Philly Protects Tax Deadbeats

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It seems like a simple concept. A bill requiring that any tax payment more than a year overdue in Philadelphia be automatically turned over to a debt collector. The City of Philadelphia doesn’t do that now. In fact, Philadelphia has the worst record of any big city in America for property tax collections. Over 100,000 delinquent properties – almost 20 percent of all parcels in the city. Over $500 Million in delinquent taxes. No taxes have been paid on thousands of properties for 20 years or more.

Could the city use an extra $500 Million? Maybe for the schools? Police? It’s not fair that some taxpayers have to pay and others do not. Not even considering the revenue implications, these properties are a blight on the neighborhoods. Not up to code. Lowering the values of properties around them. Making life miserable for their neighbors.

You would think that a bill to ensure that taxes owed by deadbeats are collected, freeing up money for essential city services and enabling blighted properties to be improved, would be a no-brainer. Think again.

City Revenue Commissioner Clarena Tolson testified before City Council’s Finance Committee that the Nutter Administration is against the bill. She said that they prefer the present system where they decide on a "case-by-case" basis whether and when to turn the tax deadbeats to a collection firm. She said "You have to use some judgment in regards to how you want to manage the situation." "Case-by-case" basis? Isn’t that what you do when you want to punish your enemies and reward your friends? We certainly have a history of district city council members controlling city services in their districts and using the unwritten policy of council privilege to cement themselves in office. Perhaps they will influence the Revenue Department’s case-by-case analysis? Mayor Nutter likes to tout his focus on integrity. Something like this at least calls his record into question.

Ms. Tolson further testifies that "You wouldn’t put up for sheriff’s sale somebody’s property who is injured, who has extreme circumstances, or even a modest amount of debt." Even ignoring the potential of favoritism by such a system, shouldn’t the Department of Revenue be neutral in doing its job?

Shouldn’t they just accurately determine how much is owed in taxes and then ensure that it is collected? What business does the Department of Revenue have in making case-by-case determinations as to which taxpayers should have to pay their taxes and which should not? If there is any leeway given to individual taxpayers it should be given by departments or agencies with expertise in determining who should receive help and what the nature of the help should be. And the money to support any such programs should come deliberately dedicated to that purpose. The Department of Revenue should be staffed with people good at collecting revenue, not making social welfare decisions.

It was reported that several of the City Council members were uncomfortable with the bill. Councilwoman Marion Tasco tried to justify coddling tax deadbeats by saying that the case-by-case approach favored by the Revenue Commissioner is OK because "She does it with compassion and she still collects the taxes." Huh? Whether she does her job with compassion is debatable. What is not debatable is that she doesn’t collect the taxes. Councilwoman Tasco ignores the obvious truth to pander to those voters.

It appears that this bill will either be defeated or amended to make it ineffectual. And the beat goes on. Half a billion dollars won’t be going to schools or police. More and more will continue to play the system while the rest of us fill the void. Neighborhoods will continue to deteriorate because of vacant and deteriorating properties. Taxpayers and jobs will continue to flee due to bad public schools, high taxes and crime. Great news for tax deadbeats. For the rest of us, not so much.
Commentary by Matt Wolfe, a Republican candidate for City Council at Large.


J. Matthew Wolfe
Law Offices of J. Matthew Wolfe
4256 Regent Square
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 387-7300
[email protected]