Hempfield school officials move forward with tax assessment appeals
The Hempfield Area School Board is moving forward with a tax assessment appeals process that spurred public outcry last year and was the driving force during the May primary election. They are retaining a Forest Hills law firm that sparked several questions from board members in the process.
Pushing up against an Aug. 1 deadline for when appeals can be filed, the board voted 6-3 this week to retain Andrews and Price. Board members Scott Learn, Paul Ward and newly appointed member Mike Alfery voted against the decision.
Right now, officials are performing tax assessment appeals on properties that have sold for $250,000 over their assessed value. Several members, however, expressed concerns about the lack of communication between the board and the law firm, as well as a lack of research into the process itself.
“I think in the fall when we talked about it, one of the opinions was to table this so we can do that research and we went ahead with the vote and approved it,” Ward said at Monday’s meeting. “And I think we haven’t done enough research to truly understand the implications of what we’re doing and how that may be impacting home purchases and development in the township.”
Ward cited a meeting with the law firm last year, suggesting questions about the process were dodged. Board member Paul Adams agreed, but added some questions asked to law firm officials were decisions only the board could make.
To make sure the firm is doing everything the board asks, Learn suggested setting up a system of checks and balances to ensure every property transfer is being checked.
Board member Diane Ciabattoni expressed the importance of reaching the deadline for the benefit of the district and taxpayers.
“I understand what you’re all saying and I do agree with some of it, but at this time for us to do any research it’s too late — any more research,” Ciabattoni said. “I do think we need to discuss this again, but I, at this late date, I’d rather have this go through and then work on it from here.”
According to board President Sonya Brajdic, if some members of the community had gone through the tax assessment appeals process in the past, the district might not have had to raise taxes for residents across the board.
When the policy was implemented, lawyers from Andrews and Price looked for properties recently sold for $100,000 or more than their assessed value, then issued appeals.
At first the district only went after commercial properties, but a 2017 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision ruled such practices are unfair, and said taxing bodies must treat commercial and residential properties the same when evaluating assessment appeals.
Officials raised the differential to $250,000 last year after more than 70 people showed up to express their concerns that residents were being singled out.
Four commercial and seven residential tax appeals were filed in 2017, based on the $100,000 differential, Superintendent Tammy Wolicki said. The next year, 14 commercial and two residential tax appeals were filed for the 2019 tax year.
School board members will meet with lawyers from Andrews and Price during an August executive session for legal advise regarding the procedures. If any changes are made in regards to the process, they will be deliberated in public and the impact would be on tax assessment appeals filed for the 2020 tax year, Wolicki said.
Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .