Monday, October 19, 2009

Court Fight Over Assessment Timeline Begins

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge R. Stanton Wettick heard from both sides today in the ongoing fight over a property reassessment in Allegheny County. This summer the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Allegheny County’s base year property assessment system to be unconstitutional and sent the case back to the lower court to set a timeline for a new assessment. The plaintiffs (property owners and school districts) offered testimony that assessment numbers created in 2005 but never used could be compared to recent sales data to create new values. They say that would cost about $100,000 and take two months. The goal is to have the new numbers in place by January 15th. Plaintiff lawyer Ira Weiss says homeowners need a solution now because the ratio of real values to assessed values is too far out of line. The assessment industry standard is to keep all values within 20% of the assessed value but the number exceeds 30% in Allegheny County and some complained that it is even worse in high and low end neighborhoods. Weiss says by using a system known as “trending” those values can be brought closer to the 20% mark.
Trending involves comparing recent sales data to the most recent assessment and then applying a multiplier to all properties to arrive at new home values for taxing purposes. The “trending” can be done on any level from county wide, to individual taxing districts and on down to the neighborhood. There are about 2,000 neighborhoods set up by the county’s assessment office. Weiss says the reevaluation made using the “trending” method should be followed on closely by a full reassessment where every property is individually assessed and given a new value.
Allegheny County Solicitor Michael Wojcik says trending will not work. He says everyone agrees that the current numbers are bad but he thinks adding multipliers to them for the next few years would do more harm than would be done by leaving them alone while a full assessment is completed. A full assessment is expected to take 2-3 years and cost million of dollars. During the county’s closing arguments, Judge Wettick wondered aloud why he had not yet received a proposed timeline to complete a reassessment. Wojcik says he feels that time line should be set by the judge. He says when that happens; the county would do whatever it takes to live up to that ruling. The plaintiffs say the county is just dragging its feet. In the past Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato has said that he had hopes the state legislature adopts a statewide assessment procedure before the county has to act on its own. Onorato is running for governor and has based much of his tenure as county executive on his fight against a countywide reassessment.

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