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Groundhog Day in the assessment office

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002

Public anger over assessment values in Allegheny County has only deepened with release of 2002 values. How we have arrived at this point has both to do with the recent and long-term history of property reassessments.

It has been obvious since Sabre Systems was effectively fired that an entirely different batch of assessed values were on their way to county homeowners. Also well known by the county was the fact that even successfully appealed values from last year were not used in the calculation of new values.

The question is why the public was not better prepared for what was to come and what it would mean.

The problems with property assessments have been building for decades and are likely not to be resolved quickly. The goal, however, must be to make any current fixes in the system last so that we do not continually reprise the situation, not unlike the Bill Murray movie, ''Groundhog Day.''

What has become obvious is that the county cannot, on its own, produce property values that are both accurate and, as seen by the public, fair. And the last thing the county wants is for the state to come in and take over all or part of its property assessment duties.

Nonetheless, the state has not provided a clear and consistent set of standards for local property assessment. If any systematic review of how counties conduct reassessments had taken place in the past, then the situation the county now faces never would have occurred.

OPPORTUNITY SQUANDERED

As hard as it is to believe these days, Allegheny County once approached the cutting edge of property tax assessment technology and practice.

Twenty-five years ago a contest was sponsored by the county Assessor's Office to try and find the best computer system to calculate property values and replace the traditional methods then in use.

In 1978, 28 competitors, including Sabre Systems, submitted models. Local property data was provided by the county to six finalists. Professor Richard Longini of Carnegie Mellon University won that competition after having shown that his computer model produced more accurate and equitable values than the county's own assessors.

Professor Longini's program went on to be implemented across the country as one of the core methods used in computer aided mass appraisal, or CAMA, technology.

Allegheny County contracted with Professor Longini to implement his system, one he delivered and one for which he received a license fee for years. The county, though, had the tools it needed to produce accurate property assessments but chose to ignore them. Onto the shelf the program went and Allegheny County passed on being a leader in property assessment practice. Soon the county would rank near last in terms of any criteria of ''best practices'' in property assessment.

The results of that decision continue to cast a pall over the system to this day.

DEJA VU

The issues of the late 1970s mirror those today. Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick's intervention is not the first time that the county property tax system has been placed into a form of judicial receivership.

The problems became so bad by 1979 that Common Pleas Judge Nicholas Papadakos took over control of the county Assessor's Office. He relinquished that role in 1982, claiming that the problems had been fixed. More likely his appointment to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court left no local judge willing to or able to step into his role.

It would not be long before local property assessments were again grossly inaccurate and inconsistent.

But perhaps the problem is not necessarily with the tools available but with, as I suggested earlier, the lack of guidance and uniform standards across the state. Then, as now, there exists very little oversight as to how property assessments should be conducted and what criteria is acceptable. Other states have much more clearly defined oversight for local property assessments.

Neighboring Ohio requires a mass reassessment of all properties every six years. The problems with local property valuations so clearly out of line with market value could never had become so bad if any systematic reassessment had been done here on a similar schedule.

At its core, there needs to be a greater transparency in how the Assessor's Office really works. Few county residents realized that their past assessment had little impact on the 2002 numbers. Even more surprising to many, yet equally well known to the county, was that the appeals process and any new values it assigned were not used in any meaningful way by the new values calculated by Sabre's successor, CLT system.

By keeping the public in the dark the county has only magnified a level of anger and confusion that still lingered from the previous cycle.

Can the appeals system handle the stress of an other record number of appeals• Last year the process broke down with the county offering minimal defense of most property tax appeals. That led to the large number of valuation adjustments. This actually made a bad problem worse in that many who succeeded in their appeals were left with the impression their success would last more than a few months.

One of Judge Papadakos' core complaints with the system as it existed decades ago was a common practice of automatically lowering values on appeal merely to decrease the backlog of appeals. It could be argued that we have already regressed to that situation.

Do we really have to go through this again this year?

The writer is an economist at the Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been working on property assessment issues for much of the last year and have been advising various parties on both the history and current models used in computer-aided mass reassessment.

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