Increased staff aids assessment appeal process

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David Williams walked into the Allegheny County Office of Property Assessments Wednesday morning, ready to appeal the reassessment of his East Liberty house.

He was a few minutes late for his appointment because he had spent the morning gathering documentation to support his claim that his home should not have jumped in assessed value from $67,300 to $95,000.

As he prepared to make his case, he was still suffering from sticker shock.

"I've never seen an increase that big in my life," he said.

But if the county-wide reassessment process has been a whirl of confusion and chaos, on Wednesday the Office of Property Assessments was not.

When Mr. Williams walked down the hallway on the third floor of the County Office Building, Downtown, the Office of Property Assessments staff was ready for him.

As soon as Mr. Williams signed in, he was whisked into a meeting room where Michael Brenner, a Mt. Lebanon attorney who is working this month as a property review officer, conducted his informal review.

Thirty minutes later, Mr. Williams left the County Office Building, feeling a little better about his property's tax value, having persuaded Mr. Brenner to recommend a lower assessment.

One day, he hopes his house will be worth $95,000. But not today.

"Take me up slowly," he said.

Although it's not clear what the tax ramifications of the revaluation will be, the prospect of reassessment has long filled Allegheny County homeowners with dread. Last week, when the county released new assessment figures for properties in Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver, many homeowners were stunned by an increase in the assessed value of their homes.

As of Wednesday evening, 9,879 people had requested to appeal their reassessment, according to a spokeswoman for the county executive's office.

Lines and long wait times were reported on Tuesday, but by Wednesday morning, the informal hearing process seemed to be running smoothly.

Homeowners, armed with computer printouts showing comparable property sales and photographs showing the weak points of their properties, were quickly paired with property review managers.

"It's been pleasant this morning," said Pam McIver, a real estate agent working as a property review manager. "Kind of slow."

About 450 people made appeals on Tuesday and 450 more were expected to make appeals today, said Butch Ramsey, the appeals manager. Hearings were scheduled for every 15 minutes, with his staff of 23 property review officers working from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

In response to reports of long wait times to schedule appointments by phone or email, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced Wednesday that he had increased the number of Office of Property Assessments staff, with more people available to take calls and schedule informal hearings, as well as more people to respond to email requests for hearings.

And although Mr. Williams said he spent several minutes on hold Tuesday as he tried to set up his appointment by phone, his time in the office Wednesday was short.

It helped that he had done his homework. He shared real estate information with Mr. Brenner, his property review officer, that showed houses near his Chislett Street home that had sold for $27,000, $25,000, $49,000 and $30,000 earlier in the year.

It was "good, strong evidence of comparables," Mr. Brenner said. He asked Mr. Williams what he thought his home would sell for, if he sold it today.

"I'd say about $53,000, and I think that's fair," Mr. Williams said.

By the end of the review, Mr. Brenner agreed. As he filed Mr. Williams' appeal, he recommended the assessed value of Mr. Williams' property be changed to $53,000. The recommendation will proceed to a review panel.

Mr. Williams was pleased with the change, but he also followed up by filing a formal appeal.

Property owners in Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver have until Jan. 13 to request an informal review by calling 412-350-4600 or by going to http://apps.alleghenycounty.us/InformalReviews. Property owners can also file a formal appeal with the Board of Property Assessment Appeals & Review until Feb. 10, 2012 by calling the same number or visiting www.alleghenycounty.us/opa/aforms.aspx.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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