Washington County commissioners go back to court over reassessment

| Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 12:04 a.m.

The legal battle over Washington County's stalled property reassessment could intensify on Tuesday.

A lawyer for Washington and McGuffey school districts intends to ask Common Pleas Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca to hold county Commissioners Larry Maggi, Diana Irey Vaughan and Harlan Shober in contempt of court because they haven't started the property review. Attorney Susan Key does not expect the judge to rule immediately, though she has that authority.

“I'm not sure what will happen. I cannot get in the judge's head,” said Maggi, who added: “I'm not going anywhere near the courtroom.”

Maggi, who attended a session on assessments while in Harrisburg on Monday for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania conference, said the commissioners would address the issue during an afternoon press conference.

He said the county shouldn't spend $7 million of taxpayers' money to reassess properties if the figures could be outdated in a few years.

“We're still against this thing,” Maggi said. “We realize it's a bad position. But it's a bad law and it needs to be changed.”

The county included $38.4 million from real estate taxes in its 2013 budget.

The school districts sued four years ago on grounds that assessments last performed in 1981 are unfair and inequitable.

O'Dell Seneca ruled in 2011 that commissioners voluntarily entered into a court-approved agreement in 2008 to reassess property. She ordered them to get started.

The county appealed to Superior Court, which in December sided with O'Dell Seneca. The county then appealed to state Supreme Court, which has not said whether it will hear the case.

O'Dell Seneca in January reiterated the county should get started and scheduled Tuesday's hearing for a progress update.

She shouldn't expect much, both sides said.

“I know their answer is going to be that they haven't done anything,” said Key, the school districts' lawyer. “They aren't voluntarily going to do anything.”

Residential property owners pay an unfair tax burden under the system and its three-decades-old figures, said Rick Mancini, director of operations for Washington schools.

“Older homes are overassessed and newer homes are underassessed,” Mancini said.

Commercial property owners routinely appeal tax bills using a formula with 1980 values, he said. “And residents are picking up the difference.”

Updating property values after decades of residential and commercial growth across Washington County — including palatial homes in Peters and North Strabane, a casino and outlet stores in North Strabane, and the Southpointe business park — would not lead to across-the-board tax increases, school officials said.

Taxing commercial entities at a fair level could result in lower tax bills for residents, they said.

State law limits school districts from increasing total revenue by more than 2.4 percent each year, Mancini said.

“Everyone thinks the schools are going to get a windfall in taxes, and that simply isn't true,” he said.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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