Home News The taxman knocketh

The taxman knocketh

Stewart Miller can recall three times in the last 27 years that he received a notice from the Board of Revision of Taxes informing him his property taxes would be increasing.

Two of those times occurred in the last two years.

Miller, of Third Street near Fitzwater, two weeks ago got word in the mail that his taxes were taking almost an 88-percent hike, from $2,500 to $4,700 annually.

That’s on top of the 10-percent increase the Board of Revision of Taxes handed him last year.

"This is outrageous," said Miller, a 73-year-old retired attorney for the federal government who’s living on a pension.

"I can deal with it," he said, "but it hurts."

Ten years ago, Miller said, he remembers a neighbor who could not find a buyer for his house and ended up renting it out. Now, property values in his Queen Village neighborhood are booming. Still, he is skeptical that the value of his six-room, two-bath rowhouse with unfinished basement and small backyard has more than doubled in two years.

Miller mailed an appeal to the tax board the day after he received his letter.

Many residents in the popular Bella Vista neighborhood are getting similar letters, said Vernon Anastasio, president of Bella Vista United Civic Association and founder of new citywide civic coalition Reasons to Stay.

"Most disturbing is that many senior citizens on fixed incomes are now faced with assessments that will force them to sell their home," Anastasio wrote in a letter to Mayor John Street. "Again, we cannot allow this to happen and we ask that you stand with us in our cause."

Residents further south also are smarting from the taxman’s sting.

Judy Cerrone, president of the Stadium Community Council and director of district one of the Sports Complex Special Services District, has arranged a community meeting for residents with complaints about their tax increases. It will take place Wednesday, 7 p.m., at the Stella Maris school hall. Council President Anna Verna will attend, along with Councilmen-at-Large Frank Rizzo Jr. and David Cohen, and a representative from the Board of Revision of Taxes.

Some residents’ property taxes in Cerrone’s neighborhood have increased by more than $700. Cerrone said her own taxes jumped $400 to $2,100 annually on her three-bedroom, one-bathroom home on the 3100 block of South Juniper Street.

"[Residents] are beside themselves," she said. "People have children, they are paying tuition. This raises our homeowners’ insurance, too."

Cerrone blames the mayor, saying he broke a promise he made during the stadium negotiations two years ago. She claims he agreed not to raise the property taxes of the stadium-area neighbors during construction of the new Eagles and Phillies arenas or during the demolition of the Vet.

"Since the mayor gave us his word, we’ve gotten crushed twice [with tax increases]," Cerrone said.

But the mayor does not have that power, according to Mary Rita D’Allesandro, special assistant to Street. She said she has suggested Cerrone and her neighbors file an appeal and "explain that her neighborhood is impacted by stadium construction."

That is exactly what Cerrone plans to do at Wednesday’s meeting.

Of the 576,000 properties on the city’s tax database, 485,000 are residential. More than 55 percent of the homeowners have been notified that their taxes are increasing.

There were 34,000 properties reassessed in the First Councilmanic District alone, and of those, 31,000 resulted in the property-tax hikes.

A week ago, Councilman Frank DiCicco held a press conference in City Hall, and standing next to two thick stacks of notices sent to residents in his district, he said the tax board threatens to counteract the city’s goal to retain residents and attract new ones.

DiCicco said he will have mailed 31,000 letters to residents by the end of next week, enclosed with a tax-appeals form and an explanation of the appeals process. He invited residents to send the completed forms back to his office, and said he would personally file the appeals on their behalf.

The councilman also will hold four community meetings to help residents complete the forms.

If the appeals are denied, DiCicco said, he will consider filing a class-action lawsuit. And when City Council resumes sessions, he said he will introduce legislation that would affect property-tax assessments but would not elaborate on the details.

"Instead of high taxes," DiCicco said, "let’s reward those residents who are willing to stay and fix up their properties with further tax exemptions, lower wage taxes and reduced auto-insurance premiums."

The councilman twice referred to the tax increases as a "scheme," and insinuated they may be a way of funding public projects.

"Not on the backs of my constituents, if I have anything to say about it," he said.

Homes are taxed at 2.6 percent in Philadelphia, which is just below the average of the surrounding counties and cities, according to David Glancey, chairman of the Board of Revision of Taxes. He explained that the reassessments are done by an automated computer program that analyzes clusters of similar properties called "Geographic Market Areas."

These areas are smaller than census tracts, Glancey said, but vary in size. The most important factor in the process is the sale prices of properties within a GMA.

When five properties within one area are sold during a three-year span, the tax board adjusts the market values of homes in a GMA, he said. The board based its most recent assessments on 42,000 sales citywide that occurred between 1999-2001.

"Market value is pretty conservative," Glancey said. It never equals to the sale price of nearby homes, he said, but usually to about 75 percent of the cost. People can learn the market value of homes in their neighborhood by logging on to www.phila.gov and clicking "Search Property Assessment."

Appeals must be filed by Oct. 7, and the review process will begin in November. Historically, less than 4 percent of homeowners receiving notices appeal the board’s ruling, Glancey said.

"If 25 percent were successful, that would be a lot."

School districts statewide depend on property-tax revenues for funding, but as the need for school finances has increased, property taxes continually get pushed higher. Both major-party gubernatorial candidates — Republican Mike Fisher and Democrat Ed Rendell — are campaigning for property-tax reform.

"Whatever takes place in Harrisburg is probably a good thing," Glancey said.

Property-tax powwows

Meetings on the property-tax increases will be held at the following times and locations:

* Wednesday, 7 p.m., Stella Maris School Hall, 814 Bigler St.

* Tuesday, 7 p.m., EOM, Front and Pierce streets

* Wednesday, 7 p.m., Christopher Columbus Charter School, Ninth and Christian streets

* Sept. 17, 7 p.m., Old Pine Community Center, Fourth and Lombard streets

* Sept. 18, 7 p.m., St. Anne’s Social Hall, Memphis and Tucker streets

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