Assessment appeals continue as home improvement records sorted out

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Allegheny County's assessment appeals board is continuing to review property appeals as officials determine whether information about home improvements was incorrectly removed from the case files.

Isobel Storch, the solicitor for the Allegheny County Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review, said the board is trying to determine whether hearing officers on assessment appeals have been considering renovations done after 2002 when determining property values. If they have not, as many as 2,000 cases may have to be heard again.

The year 2002 is significant because the property assessment system implemented by county Chief Executive Dan Onorato uses 2002 as the base year. That means properties are taxed based on what the land and buildings would have been worth in 2002.

The base year assessment system does not mean, however, that any changes after 2002 should be ignored. Instead, a value is set based on what new construction or renovations would have cost if done in 2002.

Hearing officers in the Office of Property Assessment have been hearing thousands of appeals filed by Allegheny County since August. The county is seeking reductions on behalf of 11,293 property owners who had seen their assessments go up because of school district or municipal appeals since 2002, the last time there was a countywide reassessment.

County Solicitor Michael Wojcik said there had been a problem in late summer in which assistant county solicitors may not have been presenting the building permits to the hearing officers. But he said the problem was corrected by October. He said the problem resulted from solicitors being confused about how to handle the information.

But the county's former chief assessor, Dominic Gambino, who now is a consultant to school districts and municipalities on assessment matters, said problems have persisted in hearings he has attended. He said county attorneys continue to withhold from the hearing officers evidence of building permits taken out since 2002, and he suggested that was being done intentionally.

Ms. Storch said it was shocking to hear allegations that the building permits were removed from files on purpose, and Mr. Wojcik adamantly denied that was taking place.

"Rest assured, we are not selectively pulling out building permits," Mr. Wojcik said. "I'm offended by the implication because it's a rather serious charge."

Kate Barkman, the chairman of the appeals board, said the board has asked the Office of Property Assessment to investigate whether evidence of building improvements was kept from hearing officers and, if it was, how many times and what needs to be done about it. Like Mr. Wojcik, though, she said her understanding was that the problem had been corrected.

Mr. Wojcik said the assessment department is now running a computer program to match all 11,000 appeals with a list of properties for which building permits have been issued since 2002. He estimated that would yield about 2,000 properties. Once the county has that list, Mr. Wojcik said assessors would research the properties to see if any renovations or additions had been taken into account during the hearing on the appeal.

Mr. Wojcik said the assessment office had reviewed three appeals on properties in Mt. Lebanon, during which, Mr. Gambino contended, renovations in the past five years had been disregarded.

Mr. Wojcik said that in two of those cases, the renovations had been taken into account but at a lower value because they were cosmetic and did not add to the value of the property. In a third case, he said renovations had been mistakenly overlooked and the case would be reheard.

The county did not review a fourth case, presented by Mr. Gambino, on a property in Moon, in which the county argued during a Dec. 15 hearing that the value should be returned to the 2002 assessment. Mr. Gambino said the land was vacant in 2002 but a house was built on it in 2004 for $99,840 and an $8,000 addition was built in 2006.

Ira Weiss, an attorney who also handles tax assessment appeals, said Mr. Gambino told him of the problem. Mr. Weiss, in a letter to Mr. Wojcik, said that removing the records of building permits "perverts the assessment system by removing records that show property improvement since 2002, thereby allowing those improvements to remain untaxed."

In a telephone interview, Mr. Weiss said representatives of school districts and municipalities depend on the assessors' records being accurate because the volume of cases precludes them from individually investigating each property.

"If you don't know it's there in the first place, you don't know it's gone," Mr. Weiss said.

The next meeting of the assessment appeals board will be Thursday morning.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 24, 2007) The Allegheny County Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review is going forward with decisions on property appeals while reviewing cases to determine whether any building permits or other significant changes were excluded as evidence. This story as originally published in Feb. 19, 2007 editions said the decisions were being delayed while the reviews take place.

Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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