If you think the famous traffic pileup on the George Washington Bridge was bad, check out the hearing room in the Curtis Center at 6th and Walnut where Philadelphia property owners go to appeal their new real-estate tax assessments under the Actual Value Initiative (AVI).
Room 300E is home to the seven-member Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT), whose job is to hear the appeals. The BRT began hearings earlier this month. No one is expecting them to be done anytime soon.
Right now, you might want to pencil in 2019.
Partly it is to do with the huge volume of appeals. More than 24,000 property owners filed appeals of new assessments done last year by the Office of Property Assessment. About 5,000 have filed ‘non-oral’ appeals in writing and do not require a formal hearing, but still need a ruling from the board.
Another 19,000 have requested a hearing before the board—and are entitled to one under the law. Though BRT Chair Russell Nigro says the board is meeting every weekday, at the rate cases are being disposed of—at least so far—it could take nearly five years for all the cases to be decided.
There’s a backstory here involving bad blood between the BRT and Mayor Nutter. The BRT used to handle assessments and appeals. Nutter tried to abolish the board entirely as part of a reform of the assessment system that included creation of a city department, the Office of Property Assessment. It took a charter change that voters approved.
Board members balked at that move, filed suit, and the state Supreme Court upheld the right of the BRT to exist—not to assess, but solely for the purpose of hearing appeals.
Board members used to get salaries of $70,000 a year. The legislation creating the new system turned that into a $150 per diem, but only on the days the board meets in formal session.
Nigro said the BRT asked for and received $115,000 in the budget to hire extra staff to handle the expected onrush of cases. The administration, Nigro said, diverted that money to other causes and the workers were never hired.
Nigro said the administration’s “hard line” on salaries and support staff is a factor in the slow pace in what he called the “herculean task” of handling the appeals.
“We are going to go out and make this work,” he said. “But we have to deal with factors— one is the number of appeals, but two is what the administration did.”
Finance Director Rob Dubow disputed Nigro’s version of the tale. He said the administration added $218,000 to the BRT in the initial draft of the city budget and later agreed to add another $115,000 while the bill was before Council.
“We asked them what they needed and they got it,” Dubow said. “If they think that is not enough and there is additional funding they need they should come see us because we want them to have appropriate resources to hear appeals.”
Whatever the origins of the dispute, Dubrow said slow resolution of the appeals serves no one’s interests, not the school district and the city, which splits property tax revenue 60-40, nor the taxpayers waiting for adjudication of their appeals.
Nigro said the BRT was considering ways to speed up appeals, such as breaking up the seven-member board into smaller panels to hear cases. “Let me just say our intent is not to have this take three years,” he said.
The last time the BRT had such a big caseload was in 2002, which also was the last time the agency did a citywide reassessment. The BRT had to handle 11,000 appeals, but many ended up being no-shows at their hearings and their cases were dismissed. The board began hearings in November and held hearings nearly every day until they disposed of them in April of 2003.