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Homeowners sue Allegheny County over assessment appeal practices

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By Bobby Kerlik
Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 6:00 p.m.
 

Eight homeowners sued Allegheny County and the Board of Property Assessment and Review on Tuesday, blasting the appeals process and sending the much-maligned property reassessment back to court.

The homeowners — whose residences are in Franklin Park, West Mifflin, Churchill, Baldwin Borough and Shaler — claim in a lawsuit that hearing officers from the board improperly ignore solid evidence from homeowners appealing the property reassessments that the county did last year. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that certified appraisals that homeowners present as evidence are not properly considered and that homeowners get no explanation why such evidence is not accepted.

“The best evidence is a certified real estate appraisal, and when no other evidence is offered, the hearing officer should set the value at the (appraisal) value,” said attorney Grey Pratt, an attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Pratt said he wants the county to go back through its appeals and correct the cases in which he says the outcome is flawed because the appraisals weren't considered.

Amie Downs, spokeswoman for county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, declined to comment. David Montgomery, solicitor for the assessment board, did not return a call for comment.

Plaintiff Joseph Stivorich, 77, of Shaler, said a certified professional appraisal set the value of his home at $142,000; the hearing officer set the value at about $174,000.

“I don't think it was proper,” he said. “That's why I felt I wanted to pursue it.”

In the Churchill appeal, the county first assessed the property at $420,200, but the owner's appraisal was $360,000. The hearing officer set the assessment at $385,600, he said. The cost of the certified appraisal ranges from $275 to $450, Pratt said.

“Judge (R. Stanton) Wettick will have to decide whether this applies retroactively to everybody in the county or just the named plaintiffs,” Pratt said.

The case is filed as a class-action suit. If the judge approves that, it would open to everyone in the county in a similar situation.

Charles Utz, 87, of Pine, who is not part of the lawsuit but said he's appealing assessments on four rental properties, said the entire reassessment has been a problem.

“They raised it too much at one time,” Utz said. “At 87, I don't need this problem.”

The issue has a long history in court.A different group of homeowners sparked the reassessment because they filed a lawsuit in 2005, claiming the county's base-year system was unconstitutional. Fitzgerald and former Executive Dan Onorato opposed the reassessment, but Wettick and the state Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs claim that case law dictates that a certified appraisal trumps the county's assessed value and that if a taxing body presents no other evidence, a homeowner's assessed value should be set at the certified appraised value. Pratt did not name the specific case,. A hearing on the matter could happen as soon as Jan. 18, Pratt said.

The lawsuit states that although some hearing officers accept certified appraisals as credible evidence, others disregard it, “merely selecting a value, apparently out of ‘thin air,' as the appropriate value of the property.” The plaintiffs also claim that some hearing officers don't meet the county's qualifications to hold the job.

Problems with the assessment board surfaced last month when Montgomery, the solicitor, said about 100 people received erroneous results from their appeals because of a computer glitch.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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