Over 100 residents from Chestnut Hill and beyond gathered Thursday night to hear members of city council, city officials and political activists answer questions around the city's forthcoming Actual Value Initiative (AVI).
The panel, which was organized and presided over by The Chestnut Hill Community Association, included city council members David Oh and Cindy Bass, as well as Rachel Meadows, a policy and research analyst from councilman Bill Green's office. The panel also included city controller Alan Butkovitz, Brett Mandel from the Tax Reform Commission and Ellen Kaplan from the Committee of Seventy.
"The AVI is Necessary"
While the evening would see both the six-person panel and the audience butt heads on several issues surrounding AVI, the one thing most of the panel could agree on was that the city's tax structure needed to changed.
"The current tax structure is unfair," Oh said. "We haven't had a city-wide assessment that kept up with market values in the last 30 years … and we've ended up with a situation that is unfair and inequitable."
Mendel said that the city's current tax problems are three-fold, and that major overhauls needed to be put in place.
"We tax too much, we tax the wrong stuff … and what we do tax, we tax unfairly," he said, citing the city's wage tax as an example of what he called a reliance on "things that are mobile." "Everyone should agree that we get the values correct, but how are we going to make a transition from a system that is unfair to a system that is fair and accurate?"
Bass called for a correction to "a system that is clearly broken," one that she believes has seen property taxes depending more on political connection than actual home value.
"I believe that this part of the district has been paying its fair share for quite a long time," she said. "The question becomes, how do we get a system that works for everybody."
The only panel member who actively spoke out agains AVI was Butkovitz, who said he was "angry about the program."
"In a nutshell, the average property in Chestnut Hill is going to increase $2,000 in property taxes, a 70 percent increase," he said, citing values and calculations assembled by the office of the city controller. "Communities will be devastated by this. This isn't a science experiment, this is people's lives, this is the life of the city."
"How are these values being assessed?"
According to CHCA president Brian Tilley, the city's tax assessment office was invited to sit on the panel, but declined in favor of appearing at a different time, when the tax office would be the only presenter at its own meeting.
Which is why, when residents began asking how exactly the values of their homes would be assessed, the panel had difficult time getting specific.
Oh said that values were likely being assessed on a neighborhood-to-neighborhood basis.
"Take a general area of homes based on neighborhood and similarity of homes and look at things like the amount houses are being sold for, the number of sales, neighborhood characteristics … they're doing general assessments," he said. "Houses don't have to be exactly the same. They aren't going to be able to go house to house."
Oh said that, because of the general assessments, homeowners would be able to appeal their home's value.
Meadows claimed that the city's office was using "national standards" in its assessments, despite the fact that the city's assessors were exempt from state laws and regulations regarding how assessments are made.
Bass called out the city assessor's office for not being present at the meeting, calling it a "disservice."
"They've got a lot of the information that a lot of people really want to hear," she said. "These are important questions and they need to be answered."
According to the members of the panel, none of them have seen any numbers from the current assessment process. The city administration said it would release them when the full assessment was completed.
The Homestead Exemption
The Homestead Exemption is a program released by the city that will allow homeowners to knock $30,000 off of the taxable assessed value of their homes for the 2014 tax season.
While that may seem like a good deal for residents who are concerned about an increase in their property taxes next year, Meadows says that it could do more harm than good.
"The more people apply for exemptions, the less aggregate value the city will have to tax on and the higher the tax rate," she said.
Oh said he was "concerned about the exemption," and when asked by a resident if he supported it, Butkovitz gave the quickest answer of the night.
"No," he said.
Only Bass spoke up in support of the exemption, which she said could greatly help residents in her district.
"I actually support the homestead extenuation, because in the lower end of the district it could really make a difference," she said. "It could help someone stay in their home."
What The Future Holds
Homeowner who didn't know the value of their property should get a number early in 2013, Meadows said.
"You will receive the actual valor of your home," she said. "The property taxes for 2013 are not using that value, so your taxes will remain the same. Its 2014 when you'll see the big change."