Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
With the release of new property assessment data, the debate over the city’s move to a property tax system based on full market values has taken on a new dimension and urgency.
The debate is not over the future of the Actual Value Initiative, which appears here to stay, but over the new assessment numbers themselves.
“It is crucial that we confirm the accuracy of the new assessments so that we know we have a fair process,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson at Thursday’s city council meeting. “Before committing to AVI, we need to fully vet these new assessments.”
Several other members agreed, urging a closer study of the newly released assessment numbers.
“I think we have to concentrate, right now, on the assessment values that are going out,” said Councilman Mark Squilla. “And make sure that we reach out to people throughout the districts and really check into what their assessments are.”
Chief Assessor Richie McKeithen could not be reached Thursday by Tribune press time.
Council has known since AVI was first proposed last year that some homeowners would be hit with sharply rising property taxes. However, members had no hard numbers and constituents had not seen the new assessments.
Both of those factors changed last week.
“The way it is right now, and some of the numbers that are out there, this is not a fair system,” Squilla said. “We need to make sure that it is, moving forward.”
On Friday, new assessments landed in the mailboxes of homes across Philadelphia. That happened as the administration publicly released citywide reassessment numbers. Council members had been briefed before the numbers were disclosed to the public. Still, many residents were shocked — and up and down the corridors of city hall, telephones jangled as the lines filled with calls from angry property owners.
“I have received dozens of calls from alarmed residents who believe their assessments are drastically off,” Johnson said.
The numbers showed huge increases, according to Johnson.
“Some parts of my district, we will see real estate taxes increasing by 400, 500, 600, and even in some cases 1,000 percent,” said Johnson, who this week introduced a bill that would allow hard hit homeowners to defer up to 250 percent of their tax bill on any increase over 250 percent. “We should recognize that some people cannot absorb such a drastic increase all at once.”
Johnson’s bill does not relieve taxpayers from paying their taxes, but allows them to defer payment “until they can afford their payments or until the property changes hands.”
“Without protective measures AVI could force honest taxpaying residents out of their homes,” he said.
Council did approve a $30,000 homestead exemption that would allow property owners to subtract $30,000 from the value of their primary residence for tax purposes. Other protections include a proposal that would allow the city to help long-time homeowners.
The homestead exemption has already come under fire.
Earlier this month, Councilman Bill Green introduced a bill to repeal it. He argued that keeping the exemption would force taxes higher on all city properties.
Repeal seems unlikely as taxpayers put pressure on their council representatives to provide some relief.
Both Johnson and Squilla represent districts in South Philadelphia where tax increases are particularly steep. Johnson’s district includes the Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze neighborhoods, which have been gentrifying as residents take advantage of low property values and the proximity to Center City, ultimately pushing up property values.
Despite the debate over numbers most council members seem to agree that AVI is not going away.
On Thursday, Green reminded his colleagues that AVI was a done deal and would take a super-majority to undo.
“Every few weeks I’m going to take the opportunity to remind everyone that AVI is the law,” he said. “It will take 12 votes to change any of that.”
Squilla acknowledged that reality but added: “I don’t think 12 votes would be a problem for fairness.”
He continued saying that council has the power to pass legislation that would blunt AVI’s impact on property owners, tinkering with the things like the tax rate, the homestead exemption and more.
Green was echoed by Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. with the simple words “I want to concur with Councilman Green.”
The two men often disagree and both are known for giving full voice to their opinions in council chambers. The fact that they agreed in this instance provoked Council President Darrell Clarke to respond.
“That is clear evidence we will be working together,” Clarke said drawing laughter from council.
In addition, to the fact that council approved the basic framework for AVI in last year’s budget, the city is obligated by court order to move to market based tax system.
In other council news, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell blasted leaders of the Pennsylvania House for failing to recognize state Rep. Curtis Thomas earlier this week as he rose in the House dressed in a dashiki and kufi for Black History Month.
“This is the most offensive thing I can think of,” Blackwell said in a short speech at the end of council’s session. “In 2013?”
