Residents who bought homes in 2011-12 fighting Mt. Lebanon's assessment appeals

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When Jeffrey and Brittany Heiskell bought a new home in the summer of 2011, they were excited to move into Mt. Lebanon.

Then came notice in March 2013 that the municipality was appealing Allegheny County's assessed value of their Vee Lynn Drive property. As a result, they now are paying more in real estate taxes.

The Heiskells learned that the owners of about 150 other homes who bought their Mt. Lebanon properties around the same time faced similar situations. Many have banded together to fight what they call the “newcomers’ tax.”

“The goal is to be taxed at the same level of fairness as the homes near us,” Mr. Heiskell said. “We seek relief from our disproportionate share of taxes in the community.”

Last year, Mt. Lebanon commissioners initiated a process to bring assessed values of properties more in line with current market values. In the wake of the 2013 countywide reassessment, some homeowners complained to commissioners that their new assessed values were too high, while other properties came through the process significantly underassessed when compared with sale prices.

To help mitigate the inequities, commissioners appealed some of the new assessed values, starting with residential properties that were sold in 2011 and 2012 that met three criteria:

• A sale price of more than $100,000;

• A difference of at least $58,000 between the assessed value and sale price;

• A ratio of assessed value to sale price below 85 percent.

“We’re trying to capture the outliers,” explained Andrew McCreery, Mt. Lebanon director of finance.

For example, if a home sold for $250,000 during that period and its assessed value was set by the county at $190,000, the property would qualify because it meets the price minimum; the difference between the two amounts is $60,000; and the ratio is 76 percent.

Mr. McCreery said the $58,000 figure represents the municipality’s estimated break-even point with regard to additional revenue versus what it is paying Diversified Municipal Services Inc. of McCandless to represent Mt. Lebanon in the filing of property tax appeals.

The municipality looks to net $50,000 for the 2013 tax year, based on decisions at the appeal level, Mr. McCreery said. All except one of the appeals were in Mt. Lebanon’s favor.

The amount the municipality brings in is of secondary consideration, according to Commissioner Dave Brumfield.

“Its not about revenue. It’s about fairness,” he said during Tuesday’s commission meeting, addressing a room full of residents who have been adversely affected by the appeals process.

Adrian Soriano, who purchased his Glaids Drive home in 2012, was one of them. He said that he filed a Right-to-Know request from the municipality to learn about others who faced appeals, and primarily through his efforts, many of the residents have been meeting regularly to discuss how to fight the commissioners’ actions.

“They put into place a discriminatory tax system,” said Scott Livingston of St. Clair Drive, who also bought his home in 2012. “They were not quite ready for the ire that we had.”

Describing residents who purchased their homes recently as “low-hanging fruit” in terms of comparing sale price and assessed value, Mr. Livingston questioned the commissioners’ methods.

“We were told, ‘You guys were underassessed, and we had to start somewhere,' ” he said. “If the taxing authority needs more revenue, then increase the millage rate. When they target a small group to get additional revenue, they’re somewhat immunized to being voted out.”

The affected group has been expanded.

In late March, the municipality mailed notices of assessment appeals to residents who bought their homes in 2006-10 and in 2013, and whose assessed values and sale prices meet the outlined criteria. The total is nearly 300 properties.

Also last month, commissioners approved hiring Diversified to handle appeals again for 2014. One of the stated objectives for Diversified is to work with municipal staff to develop a process to identify underassessed homes that were sold prior to 2006.

Harry Funk, freelance writer:

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