Preparing Your Assessment Appeal: Show Me the Data

It's the beginning of September, and most people have yet to hear from the Philadelphia Office of Property Assessment (OPA) with a decision about their First Level Review applications (to contest their real estate tax assessments).  That means those applicants will have to decide whether they want to file formal appeals to the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT), or just let it go (and maybe eventually hear from the OPA).  Here are a couple things you will want to keep in mind if you appeal your property tax assessment to the BRT.

First,  the OPA may decide to urge the BRT at your hearing to raise your property's assessment.  Yes, the OPA can do this, and it does. However, keep in mind that this is seldom successful.  The BRT Secretary, Mr. Robert Nix, noted last month at a legal education seminar that the BRT rarely votes to raise a taxpayer's assessment when they appeal.  Notably, in the few instances that the BRT does vote to raise a taxpayer’s assessment, Mr. Nix stated that it is usually the case that the taxpayer is argumentative or outright confrontational at the hearing.  The takeaway—be respectful at any hearing before the BRT.

Second, you may want to know what the OPA's argument is going to be at the hearing, to better counter it.  The OPA attorney will likely tell you that you as the taxpayer are not entitled to discovery in advance of BRT appeal hearings.  While it is true that the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure do not allow you to formally request discovery of the OPA’s materials in the course of an assessment appeal, there is something better.

There is a statute the explicitly requires, without exception or condition, that the OPA must provide a taxpayer with any and all information in its files regarding the taxpayer’s property, including information regarding "the basis upon which such [tax] assessments were made" if the taxpayer asks for it. See 72 P.S. § 5341.6 (the “Information Statute”).  Unlike discovery under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, which require a delay of 30 days in which an opponent can object to the request for information, the Information Statute requires the OPA to provide you information about your property at any time during business hours, even without advance notice. Id.

In the 4 years or so I worked for the City, I am not aware that anyone ever invoked the Information Statute to get their property’s assessment information from the OPA.  There is also no real mechanism in place for requests under the Information Statute. Consequently, the OPA’s reaction when confronted with a request under the Information Statute is (a) confusion, (b) reluctant acquiescence, or (c) outright obstruction.   

However, if you believe your appeal has merit, and particularly if you believe you were wrongly assessed due to some error by the OPA (i.e., square footage mistake, deed mistake, etc.), then you would still be well-advised to request the OPA’s records for your property regarding "the basis upon which [your tax] assessments were made."  If you have an expert appraiser and/or and attorney, they will undoubtedly be interested in seeing that information to be as well-prepared as possible, particularly if you must proceed before the BRT at a hearing. 

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this blog is intended or should be construed to constitute legal advice, and readers should not rely on it to solve their individual legal issues. No opinion set forth is endorsed by any law firm and is the sole opinion of the author. For help with any present legal issue, please consult a licensed attorney and do not rely merely on anything set forth in this website.