Low-income Philadelphians are being encouraged to take advantage of free tax preparation services in the hopes that they will maximize their tax benefits.
“Every year, thousands and thousands and thousands of Philadelphians, unfortunately, lose millions of dollars in benefits that they’re eligible for,” said Mayor Michael Nutter. “We need to make sure that people get every dime that they are owed as citizens of the United States of America. That starts with getting information about the tax credit.”
In an effort to raise awareness, Nutter declared Jan. 27 Earned Income Tax Credit Savings Day.
He was joined by The Campaign for Working Families and the Urban Affairs Coalition, who announced the opening of nine sites across the city where volunteers will prepare tax returns for low-income residents
“We can put money in your pocket,” said Khadijah Jones, director of the Campaign for Working Families.
Among the most overlooked benefit is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is available for families making less than $50,000 and individuals with an income less than $20,000.
The refundable credit is worth as much as $5,751.
According to statistics provided by the Internal Revenue Service, only about 5 percent of eligible families take advantage of the tax credit.
“How is that possible?” asked James Daugherty, territory manager with the IRS. “People go in and out of EITC population all the time.”
Income fluctuations, employment, marital status, children living at home, all affect eligibility which means many people are either unaware that they are eligible, or don’t want to be bothered, he explained.
It’s worth the effort to find out.
“It’s generally going to bring a couple of thousand dollars into a community,” he said. “Money that comes into a community stays in a community.”
Nationally, about 26 million people received $59 billion in EITC in 2011, said Lourdes Padilla, deputy secretary of the state Department of Public Welfare. Among them were 900,000 Pennsylvanians who received average refunds of more than $2,000
Over the last nine years, volunteers with Campaign for Working Families have prepared 102,820 tax returns, netting $168.7 million for families in Philadelphia. In addition, they saved those families an estimated $22.3 million in tax preparation services and fees.
“Numbers like these certainly justify devoting a special day for EITC awareness,” she said. “We want to spread the word to even more Pennsylvanians about this valuable resource.”
The average income of the Philadelphia families served by the campaign over the last nine years was $21,489.
Sites are open throughout the city through April 17.
They are: The Mayor’s Offices of Community Services, 1113 Chestnut St. and at 7315 Castor Ave.; PA CareerLink Northwest, 235 Chelten Ave.; Temple University, 1301 Cecil B. Ave.; Impact Services, 1952 E. Allegheny Ave.; Diversified Community Services, 1529 S. 22nd St.; United Communities, 2029 S. 8th St.; Ebenezer Temple Church, 5649 Christian St., Mount Pisgah Church, 428 N. 41st St.
In addition, two mobile sites are available at www.myfreetaxes.com/philly and selfserve.thebenefitbank.com.
For hours or for more information call 311 or visit www.CWFPhilly.org.
Council members continued to wrestle with the mechanics of Mayor Michael Nutter’s budget proposal this week — delaying approval for at least another week.
President Darrell Clarke said he expected a vote by June 21.
“At the appropriate time, which is the 21st at this particular juncture, we’ll have adopted a budget,” he told reporters.
He declined to respond to questions as to how budget discussions, now largely behind closed doors, were shaping up in terms of which of the 14 proposals now before Council might be poised for approval.
“I can’t respond to that question,” he said.
On Tuesday June 6, acting as a committee of the whole, council members approved an added exemption for gentrifying neighborhoods.
The bill, which was fast tracked to Council, would provide tax forgiveness – for ten years – for residents living in neighborhoods with skyrocketing property values. The bill would forgive any taxes above a 300 percent – or three times – the current value of their property, for homeowners that have lived in their homes for a decade or more.
So, for example, a home that is now assessed at $100,000 but would under the new assessments rise to $400,000, would only be taxed on a $300,000 value.
Members hope the tax break will shield longtime property owners in a manner similar to the tax abatement for new homes.
The majority of Tuesday’s activities centered around a hearing in which members continued their interrogation of administration officials.
