Unfairness returns: This assessment system has two sets of rules

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The last thing Allegheny County should be doing in the 11th hour of its vilified property reassessment is allowing the owners of some of the region's biggest parcels to skirt the rules.

That's just what's been happening under the radar since Oct. 26, when the county Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review started allowing owners and taxing bodies -- mainly school districts -- to negotiate settlements instead of conducting formal appeals. Talk about a lack of transparency. Most members of the public didn't even know this was an option until the Post-Gazette's Mark Belko broke the story Friday.

School districts asked for the change in an attempt to expedite the 15,000 to 20,000 appeals remaining, but the option wasn't available for most of the 108,000 cases filed over their property values. David Montgomery, the board's solicitor, said a factor in allowing the negotiated settlements was the looming Dec. 17 deadline, when the county must provide a final roll of values to be used for 2013 property taxes.

If severe weather threatens a football game, do the referees get to change how many minutes are in each quarter so it can be completed in time? Changing the rules of this game now only amplifies the public's suspicions of the process used to set values on land and buildings. The fact that many of the settlements involved commercial properties -- and large sums of money -- undermines public confidence in the system.

Different treatment for different categories of property owners was the fundamental problem with the county's assessment system in the first place, a condition that led to legal challenges and court orders to revise and improve it. Creating dual methods of making final determinations on assessments -- vital because they determine how much owners pay in taxes -- flies in the face of fairness.

Although hearing officers still must OK the negotiated deals, Mr. Montgomery said the evidence they act upon usually is limited to the agreements worked out by the parties. Can you say "rubber stamp"?

The last thing the county's reassessment needed was more subjectivity and less objectivity.

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