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Allegheny County school districts brace for appeals results

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 9:13 p.m.
 

School districts across Allegheny County are setting their budgets for the upcoming school year, but some with dozens, if not hundreds, of property reassessment appeals awaiting judgment can only make educated guesses on what their tax base will be.

County officials said more than 2,000 appeals of reassessments that were supposed to take effect this year are still waiting to be decided by the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review, and that's not counting an additional 15,000 appeals filed in the four-month window between January and April when the county extended the deadline to file.

County school districts, most of which operate on budgets that run from July 1 to June 31, are finalizing their budgets this month while dealing with the possibility that the appeals could cause dramatic changes in their tax revenues.

“We usually approve our budget a little bit earlier in the year, but we actually delayed a final vote until June so we could wait and get a better handle on things,” said Tina Vojtko, spokeswoman for the Quaker Valley School District. There were 65 appeals in Quaker Valley still awaiting decisions just from the first round of filings; a similar breakdown by school district was not yet available from the county.

“We're not sure exactly how many appeals are out there, and the ones we are sure of haven't been decided yet. That's ugly,” said Quaker Valley Superintendent Joseph Clapper. The initial reassessment bumped property values in the district up 45 percent, and the appeals that have been decided so far cut that down to a 30 percent increase, he said. The district is waiting until June 18 to refine its estimates and pass its $42.17 million final budget, which would lower taxes to a projected 16.93 mills.

State law says municipalities and school districts have to lower their millage rates so the rising court-mandated reassessments don't create an across-the-board tax increase and the taxing bodies don't reap a sudden windfall. But setting a final “revenue-neutral” tax rate or one within the state's limits for a tax increase also depends on those appeals. Some districts were setting aside more money in their reserves that could be used to pay refunds to property owners that win appeals.

Many districts' finance directors met Wednesday at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to share strategies for estimating what their tax bases will be after the appeals are decided. Some are using staff to go property-by-property and figure out what will happen; others are looking at broader historical trends.

“Most of us are trying to factor in what the possible reductions will be from these appeals — trying to look at what the open appeals are and analyze them,” said Dana Siford, director of finance and school services at the Pine-Richland School District, during a break in the meeting. She said her district was looking on a property-by-property basis for parcels that previously won appeals, to get an idea of which ones were likely to win again.

“We're looking at the large residential properties and the commercial properties, those are the ones that are going to sway the (total) value quite a lot,” she said. Her district's proposed $69.6 million budget lowers the tax rate to the estimated revenue-neutral rate of 18.3794 mills, then raises it to 18.9492 mills.

In Mt. Lebanon, finance director Jan Klein's looked at the county's last estimate of $2.7 billion worth of taxable property in the district and took two approaches: subtracting properties that were likely to win appeals, and comparing the total reduction in value wrought by appeals in previous reassessment years. Both led her to estimate that the tax base for her district next year will be about $2.6 billion. The district used that to calculate and pass its $83.16 million budget for 2013-14 on Monday.

“We've been going over a lot of strategies for coming up with the appeals, but the bottom line is, unless we get some more information — about these newest appeals, especially — we'll be in the dark,” said John Sheline, Quaker Valley's director of finance and operations.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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