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Washington County to spend nearly $7 million on court-ordered property reassessment

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 12:15 p.m.

Washington County commissioners on Thursday plan to end a years-long battle against reassessment and hire the contractor Allegheny County used in its widely criticized process, though with conditions designed to avoid problems the neighboring county experienced.

Tyler Technologies, based in Dallas with 26 offices nationwide, will sign a contract worth nearly $7 million to assess values of about 116,000 properties. The company, which has a regional office in Moraine, Ohio, submitted the lowest of three bids, county officials said.

The company would begin work this fall and deliver formal assessments to property owners in 2016.

Tyler Technologies officials could not be reached.

Washington County last updated property values in 1981. Commissioners ran out of legal options this year to prevent a reassessment sought by two school districts, though they made it clear they would fight on if they could.

“I don't want to do it,” Commissioner Larry Maggi said. “To sit here and try to shine something I don't want to shine would be disingenuous.”

Fellow Commissioners Harlan Shober and Diana Irey Vaughan supported that stance.

“We're never going to champion being forced to do a reassessment,” Shober said.

Washington County's economy shows signs of rapid growth, buoyed by energy firms tapping into its rich supply of shale gas. Among the country's 322 largest counties, it ranked third in a 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics growth index that examined job and average wages. Its population has hovered slightly above 200,000 since 1990, reaching more than 208,200 in the latest census figures.

Washington and McGuffey school districts in 2008 sued to force the reassessment. They argued the values are outdated and unfair, in part because commercial property owners successfully appealed assessed values year after year and homeowners appealed less frequently. County officials agreed in court to start in 2009, then appealed.

The state Supreme Court in April rejected the county's final appeal, and Common Pleas President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca ordered the county to abide by its agreement.

A lawyer for the school districts said it is a positive sign that the county is moving forward but criticized commissioners for taking so much time.

“Unfortunately, the taxpayers of Washington County will have to wait until at least 2016 for their taxes to be fair and uniform,” said Frank Adams, an attorney with law firm Peacock Keller of Washington.

The Supreme Court in December 2009 ordered Allegheny County's $11 million reassessment of more than 550,000 commercial and residential properties. Tyler Technologies did not complete the process until 2012.

Property owners filed 68,000 informal appeals and more than 103,000 formal appeals alleging inaccurate home values.

Washington County officials said their process would allow for an informal and formal appeals process.

Tyler Technologies should notify property owners around February or March 2016 of what their reassessed value will be, allowing informal appeals to begin. The contract will require the company to deliver formal assessments to property owners by July 1, 2016.

Shober noted that Washington County has the second-lowest tax rate in the state, which spurred development. That could change, depending on the reassessment's outcome, and scare away potential employers.

“We are concerned,” Shober said.

Attorney Don Driscoll, who represented homeowners who sued to force the Allegheny County reassessment, said that process produced unexpected results.

Driscoll has argued that the reassessment was flawed because it increased the value of some low-end homes at a greater rate than more expensive homes in some affluent municipalities. Still, he said he did not know how much of that responsibility fell to Tyler Technologies.

“There should have been greater oversight by the county,” Driscoll said.

Neither Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald nor Michael Wojcik, the former county solicitor during the reassessment, could be reached for comment.

One area Driscoll pointed to as troublesome was that Allegheny County hired the people to collect data for Tyler Technologies, which determined the assessments.

Washington County officials said Tyler Technologies will hire and train people for that county's reassessment.

“I would hope (Tyler Technologies) would make sure it is done better,” Driscoll said.

Washington County officials said they talked with Allegheny County counterparts about Tyler Technologies before making a decision.

“Washington County is not going to be responsible for providing a lot of the ground work,” said Solicitor Mary Lyn Drewitz, who served on a 15-member reassessment committee that unanimously recommended Tyler Technologies. “It's not going to be a joint effort. We will provide them with the money and assistance needed to do their job. But ultimately, it is their job. They are responsible.”

Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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