As Philadelphia prepares to overhaul its property tax system, a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative finds that no other city in recent years has made such significant changes all at one time, and in the absence of state mandates or court orders.
The report, The Actual Value Initiative: Overhauling Property Taxes in Philadelphia, examines how the city's property tax assessment system evolved—to the point that assessments of many properties have little relation to their true value—and how other cities have dealt with this situation. It also analyzes the current city proposals designed to mitigate the big spikes in property taxes that the changes would likely bring to some residents.
One key reason why property assessments in Philadelphia have gotten so far out of line with market values—in addition to a history of local inaction—is that the state of Pennsylvania has not regulated the assessment system. According to the report, Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that impose no reassessment timetables or standard assessment methods on local governments. It also is one of just three states to receive a grade of F in “standardized procedures” from the Council on State Taxation, a Washington-based trade group.
The idea behind the Actual Value Initiative (AVI) is that all properties should be assessed at market value. If adopted in Philadelphia, the initiative would change the certified market value of every piece of property; the way individual assessments are used to calculate tax bills; and the types of tax relief available to property owners. According to the city's chief assessment officer, Richie McKeithen, Philadelphia has never had a thorough citywide field inspection of every property and its characteristics, until now.
Among the report's other findings:
The comparison jurisdictions studied are Allegheny County, Pa., which includes Pittsburgh; Baltimore; Boston; Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago; Hartford, Conn.; Los Angeles; and Washington, all of which have grappled with various aspects of the property tax issues now confronting Philadelphia.
This report does not include projections about what the tax rate will be under AVI, how the overhaul will affect assessments in specific neighborhoods, and how much change there will be in the share of property tax revenue generated by residential as opposed to commercial parcels. None of that information will be known until assessment numbers are made public and City Council adopts a new tax rate.