Property Taxes

Must Reads: State of The Union, Stimulus and Austerity Economics PA Style

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

Tonight President Obama will deliver his State of the Union Address to Congress. We are expecting the President to recommend an extension through the end of 2012 of extended unemployment insurance benefits and the payroll tax credit. It looks as though a major theme in the address — besides the catch phrase “built to last” — will be conventional policies aimed at reducing inequality, such as increased spending/tax credits for education and training.

Education and training are important and fruitful means of reducing inequality, but they fall well short of what's needed to reduce the degree of inequality we now face.  A more forceful step in the direction of reducing inequality would include raising the minimum wage and making it easier for workers to form and join unions. We don't expect to hear the President call for either of those changes.

The President will propose paying for his new initiatives with higher taxes on wealthy households. As with education and training, restoring some sense of fairness to the tax code is a laudable goal but longer-lasting reductions in inequality will only come from policies that allow the pre-tax wages of more Americans to rise as the size and wealth of our economy grows.

Manufacturing, energy, job training and middle-class growth will be the cornerstones of President Barack Obama's speech tonight as he takes to the nation's grandest political stage for the annual address on the state of the union, according to senior advisers.

PA Job Growth in 2011 and More Layoffs, Higher Property Taxes in 2012

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry released data on employment and unemployment in December. Compared to the summer months, the top line numbers were good, with unemployment falling three-tenths of one percent to 7.6% (U.S. rate is 8.5%).

Nonfarm jobs were up 6,500, which is a pretty good number (we need to average 8,000 new jobs a month to get back to full employment in three years). Service-sector job growth in December was atrocious; the sector added just 300 jobs. Most of the month’s job growth was in durable goods, with manufacturing adding 2,600 jobs, construction adding 3,000 and mining adding another 600.

Those 3,000 construction jobs don't represent a sudden resurgence of the construction industry. As most of you are happily aware, December was quite warm; this meant construction activity in the month was above historical averages which shows up as job growth in the final numbers. The actual trend in construction employment is at best no or very slow growth.

The bottom line is that in the last 12 months, Pennsylvania added 59,200 jobs. That's fewer jobs than were added from December 2009 to December 2010 (63,900). The primary reason Pennsylvania added fewer jobs in 2011 than it did in 2010 is the loss of 19,800 jobs in the public sector.

Ann Belser at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has more on the job numbers.

Yes, Governor, Texas Levies Property Taxes

A blog post from Michael Wood, originally published on Third and State.

The Patriot-News reports that Governor Corbett, speaking to a meeting of township commissioners Monday, said: “Texas doesn’t have a personal income tax. Texas doesn’t have a property tax. So when we’re talking about taxes, don’t you think we ought to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges?"

Guv sez: Drop Dead, Mayor sez: Keep smilin'

Sub-Headline: Sorry, Can’t Really Sugarcoat This Stuff Folks.

There’s no doubt that Philly’s in a heap of trouble from budgets being torturously made, as we speak, in Washington, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. It seems we’re assured of two years of bad news, first from service cuts, then from tax increases on working people and homeowners. With a little bit of bad luck we could face a mix of both. The moral? We’d better organize ourselves a lot better than we did in 2010 if we don’t want a third and fourth year helping of the same thing. And also, if you pass a corporate exec in the street, keep your hands in your pockets.

Who wants to help out homeowners unfairly assessed?

Recently individual homeowners have fought against against increasing assessments even as the property market withers and jobs are lost, and fixed incomes don't keep up. Now,with the BRT back and badder then ever, there is an idea that a lawsuit may be needed to fix our valuation system. This was sent to me, and I wanted to share it with the site.

When it Comes to Property Taxes… Philly Deserves Better

As a tax-paying Philadelphian, you have a right to know:

The way the City calculates property taxes is inequitable, inaccurate and illegal.
• Inequitable -- studies by independent experts show that lower-valued properties are assessed at much higher tax rates than more valuable properties. Consequently, residents in struggling neighborhoods pay higher property taxes than they should, while residents in affluent neighborhoods pay less than their fair share. WHO pays more? Largely minority property owners.

Property Taxes (Again): Why the "sides" kills smart policy

Behind my home there is a burned out shell. A family of possums, several dozen pigeons and an occasional raccoon call it home. Before the fire a few years ago a very nice family called it home. It was a rental property and in the fire the family lost everything. It turns out that their landlords, who lived in a well to-doish part of Montgomery County had gerry-rigged a decidedly unsafe kitchen in the former dining room to avoid dealing with some minor structural problems in the back room where the "old" kitchen was. Exposed wires, a propane fueled make do range set up on raw plywood - a fire danger waiting to happen for several years that finally did consuming a family of fours entire possessions. Luckily noone was seriously injured. Several neighbors on the block have asked about the property, what to do about gaping holes in all the windows, etc. Investigating the property on the BRT website the landlords had not paid property taxes for 12 years prior to the fire and certainly not paid any in the 4 or 5 years since the fire that the house has sat empty.

