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Corbett gets bill to equalize valuations

| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 11:39 p.m.

Washington County officials who dragged their feet over a court-ordered property reassessment got one thing they wanted Thursday: Some guidance on how to do it.

State lawmakers passed legislation that could standardize reassessments across Pennsylvania. The bill, which passed unanimously, got generally positive reviews for being a good first step, most notably from Washington County.

“We're going to kind of hold our breath and see where this leads,” said county Commissioner Larry Maggi. “We're hoping this will help us to make sure reassessment is done fairly and evenly.”

Senate Bill 66 would move the State Tax Equalization Board under the Department of Community and Economic Development. The bill includes provisions to modernize reassessments through DCED oversight.

The bill contains no provisions requiring counties to reassess.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he was not sure what impact standardization would have had on Allegheny County when it underwent court-ordered reassessment last year. But he said the move was encouraging.

“I think it's a good first step in setting standards,” said Fitzgerald, who added he has no intentions of using the action as a reason to redo the county's reassessment.

Real reform would require all of Pennsylvania's 67 counties to reassess, Fitzgerald said.

Attorney Ira Weiss, who represented property owners who sued Allegheny County to force reassessment, agreed lawmakers need to do more. One approach would be having the state perform reassessments instead of counties, he said.

“The hardest step is the first step,” Weiss said.

The bill goes to Gov. Tom Corbett. Representatives from Corbett's office did not return a call, but members of the House and Senate — Democrat and Republican — said they believe he will sign the legislation.

“There's no doubt,” said Republican Sen. John Gordner of Bloomsburg, who sponsored the bill.

“This is the most well-researched, comprehensive reassessment reform ever seen in Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil. “This will change the system from top to bottom.”

Butler County has not reassessed since 1969. Commission Chairman Bill McCarrier said it could cost $10 million.

“We have a lot of room to go without doing a reassessment,” he said. But, “I think sooner or later, it's going to come up. It'll have to be done.”

Indiana County is voluntarily planning its first reassessment since 1971 — which happens to be the last time Westmoreland County underwent the process.

Jude Abraham, chief business administrator for Hempfield Area School District, said he does not favor “aggressive reassessment.”

“I think it serves to cannibalize property values, and I think in Westmoreland County, we've all done fine with each district presenting its tax increase based on need and not going out and reassessing the properties in bulk,” Abraham said.

Washington County this week began soliciting bids on reassessment after years of fighting a 2008 lawsuit filed by the McGuffey and Washington school districts. The county last reassessed in 1981. Reassessing the county's 118,000 properties could cost $8 million, Maggi said.

He hoped to get the school districts and Common Pleas Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca to allow time for the state standards to be established. “It will progress, but we are going to do everything we can under the law to be allowed to do it under this new system,” Maggi said.

The bill's passage will give Washington County officials another delay tactic, said Susan Key, the attorney representing the school districts.

“It could take them years, and Washington County residents shouldn't have to wait years for uniformity in their property taxes,” Key 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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