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Assessment appeals have recent Mt. Lebanon home buyers up in arms

Purchase prices outstrip assessments

In Mt. Lebanon, 586 single-family homes sold in 2013 at an average price of $262,330, and the average assessment was $211,774, a difference of 19.3 percent.

Among Allegheny County towns, Mt. Lebanon had the eighth-highest difference between the average assessment and average sales price when measured in dollars, and was 10th highest in terms of percentage difference. Fawn and Aspinwall tied for ninth with a 19.5 percent difference.

The average sale in Ben Avon was 18.3 percent higher than the average assessment. Ben Avon Heights was 29.1 percent higher, Emsworth was 4.6 percent lower, Kilbuck was 26.2 percent higher, and Ohio Township was 9.9 percent higher. Last year, 171 homes sold in the Avonworth School District.

Countywide, the average sales price for 2013 was about 11 percent higher than the average assessment, though 56 municipalities or Pittsburgh wards lost value in the same year.

Pittsburgh's 25th and 9th wards — the central North Side and most of central Lawrenceville, respectively — had the county's largest jump between assessed values and sales prices, about 45 percent.

Rankin had the largest percentage increase, though that was based on just 16 sales.

Tiny Glen Osborne had the largest difference in dollars, with an average assessment of $315,340 and average sales price of $437,705.

Source: South Side real estate research firm RealSTATs

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More than 100 homeowners in Mt. Lebanon are fighting assessment appeals the municipality or school district filed against them soon after they bought homes, but experts say the “welcome, stranger” tactic is not new for local governments.

Janet Burkardt, a partner with the Downtown firm Weiss Burkardt Kramer, said most school districts and some municipalities watch home sales and appeal when the sales price exceeds the assessed value by a certain ratio, a practice courts have upheld.

When many homes sell for prices well above that ratio, it can signal that it's time to lobby for another reassessment, she said.

“It's not an uncommon tactic, and we try to tell that to our callers,” said Anthony Cameron, an attorney with Kisner Law Firm, Downtown, who often represents property owners in assessment appeals. “They feel they're being targeted.”

Diversified Municipal Services, which contracts with Mt. Lebanon and its school district, appealed 150 properties that sold in 2011 and 2012 and were assessed at 85 percent or less of their sale prices. Officials are appealing 300 properties purchased from 2006 to 2010, and in 2013, that were assessed at 80 percent or less of their sale prices.

Many of those homeowners complained to Mt. Lebanon commissioners that their neighbors with similar homes paid taxes on much lower assessments.

Scott Livingston, one of the newcomers, said the appeals place an unfair tax burden on recent home buyers.

“We all know Mt. Lebanon could not enact a tax that says, ‘Scott Livingston pays more than his neighbor,' but they're using the appeals process to accomplish the same thing,” Livingston said. “What's so upsetting is having your next-door neighbor paying literally half of what you are because Mt. Lebanon targeted you.”

Commissioners told Diversified to find a way to determine the most under-assessed properties that changed hands before 2006, because appreciation and inflation made their sale prices a less reliable indicator of their value — though Livingston noted some properties in Mt. Lebanon that sold before 2006 are assessed for less than their owners paid.

“The only way to attempt to get any correction on under-assessed properties is for the municipality to file an appeal,” said Diversified President Don Gambino, who managed the Allegheny County assessment office before starting his business. “The county has no intent to fulfill its responsibility of creating uniform and equitable assessments.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald opposes another reassessment if other counties aren't required to do so.

“The process is disruptive, cost taxpayers a lot of money, and was a poor expenditure of county dollars that could have been better used on our roads, infrastructure and other expenses,” Fitzgerald said in an emailed statement. “To make Allegheny County go through a process that makes us uncompetitive with other, surrounding counties is unfair and a statewide solution must be found to address that issue.”

Avonworth School District — covering Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township — followed criteria similar to Mt. Lebanon's when deciding whether to appeal recently sold properties' assessments, said Brad Waters, the district's director of fiscal management. Last year, the district appealed 69 properties that sold for $15,000 more than their assessed values or 15 percent more.

Taxpayers have complained, Waters said: “The board's position on that is, that's the county's job to get an accurate assessment. If they didn't get a good read on a property's true value, that's not the school district's problem.”

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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