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Hempfield supervisors seek alternative to 'benefit assessments'

Jacob Tierney
| Friday, June 12, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

Hempfield supervisors this week met with the township municipal authority board for the first time in about two years to discuss projects, including the controversial benefit assessments for the Lincoln Heights sewer project.

The $7 million project brought sewer lines to hundreds of previously unserved homes.

Supervisors questioned whether benefit assessments, which charge property owners along the new sewer lines based on the value of their property, are the most fair way to raise funds for such a major undertaking.

“Is there something else that we can do to help the property owners out?” asked Chairman Doug Weimer.

Supervisors suggested several alternative methods that could replace the benefit assessment, such as higher tap-in fees for those hooking up to the new sewer lines or raising usage rates across the township to establish a capital fund, but municipal authority general manager Regis Ranella and other authority officials defended the assessment process as a fair way of making sure the people who benefit the most pay the biggest share.

The authority has tried offering a payment plan for the benefit assessment bills in the past instead of sending the entire bill up-front, but fewer people paid when this was done, according to Ranella.

“People just didn't feel obligated to pay the authority back,” he said.

The average benefit assessment bill for Lincoln Heights was more than $3,000.

More than 400 residents were charged. About 300 of them have paid, but the practice drew many complaints from those who felt their assessment was unfair.

The assessments were performed by Professional Real Estate Appraisal Services Inc. in Greensburg, a private company.

The benefit assessments are expected to bring in about $1.5 million, according to Ranella. The sewer project was funded by a federal Rural Utility Service loan, which will be paid back during the next 40 years.

Property owners who have not paid their benefit assessment bill will likely go to an appeals hearing, where they will have the chance to argue for a lower assessment.

However, Lincoln Heights resident Glenn Robison said property owners were discouraged from appealing. Those who paid on time will receive a 15 percent discount, which makes an appeal a risky bet that could lead to property owners paying more if the hearing doesn't go their way.

“They really kind of have you over a stump,” Robison said.

Robison paid the bill for his home on Robert Place, which came to $3,400 after the discount, but he said he does not believe the assessment process was fair. His attempts to learn more about how his home was valued have been repeatedly stymied.

He filed a right-to-know request to look at all the documents related to his assessment, but the municipal authority told him the documents did not exist. He asked for a copy of the municipal authority's contract with the Greensburg company that performed the assessments, but the authority told him there was no contract for the project.

During a similar controversy in 2011, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruled that benefit assessment appraisals from the authority's last major project were open records. Property owners were able to request their assessments. This time, the authority is saying there are no records to request, Robison said.

“They absolutely refuse. They don't have it, supposedly,” he said.

After the Wednesday meeting, Ranella declined to answer any questions from a reporter. He declined to provide even basic procedural information about the Lincoln Heights project, such as the name of the company that performed the assessments, telling the reporter to file a right-to-know request instead.

Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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