Finance Director Rob Dubow answered questions for about two hours. Questioning will resume Thursday.
Though Council appeared to be making progress in moving a budget – members were obviously still concerned about the portion of revenue that would go to the school district.
The administration has proposed a $94 million increase in the district’s allocation. Council is not sold on that number. A proposal by Clarke would lower that allotment to about $85 million.
Clarke was among those who pressed Dubow, the finance director, as to how administration officials arrived at the $94 million allocation it earmarked for the school district.
“Where did you get the $94 million for the school district?” asked Clarke.
Dubow said the number was based on a projected nine percent increase in property values between 2004 and 2012, and that the administration simply “captured” that increase.
“We used the amount of tax dollars; we didn’t use an assessment base,” said Dubow. “We were looking at an increase in revenue.”
“What’s the difference between an increase in value and an increase in revenue?” asked Clarke.
It was an increase that would have happened even under the old assessment system, said Dubow, and had nothing to do with the planned move to AVI.
“We applied that growth and came up with the $94 million number,” he said.
Council seemed unconvinced, pressing Dubow as to the math behind the figure.
Councilman Bill Green persistently quizzed Dubow on the origin of the number, wondering at one point if it was a “happy coincidence.”
“No,” replied Dubow. “With a change in value under the old assessments you’re still seeing that increase.”
Dubow was also quizzed as to the median property value in the city, a crucial number in figuring out where to set a homestead exemption. Council is weighing options that range from $15,000 to $60,000. Dubow was unable to immediately provide the median value, but it was estimated near $80,000.
Plans for a homestead exemption have support in Council, but members expressed concern about the fact that the mayor unveiled the city’s application process last week, before Council had set the exemption. They worried that the timing and uncertainty would confuse residents.
Dubow said all homeowners should apply, and that the exemption will save taxpayers money regardless of the final exemption approved by Council.
“People are eligible regardless of the value of their home,” Dubow said.
Board delays vote amid concerns over lack of raises for municipal workers
The city’s amended five-year plan faces deeper scrutiny by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority after board members on Thursday put off a vote on the administration’s spending plan.
“Quite frankly, I think they realized that the plan they submitted on July 27 was not going to be approved,” said Sam Katz, PICA board president. “It’s better, in my opinion, that there be no record that PICA disapproved the plan.”
A veto by PICA would give the state cause to cut off its subsidies to the city, and in the words of Finance Director Rob Dubow, cause “cash flow problems.”
“We now have to dig into what’s been submitted and determine whether it meets the reasonable test,” Katz said.
Katz said a vote would be taken on or before Aug. 27, the state deadline for approval, and that he expected action much sooner, possibly as early as next week.
He and the board’s other four members expressed a number of concerns during their regularly scheduled board meeting. Their chief worry centered on the fact that the plan submitted in July included no raises for firefighters or any of the city’s blue or white collar workers. Firefighters have an arbitration award that gives them a 9 percent pay raise, dating back to 2009, and expected to cost $200 million over five years. The other two major unions, District Councils 33 and 47, have been working without a contract since Mayor Michael Nutter came to office.
“Zero in the face of two arbitration awards was not a reasonable assumption,” Katz said. “My concern about the way this was unfolding is that we will reach a point, now or at some point in the future, when all of this accumulates to a number that makes Philadelphia unaffordable for everybody.”
To the delight of union leaders, Katz urged the administration to finalize contracts with firefighters, white and blue collar workers.
“Then we’ll have basis of looking at the next five years - not on assumptions, but on actual agreements,” he said.
The 16 pages of amendments to the plan, submitted on Wednesday by the administration, included a range of cuts going as high as 5 percent for each department and amounting to a $260 million total.
It would include the elimination of 380 positions — including more than 100 firefighters.
“Our biggest area of expenditures is personnel,” Dubow said.
The plan does not include any cuts to the police department.
In response to the charge that the city’s figures were a political scare tactic, Dubow said cuts, though just submitted to PICA, were part of the budget process and generated this spring as department heads prepared the budget unveiled in March.