Former House speaker now Councilman Dennis O’Brien agreed.
“I would have welcomed the recognition of my friend Curtis Thomas who was celebrating his heritage and his culture,” O’Brien said.
Both said they planned to write letters to House leaders and urged other members to do the same.
Members are required to wear a coat and tie. Rep. Karen Boback, of Columbia County, who was standing in for the speaker at the time has apologized.
Roy Washington practically overflows with gratitude. A little more than a year ago, he was on the verge of being homeless -- now he owns his own place in West Philadelphia.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I have my own place. I pray every morning and thank God. “We’ve been blessed to meet so many people, people to step up to the plate … they see you struggling, trying to make a way and they help.”
Facing eviction late last year, Washington was ensnared in a Catch-22. He needed his security deposit from the apartment where he was being evicted to pay the deposit required for a new one. His plight was complicated by the fact that he is blind and was having difficulty navigating the avalanche of paperwork and getting around to look at new apartments.
However, an outpouring of generosity from his fellow Philadelphians helped him avoid living on the streets and ultimately led him to his new home.
“It’s such a comfort and a joy,” he said.
One of the people who helped Washington was retired teacher Ernestine Rouse of Germantown. She’s reluctant to discuss her kindness, but said she felt compelled to aid.
“He wasn’t just asking for help,” she said. “Here’s a man with no sight and somehow that got to me. I get so tired of all of this begging, and you never hear from any of the recipients.”
That has not been the case with Rouse and Washington. The two have now become friends – bonded by Rouse’s gift.
“It was because of her generosity that we could do what we did,” he said, noting that the funds helped him pay the security deposit for a new apartment.
That move turned out to be temporary because, in just a few months, Washington was able to make the leap from renter to owner.
He’s now the proud owner of his own row house on 53rd Street.
The 62 year-old credits his faith and an outpouring of help from the community, employees at several community agencies, the city and a handful of others to steering him down the path of homeownership.
Twelve months ago it would have been difficult for Washington to anticipate being the proud owner of his own home.
The landlord that owned his building on West 52nd Street was redeveloping the property and had sent eviction papers to all of the tenants in the building. Washington had called the modest two bedroom apartment home since 2001.
He enjoyed the neighborhood. It was close to his children, doctors and other services he needed and enjoyed.
“It’s all within traveling on public transportation,” he said at the time. “My church is out here and my children are here.”
In early February 2011, the property’s owner – a real estate company called T.J. Properties, Inc., notified him that he had 90 days to vacate.
“Mr. Washington’s landlord was giving him the runaround by giving him addresses of properties that were unavailable, and refusing to give him his two months security along with moving assistance,” said housing counselor Mary Campbell, with Intercultural Family Services.
Though he knew from previous notices that he would have to move, the final notice news turned Washington’s world upside down.
“I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” he said at the time.
The problem was money.
He had to pay security deposit for a new place. That money had to come from his Social Security check, which was $685 per month, after he paid all of his other expenses. He received a Section 8 subsidy of $464, but had to pay the remainder of his rent – $192 a month, from his own pocket. That left little or no money for other expenses.
“I would have been in the street before we had the money,” he said.
Washington had been enrolled in a program called an Individual Development Account, which allowed him to save a little for a down payment and provided matching funds. But, faced with leaving his apartment, he felt that prospect slipping away.
Campbell stepped in to help.
“He finally found a landlord who agreed to work with him, and would let him out of the lease, once he found a house to purchase,” she said.
After that the pieces started to fall into place. In August, Washington got his matching funds from his Individual Development Account, a match of $2,000 toward his down payment. In October, Washington, found a house approved by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. With a $15,000 grant from the City Lift program Washington was able to finally put a roof permanently over his head.
“It’s a blessing to have something you can call your own for the first time in your lifetime,” he said. “It’s a blessing from God, and that’s how I look at it.”
With health care reform going into effect this year, national and city officials have begun to plan for its implementation in Philadelphia.
“We need to educate folks about what’s going to happen,” said U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, on a visit to the city this week. “We’re beginning to identify populations that are going to need particular help and assistance.”
