The BRT isn't just corrupt and dishonest. It makes me hate Philly a little.
In early 2007, after six-and-a-half years in a Pine Street one-bedroom, my wife and I bought a Bella Vista rowhouse. It had taken months to find, but our diligence was rewarded: the street was quiet, the place was sturdy, and the taxes seemed fair—around $1,600 a year. An outer wall featured a genuine Zagar; there was a rosebush in the backyard. All very cute. For us, the purchase represented a logical next step; it also represented a deepening of our commitment to the city.
Since moving here in 2001, my wife and I had become shameless civic boosters; when we were asked how we liked Philadelphia, we’d respond with Paul Levy-like enthusiasm: you can walk everywhere; you can really know your neighbors; there’s plenty to do, but not too much. Implicit in our praise was a refutation of the suburbs: for all the city’s deep and tragic flaws, at least we weren’t stuck in some airless Cheever thing, man.
But one thing stands between us and complete Philly pride: The Board of Revision of Taxes.
The BRT's been much in the news lately for cronyism practices that have led City Hall to move to the edge of abolishing the agency. I won't be sad to see them go, thanks to the late-summer gut punch they gave me.
I recently opened their letter to find that our property taxes would go from $1,663 in 2009 to $4,019 in 2010—an all-at-once jump of 242 percent. I felt nauseous, slightly disoriented. There was a number we could call to “discuss this proposal”—as if the BRT was thinking that maybe we should plant zinnias in the spring. Our only other recourse was to file an appeal, which we did; I’ll be making our case on Jan. 13. I picture myself in beseeching Jimmy Stewart mode, hair slightly mussed and eyebrows raised, pleading to a pod of drowsy Steadman lizards.
I also picture myself muttering as I leave, as I don’t have much of an argument. Our purchase of the house—likely what alerted the BRT to our existence—caused an irrefutable boost in the property’s value, and a concurrent rise in what could be wrung from it. The board’s math—a simple multiplication problem—was correct. And with the city scrounging for nickels, it’s an obvious way to raise funds: look up recent purchases, make some adjustments, send out some letters.
It’s a method that the Inquirer reported on in December: “Some of the reassessments were routine… but thousands of others seemed almost random. Many seemed to zero in on homes that had been sold within the last few years, leaving surrounding ones unchanged… That’s illegal, tax experts say; the values are supposed to be applied uniformly.”
A Cannibal Ox song has the lyric, “You love New York/ But New York don’t love you”, and I’ve always liked the line. With an easy flip, it turns that city’s marketing against itself, chips off the illusion. When you form a bond with a place—be it New York or Philadelphia or any other—you come to expect some sort of reciprocation, however abstract and unlikely. The city becomes a looming surrogate parent, and as such, you’ll forgive its endless running faults, often against your own self-interest.
But the case of the BRT—operating in “illegal” fashion, jacking up bills amidst deep recession, reassessing even as it dies—goes beyond fault. Naïve as it may sound, this round of “fuck you, pay me” feels like a betrayal.
An old friend of my wife’s visited recently. It had been years since we’d talked, and, sitting in our living room, she asked me how I liked Philadelphia. For the first time, I didn’t talk about the Italian Market, or Reading Terminal, or Rittenhouse Square. Instead, I complained about what the BRT was doing, said I understood why people who can move often do. It was something I wouldn’t have said, or even thought, before last August. This, along with an extra $2,356 per year, is, in my case, what the city will have gained.