Union leaders praised the PICA board for the delay and criticized the amended plan and its deep cuts.
“It’s crazy,” said Bill Gault, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 22. “More of my members will die. My people have been three years without a raise … and now they present a budget to PICA that goes nine years without a raise. It just seems to be vindictiveness.”
Cathy Scott, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 47 echoed Gault.
“The addendum that’s been presented is really just more smoke and mirrors from this administration,” she said, noting that under existing contracts, the city cannot lay off municipal workers. “I would say it’s time that this five-year plan really gets looked at. The mayor has to get real about this budget.
Scott said the city and its unions have not met since May.
“He can’t continue kicking the can down the road,” she said.
Katz said he hoped that as PICA studied the plan, other possibilities might emerge.
“It would be draconian for the city to have to implement that level of cuts,” Katz said. “I suspect there will be other options that we’ll discuss.”
A man who has written an account of being assaulted by three Black teens on Saturday night has not yet gone to police.
As of 4 p.m. Monday, Brian Goldman, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and a columnist for the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, had not spoken to police regarding the brutal assault this weekend in Center City, according to a police spokesperson.
By the filing of this story, Goldman had also failed to respond to an email query from the Tribune.
Goldman, who is from Queens, N.Y., wrote a column running more than 700 words on the incident in Monday’s edition of the student newspaper. In it, he called the attack an “indictment of the entire City of Philadelphia.”
Goldman’s cooperation, or lack of cooperation, could radically change the nature of the court case against the three teens who now face assault charges. Hate crime charges are unlikely unless Goldman, who is white, gives evidence.
Police apprehended the three just minutes after the assaults.
Now, the three teens face assault charges but nothing more. They are being charged as juveniles with aggravated assault and related offenses.
A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said hate crime charges have not been ruled out. Police said racial epithets were shouted during the assault, but Goldman did not mention any in his article.
“It’s an ongoing investigation,” said Tasha Jameson. “That does not mean that hate crime charges will not be brought in the future.”
Though the incident garnered wide attention this weekend, coming just two days after Mayor Michael Nutter announced a new anti-crime initiative, the names of everyone involved remained unknown until Goldman’s column appeared.
He characterized the incident as a flash mob, and said a group of about 15 teens had congregated at the corner. One of them punched him twice through the open window of the cab as it sat at the light. He contends that he and the cabbie jumped out of the taxi to confront the group, which attacked them.
According to Goldman’s column, no one offered to help.
“All of those people who stood behind us, in traffic, across from us, in Wendy’s, both up and down the block — simply watched the proceedings like it was a scene from ‘Gladiator,’” wrote Goldman. “I looked them all in the eyes after the first punch, when we confronted the group, and after the second punch, when the cabdriver was hit from behind. They saw us — the victims — and did nothing.”
That’s when Goldman decided to run.
“When I realized we were not going to receive help from the passersby, I did the only thing that seemed reasonable. I heeded the old Forrest Gump adage and ran — towards 16th Street,” he wrote.
The cab driver remains unknown.
According to Goldman, who admitted that he never dialed 911, the driver got back in the cab and “sped away.”
Teen crime, primarily flash mobs, have plagued the city for the last several years.
After a spate of incidents this summer in Center City, a new curfew was imposed in October. Children 13 or younger need to be indoors by 8 p.m.; 14- and 15-year-olds have to be in by 9 p.m. and 16- and 17-year-olds are required to be inside by 10 p.m., seven days a week during the school year. During the summer, those hours are extended by one hour for each category.
In addition, the law created fines for parents whose children are caught violating curfew. Fines range from $75 for a first offense to a maximum of $500. Parents have 30 days to pay.
For the second year in a row, the city topped its minority participation goal, with 28 percent of city contracts going to minority-, women-, disabled- and disadvantaged-businesses. Of that total, a growing percentage went to Black-owned businesses.
