Pittsburgh officials want to help residents contest property assessments

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City residents planning to fight higher property assessments would get extensive legal and financial help -- even someone to argue their case at a hearing -- under a new package of aid proposed Monday.

Councilmen Corey O'Connor and Bill Peduto and city Controller Michael Lamb said they want the city to subsidize residents' appraisals, just as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl proposed Friday.

But the trio said they also want the city to work one-on-one with homeowners to find flaws in the new court-ordered Allegheny County assessments, identify comparable properties with lower assessments that residents could introduce at appeal hearings and even argue cases for those too timid to face the appeals board alone.

Mr. Lamb, a lawyer, said he intends to argue some residents' cases himself.

The program can't guarantee reduced assessments. "But at least you'll go in feeling you have all the tools to make your argument," Mr. Peduto told about 10 members of the Bloomfield AARP.

The program is modeled after one offered to homeowners after the last round of county assessments about a decade ago. Officials said it was popular but couldn't say how many appeals were reduced because of it.

Legislation authorizing the $150,000 program is expected to be introduced in council today. The program would be limited to residents whose old assessments totaled $150,000 or less. Services would be provided in the controller's office, senior centers and other locations.

"If it comes to shut-ins, we'll go out and see them," Mr. Lamb said.

Many city residents panicked when new, higher assessments for 2012 showed up in the mail last month.

While a judge later delayed implementation of the new numbers until 2013, residents in Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver and eastern suburbs still face an April 2 deadline for filing formal appeals. Residents in many parts of the county haven't yet seen their new assessments.

Mr. Peduto said he wants council to give the assistance program final approval by Feb. 14. After that, residents will be told how to apply for the help.

According to an analysis released Saturday by RealSTATs, about 50 percent of residential and commercial property owners in Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver will see lower tax bills with the new assessments. The report suggested that some areas will fare better than others and that Bloomfield will be one of the city neighborhoods with a concentration of higher tax bills.

On Friday, Mr. Ravenstahl proposed that the city negotiate a discounted rate with one or more appraisal firms and pay half of each homeowner's appraisal fee.

Subsidized appraisals would be part of the plan proposed by the trio. Mr. Lamb said the other services would be provided by city employees and city contractors. Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said Mr. Ravenstahl is happy to work with council and Mr. Lamb on the project.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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