.

You can do that on­line by vis­it­ing www.phila.gov/revenue, click on Tax Clear­ance on the left and then fol­low the in­struc­tions.

If you don’t owe any­thing, you’ll be able to print out a cer­ti­fic­ate of tax com­pli­ance, ac­cord­ing to Deputy Rev­en­ue Com­mis­sion­er Frank Breslin.  ••

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You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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