According to a report released Wednesday by the Office of Economic Opportunity, the overall minority participation rate for city contracts was 28 percent – three points above the goal of 25 percent. In terms of dollars, that represented city spending of $160.9 million.
African-American firms captured 52 percent of that for a total of $83 million. That was up from 44 percent in fiscal 2011.
“OEO’s leadership and the city’s proactive support of ‘Inclusion Works’ have resulted in real economic impact,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, referring to the city’s blueprint to increase minority participation. “OEO staff and officers in city departments have raised the bar for M/W/DSBE engagement.”
The fiscal 2012 report covers the city’s fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012.
In a demographic breakdown, the OEO reported that white women captured 27 percent, or $44 million in contracts. That was down from 33 percent last year. Hispanic businesses got $19 million in city business for 12 percent of the total, up from 9 percent last year. Finally, Asian-owned businesses got 8 percent of city contracts for $13 million, down from 12 percent last year.
In addition to capturing a greater share of city contracts and more money, the OEO report found that the number of minority companies doing business with the city rose by 7 percent. And, that business was spread across city departments, with 31 percent more of those contracts coming from individual operating departments, as opposed to city contracts.
Data that included a broader snapshot of city-related contracting showed that when quasi-city agencies were included, participation was even higher, at 29 percent.
That means minority-owned businesses got contracts worth $103.6 million when agencies like the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. and Redevelopment Authority are included in the data. Total spending for city and quasi-public agencies totaled $264.5 million out of $1.1 billion. That compared to $227.7 million awarded out of a possible $892.7 million in FY11.
When federal projects were included minority businesses were awarded $15.2 million in contracts through federally funded projects in fiscal 2012, up from $9.2 million in 2011.
In addition to the traditional data included in the report, this year’s summary included a section called “On the Horizon” detailing new city policies and practices relating to minority contracting.
“This annual report is an in depth analysis of contracts awarded and participation results, strategic alliances built, stakeholder commentary and a path forward that will institutionalize effective and sustainable economic inclusion,” said Angela Dowd-Burton, Executive Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. “This document is a resource tool for any business considering the city as a prospective client or looking to increase their competitive advantage.”
The full report is available at: www.phila.gov/oeo.
President Barack Obama will tour western Pennsylvania and portions of Ohio later this week, urging voters in the two key states to compare his record with that of his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
“He’ll lay out the choice facing voters in November — two contrasting economic visions,” said Ben LaBolt, press secretary for the campaign. “Throughout the trip he’ll talk with voters about what he’s done to bring the economy back from the brink.”
It will be the president’s first bus tour — dubbed “Betting on America” — of the campaign.
LaBolt announced details of Obama’s bus tour on Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters. During the course of the two-day tour, the president will make three stops in Ohio — at Maumee, near Toledo, in Sandusky and Parma, a suburb of Cleveland, on Thursday and one in Pennsylvania on Friday with a visit to Pittsburgh.
Voters in both areas are crucial to an Obama victory. Ohio and Pennsylvania have 38 electoral votes between them. Pennsylvania has 20 and Ohio has 18.
Both areas are part of what is called the Rust Belt, areas that were once thriving centers of manufacturing that have declined with loss of manufacturing jobs.
“Four years ago, then Sen. Obama came to Pittsburgh and promised strengthened American manufacturing — and once we elected him, he kept that promise,” said Jim Burn, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
Last month, Romney made a similar tour.
And two Pennsylvania Republicans were quick to jump on the president this week as news that he would be touring hit the press.
Senators Pat Toomey and Rob Portman accused Obama of a “promise gap.”
“A promise gap: a clear and demonstrable difference between what the president promised to voters and what he actually delivered,” said the two senators in an open letter distributed by the Romney campaign. “He made a promise on nearly every critical issue of the day — employment, energy, healthcare, housing, and the deficit — that our lives would be better off today if his policies were enacted.”
As the two presidential candidates swing through the two states, a new Quinnipiac Poll gave Obama an edge over Romney in both. In Pennsylvania, Obama leads Romney 45 percent to 39 percent; and in Ohio, the president is ahead 47 percent to 38 percent, according to the poll.
