Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Elmer Smith: We need full-valuation property tax, but who's gutsy enough to push it?

THE PRUDENT politician would sooner French-kiss a snaggletoothed crocodile than hear his name and the words "tax hike" in the same sentence.

THE PRUDENT politician would sooner French-kiss a snaggletoothed crocodile than hear his name and the words "tax hike" in the same sentence.

It's in the politician's basic textbook, right after the chapters on kissing babies and eating ethnic foods (i.e., "hog maws are not the opposite of hog paws, and pierogis don't have to be eaten on the docks").

So I listened with great interest last year as mayoral hopeful Michael Nutter distinguished himself from mayoral hopeless Al Taubenberger by endorsing the move to "full valuation" assessments.

Full valuation is not the same as a tax hike. In some instances, people will actually get smaller tax bills when and if the Board of Revision of Taxes sets assessment values at market rates.

But full valuation is as close to the third-rail as any politican in this town has ventured voluntarily since Richardson Dilworth's pinstripe suits were still fashionable.

Because, even if only 10 percent of the city's property owners had their tax bills go up as a result of full-valuation assessments, you'd have 50,000 voters looking to nail someone's pelt to their wall.

Way it works now, the Board of Revision of Taxes sets property values for tax purposes at an "assessment ratio" that is one-third of what the BRT thinks the property would sell for in the open market.

It forecasts these values on the basis of comparable sales and other arcane factors, and sends the values to the mayor and City Council. Lawmakers then set a tax rate that gets multiplied by the value to compute the tax bill for that property.

We end up with a system so dysfunctional that a property that sold for $480,000 in Center City last year had a lower tax bill than a property in Northeast Philly that sold last year for $88,500.

The tax-reform group Philadelphia Forward has dozens of similar examples on its Web site, if you're looking for a laugh.

I call this "bull valuation." Everybody from the mayor's office and City Council to the BRT knows that the system is dysfunctional. They all know that poorer neighborhoods bear the brunt of this imbalance.

But nobody wants to own the fix because they know it can't be fixed without raising someone's tax bill. Everybody you ask dodges the issue like an incoming artillery shell.

To his credit, the mayor took it on when we asked him about it in a budget briefing Wednesday.

"Well, actually, I want to do it," he said when someone asked him who would take the lead on this.

"I think it's unfair that we can't send people an accurate assessment and look folks in the eye and say the numbers on this sheet of paper are


"I want to change the cycle so that we're doing the assessments in the same fiscal year, before we determine the tax rates."

That is the right order. The BRT's job is to set the values and then excuse themselves.

Council and the mayor must come up with ways to keep the tax bills for elderly and other vulnerable citizens from rising as fast as the new assessment ratios will rise. That can be done. But the BRT should set the values first and get out of the way.

The BRT disagrees. BRT spokesman Kevin Feeley argued that the assessment ratio should be set "in cooperation" with Council's function of enacting laws that protect vulnerable citizens from tax spikes.

Meanwhile, nothing gets done. The BRT is reluctant to submit the new assessments that it spent three years and $5 million compiling, Council is hiding in the tall grass and taxpayer/voters are waiting to see whom they have to fire next Election Day.

A prudent politician would drop this issue faster than high-school seniors drop eighth-period Latin.

This one is going to require a leader with enough political capital in the bank to throw prudence to the wind, maybe someone who was recently elected mayor and won't face voters for three more years.

There has to be a guy like that out there. *

Send e-mail to smithel@philly or call 215-854-2512.

For recent columns: