MORE THAN a thousand ineligible property owners may have applied for and received tax breaks intended for Philly homeowners, according to a Daily News analysis of city databasesR.
Mayor Nutter's Actual Value Initiative reform effort, intended to get the city's deeply flawed tax assessments back in order, had the effect of shifting part of the overall tax burden from commercial properties to residential.
To ease the transition for families, lawmakers created the Homestead Exemption, which deducts $30,000 off the city's assessment of houses occupied by their owners.
But city records show that numerous properties that would seem ineligible for the tax break have received it anyway. They include:
* 1,222 properties with rental licenses.
* 234 vacant residential units.
* 189 parcels of vacant land.
* 116 properties owned by companies.
* 19 industrial properties.
The Office of Property Assessment planned from the outset to accept as many applications as possible to launch the program, then audit the properties afterward, said Kathryn T. Dreyer, OPA's deputy administrator.
"Our goal is to be somewhat all-inclusive to try to get as many homeowners as we can enrolled," she said. "We knew there would be a point where we had to take a look at the properties we have approved."
She cautioned that, because of outdated city records, some properties the Daily News identified as questionable may in fact be eligible for the program. She said the OPA review process will make the records more accurate.
Notices will be sent out in early spring to property owners whose Homestead Exemptions are being reviewed, Dreyer said.
About 230,000 properties have received the Homestead Exemption. The city estimated last year that about 325,000 homeowners may eligible, meaning many may not yet be aware of the tax break.
Property owners were warned that if they were found to have "knowingly" made false statements on the application, they could face third-degree misdemeanor charges, $2,500 fines and back taxes plus interest and 10 percent penalties.
That apparently didn't stop Martin M. Miller, or someone operating his property, from applying for the tax break for a vacant lot he owns on Reno Street, near 50th, according to city records.
Because the property is worth only $3,100, the Homestead Exemption brought Miller's tax bill this year down to $0.
That's good news for Miller because he already owes $6,489.61 in delinquent taxes for that lot.
City records list his mailing address as a commercial building on Germantown Pike in Lafayette Hill. The owner of that building said he's never heard of Miller and doesn't know why his address is listed.
In Kensington, three adjacent vacant lots at Susquehanna Avenue and 4th Street are owned by Brunilda Lopez Spiller, whose mailing address is on Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
All three have received the tax break.
Attempts to reach Lopez Spiller were unsuccessful.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a longtime critic of the AVI tax overhaul, said the after-the-fact approach to reviewing Homestead applications speaks to a broader problem.
"The administration was more interested in getting it done than getting it done right," said Butkovitz, who has long questioned the accuracy of the OPA's citywide reassessment.
Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said in response that only "a very small percentage" of the applicants are problematic.
"They're being audited and there are penalties available if there's something that's been done knowingly and improperly, so we feel quite good about the program," he said.