The Sixers are in Toronto tonight with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on the line. The pivotal Game 7 will finally bring this back and forth series to an end. Back in Philly, homeowners are fighting to address a potential increase in their property assessments and taxes. Reporter Laura McCrystal has been following this saga as it’s flared tension across the region. She shared some insight on what she’s learned in this week’s Q&A.
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Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with Inquirer reporter Laura McCrystal, who covers taxes, government revenue, and how such policies impact people in Philadelphia and beyond.
You’ve been publishing regular updates on how the city plans to tax properties based on their new assessments. What has or hasn’t changed about this story over time?
This story has evolved over time because last year’s residential reassessment set of a chain reaction. City Council rejected a tax rate increase and commissioned an independent audit of the Office of Property Assessment (OPA), and Mayor Kenney caved into Council’s demands to begin searching for a new chief assessor. While political wrangling over how to improve OPA continues, the city this month released new assessments for 2020. And with that the story kind of comes full circle; thousands of people’s assessments and taxes will increase again, and many homeowners and Council members and mad about it. So in that sense, a lot has changed but a lot remains the same.
How do you get city departments like the Office of Property Assessment and Revenue Department to answer questions about their process and reasoning? Have they been transparent?
The city always provides responses to my questions, either in the form of emailed statements or by inviting me to interviews. As I’ve learned more about the topic, I’ve gotten a better sense of what to ask them. That said, as I’ve reported, OPA is not very transparent because it does not publicly explain exactly how assessors arrive at an assessment for each property.
Your latest story involves formulas to help readers understand what their new tax bill might look like. How did you figure out what math to include in your story?
I was inspired to write this story after hearing from readers who did not know how to look up their assessments or calculate their tax bills. Using the city’s online property database and crunching numbers to figure out tax bills is something I do all the time, so that I can offer real examples in my stories. But when I realized not everyone knows how to do this, I wrote a story basically just explaining the math I do in my own reporting.
What’s been the most challenging part of reporting on this topic?
When I started writing about assessments, it felt like learning a foreign language. Making sure I understand how it all works well enough to explain to readers can be a challenge.
In your reporting you often check in with homeowners about their assessment stories. How do you find residents to share their experiences? Are there commonalities between their stories?
Finding homeowners can be a challenge. Since property records are public information, I’ve cold called a lot of homeowners. Sometimes that’s successful but oftentimes it is not. I’ve also posted in neighborhood Facebook groups seeking people who are willing to chat. And as I continue writing about this topic, more homeowners reach out to me directly. One thing they all have in common is confusion and frustration about how the assessment system works. I’m always looking to get in touch with more taxpayers, so if you are reading this please feel free to reach out!
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