She met with Mayor Michael Nutter and Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz, along with a number of health care providers on Wednesday afternoon at city hall. The health secretary briefed the group on the rollout of the new health care law in Pennsylvania.
The meeting was a closed door question and answer session. However, Sebelius, Nutter and Schwarz spoke to reporters afterward.
Major portions of the Affordable Care Act – more familiarly referred to as the healthcare reform law – go into effect this fall.
The new law requires everyone to buy health insurance and includes provisions for tax breaks for individuals and families that can’t afford it.
Roughly 210,000 Philadelphians lack health insurance, as do 1.2 million Pennsylvanians and 48 million Americans.
“Ninety percent of those folks will be eligible for some financial assistance,” Sebelius said.
One of the primary features of the law is the establishment of state insurance exchanges. Pennsylvania’s exchange will sell insurance to those without it or those buying individual policies.
Gov. Tom Corbett has refused to set up an exchange, but federal officials are in the process of doing so now. Corbett has also declined to take part in a number of other initiatives related to health care reform.
He declined to extend Medicaid to the uninsured - another option the federal government has given states as reform is implemented. Sebelius said she still hoped that Corbett would do so.
“There is no timetable. The offer is on the table,” she said.
She continued, cautioning Corbett that doing nothing would push costs to the private sector, increasing costs for everyone.
“There is a significant cost for doing nothing,” Sebelius said.
Initially, extending the program costs the state nothing. After that it shifts but remains generous, she said.
“The federal/local match remains at 90 to 10,” Sebelius said, meaning the federal government will pay 90 percent of that cost with the state only responsible for 10 percent through 2016. “It’s the most generous federal program ever.”
Sebelius said that the sequester now looming on the horizon – a process in which federal spending would be cut automatically by 5 percent across most federal programs – would have little impact on health care reform. Medicaid is exempt from cuts and Medicare cuts are limited to 2 percent.
“A lot of what we’re talking about won’t be directly impacted,” she said. She warned though that cuts in other programs could force middle class families to spend differently and could increase the strain on the health care system.
“I’m hopeful when Congress returns they will reach a deal,” she said.
Open enrollment in the state’s insurance exchange starts in October and runs through March 2014. For more information on the Affordable Care Act check the web at www.healthcare.gov.
Democrats cheer, Republicans frown at State of the Union
Reaction to President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union speech of his second term broke down, predictably, along party lines – Democrats praised the president while Republicans criticized.
Two local Democrats applauded Obama’s speech while urging Republicans get behind the president as he opens his second term.
“At the beginning of President Obama’s second term, he has laid out a forward-looking agenda for America. The Congress should step up and be a full partner in moving our nation forward,” said U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, in a slight jab at his Republican colleagues.
Obama gave the first speech of his second term on Tuesday night in front of a joint session of Congress, laying out his plans for his next four years in office. It included a call to reform gun laws, education reform and raising the nation’s minimum wage.
In this week’s speech, the president presented his proposals as a way to boost the middle class, an echo of the just-finished campaign that often centered on the differences between the president and his opponent Mitt Romney, who most voters came to see a voice for the wealthy.
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class,” the president said. “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner issued a statement following the speech saying the policies of Obama’s first term have failed and that he heard nothing that gave him hope for the president’s second term.
“Four years after the president first addressed a joint session of Congress, Americans are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ He offered them little more than more of the same ‘stimulus’ policies that have failed to fix our economy and put Americans back to work,” Boehner said. “We cannot grow the middle class and foster job creation by growing government and raising taxes.”
Obama’s first term was tempered by a deeply divided and recalcitrant Congress, which, led by Republicans, attempted to block many of the president’s major initiatives – though the stimulus bill and health care reform did pass.
As his second term began, House Republicans showed little inclination to compromise. The weeks following the election were dominated by bickering over the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling.
Even in the Senate, which has a Democratic majority, Republicans have held up several of the president’s cabinet nominations and other selections for administration posts including the new Consumer Protection Agency.
