Allegheny County reassessment crews were given only three to five minutes to visit each of almost 600,000 real estate parcels as part of a countywide property revaluation.
That's not much time, but it should have been enough for crew members to notice that a Whitehall property described as a vacant lot had been occupied by a townhouse for more than 30 years.
"This just shows the incompetence of the whole reassessment operation," said William Westlake, of Pleasant Hills, who owns a townhouse on Wallace Park Drive, Whitehall. It is next door to what appears to be a nearly identical unit that does not exist on the county's current or new assessment website.
On the county's website, the 3,049-square-foot tract is described as of Thursday afternoon as vacant land to be valued next year at $1,200. The current assessment is $800. While its address is given as 1529 Dunluce Drive, the tract does not appear to have any frontage on that nearby street. Large numbers mounted on the outside of the brick unit clearly identify it as 102 Wallace Park Drive.
"Obviously we should have caught it," county spokeswoman Amie Downs said of the invisible third building. "No excuses."
While the property 102 Wallace is assessed at $1,200, the assessments on the two adjoining tracts are much higher.
The 2013 value for 100 Wallace Park Drive is $80,600, up from the current $67,000. The new value for 104 Wallace Park Drive is $76,200, up from the current $67,800.
The street and the neighborhood are named for nearby Wallace Park.
The townhouse at 102 is owned by Brian Homes Inc., of South Park, which built a total of 12 townhouses on Wallace Park Drive.
Having the land continue to be assessed as vacant property appears to have resulted in considerable tax savings over the decades.
This year, for example, the tax rate for county, municipal and Baldwin-Whitehall School District totals 34.43 mills. For a property such as 102 Wallace Park Drive, assessed at $800, the total tax bill would be $27.54. The owner of 104 Wallace Park Drive, however, would have paid $2,334, based on the current assessment of $67,800. That number would be reduced $85 if the unit were owner-occupied because of a county homestead exemption.
"It's hard to believe this property went through two full-blown reassessments," said Dominick Gambino, a former manager of the county's property assessment office. He now runs a consulting firm called Diversified Municipal Services Inc.
As part of reassessment contracts, the county paid Sabre Systems in 2001 and Tyler Technologies in 2011 to make brief on-site inspections of every parcel in the county. "It could be a mapping issue," Mr. Gambino said, since the tract containing 102 Wallace Park Drive appears on the website as being on Dunluce Drive. "But it makes you wonder about the street work that was done," he said.
Brian Colella, vice president of Brian Homes, said the situation is confusing. The current $800 assessment for 102 Wallace Park Drive represents only part of a three-parcel rental property that the county combined under the address 1529 Dunluce Drive decades ago, he said. The company in 1978 built a two-unit duplex on the other two parcels, which face Dunluce and are across the street from 102 Wallace Park Drive.
One-half of the duplex currently is assessed at $78,200 and the other half at $79,500. Adding in the $800 value for 102 Wallace Park, the three-parcel, three-building tract is assessed now at $158,500. Those numbers are scheduled to go to $67,500, $68,000 and $1,200 next year, meaning the new combined assessment will be $136,700.
Mr. Colella said the combined value the county assigned to all three properties appeared equitable. "We always had addressed it as a lump assessment," he said. The duplex units "are probably assessed higher than they should be, but when you take [102 Wallace Park] into consideration, it seemed fair."
It's not unusual to have an entire subdivision of multiple lots assessed as a single property until individual units are sold off, he noted. What makes the situation at 1529 Dunluce Drive unusual is that the single address has been divided into three tracts, each with its own lot-and-block number and each containing a housing unit.
Brian Homes has been in business since 1956 and has built both single-family homes and townhouses throughout the region.
Since Brian Homes held on to all three units, the county's Office of Property Assessment never received any sales information. Thirty months after the company received building permits, however, the new construction should have been added to the county tax rolls, Ms. Downs said.
"That was an error," she said, and it would be corrected quickly. Assessors were to visit the property on Wednesday with an eye to placing it on the tax rolls for 2012. If there is evidence that the building has existed longer, the county can seek at least five years of back taxes, she said.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 412-263-1159.