“If he can keep those leads in these key swing states through Election Day, he would be virtually assured of re-election,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
According to the Associated Press, Obama aides consider Ohio a toss-up state, but believe Pennsylvania is leaning in the president's favor.
Though Romney’s tour did reach into southeastern Pennsylvania, Obama will not be touring the eastern part of the state during this tour. However, his campaign was opening a new campaign office in West Philadelphia Tuesday evening with Mayor Michael Nutter and Councilman Curtis Jones on hand for an official ribbon cutting.
Members of the Marine Corps were honored during a ceremony held at Shiloh Baptist Church at 2040 Christian St. on Sunday during the church’s 170th anniversary.
The celebration also marked the 15th anniversary of senior pastor the Rev. Edward Sparkman, who was honored for his ministerial work. Gov. Tom Corbett and Mayor Michael Nutter both sent citations congratulating the pastor and the congregation on their service in the community.
“This is a blessing because, when you think of 170 years, it makes you realize that your past helps bring you to the future; we don’t want to forget but we want to move forward,” said Sparkman.
When asked what impact he felt the church had on the surrounding community, he replied, “I think outreach and letting people know that the church is not just open on Sunday and we’re reaching out to let everyone know that we’re here to tell God about the goodness of his blessing and to tell everyone regardless of race, creed, or color.”
The event was described as one “celebrating the sacred marriage between pastor and people” and it is this interdependence which Sparkman stated as some of the changes he witnessed during his 15 years as pastor. This, according to Sparkman, was evidenced by more closeness between its members and the community and the close way in which they walk together.
Julius Richardson, a trustee at the church, praised Sparkman as a man of great leadership who extended the services of the church to the community.
“He took us a mighty long way since he has been here,” said Richardson. “We have many outreach programs that connect with the community as well as other religious institutions and organizations.”
Richardson calls the pastor, “The right man for the right season.”
Sparkman said he couldn’t have done it alone.
“I like to call it the ‘we syndrome, ’let’s all put it together. Let’s not put it all on the pastor, let’s do it together,” he said.
The church was filled with well-wishers, members of the congregation and residents who joined in the celebration of the church’s anniversary as well as to witness the honors bestowed upon the remaining members of the Montford Point Marines, the all-Black unit founded in 1942 and the country’s first Black marine unit.
The Montford Point Marines has played a significant role in the church’s legacy, according to Sparkman. Lt. Col. Willie was joined by fellow Montford Point Marine members Joseph H. Geeter III, a former president of the Montford Marine Association, Lucius Snowpen and Phillip Herout.
“One of our former member’s husband was a member of the Montford Point Marines and the president awarded them the Congressional Medal of Honor in June,” said Sparkman. “In helping her prepare for this date, I did some research and found out also that my father was a Montford Point Marine.”
The pastor, whose father received a gold medal posthumously, said that most of his family was there to witness the award dedication.
It was Lt. Col. Clarence Willie who contacted the members of the Montford Point Marine Association to request their participation at the dedication ceremony. One of the recipients was his uncle, Charles Hines, of Philadelphia.
“I really wanted to see his widow get his just due, I also discovered that uncle Charles attended this church and that Rev. Sparkman’s father was also a Montford Point Marine and so I’m here present the Congressional Gold Medal to these two gentleman,” said Willie.
The Montford Point was formed in 1942 to 1949. They were named after the camp in Montford, New River, N.C. Despite racial discrimination, the Montford Point Marines went on to distinguish themselves in service. They were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on June 27.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and the family of slain Officer Moses Walker Jr. will formally announce the Officer Moses Walker Jr. Scholarship Fund on Thursday, Oct. 4.
The 3:30 p.m. announcement will be made at the offices of ACHIEVEability 21 S. 61st Street in West Philadelphia.
