Some of the Allegheny County hearing officers who decided property assessment appeals "engaged in arbitrary and capricious conduct" when they disregarded the results of certified real estate appraisals, according to a new lawsuit.
The suit was filed Monday by lawyer David M. Huntley on behalf of 11 property owners from several neighborhoods across Allegheny County and "all others similarly situated." It names the county and the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review as defendants.
Those formal challenges were conducted by hearing officers employed by the county's quasi-judicial and independent Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review.
The plaintiffs said the county encouraged property owners filing appeals to present certified real estate appraisals when making appeals.
However, the complaint said, "BPAAR Hearing Officers either denied, disregarded or arbitrarily modified in the face of no evidence ... the evidentiary proof presented by the plaintiffs in the form of the professional certified real estate appraisals."
The suit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court asks hearing officers be required to accept the results of the certified appraisals as the basis for new assessments unless a municipality or school district presents comparable evidence.
The property owners bringing the suit also are seeking attorneys' fees and costs.
County solicitor Andrew Szefi said he had not had time to analyze the arguments in the complaint.
Property owners have made more than 100,000 formal challenges of their new real estate values. Those new values, which have risen an average of 32 percent for the county as a whole, will be used this year for calculating local, school district and county property taxes. The 2013 numbers replace 2002 "base-year" values that have been used for more than a decade.
"We're not sure why certain certified appraisals were accepted, while others were not," said Gary D. Pratt, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
As many as 90,000 appeals already have been decided.
Last February Allegheny County Council members sought additional information on how property owners could improve their odds of success during appeals.
Hearing officers would assume the new values county assessors placed on real estate were correct, David Montgomery, the appeals board solicitor, told council members. It was up to property owners to provide evidence that the new assessments were wrong, he said.
A certified appraisal would be the most persuasive evidence, council members were told. "People have to do their homework before they arrive for their appeal hearings," appeals board chairwoman Phillis D. Lavelle told council. Recent sales of comparable properties also could persuade the hearing officer that an assessment should be modified, Ms. Lavelle said.
Hearing officers, who are paid $225 a day for presiding over appeals, are real estate professionals or attorneys with experience in real estate law.