Reassessment shockwave ripples across the city

One complaint: A parking spot now valued at $287,800 on Mt. Washington



Richard Milesky Jr. likes having a designated place for his car on parking-scarce Mount Washington, but he's not sure it's worth quite what Allegheny County thinks it is.

Mr. Milesky's parking space in the bottom of a Grandview Avenue parking garage, beneath a condominium building, is its own separate parcel for taxation purposes. The county has long valued the 18- by 10-foot space at $5,000. But the assessment notice he got in the mail on Wednesday said the space is worth, for tax purposes, $287,800.

That's more than his condo, which has a new assessment of $228,700, up around $55,000 from its prior valuation.

"If [the parking space] had a brand new Lamborghini on it, with $100,000 in a suitcase in the front seat, it wouldn't be worth that much," said Mr. Milesky, a real estate attorney with Penn Suburban Abstract, on Thursday. "I'll sell it for half that."


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Mr. Milesky's example is an extreme one, and he guessed it was a mistake made as a result of "little or no attention to detail" in the reassessment process. But all over PittsburghThursday, property owners were asking: Why does the county think my land has doubled, tripled, or more in value, even when my building appreciated only modestly?

The reassessment notices mailed to Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver property owners on Tuesday showed old and new valuations for their land and the buildings on it. Tax bills will be calculated in coming weeks, after the city, borough and school district adjust their millage rates and, potentially, their homestead exemptions so they can avoid taking illegal windfalls from the reassessment.

Pittsburgh used to tax land at a rate six times that of buildings, in an bid to deter land speculators who might otherwise leave parcels undeveloped. But a decade ago, driven by another controversial reassessment, officials abandoned the separate tax rates, and now they tax land and buildings at an identical 10.8 mills.

Today, the total value of a property drives the tax bill, except in a few places, like Clairton, Duquesne and McKeesport, where land is still levied at higher rates than buildings.

Many Pittsburghers perceived, though, that if it hadn't been for the big jump in their land assessment, their overall assessment wouldn't be going up by nearly as much.

JoAnn, a 50-year-old woman who owns her mother's house in Lawrenceville, was baffled that the land value increased sixfold, while the building value tripled.

"It's a ramshackle, wood-frame house that survived the floods of the '30s and the '40s," said JoAnn, who asked that her last name not be published. "It's a four-room house that they have now assessed for [nearly] $60,000.

"If you want to buy this for $57,000, I'll sell it to you for $57,000," she said.

Confusion about the reassessment was widespread Thursday. Calls to the city's 311 center, where operators were instructing residents on how to appeal, were up 125 percent over an average day, said mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven, mostly due to reassessment inquiries.

The county's appeals line, 412-350-4600, was often busy, according to residents who tried it Thursday. The website for seeking informal appeals, http://apps.alleghenycounty.us/InformalReviews , continued to be balky, though some property owners began to get dates for their hearings. Informal appeals by city and Mount Oliver residents must be requested by Jan. 13, and formal appeals by Feb. 10.

Allegheny County officials Thursday would not address questions on the methods of determining the values, other than pointing to a short description of the process on the county website. It said that assessments were based on the recent sales prices of comparable properties, their income value if they are rental properties, or the cost to replace the building.

Neither the county communications office, nor its Office of Property Assessments, would explain the widespread jumps in the valuations of land. A spokesman for the county's assessment consultant, Cole Layer Trumble, said the office was barred by the county from talking to the media.

"We're getting the same calls and emails, people saying, why did my property go up much as opposed to my building," said Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for county Executive Dan Onorato.

Mr. Onorato, whose term ends with the year, has opposed the reassessment but has been compelled to do it by Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. The judge has ruled in favor of six property owners who sued, claiming that by using old assessments the county was locking in obsolete values.

"We share property owners' concerns," said Mr. Evanto. "This is exactly why we did not want to rush the assessments for the city and Mount Oliver, but rather do them at the same time as the rest of the municipalities, and it is exactly the reason why we appealed [Judge Wettick's decisions] to the [state] Supreme Court. But in the end, we had no choice but to do what Judge Wettick told us to do."

Judge Wettick is scheduled to hold a hearing on the progress of the reassessment today at 9 a.m.

Dominick Gambino, president of McCandless-based Diversified Municipal Services, was the county's assessor last time it tried to pin new values on properties. He said it's hard to value land in fully developed areas like Pittsburgh, because there are so few sales of vacant parcels.

Assessors sometimes address that by placing a total value on the parcel based on the sale prices of comparable properties, then calculating the building's worth based on its characteristics, and calling the balance "land value," Mr. Gambino said.

He said that in a reassessment as large as that of Pittsburgh -- which has around 120,000 residential properties -- there are going to be mistakes, which can be ironed out in the appeal process. The county, he said, "should be doing everything they can not to alarm people before they even see their tax bill."

If the evidence suggests a systematic over-assessment of land, attorneys representing appellants will try to use that in their clients' favor, some said today.

"I'm seeing [land under] townhomes go from $18,000 to $98,000," said Noah Paul Fardo, managing partner of Shadyside-based law firm Flaherty Fardo. "Consistently, the number one thing we're hearing from property owners is that they don't understand why their land valuation dramatically increased."

He said that assessors may be mistakenly taking the sales prices of parcels of developable land, and using those as guides to the value of already developed land. "Vacant land parcels in the city of Pittsburgh have been selling for such a high price per square foot, that they are extrapolating that to the other properties," he speculated.

"People who own a vacant lot next to their home are seeing [the assessment] double or triple," said Robert Peirce, a former county commissioner who now represents assessment appellants in his business, Robert Peirce & Associates. "The only thing I can guess is that [assessors] might have found a few lots that some builders bought, and said that any lot with certain dimensions must be worth this much."

He questioned the validity of the entire reassessment, saying it was rushed and done at a time when the depressed real estate market makes the identification of comparable parcels virtually impossible.

"If nobody's buying," he asked, "how are you going to know what it's worth?"


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. First Published December 30, 2011 5:00 AM


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