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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

Bucks should put tax records on the Web
While Philadelphians can research their property tax appeals online for free, Bucks County residents either have to pay for access or schlep to the courthouse twice.

He was our governor for little more than a year, but Mark Schweiker has etched his name in the history books by handling the crisis of nine trapped Western Pennsylvania miners with composure.

The Bucks County native could have etched himself in the hearts of his fellow Pennsylvanians, though, if he had leveraged his lame-duck governorship for meaningful property tax reform.

Instead, in his parting address to the Legislature last week, Schweiker simply told the lawmakers, "Pennsylvania must have a property tax system that's fair for all."

That includes Bucks County, where a long line of county commissioners - Schweiker included - have resisted the idea of a reassessment for decades. In fact, the last time the county looked at all the property within its border was in 1972, back when the county was mostly farmland, not housing developments.

Thirty years later, the county now has a Web site (www.BucksCounty.org). However, residents are forced to drive to the courthouse in Doylestown in droves to do property tax appeals - not once, but twice.

The way things work in Bucks and most counties, residents who want to research the county-set assessments on their homes must first drive to the courthouse to use the county's computer for free - or pay a fee ($24 a year, plus 60-cents per minute) for special access by modem. Then, homeowners have to write their appeals and drive back to the Courthouse to file it.

Philadelphia residents don't have to do that to do their property tax appeals.

Recognizing that these are public records, the city put its property tax database on its Web site (www.phila.gov) two years ago. With just a few clicks of a mouse, Philly residents can compare the assessments of their houses with their neighbors to see if they're being taxed fairly by both the city and school district.
That's at least some progress.

Schweiker's successor, former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, now faces the challenge of tax reform. And one of the first steps Gov. Rendell should take is requiring all counties in Pennsylvania to post their property tax records on the Web so they can be accessed free of charge by residents.

Without that, county commissioners around the state have found a great way to limit the number of challenges to a taxing system that is patently unfair.

How unfair?

Ten years ago, a Bucks County Courier Times study of more than 700 homes found that roughly 40 percent were underassessed and another 20 percent were overassessed. The situation continues to grow worse with time.

But after being handed a petition from 622 residents last year requesting a reassessment, Bucks Commissioner Charles Martin said he was against the idea because of its estimated $8 million cost and the fact it would take two years to survey every property in the county, the Courier Times reported. 

Meanwhile, the county's Web site, which cost taxpayers $27,500 last year to redesign, is mostly used to find the hours and phone numbers of county officers.

Its top feature at the time I write this, is a press release stating the county commissioners limited this year's county tax increase to three mills. (A mill is a $1 tax for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value. By law, the commissioners set the assessed values of all property in their county and their county's millage rate. But they have no control over the millage rate set by school districts.) Also posted was a copy of the county budget.

The county's revamped Web site does offer two main improvements to the old one:

  • The county now posts poll results as they come in on election night. Unfortunately, its server couldn't handle the increase in traffic last November, making it difficult for users to access the pages that night.

  • The Clerk of Courts office now lets users pay fees and fines via an online vendor (www.officialpayments.com). But Bucks residents still can't pay their county taxes online, unlike nine municipalities in the county which utilize the same service to collect taxes.

By the way, Philadelphia's Web site also lets residents pay parking tickets, report a pothole, read bidding proposals on city contracts, and report abandoned autos/buildings and crime in their neighborhoods. 

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at .

Jan. 13, 2003