City Controller Alan Butkovitz triumphantly declared his mandate to continue in his office in what is now a guaranteed win with the Republican challenger surely facing defeat in November.
Voter turnout? 9%. 9 out of 100 eligible registered voters in Philadelphia bothered to turn up to the polls. Among the most lousiest recent turnouts, this election cycle really had no power to attract even reform-minded voters to the polls.
That also shows how much Philadelphia Democratic City Committee support also matters. Fishtown, a neighborhood known for more reform-minded citizens, creative classers and gentrification, and also will feel the sting of AVI assessments more than most neighborhoods, was more worried about its feelings being hurt than by spending 8 minutes at empty polling stations with no queues. Turnout in Fishtown’s two wards was abysmal.
As much as that low-turnout has to do with a whole slate of races of judicial candidates, many candidates are duds hoping for squeakers while judicial reform lags. Voters really don’t like voting for judges since they don’t know who the candidates are, their record or capability, and can’t really decide who’s the proper person to decide their fellow citizen’s fate among a large grid of buttons that starts to blur when you stare at it long enough.
One thing Alan Butkovitz said tonight is how much this vote was a referendum on AVI. For a 9% voter turnout, this probably shows how much Philadelphians could care less about AVI and are resigned to accept it. Of all the Philadelphians who live in the city, a solid block, possibly still the majority of residents, are life-long residents of this city. And we’re the poorest large city in the US. A substantial number of residential properties in this city are going to see property tax increases coming up that cuts across race, age and class lines. And still… 9%.
The final debate over AVI starts in the next few weeks. The City’s budget has to be finished by the end of June. Normally at this point in May the process is nearly done. This is the only election left between now and when the budget is due. An AVI referendum this was not.
If Philadelphians are hopping mad about AVI as some in the media suggest, the Controller’s race wasn’t the venue to vent it. Even for those who did “vote AVI” and bought into Butkovitz’s clown car campaign, the Controller has no control over whether AVI happens or doesn’t happen. That rests completely with City Council. In this stage of the City’s budgeting process, by this point most members of City Council have made up their minds whether they’ll accept AVI and what’s left to talk about now is what bargaining chips for tax credits, changes to programs and adjustments to get the revenue target to come out the way it needs to.
If City Council punts AVI two things happen:
- Upset residents who are getting assessment increases and appeal to court after not getting what they will want will cite the Common Level Ratio as the reason why their assessment is wrong and why the City should be forced to change it. These cases happen all the time without fail every year.
- The recent comments by court judges hearing assessment claims in higher rounds of court appeals have said the same thing over and over: it’s not so much that your assessment is wrong, it’s that your county (Philly) has completely screwed up assessments in general and the remedy is really to fix assessments, not to grant “one-off” relief to every property owner rich enough to hire lawyers to appeal away assessment hikes.
This last point matters a lot. One of the common reasons to appeal property assessments is non-uniformity, or to translate that to English: “they assessed my neighbors different than they did me, I am being singled out and it’s not fair.”
How can you assess fairness when assessments don’t make sense for any property?
You do what a lot of long-time residents of Philly have done during this AVI saga. Tell everyone what you used to pay in property tax years ago, or what your assessment was, without accounting for things like inflation or the changes in the neighborhood that made your property more or less desirable.
So, what bearing does the City Controller have in all this? None whatsoever. Alan Butkovitz can’t do anything about AVI. Nor could Brett Mandel. Were Philly voters astute enough to actually know that? The turnout was so low you can’t argue either way.
City Council has to decide whether it wants to punt this again and risk a court order from an upset judge who is pissed to see this issue back in their courtroom, continue on with tweaking the AVI tax rate or making wild adjustments to other taxes to scale back AVI’s impact. Each break and tweak will split residents into two camps—those getting the break and those paying extra because the break was given out. A tweak for everyone could mean changes in U&O that will rile the business lobby.
It won’t make anyone feel any better, but Philadelphia is not the only county that is in this mess. All of Pennsylvania’s cities have assessment miasmas. Rural counties too. Pittsburgh attempted their own version of AVI and aborted it just like Philadelphia did last year. They’ve had a 1 year head start on this before we started banging away at it.
And no, despite Butkovitz campaign claims… Brett Mandel didn’t “create AVI” nor did he push it to kick Philadelphians out of their homes. He challenged the assessment mechanism because it’s broken. It needs to be fixed.
In a city with a credit rating just two notches above junk, a state capital that refuses to send over capital to paper over messes because the rest of the state feels (rightly?) that’s akin to flushing money down the drain, a recalcitrant public that is just simply unwilling to stomach change, especially of this kind which is pretty bitter and has pitted neighbor against neighbor in class warfare, the politically expedient solution here is simple.
Punt AVI and just hope for a judge to sort it all out.
Oh yeah, there’s also Act 76 to Eliminate the Property Tax in Pennsylvania. It’s laughable and likely to go nowhere as PA’s sales tax will have to be seriously jacked up to cover for schools, and PA has been unwilling to go after frackers to raise cash to any degree. We can’t even close the Delaware Loophole without serious debate and that’s only $90 million dollars a year. Chump change.