The Walker Scholarship will benefit single-parent ACHIEVEability program participants who are receiving at least a 3.0 GPA at an accredited Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree program. The scholarships will help participants with expenses such as textbooks and tuition.
ACHIEVEability is close to the Walker family as the officer spent countless hours volunteering at ACHIEVEability’s Community Center and Computer Lab.
“I am proud to give to this great program which has given so much to my family and the West Philadelphia community. I know my son would have wanted this,” said Wayne Lipscomb, mother of Officer Walker and former ACHIEVEability participant and employee.
Ramsey and Lipscomb will be presenting ACHIEVEability’s CEO Marcus Allen with the first donation to the Officer MosesWalker Jr. Scholarship fund.
Mayor Michael Nutter was among those who attended the funeral service for Walker and called for an end to violence and a rededication to peace.
“I am sick of the ignorance, sick of the violence, sick of death,” Nutter said at the funeral. “Let us all rededicate our lives to peace and let Moses Walker – Moses would lead the way – show us how to live our lives in peace, in truth, in love.”
Walker, 40, had changed into street clothes after an overnight shift at the 22nd police district and was walking to a bus stop in the 2200 block of Cecil B. Moore Ave. about 6 a.m. on Aug 18 when two men approached him. According to police, Walker had time only to draw his gun before he was shot in the chest, stomach and arm. The robbery attempt was similar to several other robberies in the area in the last few months.
Police have charged two men in the slaying, Rafael Jones, 23, and Chancier McFarland, 19.
The slaying sparked criticism of the Board of Probation and Parole, which allowed Jones to leave prison and go without an electronic bracelet for more than two weeks after being charged in connection with an earlier robbery.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams has called on Gov. Tom Corbett’s office to lead an investigation into why Jones was on the street.
African-American support for Mayor Michael Nutter is at an all time high, found a poll released this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative.
“In 2012, he scores significantly higher in the African-American community than he did in 2011,” said Larry Eichel, director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at Pew, who unveiled the new statistics Tuesday.
For the first time, a majority — 52 percent — of Blacks polled said they approved of the job Nutter has been doing. That was a 10-point jump from 2011. His approval ratings among African Americans in the previous two years were 43 and 36 percent respectively.
At the same time, in another good sign for Nutter, his disapproval rating among African Americans is falling. It dipped to 38 percent, down from 47 percent a year ago. In 2009, the first year of the poll, Nutter’s disapproval rating among Blacks was 54 percent.
Eichel said he was unable to explain the shift.
“Polls generally are better at measuring what people feel, rather than why they feel it or what they think,” he said. “The poll results don’t shed much light on that. We can’t give much of an idea why.”
Though those numbers represented significant gains for the mayor among Blacks, he still garnered more support among whites and Latinos. Among whites Nutter enjoyed a 69 percent approval rating and among Hispanics, a 55 percent approval rating.
“The mayor has always done better among whites than among Blacks,” Eichel said.
Overall, the poll found growing support for Nutter as enters his second term with a record high approval rating. His general approval rating was recorded at 60 percent, up from 52 percent at the same time last year.
“Those are the best numbers in the [four] years that we’ve been polling,” Eichel said.
Paradoxically, the same poll found that more Philadelphians — across all demographics — were worried about the direction the city has been headed over the last five years.
Thirty-five percent said they felt the city has changed for the worse over the last five years. Latinos were the unhappiest, with 37 percent saying they thought the city had changed for the worse. African Americans came next with 36 percent agreeing that things were not getting better, and whites followed at 34 percent.
And yet, most of those polled were optimistic about the future.
“Big majorities say they expect it to be a better place five years from now,” Eichel said.
In addition to posing questions about Nutter, the poll asked participants what they thought of a number of other items.
Pollsters found that city residents’ biggest worry is crime.
Seventy-four percent of those polled said crime was a “serious” or “very serious” problem. That was up from 64 percent last year.
Most residents said they hadn’t noticed a change in crime in their own neighborhoods over the last year, but of those who noticed changes, most said crime had worsened — 23 percent — compared to 16 percent who said crime had improved.
