Balancing the budget in the financially strapped Clairton City School District is always a difficult process.
It was made significantly more difficult this year when school directors found out that an assessment reduction at the U.S. Steel Clairton works will take about $320,000 in real estate tax revenue out of its $14 million budget.
Clairton is one of three school districts whose budgets may be affected by assessment appeals filed by U.S. Steel for its Clairton, Irvin and Edgar Thomson plants, but is the one that may feel it most because of the small size of its budget.
West Mifflin stands to lose about $700,000 in tax revenues from its $43 million budget if the reassessment of the Irvin Works stands, superintendent Dan Castagna said.
And, Woodland Hills School District is awaiting a ruling from a March assessment appeal hearing on the Edgar Thomson property in North Braddock. The company is seeking a substantial reduction in its 2013 assessment of $22.5 million.
"[U.S. Steel is] cutting the hearts out of communities like Clairton by pursuing these very aggressive appeals," said Ira Weiss, who was hired as a special solicitor to help with the appeal the Clairton school district has filed against the Clairton Works reassessment.
Clairton received the news of the lowered assessment in a May 2 disposition notice from the Allegheny County Office of Property Assessments, which held an assessment appeal hearing in December on the coke plant property. U.S. Steel filed an appeal of its property tax assessment at the Clairton facility, which was increased from about $12 million in 2012 to $14.7 million in 2013, Clairton business administrator Charles Lanna said.
At the appeal hearing, U.S. Steel presented an appraisal of the property that listed its market value at about $2.5 million, a number that was accepted by the county and relayed to the district in the disposition notice. The district, as part of its appeal, is seeking its own appraisal.
In West Mifflin, the Irvin Works property assessment was lowered from $39.3 million in 2012 to about $9.3 million for 2013. The West Mifflin district also is appealing, Mr. Castagna said.
Officials in Clairton and West Mifflin said they plan to adjust their budgets to cover the projected loss in revenue, though they were hoping to regain some of it in their appeals. That likely will mean tax increases for most residents, though it's difficult to tell exactly how much since the countywide increase in property assessments also is expected to hike many property tax bills. In Clairton, Mr. Lanna estimated the Clairton Works lowered assessment could cost the average taxpayer about $70 a year.
Clairton officials blame the appraisal method chosen by U.S. Steel for creating what they claim is an artificially low property value for the U.S. Steel plants.
Documentation in the county file on the reassessment process in Clairton shows an appraisal that is based strictly on the sale or market value of the property, without taking into consideration that it is a working industrial plant. It notes that the property likely would require significant soil and underground water pollution remediation efforts given the various chemicals used at the site.
Clairton officials said the comparable industrial sites used for comparison in the appraisal are abandoned industrial sites. "But the Clairton Works is not an abandoned site. They do not take into account the money that they are making there," Clairton solicitor Dan Beisler said.
Mr. Weiss said there are other approaches to take in performing an appraisal and that the district will seek to look at factors beyond the market value of the property.
"We think the land values are grossly inadequate and reveal a very flawed approach to appraising land, especially riverfront land," Mr. Weiss said. "We are going to have to work hard to get the right evidence in front of the board of viewers to try to achieve some reasonable assessment."
U.S. Steel declined comment on the matter.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590.