Allegheny County assessment appeals taking a long time

Some property owners will have to wait until 2014 before their appeals can be heard by the board of viewers

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Some property owners will have to wait until 2014 before their assessment appeals can be heard by the Allegheny County Board of Viewers.

"This is one of those extraordinary years," Michelle Lally, administrative chair for the board, said.

The board of viewers hears second-round challenges from property owners or taxing bodies -- most often school districts -- who are unsatisfied with the results of their suits before the board of property assessment appeals and review.

More than 100,000 formal appeals have been filed, and the appeals board, known as BPAAR, has been taking action on as many as 1,100 per day. As BPAAR has increased its output, the number of appeals to the board of viewers has risen dramatically.

In October 2011, for example, property owners or taxing bodies filed 117 assessment challenges. This year 1,032 appeals were made during October. That number more than doubled again last month to 2,479, according to the county's Department of Court Records.

Allegheny County, which was ordered by the state Supreme Court to revalue all taxable real estate, is facing a Dec. 20 deadline for getting new property values to municipalities and school districts. Those aggregate values, reflecting both new assessments and the results of first-round appeals, will be used to calculate property taxes next year.

Because of the great number of challenges waiting to be heard, some property owners will pay 2013 property taxes based on their new assessments before their appeals to the board of viewers have been scheduled. Many communities, and Allegheny County itself, have created larger-than-normal accounts in their 2013 budgets to cover refunds to property owners whose appeals ultimately prove successful.

The seven-member board has divided itself up into five separate panels. Each panel has been handling between 15 and 18 cases per day. "We're doing a blend of commercial and residential properties," Ms. Lally said. "Everybody deserves to get a shot."

Residential appeals tend to be quicker and easier to resolve. Many large commercial reassessment challenges, on the other hand, are postponed by "discovery" requests for information about such things as tenant leases and rent rolls, she said. About 90 percent of those making commercial appeals hire lawyers to represent them, while about 90 percent of people making residential appeals tend to represent themselves, Ms. Lally estimated.

Edward Hunkele of Reserve is one of the almost 2,500 property owners who appealed to the board of viewers last month. Whenever his hearing is scheduled, he plans to present the results of a recent appraisal on his Karen Drive home and a list of comparable properties.

He said he was surprised when his formal appeal did not result in any reduction in his $111,600 new assessment. The appraisal valued his property at about $90,000, which was close to the current assessment of $85,300. He said he remains confident he has persuasive evidence. "I don't think that I am going to present anything more [to the board of viewers]," he said.

"We encourage settlements," Ms. Lally said of the conciliation/hearing process provided by her agency. The initial step is direct negotiations among property owners, county assessors and taxing bodies. If those talks don't result in an agreement, the board can operate as a court of record. One or two hearing officers, known as masters, will hear sworn testimony, review evidence and then issue a decision.

Those rulings can be appealed to a county court judge, but Ms. Lally estimated that fewer than 1 percent are challenged.

The board of viewers is part of the county court system. It is separate from both the county Office of Property Assessment, which certifies property values and oversees informal challenges, and BPAAR, which decides formal appeals.

region - homes - electionsmunicipal

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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