Similarly, the number of people who felt safe in their homes dropped to 37 percent from 45 percent last year. In another crime related note, 88 percent of Philadelphians supported the youth curfew put in place last fall in response to a wave of youth violence. That compared to only 8 percent who opposed it. A majority, 68 percent of residents, said they felt the curfew made at least some difference in combating crime.
Finally, the polls asked participants to give their opinion about illegal drugs in Philadelphia and found that 67 percent said it was a “serious” or “very serious” problem. That was up from 60 percent last year. Young people and poor people were disproportionately worried, with 78 percent of people between 18 to 29 and 78 percent of people with incomes less than $30,000 saying they were concerned.
In terms of the economy, Philadelphians failed to note any improvement since 2010. According to the data, 52 percent of households had at least one member who was unemployed, over last year when 53 percent found themselves in the same situation.
Philadelphians were also worried about the potential to find a job, with 81 percent saying the lack of opportunity was “serious” or “very serious” problem.
Blacks were more optimistic, 64 percent of African Americans said they expected their economic situation to improve, compared to 39 percent of whites.
City Council is pressing administration officials to explain Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposal to spend $40 million to beef up collection of delinquent property taxes, a move administration officials said would generate about $260 million.
Nearly everyone agrees that more needs to be done -- the disagreement comes over how to do it and what it should yield.
“It’s an issue when you talk about investing without including the return on the investment,” said Council President Darrell Clarke. “Given the challenges associated with the Revenue Department, we need some sense that we will collect additional revenue.”
Clarke was noting that the mayor’s new budget did not include any additional revenue from higher collections. There are an estimated 103,000 delinquent properties in the city with a total past due amount of about $515 million.
Council met Tuesday afternoon as a committee of the whole at a hearing on a combination of six revenue bills and resolutions intended to bolster delinquent property tax collections and review the system that is now in place.
The Nutter administration has recently come under fire for what critics contend are lax collections.
“Under this current administration, we have been more lax than the two previous administrations in regard to the collection of taxes,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, also questioning the need for more investment. “Can you give me some clarity on what you think may be the gaps in our collecting delinquent taxes?”
It was an assertion denied by Revenue Commissioner Keith Richardson.
“The two previous administrations have not done better than we have done,” Richardson said. “Those administrations had better economic times.”
He added that collections were up $33 million from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012.
The commissioner linked real estate tax collections to real estate sales. All taxes are collected when a property is sold - so during better economic times when properties are selling, collections are better. He noted that hardships and bankruptcies are up since 2008.
“Economic times have changed dramatically,” said Richardson.
Criticism over delinquent taxes has increased as the city moves toward AVI – the Actual Value Initiative. It is a shift that has pushed property taxes up for many residents and left many taxpayers pressuring their council members to make sure the city collects all it is due.
“Last night, I took an AVI butt whooping,” said Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. “You haven’t taken a butt whooping until you’ve taken an AVI butt whooping. One of the questions was ‘how are we going to collect what we are already owed?’”
Already the administration has taken steps to clamp down on delinquent owners, Richardson said, citing as an example the fact that L&I officials now check for delinquent taxes before issuing licenses or permits.
“They make sure that business gets a tax clearance to prove to you that they are in compliance,” Richardson said. “This is something that has not been done before.”
He also outlined some of the measures the administration plans to boost property tax collections with the additional $40 million. The majority of the investment will pay for a new computer system that will help the city track delinquent taxes, determine which taxpayers to pursue the most aggressively and combine records from across city departments.
Many of council’s questions highlighted members’ frustrations with the delinquent taxpayers.
Several pressed Richardson to lay out a standard timeline between the time a bill is counted as late and the time it is sold to cover the taxes.
He said the city’s timeline was unique to each case.
“The carrot has to be predictable as well as the stick,” Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez. “Unless there is date certain, nothing is going to happen. They know they have lot of time before we catch up to them. There is a lot of discretion in collections.”