By Michael D’Onofrio
Democratic mayoral candidate Alan Butkovitz says the city’s property taxes are out of whack for many, plagued by errors and inaccuracies that served as a “back door tax increase.”
Butkovitz, the former city controller, pledged Thursday to make property reassessments revenue-neutral, scrap recent property revaluations and establish a “taxpayer advocate” to challenge the Office of Property Assessment’s calculations.
After citywide property tax assessments jumped 10.5% last year and are scheduled to rise 5% in 2020, Butkovitz accused Mayor Jim Kenney of hiking taxes without a formal property tax increase during the same period.
“I call it the Kenney doomsday real estate tax machine,” he said while standing outside City Hall, adding, “People should be taxed based on their ability to pay and income.”
Butkovitz and state Sen. Anthony Williams (D-8) are challenging Kenney in the May 21 Democratic mayoral primary.
Butkovitz committed to revenue-neutral reassessments, which means altering the tax rate when properties are reassessed so the city cannot reap new revenue.
Revenue-neutral reassessments, Butkovitz said, would ensure “the city doesn’t have an incentive to use the reassessment process as a back door tax increase, which has happened in the last few years.”
His proposed taxpayer advocate who would work as a check on OPA’s annual assessment, Butkovitz said, and be appointed by the City Council president.
“Giving OPA monopoly power to be the authority on … the assessment process hasn’t worked,” Butkovitz said.
Property values citywide increased 5% in the new round of reassessments for 2020, issued in April, while residential values rose 3.9%, said Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn in an email. More than 80,000 homeowners will see their property values decrease and nearly 34,000 will not experience any change.
Although Kenney did not include a property tax hike in his proposed budget, the increase in property values were expected to increase the city’s revenue by $53 million over last year.
An audit from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart this year found the OPA property assessments lacked transparency and accuracy, and inexpensive homes in low-income neighborhoods were being overtaxed.
Later, a City Council-led audit of the OPA also found substantial inaccuracies and deficiencies with the office’s 2019 assessments that resulted in a lack of uniformity. The report estimated the vast majority of the city’s residential reassessments last year were off by at least 15%.
Following the audits, Kenney laid out series of reforms, including altering the OPA’s methodology for calculating property assessments (which was used in the recent 2020 assessments) and starting the search for a new chief assessment officer to lead the OPA.
Butkovitz called for more tax relief for property owners who experience spikes in assessments due to gentrification.
If elected, Butkovitz said he would revert property assessments to those of 2017, and throw out assessments for those who were overassessed and give them refunds.
“When the city acknowledges that their process was wrong, they have no authority to hold on to that tax money,” he said.
Resident Eileen Nisenfeld, who stood alongside Butkovitz on Thursday, said her property taxes increased $500 this year and 25% over two years.
Nisenfeld said gentrification and rising property taxes were driving out longtime residents in her Rhawnhurt neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia. As her own property taxes rise, she struggled to understand why.
“Our schools are failing, our streets are a mess, crime is alarming,” she said. “Our city deserves better.”
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune.