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County owes schools bounty

| Sunday, March 24, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Local governments are failing to collect under a tax bounty program offered by Allegheny County last year to encourage assessment appeals of undervalued properties.

Thirty school districts and municipalities could be entitled to as much as $280,000 from the county for getting assessments raised, according to an analysis of county assessment appeals records by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. But so far, only three school districts have collected — for a total of less than $7,500.

At least some school districts apparently believed the county would make payments automatically. Instead, the county pays after local officials track cases and file claims.

County Manager Bob Webb said he is not surprised at the slow turnout by local officials .

"I'm sure that most of the school districts and municipalities are waiting until all their cases are wrapped up before seeking payment," he said.

Webb said the county isn't sure of how much money it could owe because it is up to each school district and municipality to track such cases.

"Each locality has to initiate the request and document the circumstances," he said. "The county just serves as a check after the fact."

At Moon Area School District, Business Manager Al Bennett said he is surprised by the protocol.

"I had assumed the county was doing all this. They are conducting all the appeals business and have the records. It's hard to believe that we have to come back to them now to get paid," Bennett said.

The Moon district has won 721 cases, which could be worth more than $61,300, the most of any school district in the county. Overall, the district had filed more than 950 appeals cases.

"We can certainly extract the records on this. We will get paid," Bennett said.

Last May, the county offered schools and local governments a deal to tackle the politically sensitive issue of property that had been reassessed below its actual value. County officials decided it would be a conflict of interest for the county to launch such appeals, since the county had created the assessments.

The offer worked like this: If the locals appealed such cases, for every case where a value was raised, the county would pay the locals half of the county's gain in property taxes, to a maximum of $300 per case.

Through the end of last year, school districts won almost 2,200 cases worth up to $190,000 in county payments, according to the analysis based on appeals records from the county Office of Property Assessment.

Nearly all of those cases were for homes, where the average home value was raised from about $113,600 to almost $160,000.

Municipalities, led by Pittsburgh, won 712 cases, worth up to $90,000 in payments. The average value in these cases went from about $128,200 to almost $190,000.

The city of Pittsburgh filed a claim for about $88,000 with the county in mid-February, said Craig Kwiecinski, a spokesman for Mayor Tom Murphy.

He said the county asked the city for more documents to support the claim and “we are in the process of working with them on this.”

So far, only the Quaker Valley, Pine-Richland and Hampton school districts have gotten the incentive payments. Hampton received $2,681, Pine-Richland $2,665 and Quaker Valley $2,075, according to records provided by Webb's office.

All three are represented by the same lawyer, Andrew Evankovich of the Downtown firm of Goehring, Rutter and Boehm. Evankovich filed his first claim last July on behalf of the Hampton School District and has filed six claims since then, with the most recent done in February.

Evanokovich said he was surprised that no other school districts have gotten payments yet. “I thought most of my fellow counsels knew how this worked. I don't understand why I am the only one” to have gotten payment for a school district, he said.

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