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Imbalanced burden that won't go away

June 15, 2008

Anthony R. Wood, Philadelphia Inquirer


After 34 years living in a four-bedroom brick home on a leafy acre in Radnor Township, retirees Karl and Jean Dorschu wanted something smaller, something with less raking and snow shoveling, something less taxing, physically and financially.

They chose to stay in Delaware County, buying a $325,000 two-bedroom house in the Boothwyn section of Upper Chichester Township, 20 miles away.

There, they assumed, their property tax would be much lower than the $7,000 they paid in Radnor. Their new place was half the size and value, on one-fifth the acreage, in a middle-class community without Main Line gilt or top-drawer schools to support.

So much for logic.

After moving in, the Dorschus learned they'd be paying $8,500, or 21 percent more.

In the two years since, their bill has jumped above $9,500.

"If we had a top-notch school district, I wouldn't mind," said Karl Dorschu, 77, a former engineer.

In Radnor, where his three children were educated, 88 percent of the students go on to four-year colleges, compared with 38 percent in the Chichester School District. Radnor students rank among the region's highest in academic performance; Chichester's are in the lower echelon.

All things considered, his tax bill "doesn't make sense," he said. But he is certain of this much: "They're choking us homeowners to death."

Complaints about the property tax - that it's unfair, bewildering, exorbitant, pick a pejorative - may be nothing new. But their volume and intensity are.

The colonial-era system that provides most of the money for America's public schools and local governments is under unprecedented assault, with taxpayer protests, lawsuits or legislative overhauls rumbling through at least 20 states.

Pennsylvania is one.

The state is jigsawed into 3,134 local taxing authorities, including 501 school districts, 2,566 municipalities, and 67 counties - a patchwork among the most manifold in the nation. Here, the chaos and inequities wrought by a flawed, fragmented system are worsening as tax bills rise, the housing market falters, and the economy deteriorates.

An Inquirer analysis of 500,000 tax records in Philadelphia and the four Pennsylvania suburban counties has found wildly disparate property-tax rates that are widening the economic divide between have and have-not towns, and further balkanizing the region.

In poorer communities like the Chichester district's Trainer and Marcus Hook, where houses are modest and commercial property scarce, the effective tax rate (the average annual tax bill as a percentage of the average home value) typically is higher than in wealthier communities. But the analysis also showed that the tax gaps among municipalities were growing, helping to repel influxes of homeowners and businesses into troubled downtowns and hampering their revitalization.

For instance, in some economically distressed parts of eastern Delaware County, such as the six towns of the William Penn School District, the tax rates are nearly six times higher than those in West Conshohocken, a Montgomery County borough jam-packed with office towers. Just five years ago, the rates were 31/2 times higher.

Those poorer communities also tend to have lower-achieving students and far fewer resources than wealthy neighbors. The William Penn district - composed of Aldan, Colwyn, Darby Borough, East Lansdowne, Lansdowne and Yeadon - spends $12,701 per pupil. West Conshohocken is in the Upper Merion district, which spends $18,158.

Between 2002 and 2007 in poorer towns in the suburban counties, increases in millages - the taxes per $1,000 of assessed property value - were double those in affluent communities.

Regionwide in the same period, the average property-tax bill jumped about 25 percent. That far outpaced inflation, and tested many homeowners' ability to pay. The Inquirer found that local taxes now consume about 7 percent of household incomes, up from 5.5 percent five years ago.

Largely to meet the growing needs of schools and municipal governments, property-tax collections in Pennsylvania between just 2002 and 2007 ballooned 39math cq percent, from $10.4 billion to $14.5 billion. Nationally, they soared 40math cq percent, from $288 billion to $404 billion. New Jerseyans paid $22.1 billion last year, up 38math cq percent from $16 billion. The Garden State has the highest average property-tax bill - $6,331 - in the nation.

Boomer backlash

The opposition ranks have swelled along with the bills. They include tax analysts, economists, community-development experts and lawmakers. But the angriest voices belong to increasingly organized blocs of voters.

Many are retirees, an age group hit hard by the rising property taxes - and one that will build into a demographic tsunami of more than 70 million baby boomers, due to begin turning 65 in 2011.

Beware the Me Generation on fixed incomes, free of school-age kids and united by the Web, warns Peter Sepp, a vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, an advocacy group of 350,000 members based in Alexandria, Va.

That "big crop of retirees," he said, will "see less justification for paying huge property taxes."

Pennsylvania already has 35 grassroots groups, representing about 20,000 property owners, that aim to overhaul or abolish the real estate levy. Eight are in Bucks, Chester and Delaware Counties.

Protesters also are meeting online at the virtual offices of the Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalitioncq. A similar site is in the works in New Jersey, which has at least seven activist organizations.

Many groups have emerged in just the last few years, even as the two state legislatures offer rebates from slots revenue and sales taxes.

Last monthmay, Pennsylvania announced it would dole out $613 million in a first installment of property-tax relief from its new gaming industry. In the Philadelphia suburbs this year, an average of $245 will be applied toward bills.

