Philadelphia Finance Director Rob Dubow and other city officials portrayed the city’s 2018 property assessment project as focused on commercial and industrial properties, something they stated in internal emails and memos, budget projections, and testimony before City Council.
The city even issued a news release announcing “reassessments of commercial and industrial properties.”
Is that paper trail evidence that Philadelphia unfairly and illegally targeted the owners of commercial properties in its 2018 reassessment project while failing to reassess residential properties? Or were those instances, as Dubow testified Tuesday in a City Hall courtroom, “shorthand for where we thought the primary changes [in value] would be based on that year’s reassessment?"
That question is at the center of one of the largest assessment appeal cases in the city’s history, in which owners of 700 commercial properties — including some of the city’s most prominent and valuable office complexes, hotels, and apartment buildings — allege that the city unfairly targeted them and violated the state constitution. The law requires that all properties be assessed at the same percentage of value.
The trial, in which $63 million in city and School District tax revenue is at stake, began Monday. Testimony Tuesday morning from Dubow, whose duties include overseeing the city’s budget and revenue as well as the Office of Property Assessment (OPA), offered a look at how the city values property and uses the results to estimate revenues and make a budget.
Lawyers for the commercial property owners used emails between Dubow and other city employees as well as internal memos to question him about the 2018 reassessment project.
One budget projection for 2018 tax collection, for example, referred to “explosive growth everywhere but residential” properties.
“These were based on the estimates received from OPA,” Dubow said.
Lawyers also pointed to Dubow’s testimony before Council about the revaluation: “We’re just completing a commercial reassessment," he told Council, according to a transcript read in court Tuesday. “Every year after that we’ll have a full reassessment.”
The city maintains that its 2018 reassessment was legal and appropriate. About 12,000 of the city’s 470,000 residential properties did receive changes in values that year, Dubow said, while between 50,000 and 60,000 commercial and industrial property owners received notices of value changes.
The Office of Property Assessment’s goal, Dubow said, “is to get all assessments accurate."
Senior Common Pleas Court Judge Gene Cohen must ultimately decide at the end of the trial whether OPA’s efforts to do so violated the so-called uniformity clause in the state constitution, which requires the city to reassess all properties at the same time rather than singling out certain groups.