Allegheny County controller critical of assessment process

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Low performance standards made it too easy for Tyler Technologies to meet contract requirements for doing Allegheny County's property reassessment, county Controller Chelsa Wagner said Monday.

The result was new property values that met International Association of Assessing Officers fairness requirements for the county as a whole but failed in many individual neighborhoods, she said.

What that means in practical terms, she said, is that in many parts of the county lower-valued properties were reassessed too high and some more valuable properties remained underassessed.

Ms. Wagner announced her findings at a news conference. Employees of the controller's auditing division spent four months reviewing the county's property revaluation project.

All but one of the deficiencies in the Tyler contract resulted from the original language, which was agreed to by the company and the administration of former county Executive Dan Onorato, she said. "The new administration inherited a broken assessment system, a bad contract and an overburdened department," she said.

The one change worked out in February between Tyler and the administration of the new county executive, Rich Fitzgerald, further loosened standards, she said.

That revision allowed new assessed values to reflect just 90 percent, rather than 95 percent, of market values. Its effect was to reduce the aggregate value of all property in the county, allowing commercial property and higher-value homes to continue to escape a portion of their property tax burden, she said.

The new values are scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1.

She offered three recommendations to correct problems she identified with the new assessed values and to avoid similar problems in the future.

• The county executive should appoint a task force to develop reassessment standards. Those standards would reflect the county's varied geography and the importance of school district and municipal boundaries in valuing properties.

• The Office of Property Assessments should do its own review of assessed values by municipality and by school district to fix any broad-based problems not being corrected during appeals.

• The county should hire a full-time chief assessment officer to mange the property assessments office.

Relations between Ms. Wagner and Mr. Fitzgerald -- who both took office in January -- have been sometimes frosty. Ms. Wagner said she hoped Mr. Fitzgerald would make use of some of her department's findings.

Responding to Ms. Wagner's report, a senior executive with the Fitzgerald administration wrote that the controller and her staff sought to answer the wrong questions.

After concluding that the Tyler Technologies' Cole Layer Trumble division complied with contract terms, the controller's office went on to describe "its own views and conclusions on what those obligations should have been," Timothy Johnson, the director of the Department of Administrative Services, wrote.

County-wide assessments were ordered in 2009 by the state Supreme Court, which placed Senior County Court Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. in charge of overseeing the project. "In short, the county was court-ordered to conduct a reassessment which met court-dictated standards, and the county did so," Mr. Johnson said.

Ms. Wagner also provided a breakdown of costs for the project. The current budget for reassessment was about $13.3 million. Tyler Technologies has been paid about $8.3 million for its work with another $1 million yet to be paid to the company. The county also has spent about $3.4 million on temporary employees.

Ms. Wagner projected that reassessment ultimately will cost the county about $15 million.

region

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


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