January 02, 2019
After Alison Stohr bought her Point Breeze home in 2015, she got a 10-year property tax abatement from the city, which saves her nearly $3,000 in annual taxes.
But instead of keeping the savings, Stohr is donating it to Philadelphia’s public schools.
“This is an opportunity for people with abatement to meaningfully give back to the School District,” Stohr said. “And I honestly don’t know how many people think about what it means that they have a tax abatement.”
The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, a foundation that solicits and collects private donations for the city’s schools, is hoping that other property owners will do the same.
In its first end-of-year appeal, the foundation sent about 4,500 letters to Philadelphia property owners who have received abatements since 2016 and asked them to consider donating what they are saving in taxes, said Donna Frisby-Greenwood, the fund’s president and CEO. The letters are expected to arrive in mailboxes this week.
"It’s an audience that makes sense for us, that certainly is invested in the city and should be asked,” she said. “I talked to some other property owners and they said, ‘Well, no one’s ever asked me that,’ and I said, ‘Well, we’ll be asking.’”
The abatement allows owners of newly constructed or rehabilitated properties to pay no tax on the improvements for 10 years. Taxes must still be paid on land values. The city’s 14,345 abated properties received a total of $93 million in tax breaks last year, according to a report issued by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. Had those taxes been collected, 55 percent would have gone to the School District and the remaining portion to city government.
The fund has no stated goal for the appeal, but Frisby-Greenwood said she hopes 10 percent of those who get letters donate some amount — a tally that could bring millions in extra funding to city schools.
Some advocates for school funding and City Council members, including Council President Darrell L. Clarke, have called for the city to look at reducing or ending the abatement, which was enacted in 1997 in a bid to lure residents and spur more development. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration commissioned a report this year that highlighted the economic benefits of the abatement, and said the program encourages development and generates jobs.
The Fund for the School District has no official stance on the abatement, Frisby-Greenwood said. She said the idea to encourage contributions from the tax breaks grew from a conversation with a foundation board member. Frisby-Greenwood also talked to Stohr, who already had the idea to donate her abatement.
The fundraising concept had another perk, Frisby-Greenwood said: Obtaining the addresses was free.
While larger nonprofits purchase mailing lists to find and solicit potential donors, the foundation avoided that cost by using the city’s existing data set of abated properties and their owners' addresses.
Councilwoman Helen Gym’s office helped the foundation get the addresses from public records. (Gym introduced bills last year to eliminate the portion of the tax abatement that otherwise would be going to the School District and to examine whether the city should eliminate the abatement in certain neighborhoods.)
The letters sent to homeowners include instructions on how to look up property values and calculate how much of a discount they are getting under the tax abatement.
“If homeowners like you gave even 10 percent of their abatement back to the schools, those contributions would amount to $8.79 million,” the letter states.
Stohr, a former teacher currently working at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences as a fellow in a program that trains educators to become Philadelphia school principals, said she knows that not everyone with an abatement can afford to pay a would-be tax bill.
But she also took her own donation a step further — she contacted the Office of Property Assessment to opt out of the abatement and begin paying her full tax bill directly to the city next year. With that change, her tax bill will nearly quadruple, from about $1,100 to about $4,000. While that is a significant increase, Stohr said she believes in public education and wanted to contribute as much as some of her neighbors already are paying in taxes.
“It seemed very unfair to me that my former block captain who’s lived on the block for 30 years was paying more in property taxes than I was," she said.
Some property owners who benefit from the tax abatement have been critical of reassessments that raised land values, which is the portion of an assessment on which they still must pay taxes. Many of those property owners have filed appeals to the Board of Revision of Taxes.
Frisby-Greenwood said Thursday that she had not yet received feedback from property owners who got letters from the fund.
“It’s something we’re trying for the first time," she said, “and we have no idea whether people will be open to it and actually put a donation in the mail or not.”
Laura McCrystal | @LMcCrystal | firstname.lastname@example.org