Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has been sued by former Mayor John Street, who says the Kenney administration has illegally overassessed property taxes on Philly homeowners.
Street is a policy adviser to state Sen. Anthony Williams, who is challenging Kenney in the May 21 Democratic primary.
It was in that capacity, Street told WHYY on Friday, that he researched the issue and was “shocked” by what he found. The former mayor is representing Robert Cunningham, a North Philly homeowner in his 80s who received a 61 percent tax increase on his home of 47 years.
The suit, filed May 10, names Kenney, Finance Director Rob Dubow and Chief Assessment Officer Michael Piper as defendants. It asks the court to order new assessments for all properties within 90 days, to prevent current assessments from being used on tax bills, and to require that homeowners be given refunds for overpayments.
In a press release announcing the suit, Street said that as many as 200,000 Philly households may have been overassessed. “This is the most egregious distortion of the democratic process that I have seen in 50 years,” said Street. “No other administration since the enactment of the 1951 Home Rule Charter has had the capacity or the inclination to raise hundreds of millions of real estate tax dollars without a vote of Council. This is the most blatant and flagrant perversion by a modern-day mayor and a clear violation of one of democracy’s pillars — taxation without representation.”
Under a prior system, property assessments were conducted by the Board of Revision of Taxes. Its members were appointed by the judges of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Today, a mayoral appointee at the Office of Property Assessment (OPA) oversees those evaluations. That allows the administration to raise taxes without going to the City Council, which violates the state Constitution, Street told WHYY.
A city rep dismissed the suit as political theater. “It’s a shame that former Mayor Street is using his law license to execute a political stunt in the form of a frivolous lawsuit,” said Mike Dunn, senior deputy communications director, in an email to Metro. “It is a needless distraction from the recent public debate regarding property assessments — a debate which has been productive and has had meaningful results, including reforms that were initiated by OPA.”
Dunn added that every property owner has the right to appeal an assessment and that courts have ruled class action suits are inappropriate in that context.
The City Council has previously criticized the tax assessments as unfair. After an independent review of the process, on Jan. 3 the council called the assessments “unacceptably inaccurate and inconsistent” and called for a “complete overhaul of leadership” at OPA, including the replacement of Piper.
A hearing date on the lawsuit is pending.