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New store's tax reduction questioned

| Thursday, Jan. 30, 2003

Ross Township officials are looking into discrepancies between the assessed and sale values for properties along the popular McKnight Road corridor to see whether owners of commercial property are being billed their fair share of property taxes.

Peter Ferraro, chairman of the township commissioners until he stepped down this week, said he noticed discrepancies while looking up properties on the county's real estate Web site.

Ferraro found that in the case of a new business — Jared, The Galleria of Jewelry store — the assessed value was dramatically lowered.

The sale price for the property within Ross Towne Center was $3.57 million. After an appeal, the assessment on the land and the store was reduced to $1.174 million.

Ferraro said the reduction was not warranted.

"If someone just put up a new building, to me this is a no-brainer. (The cost of the building) should be the value of this piece of property," he said. "You don't go from $3.57 million and then determine that the value is $1.174 million. That's about a third (of what) they paid for the (land). Why would a hearing reduce it that much?"

Officials of the Jared store on McKnight Road, as well as corporate owner Sterling Jewelers Inc. of Akron, Ohio, did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. Nor did Stephen Etoll, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based attorney for the developer of the property.

Ross Commissioner Gerald O'Brien said properties should be assessed according to their sale price.

The total assessed value of property in Ross Township is slightly less than $2 billion, according to county records. The value went up by 1.16 percent from 2002 to 2003. Only 15 of the county's 130 municipalities had an increase in their total property value from last year.

Ross Solicitor Donald Gates has been given the task of looking into the Jared issue further. He said the reduction should be a one-time dip.

"On the assessment where that reduction came from, that was the sale price of the land that used to be Best Feeds," Gates said. "Now that there's a building on it, it should go back up. We called this to their attention last year."

Ed Gillett, assessments manager for Allegheny County, said the assessment is unlikely to change.

"It's not unusual for developers to go in there and overbuy on a site to get a location. That's probably the way (the assessment) is going to stay unless the municipality can go in there and appeal it and prove their case," Gillett said.

"On Neville Island, they did a lot of that when there was speculation of riverboat gambling going in. They paid for basically fouled land, and they paid $1 million for land worth probably no more than $20,000 to $25,000," he said.

Gillett said the county does not keep records of which municipalities are appealing property assessments or how many appeals they have filed.

"The munis, for the most part, don't pay a whole lot of attention to it," he said. "There are a bunch of appeals scattered throughout (the county)."

Gates said Ross Township and North Hills School District officials have until March 31 to appeal any assessments that they think are out of line.

Tina Vojtko, spokeswoman for North Hills School District, said that if the township would appeal, the school district would pay half the legal cost. She said the district would not need to file a separate appeal.

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