But the much-ballyhooed break brings out the Peggy Lee in John J. McCartney, 73. Is that all there is? wonders the retired registered nurse, who pays $6,000 annually to the Octorara Area School District in Chester County.

"It's nowhere near enough to begin to address the problems that everyone's having," McCartney said, "especially with gasoline prices, and everything else, going up."

Rebates aren't placating the 55+ Coalition, made up of 6,000 residents of more than a dozen adult communities in Delaware County and thought to be the largest citizens tax group in Pennsylvania.

"If ever we have the opportunity [for major change], it's now," said Anthony Santore, 72, a retired hospital administrator from Glen Mills who founded 55+ two years ago.

Rough going in Harrisburg

Its members were among 400 tax activists from across the state who held a raucous rally in Harrisburg on June 2, hoping to fillip a bill that would redesign the system. They were joined by 30 legislators.

Proposed by Rep. Sam Rohrer (R., Berks), House Bill 1275 would replace property levies with a broader state sales tax, extended to such items as sports tickets, dry cleaning and plumbing services. It also would shift the bulk of school funding to the state, which now pays 35.4 percent of education costs, on average. Pennsylvania ranks 44th in the nation in the portion borne by the state.

In a House vote in January, Rohrer's proposal was trounced. It came under withering attack from two dozen special interests who feared it would hurt business.

So Rohrer is trying again, having removed white-collar services such as lawyers' and accountants' fees from his tax list and inserted a limited property tax on commercial real estate.

His tweaked plan remains the most dramatic of three major proposals before the House. But they are alike in one way: All are buried in committee, continuing the legislature's historic reluctance to take up an issue laced with political cyanide.

The key to rectifying the tax disparities among towns and taking the pressure off property taxes lies in bumping up the state's share of public-education costs, the Rendell administration contends.

Gov. Rendell has proposed increasing state aid by a total of $2.6 billion during the next six years, targeting the poorest districts. But his plan's fate in the legislature is uncertain.

Combined with school-tax discounts from slot-machine revenue under the Property Tax Relief Act of 2006, also known as Act 1, the state share of education costs would rise from 35 percent to about 45 percent in 2014, administration spokesman Chuck Ardo said. That would put Pennsylvania near the national average.

Ardo added that the administration had lessened the burden on fixed-income seniors by increasing rebates.

However, in the view of tax activists and their Harrisburg allies, neither the governor nor the legislature is going far enough.

"It makes no sense," said Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin), "to use a 19th-century tax to fund 21st-century education."

A flawed system

Even in this miasma of discontent, the property tax finds defenders.

Free of any state or federal claims, it provides a dependable source of income so school districts and municipal governments can both pay their bills and borrow, said Steven Wray, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League, a public-policy research group.

"I can't say I'm a raving fan of it," Wray said. But real estate, he added, is the logical source of local income, and homeowners reap the reward. In Pennsylvania, 80 percent of the tax goes to education. And "the better the schools," he said, "the better the property values are going to be."

Yet even its defenders concede that the system is badly flawed, and that Pennsylvania is an eye-popping measure of just how bad.

Behold the tax madness:

Less is more. In some wealthy communities in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs, residents pay hefty property taxes, up to 10 percent of robust household incomes. Nonetheless, rates in many of the poorest towns are among the highest in the region and, in fact, the country - higher even than New Jersey suburbs of New York City, often cited as national chart-toppers.

Of the 25 suburban municipalities with the steepest rates, 22 are in eastern Delaware County. Of those, 16 rank near the bottom in median income.

Example: In June 2006, Victor Ko bought a $256,900 house on Whalen Court in Upper Darby. The median household income in the Delaware County township is $46,606. Its tax base is dominated by modestly priced homes, while its commercial property is worth less than $900 million.

Ko's tax bill is $6,912.

Also in 2006, Susan Scanlon bought a $259,000 home near the King of Prussia malls in Upper Merion. The Montgomery County township has a median household income of $79,653 and a prodigious tax base. Its commercial property, including the mighty malls, is worth $3.4 billion - almost four times that of Upper Darby.

Scanlon, an Upper Darby native, has a tax bill of $2,080, or less than one-third Ko's.

To have and have not. In the latter half of the 20th century, taxes helped deepen the divide between Philadelphia, where they were high, and the rest of the region, where they typically weren't. But municipal competition for residents and commerce is no longer so clear-cut.

Example: Tax-wise, it doesn't get any worse than in Colwyn. The small, struggling borough in eastern Delaware County has the highest effective property-tax rate in the region - 4.52 percent of the average home value.

But the rate is 0.97 percent in Chester County's East Bradford, a considerably more affluent township, where new tract houses abut bucolic open space.

In 2002, Colwyn's effective tax rate was about four times that of East Bradford. Now it is 4.7 times higher.

Older, poorer towns such as Colwyn are caught in a sorry cycle from which few escape, said Wray, of the Economy League. Their high taxes drive out homeowners and businesses; to compensate for those losses, they hike taxes on those who stay - with predictable results.

From 2002 to 2007 in East Bradford, 140 homes were built, at an average price of $230,000. Only 16, averaging $41,000, went up in Colwyn.

