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Assessment official seeks $3 million

| Wednesday, June 26, 2002

PITTSBURGH: The swamped Allegheny County assessment department said it needs $3 million more to operate this year, but county council members would rather spend some money on a study on how to better run the department.

Norm Mekkelsen, county director of administrative services, asked council Tuesday for $912,000 he said he needs to pay staff, hearing officers and a contractor who are working to process 70,000, 2002 property assessment appeals.

Council members, however, are considering giving Mekkelsen only a small portion of that amount to pay hearing officers. They will wait to distribute the rest of money from a contingency fund begun in December.

"If we spend it all, then we won't have anything to do the study with," said Council President James Simms, D-Schenley Heights.

Council members agreed to decide next week exactly how much Mekkelsen needs to keep paying hearing officers their $250 daily fees so assessment appeals hearings can continue.

"He has enough money in his budget that these people are not going to not get checks," Council Chief of Staff Guy Tumolo said.

In December, council held back $912,000 from the department's budget. This forces Mekkelsen to come to council throughout the year to ask for money from the fund and justify how he would spend it.

Council would like to spend some on a study by the International Association of Assessment Officers. The group will study the department and suggest how it could run better as it makes the transition to triennial reassessments, which are set to begin with 2006 tax bills.

"I think that's a neutral party, if nothing else - someone who understands the standards and practices that should be put in place for a new assessment," said Councilman Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline.

The Chicago-based professional organization is willing to study the department and make recommendations, Fontana said. The cost or the length of the study weren't known, he said. Mekkelsen said previous quotes from IAAO were $50,000 to $70,000 for a six-to-nine-month study.

But council was resolute.

"I don't think there is a lot of public confidence in this department," Councilman Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill, said. "Maybe with the IAAO coming in, we could restore that."

Mekkelsen said public confidence can be won by promptly processing appeals and accurately preparing the next set of assessment values, which are due to go out in 2005.

Council gave the assessment department $5.63 million this year, but it will need $8.6 million, Mekkelsen said.

To accomplish its goals, the department needs to prepare for triennial assessments, handle the 70,000 appeals of 2002 assessments by the end of December, train staff, install a new computer system and clear out a 12-month backlog of new construction that hasn't been added to the county's tax rolls.

Adding that new construction more quickly can bring in as much as $2.5 million in unexpected tax revenue this year, Mekkelsen and County Budget Director Carmen Torockio said. But council members were reluctant to count on that revenue to balance the department's budget.

"Wouldn't the careful thing to do be to cut spending by $2 million instead?" asked Councilman Ron Francis, R-Ben Avon.

Councilman Tom Shumaker, R-Pine, who represents a portion of the Valley, said council needs to do something to get Mekkelsen the money he needs to avoid serious problems later this year.

"It's to the point where we really have to start looking at sending people home in December and saying, 'Look, it's a layoff,' " Shumaker said.

Simms said the situation would never get that bad.

"I think for us even to bring up laying off people is counter- productive," he said.

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