Tracking down the landlords via information on the BRT site, they weren't necessarily bad people, though they obviously had set up an unsafe condition for their tenants and in my mind bear the main responsibility for the fire and the risk to their tenants lives. Adult children of an elderly grandmother who had long since moved out of the neighborhood from a neighborhood that saw a serious downswing in the late '80s and 90's under the reign of crack and more recently a new but serious upswing. Calling repeatedly to inquire about the status of the property, various adult children and boyfriends would always say "You need to talk my mother" take down the information and then never call back. Eventually the number was disconnected and googling the address in MontCo it turns out after being only a few years tax delinquency on their home in the burbs, the MontCo house had been sold at a tax foreclosure auction with no forwarding information for the former landlords. There is no sign that shell will ever go up for auction to a possible rehabber (which in my opinion could be done profitably at current housing prices despite the fire damage) to recoup whatever uncollected taxes here in the city they could.

I take this little detour because its an example of the gray area that many of the properties that fall through the cracks of the city's longtime defacto policy of not collecting property taxes fall into - how the policy helps situations that should have not gotten as bad they do fester and become small catastrophes. I'd argue that the tenants, the landlords, Philly's schools and my neighborhood would all have been better off if the city had intervened earlier - given the landlord's a financial incentive to do some hard thinking about their attachment to a house none of them had seen in years and that all they could do to maintain was hire the worst unlicensed handyman they could find to set up a dangerous unsafe kitchen.

When people talk about property taxes people rarely talk about these muddled gray areas. Its usually black or white. You either are on the side of seniors on fixed income on the verge of being forced from their home or you are (like the role I sometimes play) complaining about the hundreds of deadbeat real estate specualtors and horrible, horrible absentee landlords getting a free ride. Because of the divide, dialog on the topic is often broken and clear and simple policy solutions get passed over again and again.

For example in today's Inquirer:

For a city and nation in the grip of the home-foreclosure crisis, Barbara Pearsall's situation seems like a familiar one: She is hopelessly behind on her bills, and barring some sudden financial windfall, the recovering stroke victim will lose her small South Philadelphia rowhouse in a matter of months.

But it's not a big mortgage lender that would turn the 67-year-old Pearsall out of her house. It's the City of Philadelphia.

City Hall is in the midst of an aggressive crackdown on tens of thousands of real estate tax delinquents. Those who won't or can't pay - like Pearsall - are losing their properties, to the tune of more than 100 tax-foreclosure filings a month.

The city has every legal right to seize the land of those who haven't met the most basic of civic responsibilities. And the collective debt the delinquents owe is massive: about $290 million, money the city and school district badly need.

Yet by getting tough at a time when mortgage foreclosures are hitting Philadelphia hard, the city runs the risk of putting further stress on already shaky neighborhoods.

One standard response is "the city should not collect the taxes because foreclosing on properties in shaky neighborhoods makes things worse"

"What the city is doing doesn't make sense. Market values are tumbling, homes are being boarded up, neighborhoods are being disrupted," said Irwin Trauss, an attorney with Philadelphia Legal Assistance who runs the city's mortgage-foreclosure hotline.

"The city ought not be adding fuel to this fire. The city ought not be taking this opportunity to collect its debt, certainly not from low-income folks, by selling people's houses and making them homeless."

But I would argue that not collecting the taxes for so long has in the instance of the house behind me has in its own way poured fuel on the fire: underfunding our schools, reducing the number of up-to-code safe rentals on the market, helping to build blight.

The city's response:

The city promised an extensive safety net for low-income homeowners when the stepped-up collection program was introduced. There was to be a $1 million loan fund, and $500,000 more for tax-foreclosure housing counseling. Neither materialized.

"The safety net doesn't exist," said Monty Wilson, an attorney for Community Legal Services who has specialized in tax-foreclosure cases.

The Nutter administration disputes that, but Pritchett acknowledged the city had not done everything Street promised. The difficulty, he said, is that the prior administration did not set aside enough money to meet the promises.

The city does offer payment plans to delinquent low-income taxpayers, which Pritchett said was perhaps the most important part of any safety net.

But attorneys such as Wilson say the agreements are part of the problem. Those who sign up, Wilson said, waive their due-process rights, in essence giving the city permission to take their homes without notice or the right to a court hearing if the homeowner misses so much as a single payment.

"It would be a national scandal if the mortgage companies tried to do what the city is doing," Wilson said.

City officials dismissed Wilson's concerns, suggesting he was misinterpreting the agreement's language.

"Community Legal Services is wrong," said Cynthia White, chief deputy city solicitor. "This is an agreement we've been using for 25 years."

In practice, White said, the city is highly accommodating to low-income homeowners who have signed payment agreements. Fine, Wilson and CLS respond, then change the agreement language to better reflect that.

