It’s a subject that comes up frequently in Chestnut Hill. Sometimes it’s a threat of swift revolt. Sometimes it’s a matter-of-fact resignation. When push comes to shove, homeowners on the Hill consider it as a matter of last resort – a sale of the house and move to a nearby suburb where the crime is down, the schools are up and where you get something for your tax money.

Neighbors of Chestnut Hill college raised the threat several weeks ago. The premise was that Philadelphia was not interested in safeguarding its residents from institutional expansion that was sure to generate revenue for the city. The remedy? Secede from the city and take the Hill to Montgomery County.

I’m sure those wheels are turning for anyone who found news in last week’s papers about City Council considering a 3.85 percent property tax hike. That hike is not going to cost people a lot of money – Philadelphia enjoys lower property tax rates than the burbs and the average $1,500 tax bill (that’s the average city tax bill) will only see a $50 annual increase. Not a lot to save public schools, right?

But for many residents of Chestnut Hill, the math isn’t so clear cut.

First, the average Hiller’s property tax is more than $1,500. And second, many in Chestnut Hill do not send their children to public schools. It’s a tax for which they are not getting any benefit. It’s not necessarily the dollar amount. It’s the principle.

When the city is seen as squandering taxpayer dollars, the idea that they’re going to squeeze more from taxpayers, even when it’s no more than a few hundred dollars a year (a monthly Starbucks budget for some Hillers), is, to put it mildly, aggravating. Taxpayers here and around the city are unhappy.

For many, it seems as if the city keeps using Band-Aids to keep government running, and running badly, instead of tackling serious reforms. One of our readers, a sharp and articulate Hill resident with whom I’ve exchanged e-mails over this subject, illustrates this point of view well. In one recent email about funding for schools:

“We might reform things here so that Philadelphia does not squander so much of our public revenue by paying 30-35 percent more than the fair price for all union labor, especially construction labor, versus 30-35 percent less for the same quality non-union labor.  That frees up billion of dollars for parks, rec, streets, charity etc. Why don’t we do that in our city? That could do great things for Fairmount Park whose budget is $11.5 million versus $3.2 billion for the schools!  But I cannot reconcile spending any more money per child when there are so many inefficiencies and needless non-educational burdens in the system, such as the needless burden of union rates, that if remedied will free up a lot of money for better use.”

No, the property tax likely won’t send Hillers running to Eichler and Moffley to list their homes. But it will certainly further erode their confidence in city government, which – judging by voter participation in last month’s primary election – is fairly low.

But for people looking to buy homes, the news is just a little more justification to skip the city in the house hunt. It’s a move that is likely to only exacerbate the city’s declining tax reveneues and ailing schools.

Pete Mazzaccaro



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