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Lawyers: Allegheny's 'base-year system' plan to avoid reassessments not going to work

| Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 12:09 a.m.

Allegheny County is headed back into the same trouble that led a court to order it to reassess property values, according to attorneys for homeowners who sparked last year's reassessment.

The problems, they say, are establishing a “base-year system” and not planning reassessments.

“If that's what the county does, they're going back to a system that was declared unconstitutional. What Judge (R. Stanton) Wettick ruled and the opinion of the Supreme Court was that a base-year system that does not have periodic adjustments to address market changes is unconstitutional because it creates non-uniformity,” said attorney Ira Weiss, one of two attorneys who sued on behalf of homeowners. “If that's what is done, I'm sure there will be more litigation.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he plans to establish the 2012 property reassessment as a base-year for coming tax years, to avoid problems reassessments cause.

“We're not going to be reassessing. We're using a base-year plan like every other county,” Fitzgerald said. “It's tough to look 10 years down the road. It's my hope that the Legislature will deal with this issue.”

Allegheny County property owners are litigating the more than 100,000 appeals they filed after the most recent assessment.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that base-year systems are not unconstitutional but over time can produce tax values that are so inaccurate they require periodic adjustments or reassessments. Owners of properties with the fastest-rising values are being undertaxed, while people whose properties are declining or slowly rising in value are being overtaxed, the court said.

“The difficulty — and the risk to an authority employing an unadjusted base-year system — is in determining the point at which a base year deviates to an extent where reassessment would be required,” Chief Justice Ronald Castille wrote at the time.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Robert Strauss said the county could avoid the same reassessment pain by adequately preparing for the next one by dedicating time and resources to the job.

“The (property assessment office) is still short-staffed. If the county doesn't set a date and put resources toward it, it will be same result,” Strauss said. “You can't get rid of the fire department and then, when the house burns down, say, ‘Oh my gosh, look what happened.' ”

Fitzgerald has focused attention on some aspects of property taxation. Earlier this year, he ordered a review of all tax-exempt parcels and of homestead exemptions. He fired assessments manager Michael Suley in November.

Strauss said he didn't blame Fitzgerald for dragging his feet on reassessments because they can be expensive and politically thorny. Allegheny County paid more than $9 million to Dallas-based Tyler Technologies to conduct the latest reassessment.

“No county gets money from the state for reassessments, and it's not overseen by the state,” Strauss said. “There's no state law that requires periodic reassessments. Pennsylvania is one of a handful in the country that don't.”

Neighboring counties may soon find themselves in the same legal predicament, lawyers said. Washington County is preparing for a court-ordered reassessment stemming from a lawsuit. It last reassessed in 1981.

“That's why it's so important the Legislature do something,” said Larry Maggi, chairman of the Washington County Commissioners. “We're all going to have to (reassess), but everyone is doing it differently. There's no clear guidelines.”

Butler County uses a base-year system based on 1969 values. Westmoreland County uses 1973 values.

“I'd like to see the state do an across-the-state reassessment so we're all on the same page,” said Charles Anderson, chairman of the Westmoreland County Commissioners.

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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