Peters wants help with appeals

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Peters council members Monday said they will begin putting pressure on Washington County officials to help them defend real estate tax assessments -- even if it means going to court.

Faced with about 200 real estate tax appeals, some of which have spanned several years, township manager Michael Silvestri told council members that the county has declined to fund property appraisals as part of the appeals process.

"You have to look at this in the long term," said assistant manager Paul Lauer, who said appeals will multiply if the township doesn't step in to defend the county's assessments in Peters.

Council members wondered how the township could defend a policy they didn't approve.

"We're defending their assessment," Councilman Robert Atkison said. "We didn't do the assessing, the county did."

Councilman David Ball asked whether the township could explore legal action to force county commissioners to participate in the appraisals.

"We're spending time and money defending something that's not ours," he said.

Debbie Bardella, director of the county Tax Revenue Department, said the county does participate in the appeals process, but it stopped paying for appraisals because they are "all over the place" and unreliable.

"Without a reassessment, we can't win any of these appeals and we know it," she said. "We don't have a leg to stand on."

Ms. Bardella said paying for appraisals is a waste of taxpayer money because they rarely change the outcome of court appeals. Usually, she said, the county, municipality and school district offer an acceptable settlement to property owners. Those who dispute their assessments can appeal to a three-member board of appeals, then to Common Pleas Court, if necessary.

The assessments and appraisals rely on property values established in 1981 -- the last time the county conducted a reassessment.

The county currently is under a court order to conduct a reassessment, but its appeal of that decision has been wending its way through the court system in recent years.

At Monday's meeting, council members voted 6-1 to approve a request by the law firm of Peacock Keller & Ecker to intervene in six tax appeals, costing township taxpayers a maximum of $2,100 for appraisals and perhaps thousands more in legal fees. Councilwoman Monica Merrell dissented.

The appeals are scheduled to be heard in April by county Common Pleas Judge Gary Gilman.

In the meantime, council will craft a strongly worded letter to the county and prepare a resolution condemning commissioners if the township doesn't receive a response within 30 days.

In other business, council approved fee hikes for garbage collection and the use of township ballfields.

Beginning Jan. 1, garbage collection fees will increase about 10 percent, to $51 per household per quarter. The senior citizen rate will increase to $45.90 per quarter.

Rear yard collection fees will be raised to $71.40 per quarter, with a senior citizen rate of $64.26 per quarter.

Mr. Silvestri said the township hadn't increased rates for the past five years, despite paying higher fees to hauler Waste Management. There will be no service changes, he said.

Fees for use of the township ballfields were raised due to a new artificial turf field in Peterswood Park. The fees range from $50 for use of natural grass fields for residents under the age of 18 who are part of a nonprofit group to $300 for rental of the artificial turf field by an adult team of nonresidents in a for-profit group.

Council on Monday also amended the 2012 budget to reflect changes, including increased revenue from earned income taxes and gas well impact fees totaling almost $1 million.

Mr. Silvestri unveiled the 2013 proposed budget, which calls for $18.6 million in spending with no increase in the current property tax rate of 13 mills.

Resident Ron Boocks encouraged council to consider a decrease in the tax rate.

Next year's budget represents an 8 percent decrease from 2012 expenditures and includes several major expenses, such as a new bridge over Sugar Camp Road, municipal building renovations and replacement of a fire engine.

Budget discussions will continue at a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the municipal offices on East McMurray Road.

neigh_south - neigh_washington

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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