Budget deadline extended for Allegheny County towns

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Allegheny County won't know the results of all residential assessment appeal hearings by a Dec. 17 deadline, officials told a judge overseeing the project.

As a result, Senior Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. said on Thursday he would extend the Dec. 31 state deadline for municipalities to pass their 2013 budgets and set accompanying tax rates.

That move will give the quasi-independent assessment appeals board more time to act on challenges to new property values as the county completes a court-ordered $15 million reassessment.

Judge Wettick gave lawyers for boroughs, townships and the county until Dec. 7 to draft an extension proposal. If local officials wish to avail themselves of the extra time, they likely would get until the first or second week in January to act on their 2013 spending plans.

The Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review is taking final action on about 1,100 challenges per day, board solicitor David Montgomery told the judge at Thursday's status conference.

About 100,000 residential property owners across the county filed formal appeals of their new assessments. About 68,000 had been resolved.

Mr. Montgomery estimated that 90 percent of residential appeals would be completed by Dec. 20. Judge Wettick had ordered the county to concentrate on completing Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver first. The number of resolved appeals in the city and the small adjoining borough should be about 95 percent done by the deadline, Mr. Montgomery said.

Municipalities need to know the new total, or aggregate, value of all taxable properties in their communities in order to set new millage rates. The county was to have delivered post-appeal property values by Dec. 17, but Judge Wettick approved a three-day delay until Dec. 20.

Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver, which is part of the city school district, were being done first, because the city schools, like municipal governments, operate on a budget year that begins Jan. 1. All the other school districts in the county have fiscal years that don't start until July 1.

Despite Thursday's announcement of another delay in completing the reassessment effort, Judge Wettick had praise for local officials carrying it out. "It's a tremendous task," he said. "I think you are working hard and doing a good job."

State law requires that municipalities trim their millage rates to make the effect of higher assessed values revenue neutral. Local governments are allowed to collect an additional 5 percent in real estate revenues following reassessment, but officials must approve those increases by separate, public votes.

That task of calculating an "anti-windfall" millage rate has been made harder, because the final effect of assessment appeals, especially on many commercial properties, remains unknown. Of the more than 16,000 appeals of commercial reassessments across the county, only about 6,000, or 37 percent, have been completed with the results mailed to owners. Another 3,500 are scheduled to be heard by the appeals board soon with 3,000 not yet scheduled.

Property owners still unsatisfied with the results from the appeals board can mount another challenge of their real estate values before the independent Board of Viewers, which is part of the county court system.

As a result of the uncertainty, local governments have been acting conservatively.

County council, for example, is reviewing a 2013 budget that includes more than $20 million for tax refunds to reimburse property owners whose appeals are successful. That number compares to just $1.8 million this year.

region

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


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