County inaction angers judge

Officials ignore reassessment order despite deadline

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Common Pleas Court Judge R. Stanton Wettick was unhappy to learn that Allegheny County officials had failed to submit a plan to comply with his order to complete a countywide reassessment. He was even less happy when he learned why it hadn't been done.

Ed Schoenenberger, the county's chief assessment officer, told the court he hadn't read all of the judge's 33-page order, issued Nov. 10. Mr. Schoenenberger said that he had been directed by his boss, administrative services director Tim Johnson, to disregard the judge's order and come up with a different county reassessment plan.

"Why would you, someone who isn't a lawyer, tell the assessment officer that he shouldn't follow my order," an angry Judge Wettick.

Mr. Johnson said the Law Department advised him.

The revelation was made during a hearing yesterday that Judge Wettick scheduled to determine how the county was preparing to implement his order that the county start reassessing all 575,000 properties over the next four years.

The judge wanted to hear how the county planned to divide all property into four segments and assess a new segment each year with a goal of finishing a full assessment and implementing it by 2014.

When county officials said they weren't prepared to present such a plan, Judge Wettick ordered them to his courtroom tomorrow morning with a plan to implement his order.

He was unhappy that county Solicitor Mike Wojcik presented a three-page plan to conduct a broad-based property reassessment that would be completed and certified in January 2013 instead of one that would comply with the judge's order.

"This is not acceptable," Judge Wettick said of the plan that county officials submitted.

"This [reassessment order] wasn't a surprise. The Supreme Court ruled in April and it looks like the county is not prepared. If you don't even increase your budget, it's hard to say the county is doing everything it can," Judge Wettick said, referring to the county's 2010 budget that includes no money for property reassessment.

In April, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out Allegheny County's base-year system, which sets property assessments based on the value of property in 2002, including new construction.

That system, the court ruled, is inherently unconstitutional, because it keeps property values too high in poor communities and too low in rich communities. The court then ordered a new property reassessment and asked Judge Wettick to implement it in a reasonable time frame.

Yesterday, Donald Driscoll of the Community Justice Project, who represented one of the two sets of clients that sued the county over its assessment system, objected to the county's 2013 proposal.

"This is not what you ordered and it is not adequate," Mr. Driscoll told Judge Wettick.


Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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