Phildelphia 2005

by Nicholas Rosen

On the first evening of the 2005 CGO Conference in Philadelphia, someone mentioned the diversity of the attendees. You might find the same political diversity at a stamp collectors’ convention, but it’s hard to think of another political proposal which would command enthusiastic support from Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Libertarians. For example, a distinguished visitor from Britain, David Wetzel, Vice Chair of London Transport, says he is “on the left of the Labour Party”, and thinks that Tony Blair ought to be the Tory prime minister. His Georgist friend Don Riley, who regrettably did not grace us with his presence, is a Conservative “who thinks that Tony Blair should be President of North Korea”. But, they agree on land value taxation.

Five Champions of Philadelphia Tax Reform

The next morning, we heard from five other people who agree: Jonathan Saidel, Diane Lucidi, Kathy Harris, Brett Mandel, and James Tayoun. Mr. Saidel is Philly’s City Controller. He spoke of the problems with a property tax that punished people for fixing their roofs, and rewards decay, and of the need to think outside the box. He also mentioned a Drexel University study that switching to a land-only property tax would save the average Philadelphia homeowner $100 per year.

Ms. Lucidi is Executive VP of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors. She got into this lobbying for a ten-year tax abatement on new construction, which led to her meeting Brett Mandel and Bruno Moser, who told her about LVT. If a ten-year abatement on new construction is good, why not a permanent abatement on all construction?

Mr. Tayoun is a restaurateur, former City Councilman, and now a newspaper publisher. He spoke on the difficulties of getting politicians to understand LVT, and the need to get more people who understand it on the City Council.

Ms. Harris is a neighborhood activist with the Olney Neighborhood Association, who got involved with this through Townwatch. She showed us a memorable series of pictures: public drinking, public urination, then examples of the derelict buildings and rubbish-strewn vacant lots where this kind of disorderly behavior goes on. She appealed her assessment and won, using pictures and police data to show that her neighborhood wasn’t a place where property was that valuable. That’s how she came to meet Joshua Vincent and Jonathan Saidel, and learn how reforming the property tax could arrest urban decay instead of rewarding it.

Mr. Mandel, formerly Director of Finance for the City Controller’s Office, and now with Philadelphia Forward, spoke of how Philadelphia has lost one quarter of its jobs and residents — half a million residents, a quarter of a million jobs — in the past half century. Taxes aren’t the whole problem, but they’re a big part of it. Philadelphia first enacted a wage tax of one quarter of one percent in 1939 as a [giggle] temporary emergency measure. It grew to nearly five percent, and did a lot to keep the productive from living or working in the city. In the 50s, the city had the bright idea of imposing a business privilege tax, which has helped chase businesses away. The property tax falls on land and buildings, not just land, and it’s fouled up in other ways. There are random errors, like similar properties close to each other with very different assessments, and there are systematic errors: assessments are typically 30 or 40% of actual value in wealthy neighborhoods, 100% or more in poor neighborhoods. Tax reform is seriously needed!

That was the first morning, where we heard from five Philadelphians working with us to get LVT adopted in their city.

Highlights from the Rest of the Conference

Ted Gwartney, President of HGFA and Chief Assessor for Greenwich, CT, talked about the practicalities of assessment: looking at sales of comparable properties, making adjustments, and so forth.

Joshua Vincent, HGFA’s Executive Director, spoke about how to persuade city officials. It’s not enough to tell them that a two-rate tax is a good idea; you need to get hold of assessment data, so you can say that replacing the current property tax with one that taxes land twice as much as buildings would mean X mills on buildings, 2X on land, and every additional mill on land will raise Y thousand dollars. The LVT-application formulas developed by Steven Cord are essential!

Also, he recommended using local issues — a particular vacant lot on valuable downtown land, owned by a particular slumlord people love to hate, for example — and suggesting local solutions. Use local people, and let them use you. Find friends: churches, elected officials, neighborhood groups, anti-sprawl activists, business leaders, etc.

Richard Biddle talked about the secret history of Monopoly. You may have known that Charles Darrow didn’t really invent Monopoly, but more-or-less stole the idea from Elizabeth Magie’s The Landlords’ Game. Mr. Biddle had the names, dates, and details to show that the game was completely unoriginal on Darrow’s part. Darrow even copied the Atlantic City Street names, as shown by his misspelling of “Marven Gardens” as “Marvin” from someone else’s gameboard (Charles Todd’s).

The next day, there were reports from CGO member organizations, and Board meetings of the CSE and HGFA, membership meeting of the HGI, and the CGO town meeting.

Saturday morning, Dr. Herb Barry and others discussed slogans. “Tax bads, not goods,” is short and succinct. “Community makes land valuable” and “Landowners should fund community” make a good pair.

Dan Sullivan talked about tailoring your message, how (and whether) to approach different groups, get people involved, solicit funds, etc. He stressed the vital importance of saying “I need your help!” — and then offering people a way to become a worthwhile part of a worthwhile organization.

David Wetzel talked impressivley about the prospects for LVT in Great Britain. As a big wheel, so to speak, at London Transport, he had facts and figures on how a few billion pounds spent on extending the Underground, etc., produced many more billions in increased land value. As a Georgist, he knew about the largely forgotten history of the land tax. It had a great deal of support in progressive circles in the early 20th century, but World War I and some other incidents derailed the movement. The Tories not only abolished the small land tax in the 20s, but returned to the landowners what they had paid over the past some years. The Labour Party pursued soaking the rich in other ways, but dropped the ball on LVT.

In Britain, local rates are levied only on property that’s being used, not vacant lots and derelict buildings. Mr. Wetzel had slides and personal stories to show the results (speculators letting land stay idle and buildings decay, in case you hadn’t guessed). Because England is more centralized than America, or even than some individual U.S. States, a good first step would be to give local governments more options in how to impose rates.

The CGO held its business meeting, arranging for next year’s meeting in Skokie, and discussing Scranton, PA, for 2007. Smithers, British Columbia, came under discussion as a possible prospect.

At our Saturday evening banquet, awards were presented to Jonathan Saidel, to the HGFA as a Georgist organization, and to Brett Mandel. Cay Hehner, the new Director of Education at the Henry George School in New York, spoke on conceiving our movment in terms of the future, and our responsibility to provide the conceptual keys to sustainable prosperity.

Sunday morning, we had our friendship brunch, and honored Lucia Cipolloni, who has been working at the Henry George School in Philadelphia since 1937. George Collins, who worked with Lu for 25 years as Director of the Philadelphia HGS, spoke movingly of Lu’s selfless dedication and unflappable good cheer. George himself only started at the HG School of New York in 1961. Other Philadelphia HGS Directors praised Lu as well: Mike Curtis, Ken Ford, Dan Sullivan and Richard Biddle. After more toasts and expressions of good will, we broke up to go our various ways, save for those who went off on the bus tour of Arden.

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