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Philly looks to replace embattled chief assessor amid outcry over property assessments

Launching a search for a new chief assessment officer represents a reversal for Mayor Kenney, who has defended the Office of Property Assessments amid growing criticism and calls from city council for new leadership.

The 2500 block of South Mildred Street in Philadelphia. This one South Philly block saw one of the largest increases in the new property assessments, leaving residents perplexed.
The 2500 block of South Mildred Street in Philadelphia. This one South Philly block saw one of the largest increases in the new property assessments, leaving residents perplexed.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

In the wake of a residential property reassessment that raised taxes on many homeowners, and an audit that found flaws in the city’s property valuations, Philadelphia is looking to replace the leader of its Office of Property Assessment.

The move represents a reversal for Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, which had defended Chief Assessment Officer Michael Piper and his office amid growing criticism.

The search for a new chief assessor emerged Tuesday when the job was posted on the city’s job board. It comes in an election year for mayor and City Council — and weeks before the city is expected to finalize assessments that will take effect in 2020.

Kenney’s administration chose to launch a national search to replace Piper because Council members have not voted on Piper’s nomination to another term and would prefer a new leader for the office, Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Kenney, said Tuesday.

“In light of that preference, it is prudent that we move forward quickly to nominate a new chief assessor, to lead OPA in its important tasks and to ensure public confidence in OPA’s work,” Dunn said.

Piper has held the role since 2014, leading OPA and setting market values for all 580,000 of the city’s parcels; those values are used to calculate property tax bills.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke called last month for a leadership shake-up at OPA, including a new chief assessor. In response, Kenney’s office said it would be unfair to turn assessment officials into political scapegoats.

Piper’s job has been in limbo since last June, when his four-year term expired. Under the city code, the mayor nominates a chief assessment officer and a majority of Council must approve the appointment. Kenney submitted a resolution to grant him another term, but no Council member introduced it for a vote.

“The findings of an independent audit City Council commissioned in 2018 made perfectly clear that a dramatic restructuring of the Office of Property Assessment is urgently needed," Clarke said in a statement Tuesday in response to the job posting. "All efforts by the administration to reform OPA policies and procedures are welcome.”

OPA has faced mounting criticism in the last year from property owners and Council members after a reassessment of residential properties increased the median assessed value of a single-family home by 10.5 percent, with many property owners receiving even larger increases. The audit commissioned by Council and released last month found the city’s assessments do not meet industry standards.

Another report by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office, also released last month, found that OPA has improved in recent years, but reached conclusions similar to those of the independent audit. And an Inquirer analysis found that more than 165,000 residential properties, more than a third of those in the city, were overassessed and their owners are paying more than their fair share in taxes.

The Kenney administration has disputed findings in the audit, the controller’s report, and the Inquirer’s analysis, and defended its assessment practices as fair and within industry standards. In response to the Council-commissioned audit, OPA hired its own consultant to review its assessments and make recommendations. Last month OPA issued its own list of changes and improvements it planned to make.

While it works on those improvements, OPA said it would scale back plans for a project that would revalue all of the city’s properties this year. Instead, the city will use an analysis of market trends to update assessments; some properties could still receive market value increases or decreases when assessment changes are mailed to owners this spring.

Piper said in an email Tuesday that he did not have any comment on the job posting for his replacement. Kenney, however, praised his work.

“I have always known Mike Piper to be a dedicated public servant,” the mayor said in a statement. “Mike has been tirelessly devoted to the work of OPA, and to personally hearing and addressing the concerns of thousands of property owners. His door has always been open, and he has attended countless community meetings."

Piper’s annual salary is $157,185, according to city payroll records. The new job posting did not include a salary estimate.

The posting stipulates that applicants have at least four years of experience as a director or deputy of a government assessment office that oversees at least 200,000 parcels. That requirement represents one year more than the level of experience Clarke said he’d like in a new chief assessor. Clarke has also asked that the city use “a nationally recognized executive search firm” to recruit a new chief assessor and at least three new deputy assessors.

“We need to make sure that every property — from the 60-year-old brownstone in Sharswood to the multimillion-dollar Rittenhouse mansion — is assessed accurately for the purposes of fair and efficient taxation," Clarke said Tuesday.