In a week in which the Supreme Court is hearing arguments over the constitutionality of various aspects of the national health-care reform signed in 2010, Philadelphia's City Council is hearing arguments over a momentous potential change for Philly: the "Actual Value Initiative," a series of reforms that would overhaul the city's property tax and assessment system.
The shift to AVI is also about fairness: It would make Philadelphians pay real-estate taxes based on the actual value of their homes, not the random/wrong/possibly corrupt values assigned years ago by the city's inept Board of Revision of Taxes.
As with, say, the universal mandate that all Americans buy insurance to eliminate freeloaders and ensure that sick Americans can get insurance, too, it's going to be a bitter pill to swallow for those who've been unevenly lucky. Neighborhoods that have seen significant gentrification are likely to be hit the hardest. This point has not escaped First District Councilman Mark Squilla, whose Fishtown and Northern Liberties constituents have every right to be worried — and who appears to be teaming up with at-large Councilman Bill Green to cobble together a potential revolt.
They have an impressive arsenal of counter-arguments ready: Council is being asked to implement AVI before the new assessments are available. And they're being asked to tweak the rate in such a way as to raise $90 million extra (for the schools), a provision that the Nutter administration says only reflects higher property values citywide, but which Green is quick to call a "backdoor tax." It's a question more of language than absolute truth — which means it's an easy fight to have.
The problem, for Squilla, for Green and for us, is that the only counter-initiative that looks likely right now is delay — essentially, to sit on the problem for another year and, in delaying, risk the whole thing falling apart in a blizzard of lawsuits and possible action by the State Tax Equalization Board.
It's hardly the first mayoral initiative to get the cold shoulder in Council over the past few years. But unlike most of those (the mayor's "soda tax" would be a good example), there seems to be agreement that this one has to happen. The question is whether we're about to see Council and the administration do what they ultimately have to, one way or another — check egos at the door and get this done — or whether they will once again delay.
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