Frustrated Residents Want Transparency, Accuracy in Philadelphia Property Assessment Procedure
The property tax war in Philadelphia is still peaking, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.
Nearly 7,200 Philadelphia property owners have filed appeals to their 2020 property tax assessment, nearly matching the 7,700 who filed their 2019 assessment, which was a five-year high and the most since the city restructured its property value system in 2014.
Much like last year, a high volume of appeals have come in because City Council and thousands of city residents remain skeptical that the system in place for assessing home values is askew, allowing for homes in wealthier neighborhoods to be under-assessed while homes in lower-income neighborhoods are being over-assessed.
According to the Office of Property Assessment (OPA), the median value of a single-family home in Philadelphia spiked 3.1 percent with the 2020 assessments, following a 10.5 percent increase a year earlier.
A study done by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018 found that only about 35 percent of all homes in Philadelphia were being assessed by the city at a value within 10 percent of the price of the home. The remaining were either being over-assessed (36 percent) or under-assessed (29 percent) the under-assessed properties mostly happening in white neighborhoods that are a bit more affluent.
The result is a significant property tax increase for thousands of residents who own property within the city’s limits.
Despite frequent criticism and scrutiny led by both city residents and the City Council, the OPA stands by its data, even if it has been challenged by independent investigations, including the aforementioned one undertaken by the Inquirer.
The Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT) is tasked with resolving all appeals, but often takes criticism for the speed – or lack thereof – that it takes to resolve these appeals.
As an example, the BRT is still hearing 2019 appeals, which had to be filed prior to October 1, 2018. According to information from the BRT provided to the Inquirer, roughly 1,500 appeals from last year have yet to be heard.
Which means many of these 2020 appeals will likely drag well into next Fall or Winter.
City Council President Darrell Clarke has been championing a reform effort, beginning with finding a replacement for leadership at the OPA.
The difference between the OPA and the BRT is the OPA falls under the auspices of the Mayor’s office while the BRT is an independent board of seven members who are appointed by judges of the Court of Common Pleas.
The OPA sets market values, which is how tax bills are calculated, and resolves informal appeals while the BRT handles all formal appeals.
As such, there are thousands of people who have filed formal appeals prior to the October deadline who still haven’t heard the outcome of their informal appeal to a different office that were filed as early as last April.
According to the OPA, there were approximately 11,700 informal appeals filed and as of the end of November they had only resolved about half of them with about 1,500 (about 26 percent of the appeals resolved) resulting in a reduction in the assessed value of the property.
The primary reason there is a call for reform in Philadelphia is because the city uses frequent reassessment of properties as a way to generate revenue while most other places in the state of Pennsylvania use reassessment as a way to equalize tax burdens, making them revenue neutral.
Philadelphia views frequent reassessments as a moneymaker.
The surrounding suburban counties had gone decades between reassessments because they are unpopular, costly and always are a political football.
Neighboring Delaware County, the western suburbs of Philadelphia, had not had an assessment done in this millennium. A judge finally ordered a county-wide reassessment in 2017, and the process is ongoing with all properties expected to be finally assessed by 2021.
There is a state board that monitors fairness and tracks property assessments. Although it provides an annual report that break down assessments county-by-county, the board has no enforcement capabilities. No matter what its reports show, it cannot force a country to reassess and it also doesn’t fact-check the data that the individual counties provide.
While this battle continues to fester year after year, there’s not much residents can do but appeal and hope their appeal is victorious – however finding out one way or another is a tedious process and doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.