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Owner wants more cuts in tower's tax bill

| Sunday, Aug. 25, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

The owner of Pittsburgh's tallest office building, already delinquent on $4.8 million in city and school property taxes, wants an Allegheny County judge to order an assessment cut that would trim tax bills.

Unhappy with the modest results from a county assessment appeal on U.S. Steel Tower, 600 Grant Street Associates will argue to lower the tower's 2001 and 2002 assessments further at a hearing before Common Pleas Judge Joseph James next month.

The 64-story tower initially was assessed at $279.3 million last year; the owner appealed and the Board of Property Appeals Assessment Review reduced the assessment to $265.7 million.

Grant Street Associates wanted an assessment of $155 million, arguing the building's value had been hurt by declining occupancy, rising insurance rates, asbestos and security concerns in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The company then took its case to the county Board of Viewers, which is overseen by James.

The tower is assessed for $264.3 million this year, according to the county's real estate Web site.

Lawyers for Allegheny County are expected to defend the assessments before James, but might not get much support from the city and the school district, which last summer reached an undisclosed settlement on a lower value with Grant Street Associates, according to court papers filed in the case.

David R. Cohen, a lawyer for Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, a Downtown law firm representing the tower owners, declined to discuss the case or the tentative assessment agreement with the city and the school district.

"That information is protected by a confidentiality agreement," he said. "We will be presenting our evidence in court."

In a July 10 letter to the county, city and school district, Cohen wrote that any attempt to negotiate a compromise assessment probably would fail because the owner "will not agree to any settlement value that is worse than the settlement already negotiated with the city and school district for 2001. It is my understanding that the city and school district are still amenable to proceeding with that number, but that the county is unwilling to sign on."

At the same time Grant Street Associates is seeking a tax-saving assessment reduction, the company is delinquent for both 2001 and 2002 city and school property taxes, according to records from the city Treasurer's Office.

The company paid about $4.5 million in combined taxes last year, but still owes about $2.4 million in taxes, interest and penalties. This year, the company paid about $4.2 million, but still owes about $2.4 million in taxes, interest and penalties.

Nearly all evidence in last year's county hearing on the building assessment by hearing officer Terry Camburn is no longer public. That evidence would show why Grant Street Associates believed the assessment was too high or why Camburn decided on a smaller reduction than sought by the owner.

Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. sealed the file May 31 after the owner argued it contained financial information useful to rivals. Under the order, Grant Street Associates can mark as "confidential" any information it wishes and later remove that evidence permanently from the file once James makes his ruling.

Assistant County Solicitor Bob Reith declined to comment on the case, saying all information from the county file is confidential unless Wettick directs otherwise. County Manager Bob Webb also declined to comment because of the litigation.

Attempts to reach Wettick and James were unsuccessful.

Ira Weiss, counsel to the city school district, declined to comment, and Pittsburgh Assistant City Solicitor Ronald H. Pferdehirt did not return several calls.

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