Richie McKeithen, a spokesman for the Office of Property Assessment, spoke to residents about what an actual value system of property tax assessment would mean for homeowners. (Photo by Sue Ann Ryback)

by Sue Ann Rybak

“Actual value, a new city system for assessing homes for property tax, turned out to be the hot topic at a town hall meeting hosted on March 22 by State Representative Cherelle Parker.

The meeting held at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, 7301 Germantown Ave., covered a number of topics relevant to area residents, but the most pressing concern to more than 50 persons in attendance was the property tax proposal.

Richie McKeithen, a spokesman from the Office of Property Assessment and Lauren Vidas, a spokeswoman from the Mayor’s Office, discussed the ramifications of actual value.

Actual value, they said, refers the current market value of a home – what it would sell for in real dollars.

“The values that we have for properties are not reflective of the sale price,” McKeithen said.

“Currently, the city has a fractional assessment.” The current valuer system is based on a percentage of an assessment by the city that does not reflect real market value.

The actual value assessment will simplify the process and create a more “fair and equitable” system, he said.

The city plans to reassess properties every year, McKeithen said.

First each home will be assessed and compared to the properties in close proximity that are similar in size, condition and location.

“It really helps,” he said referring to the simplified tax system. “This time we have an assessment process that is interactive.”

Besides sending assessors “out into the field,” the city is soliciting information about residents’ properties through white door hangers that ask property owners whether they have a finished basement or how many bathrooms their house has.

“This is just another way to get information about a particular property so that it is assessed accurately,” McKeithen said. “People will also have the opportunity to speak with the assessor once they receive notice.”

McKeithen encouraged attendees to pick up a pamphlet on frequently asked questions.

Vidas discussed the property tax assessment plan and the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT).

The actual value initiative is something the city has talked about for years and years,” Vidas said. “We are finally at a crisis point. Our property tax system right now is pretty broken.”

In the past, Vidas said if you didn’t agree with the Board of Revision of Taxes assessment (BRT), which decided what the value of your property was, you appealed to the BRT. The residents of Philadelphia recently voted to abolish the BRT and create the Office of Property Assessment and another “separate and distinct appeal agency,” Vida said.

Currently, a bill is going before the house to decide who will control the office of appeals, Parker said.

The bill states that the appeals process should be overseen by the Office of the Mayor.

In order to have fair and accurate assessments, there needs to be more transparency, she said.

“Mayor Nutter was one of the biggest proponents of getting the appeals to an independent body,” Vidas said. “When he was a city councilman he introduced legislation to get it dismantled. The goal is to create a fair appeals process that is independent from political pressure.”

Attendees, many of whom were senior citizens voiced their fear of losing their home due to an increase in their property taxes.

“We are concerned about being in our property for 40 and 50 years and now you come and assess them,” said Carol Mack, a West Mt. Airy resident, who has been active in the community for over 48 years. “Younger folks who have jobs are moving in. The houses are $250,000. You are going to put us out of our home.

“It is a complicated issue,” Vidas said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. We don’t want to say we have fair assessments and then seniors are being moved out of their home because they can’t afford the new taxes. That is the last thing anybody wants. There are a number of things that we are doing. We call them circuit breakers; they are safe guards. So, residents who have lived in home for 30 or 40 years can stay there.”

The city is currently working with state representatives to pass the “Homestead Exemption.”

The Homestead Exemption allows a homeowner to take a certain value off their primary residence.

For example, if your home is assessed at a $100,000. The Homestead bill would allow you to exempt a certain amount such as $15,000 from the market value of your home.

“That is something that every other county in the state of Pennsylvania has the authority to do except Philadelphia,” Vidas said. “The bill is currently in Harrisburg. The great thing about the Homestead exemption is that it really does help low income residents who are living in lower valued homes.”

The city is also creating a “smoothing period,” she said.

“We don’t want anybody to get sticker shock,” Vidas said. “If your rate is going up, it would not go up all at once. It would gradually go up or down.”

Vida encouraged seniors to apply for a tax “freeze” on their taxes.

“If you have a certain income level under state guidelines, you can apply to get a ‘freeze’ on your taxes,” she said.

Mack wanted to know how to apply for the Homestead Exemption.

“The Homestead has not been passed,” Parker said. “It is part of the package that is in Harrisburg, now. I am the chair of the Philadelphia Delegation of Legislators in the Pennsylvania House and I have not heard from any members of the Philadelphia Delegation who are not in support of the Homestead Exemption.”

Parker encouraged Mack to apply to get a “freeze” on her taxes. Residents can pick up an application at her office.

The next Town Hall meeting will be held at 10 a.m. at the Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center, 8500 Pickering Ave. on March 31.

For more information on the Office of Property Assessment, click here.

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