Now here's the problem, without taxes to fund L&I inspectors or social workers or education programs to reach out to homeowners starting to get in a pinch before it hits a crisis the city is definitely running the risk of putting lots of homeowner's in dire straights.

The thing thats craziest about the predicament is the city already has a model praised for how it should be dealing with its own tax foreclosures based on its recently passed mortgage foreclosure laws. Why aren't we doing this already? I would submit - the "divide".

What really worries community lawyers, however, are homeowners like Pearsall, who sought help just a little too late.

Pearsall inherited her modest brick rowhouse from a sister around 1980. Undereducated and unemployed, Pearsall said her average monthly income was $500, all of it public-assistance money. On that she raised three children and three grandchildren.

"I didn't have the money," Pearsall said. "I didn't have the money for the taxes. And I didn't pay them."

By last year, she owed the city $27,000, and the foreclosure warnings were arriving in the mail at a furious pace. She sought help in November, but it was too late. Her home was sold at sheriff's auction days later.

Pearsall still lives there, but her time is running out. The redemption period, in which she can get her home back (by making good on her debts, plus interest, rent and attorneys' fees), ends in December.

Monty Wilson, who now represents Pearsall, says it all could have been avoided. If the city did for her and other tax delinquents what it does for those with mortgage trouble, Pearsall would still have the title to her home, Wilson said.

The city's new and innovative mortgage program, which was featured in a Wall Street Journal front-page story earlier this month, mandates that no home can be auctioned without a court-mediated conciliation session between the homeowner and the lender. Had Pearsall had access to the same program, Wilson said, she could have signed on to a payment plan, or gotten a reverse mortgage to make good on her debts.

Pritchett, the mayor's policy adviser, says it's an idea worth considering.

"But let's remember the big picture, which is that there are many people in the city who can pay their taxes who aren't," Pritchett said.

He is no doubt right about that. Many of the deadbeats are thought to be absentee landlords or speculators. Others are regular folks who haven't paid because, until now, there were no consequences. And these aren't property owners who are past due by a few months. Most haven't paid their taxes in years, or even decades.

But it is also true that there are low-income homeowners, largely elderly and on fixed incomes, who are now squarely in the city's tax-collection sights. Exactly how many is impossible to say, however. White said the city didn't even keep track of which delinquent homes were occupied by their owners, much less their household incomes.

In a few months, the city's contract with the Texas-based tax-collection firm Lineberger, Groggan, Blair & Sampson will expire. The city is using the opportunity to think about changing its approach, Pritchett said.

"We are going to do an evaluation of exactly what the new contract will look like, who they'll go after, what kind of people should we be targeting," Pritchett said. "We'll ask if in light of the change in the economy should we maybe have a different approach."

For many homeowners caught in a pinch "a few months" is too late.

So that my pitch for a "middle ground" on smart property tax policy. I might go a step further and say we should make a serious case for suspending tax forclosures (on owner occupants only) till a decent well-funded program for mediation was put into place.

Sometimes a "middle path" is the way to go. Others here may differ.

Why It Matters: property taxes and school funding

Sunday’s Inquirer laid out one of the best reasons for why reform in property taxes has to go hand in hand with school funding.

In a study of more than 500,000 tax records, the Inquirer reports that “wildly disparate property tax rates are widening the economic divide between have and have not towns.”

Consider this:

For instance, in some economically distressed parts of eastern Delaware County, such as the six towns of the William Penn School District, the tax rates are nearly six times higher than those in West Conshohocken, a Montgomery County borough jam-packed with office towers. Just five years ago, the rates were 31/2 times higher.

Those poorer communities also tend to have lower-achieving students and far fewer resources than wealthy neighbors. The William Penn district - composed of Aldan, Colwyn, Darby Borough, East Lansdowne, Lansdowne and Yeadon - spends $12,701 per pupil. West Conshohocken is in the Upper Merion district, which spends $18,158.

Between 2002 and 2007 in poorer towns in the suburban counties, increases in millages - the taxes per $1,000 of assessed property value - were double those in affluent communities.

So the famous line touted by Philadelphia Student Union organizers in 2001 during the state takeover was that the quality of a child’s school system shouldn’t have to depend on their zip code. But that is indeed what happens here.

Anne Dicker Makes a Bid to Buy Fumo Mansion

As many of you have heard, State Senator Vincent Fumo recently put his Fairmount area mansion up for sale. The asking price is a whopping $6.95 million dollars. According to the listing on Fox & Roach's website, the property has been "restored to it's original grandeur" with elevators on all 6 floors, a brick oven and spa, wine cellar, 7 fireplaces, 3 powder rooms, a large custom vault, and a state of the art security system.

However, the City of Philadelphia has the value of this famously opulent home listed at only $250,000. Accordingly, Fumo only pays $6,611 in property taxes--a tiny fraction of what he would owe if the building were taxed at its current sales price. On Thursday, in a vote that stunned reporters and drew widespread outrage, the BRT upheald the current listed value. The property will not be reassessed until 2009.

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