Fattah, who has just been chosen to lead the congressional Black caucus’s charitable foundation and serve on the Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee of veterans’ affairs, said Obama “has outlined a bold agenda to create jobs, strengthen the middle class, and support our veterans, men and women in uniform, and their families” for this second term.
He was not alone in praising the president while subtly highlighting what many see as Republican unwillingness to work with the administration.
Rep. Allyson Schwartz praised Obama for his “bold vision” and added that it was now up to Congress to put petty differences aside and work for the good of the country.
“Congress must take action to meet our looming fiscal deadlines and provide certainty and stability for our families and businesses,” she said. “This means not only demanding fiscal discipline in both spending and tax policy that strengthens the middle class, but also providing new revenue to make the right investments for a growing economy.”
Even the audience to Obama’s speech was divided, with more Democrats tuning in than Republicans, found a CNN poll. The same poll found that Obama’s speech did have an impact on its audience.
The poll found that 77 percent of viewers had a “somewhat or very positive” reaction to the president’s speech. That compared to 22 percent who had a “negative” response. CNN reported that more Democrats than Republicans watched the speech – 44 percent of the audience was Democrats compared to 17 percent Republicans. A majority of voters also said the president’s policies would put the country on the right track; 71 percent supported Obama’s policies a jump from 65 percent prior to the speech.
Lawmakers consider advertisements on public buildings
Sinking their teeth into a number of meaty issues, members of City Council this week took steps to address: voting rights, revenue shortfalls, immigration reform and the school district’s dismissal policy.
Members agreed to hold hearings to investigate the school district’s dismissal policy on the same day that they honored Nelson Mandela Myers, the man who found 5-year-old Nai’lla Robinson shivering on a West Philadelphia playground on Jan. 15 just days after her abduction.
“I was just doing what a good man is supposed to do,” Myers said.
Shortly afterward council approved hearings, at the behest of Councilman Curtis Jones, to look into the school district’s dismissal policy in the wake of the kidnapping. Robinson was taken from school by a woman in a full burka.
“It allows us to work [with the school district] to examine the extraction policies that are currently on the books,” he said. “We need to codify that policy. In addition, we need to explore different policies that allow for IDs and even from time to time to remove people from the lists for things like divorce. We need to update those policies and procedures in light of what is going on in our school system today.”
In other news, Council President Darrell Clarke asked council to begin considering the idea of allowing advertisements on city-owned property — an initiative he expected to generate about $10 million a year.
“We cannot continue to nickel and dime the taxpayers because our public schools and our pensions are underfunded,” Clarke said. “Cities across the country have found innovative and tasteful ways to sell advertising on public property.
There are already examples in Philadelphia.
“Locally, entities like SEPTA and Amtrak are already bringing in millions by selling advertising space,” he said.
Clarke noted that New York City started allowing advertising on city property in 2006, a move that has generated roughly $1.4 billion. Chicago anticipates $18 million in new revenues from its program this year.
Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a resolution urging the state general assembly to bring early voting to Pennsylvania.
“This is not meant to give one party an advantage over another. For seniors and students, working moms and dads alike, it does not matter whether you are in a red, blue or purple county—sometimes life can just get in the way of getting to your polling place on Election Day,” Reynolds Brown said, noting that 32 other states have early voting. “We need to be doing all we can to increase voter participation in every single precinct across the commonwealth.”
Council also unanimously approved a resolution urging Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
The vote came after several city residents urged members to support the measure introduced by council members Maria Quinones Sanchez and Jim Kenney.
Ignacio Flores, an immigrant from Santa Cruz, Mexico, said that immigrants have helped Philadelphia prosper.
“We’re working and paying taxes,” he said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter. “We would be able to grow the city.”
And, they’ve put their lives at risk to do so.
“I don’t think it’s fair that after the dangerous journey to here, we not face the dangers of deportation,” he said.
Kenney, just before the vote invoked the memory of the city’s many Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants in urging members to approve the resolution.
“People know they’re going to have a chance here,” he said.