The “food fight” over Mayor Michael Nutter’s Actual Value Initiative intensified Thursday with the mayor and state Sen. Anthony Williams firing back at opponents of the initiative, which appears stuck in City Council.
“Our message is pretty straight forward and pretty simple. At this point, we have a property assessment system that has been broken for … generations,” Nutter said. “Many Philadelphians … because of a flawed system have been paying much more than they should be in taxes. At the same time many individuals have been paying a lot less than they should, essentially being subsidized by the poorest individuals in the city. In the end, all taxpayers are losers.”
AVI would change the way the city assesses real estate, moving from assessments based on a fraction of property value to the full market value.
“No more fractions. No more complications. You should not need a math degree to be able to figure out what your taxes are,” said the mayor.
Williams was a little more outspoken in his defense of the plan, chastising members of the city’s delegation in Harrisburg for breaking ranks in Harrisburg.
“I’ve watched some public officials tear to shreds the validity of AVI, so I found it very important to go public,” he said, accusing opponents of “fear mongering” and adding that the divisions among local lawmakers could ultimately dissuade the state legislature and governor from taking action on several state bills needed to implement AVI.
“Harrisburg is watching us. Those bills were moving through the state legislature quite effectively, the governor was prepared to sign them until Philadelphia decided to have its own food fight,” he said.
Williams declined to call out legislative colleagues for their opposition.
But, two weeks ago a group of state legislators — joined by Councilmen Bill Green and Mark Squilla — announced their opposition to AVI, calling on the administration to delay implementation for another year. At that time, state Sen. Larry Farnese announced that he was introducing legislation in Harrisburg that would give Council the option to wait another year.
Waiting is not an option, Nutter said this week.
“Once the new values are in, we have to use them,” Nutter said, adding that not to was “asking for litigation.”
Critics cite three reasons for their opposition. First is the fact that new assessment figures will not be available until July, after City Council is expected to vote on a budget based on Nutter’s AVI figures. Second, because Nutter’s proposal includes an additional $94 million in revenue for the school district, critics charge the mayor with trying to push through a tax hike by another name. And, finally, many worry that AVI will mean higher taxes for their constituents.
Nutter countered all three arguments at his press conference.
Implementing property tax reform this year is needed, the mayor said, because the system has been “broken” for generations. The additional revenue is not a tax increase, he argued, simply a way to “capture” the increase in property values since the last reassessment in 2004. And, while admitting that taxes will go up for some, they will come down for others.
Ultimately, the fate of AVI lies in the hands of City Council, which has been debating the issue for months. Members are now looking at 14 budget related proposals.
Council leaders have been reluctant to discuss what direction those talks have taken.
“I never say what a majority of members are interested in until they do it,” Council President Darrell Clarke told reporters after this week’s Council session.
He did say that Council seems committed to providing some added funding for the school district, but would not say if it would meet the district’s request for $94 million.
“The biggest question centers on where that money is going and how it’s going to be spent and what levels of accountability can be put into place,” he said.
A proposal by Clarke would provide about $85 million. Several council members have said they would like Council to have more input on how district money is spent.
“Whatever process is established in this particular funding cycle for the school district, we would like to see a little more dialogue.”
Majority Leader Curtis Jones compared Council’s approach to that of a pilot preparing his plane for takeoff. Members are looking at several options and will decide which one to take on after factoring in a variety of conditions.
“We are a plane that has to have several runways — and we’re running out of time to take off,” he said.
Jones would not be drawn into a discussion of which of options might be gaining traction, calling all of the proposals as “alternate Plan A’s.”
“We want to be prepared for any eventuality,” he said.
Council seems prepared to put its muscle where its mouth is, this week approving a resolution urging the School Reform Commission to go back to the negotiating table with SEIU 32BJ in an effort to avoid the layoff of 2,700 union employees in a district effort to balance its budget, which is includes a $218 million deficit.
Much of Council’s negotiations are now going on behind the scenes.
This week members met in small groups — to avoid violating the state’s Sunshine Law — in private meetings to discuss their options.
“Our process, particularly at this point, is a process that requires significant conversations within the body,” Clarke said. “Trying to do that in an extremely public way is probably not conducive to us getting a budget.”
A public hearing has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday and Council will meet for its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday.
Technically the deadline for budget approval is June 1. But, Council has often recessed, rather than adjourned, its last meeting in May allowing a vote beyond the deadline.
Clarke said Council would have a budget passed by July 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year. He noted that many of the proposals before Council also require some action by the state legislature, which would need to approve, for example, a homestead exemption.
In other news, Council unanimously agreed to change the name of the Criminal Justice Center to the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice. A chorus of civic leaders urged Council to rename the court building in Stout’s honor. A long serving municipal court judge, she was the nation’s first female Black judge and the state and nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice.
Finally, Councilman Brian O’Neill introduced a bill that would give grandchildren of firefighters and police officers at 10-point advantage on the exams required to secure departmental jobs. A similar break is already given to children of both.