The property taxes on Stephen Dunne’s rowhouse in South Philadelphia have nearly doubled in the last two years.
In 2018, the property had a tax bill of $3,753. It increased in 2019, and will rise again in 2020 to $7,328, based on the new value the Office of Property Assessment assigned to his home.
Dunne decided to ask OPA to review his home’s value this year because he believes it’s too high. If he’s not happy with the outcome of that process — known as a first-level review — he can file a formal appeal to the Board of Revision of Taxes.
The Oct. 7 appeal deadline is fast approaching, and Dunne is still waiting to hear the decision on his first-level review.
“We’re in September now,” he said. “I hope that they’ll respond prior to the deadline.”
But due to a change in BRT’s policy, Dunne will have to decide whether to appeal before Oct. 7 — whether or not he has heard back from OPA.
His is one of the more than 8,000 of the 11,500 first-level reviews filed this year that are still pending, according to city spokesperson Mike Dunn.
In addition to those property owners, more than 3,500 are still waiting to hear the outcome of the 2019 BRT appeals they filed last year.
The backlogs of reviews and appeals leave thousands of taxpayers with uncertainty after two years of reassessments that resulted in tax hikes for hundreds of thousands of homeowners. The rising assessments also have been a source of contention between City Council, which commissioned an independent audit that was critical of OPA, and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, which has defended the city’s assessment practices but has committed to making improvements and has given in to calls to search for a new chief assessor.
Carla Pagan, executive director of BRT, said the board changed its policy because it can take “30 days or 300 days” for OPA to respond to first-level reviews.
“We cannot efficiently run the organization with a deadline that is a moving target,” she said.
For 2019 assessments, BRT received 7,700 appeals by its October deadline — a five-year high. That number has since increased to more than 10,000, thanks to a policy that granted taxpayers a 30-day window after they received the outcome of their first-level review to file an appeal to BRT.
“That worked well for a couple years,” Pagan told City Council at a May hearing, but so many appeals have been filed in the last two years that it became difficult for BRT to manage its workflow.
OPA has completed fewer than one-third of the first-level reviews filed for 2020; Dunn said reductions in market value were granted for 899 of the more than 3,200 reviewed so far.
“OPA is still diligently working through the outstanding [first-level reviews],” Dunn said.
To alert property owners to the change and firm deadline, BRT recently mailed letters to taxpayers with pending first-level reviews.
The letters explain that taxpayers can “reserve your right to file a timely formal appeal.” The back of the letter is the 2020 appeal form.
“Appeals to the Board of Revision of Taxes are due by October 7, 2019,” the letter states. “No exceptions."
When homeowners do file appeals for 2020 tax bills, their cases likely won’t be considered for at least a few months. That’s because BRT is still working its way through its 2019 cases.
Pagan said BRT has resolved about 6,600 of the 2019 appeals, and has more than 3,500 that have not been heard.
She told Council in May that the board was working to resolve all appeals by the end of the calendar year, and was on track to do so.
The board had three vacancies until this spring, when the Common Pleas Court judges held an election to appoint new members.
Pagan said the three additional members have allowed the full seven-member BRT to move through hearings more quickly by splitting into two groups and holding simultaneous hearings.
Dunne, of Titan Street in South Philadelphia, said he hopes he can hear back on his first-level review or successfully appeal his assessments. But he said he’s worried that assessments and taxes will continue to rise.
“If they keep doing this, they are going to have people who are forced to relocate out of Philadelphia,” he said. “It’s a sentiment that has been expressed to me by neighbors.”