Double whammy. Pennsylvania's rules on property assessment have created two sets of losers. Both often pay higher taxes than the rest of the community where they live and, in a sense, are subsidizing their neighbors. Many don't realize they're getting clobbered.

Owners of newer homes constitute one victim group.

When a county decides to reassess, state law demands that all properties be done at once. The exception is new construction, which is appraised upon completion.

The overwhelming nature of a mass assessment is one reason it is so rarely done. That's a boon for owners of older properties that appreciate; their taxes are based on lower values.

But homes built after a countywide reassessment carry fresher appraisals, closer to 100 percent of current value. Those hapless owners frequently end up paying a higher effective tax rate.

Example: Since Delaware County's last reassessment was completed in 2000, home values in Radnor Township have, in general, appreciated dramatically. Consequently, the average assessment is based on just 46 percent of a property's present worth.

No such break for William and Carol Knott.

They bought a new house on Mill Road last year for $1.8 million, and got hit with a $25,250 tax bill. Elsewhere in Radnor, near downtown Wayne, an older home sold for $2.2 million a few months later; the tax, based on the 2000 reassessment, was $16,141.

Paying $9,000 more in taxes for a house that cost $400,000 less is "just outrageous," Carol Knott said. If she and her husband, a banker, had it to do over, "we would not have bought new construction."

The other group that gets whomped is made up of owners of homes whose values have stagnated or sunk since they were appraised.

Example: In Montgomery County, the average home value has doubled since the last reassessment in 1998. But rates of appreciation have been uneven, to say the least.

Norristown, the county seat, is a down-at-the-heels borough dreaming of a renaissance. More than 7 percent of the homes lost value since 1998. Their assessments generally are double what they should be, and their owners are paying double the taxes.

Buy a cow. Pennsylvania assessment law also extends an array of property-tax exemptions, typically to nonprofit institutions such as hospitals, universities, churches and museums. But a major break also goes to owners of "farmland." They need just 10 acres - or less, if they can show that the land produces an annual minimum of $2,000 in "farm income."

Example: In Chester County, more than $1 billion in "farmland" is off-limits to taxation. That shifts more of the burden to nonfarm residents such as Paul Belleza, whose tax bill is $5,000 - up 67 percent from five years ago.

Belleza lives in the Octorara School District, where about $100 million worth of land is exempt.

"I've got 11 acres with a matchbox house," he said. "I'm paying five times the tax" of nearby landowners.

Belleza said he believed that some people taking the exemption weren't legitimate farmers.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a tax fraud," he said. "We're subsidizing wealthy landowners who can well afford to pay their own taxes."

School budgets defy cuts

If the property tax remains the chief money source for public education in Pennsylvania, the only way to reduce it is to reduce school spending, significantly.

That is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Taxpayers may rail against perceived Taj Mahal excesses, but the bulk of the typical district budget goes to negotiated salary and benefits packages and state and federally mandated programs. Those costs will keep growing.

In Lower Merion Township, where the average property-tax bill has increased 34 percent in the last five years, the district's $175 million budget has little wiggle room, said Scott Shafer, the district's acting business manager. After labor, mandates and other fixed costs come out, he said, only about $3 million in discretionary money remains.

That reality frustrates tax activists.

Rick Ritter, a founder of the 1,875-member Coatesville Taxpayer Alliance, was so angry about escalating property taxes in his district that in 2006 he ran for the school board on a victorious activist slate.

But after he and his compatriots parsed the Coatesville Area School District's $69.2 million budget, they concluded that 80 percent of costs were locked in for years. They have held the line on school taxes the last three years, but homeowners still are stuck with some of the region's highest taxes: almost $2,000 for every $100,000 of value, plus a 2 percent wage tax. Facing those rates, Ritter's mother-in-law gave up her home and moved in with him.

Encompassing nine communities, the district is an example of the vagaries of school-system boundaries. Its poorest part by far is the city of Coatesville; there, the average home price in 2006 was $120,000, compared with $294,800 across the other towns. Devastated by the loss of the steel industry that once defined it, Coatesville has a painfully sparse tax base, which forces higher rates on everyone in the district.

The circumstances are similar - and the taxes even higher - in the Chichester School District in eastern Delaware County. The district consists of Lower and Upper Chichester Townships and the ravaged riverfront boroughs of Marcus Hook and Trainer.

Upper Chichester, where Karl and Jean Dorschu live, is relatively well-off, with an average home price of $220,165. But in the other three municipalities, the tax base is paper-thin; houses average less than $95,000.

So the district's residents are forced to dig deep at tax time, paying up to $3,300 for every $100,000 in property value.

Had they stayed in Radnor, the Dorschus would be paying $1,138 per $100,000 in value. That district includes just one township, with $3.6 billion worth of real estate. That's four times the total for all property in the Chichester district.

The builder of the Dorschus' new home seriously underestimated the tax bill, although Karl Dorschu said he believed not even the builder had expected the levy to be so high.

Classical-music lovers, the couple were drawn to Boothwyn because of its easy commute to the Kimmel Center and its proximity to I-95 and the Claymont, Del., train station. So they got what they wanted, and something they didn't.

"If we had known," he said, "we probably would not have settled here."