I got an email the other day from a man in Dormont whose mortgage company was hitting him up for a fast $1,000 to make up for an escrow shortfall. His reassessment sent his Allegheny County and Keystone Oaks school taxes up about 50 percent, though his borough taxes went up less than 7 percent.
"I thought that the court-ordered reassessment wasn't supposed to create a 'windfall' for the taxing authority," he said.
All the state law says -- and the language is pretty toothless -- is that the taxing bodies can't get a windfall. Some individual tax bills may soar and some may shrink but, in the end, the take by the borough, county or school district is supposed to be revenue-neutral.
More than 100,000 assessment appeals have made the legal millage rate a moving target. As the successful appeals roll in, the take by the taxing bodies comes down. And that means the millage rates won't drop as far as they might have.
It's all very confusing. My man in Dormont later saw that the school, borough and county had cut their millage rates to varying degrees. He acknowledged that other homeowners, whose assessments didn't rise as much as his did, might have seen their tax bills come down.
We don't yet have any kind of breakdown on how many winners and losers there have been countywide, but the early hopes that there would be more winners have diminished with each successful appeal. That's because the big commercial property owners seem to have had the most success in knocking their assessments down.
Funny how it always seems to work that way.
County Controller Chelsa Wagner reported last week that the average commercial building under appeal saw its property assessment cut by 21 percent. Meantime, the average resident who appealed saw only a 9 percent reduction.
"There's a simple fairness issue,'' she said. "You have residential owners bearing more of the burden.''
Wagner's analysis showed that, as of Aug. 9, the more than 19,000 commercial appeals saved building owners about $5 billion in assessed value. The 140,000 homeowner appeals got back only a fraction of that, but the total knockdown there was still real money: $1.8 billion.
In other words, that's about $7 billion the county won't get to tax. We can only hope the appeal process was fair and just, because the rest of us taxpayers will have to cover that.
In January, I wrote confidently that the county would have to roll back the millage rate further, but I can no longer say that. The generous reduction through appeals -- the average rollback in assessments for commercial buildings is nearly $260,000 -- gives the taxing bodies much less assessed value on which to base the millage rate.
When one factor goes down, the other one must go up to get the same result. That's just math. An online property tax estimator provided by Carnegie Mellon University economist Robert Strauss has had to revise upward its "revenue neutral'' millage rates for the county, school districts and municipalities.
With all the assessment rollbacks, the county, the city and the Pittsburgh schools may have reduced their millage rates too far. At least that's what the new charts at Mr. Strauss' www.propertytaxestimator.net suggest. The charts show "revenue neutral'' rates above what are now on the books.
Even if the estimates are off, there's not much hope now of millage rates being cut further. About 14,500 appeals are still open, about three-quarters of those residential, and the inevitably successful appeals will further knock back the county's total taxable value.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald never liked any part of this assessment process, so nobody expected the county to do much to defend its own assessments. But the end result of a few getting big breaks is the rest of us not getting any more breaks.
I didn't check all 174 taxing bodies on the charts provided by Mr. Strauss' research team -- I'm not a masochist -- but most estimates for proper millage rates have been revised upward. That doesn't mean they will go up, but it leaves no ammo in the fight for further rate cuts.
In short, the property tax system hereabouts remains about as fair as your average carnival game.
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.