Assessing the reassessment: Our audit shows that the county set low standards, and they were met

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Over the past four months, the auditors in the Allegheny County controller's office conducted a detailed evaluation of the performance of both Allegheny County's Office of Property Assessment and the contractor hired by the county, Tyler Technologies, concerning the recent property reassessment. They sought to determine whether Tyler Technologies complied with the contract it signed with the county to carry out the reassessment.

Our auditors concluded that Tyler Technologies technically complied with the terms of the contract. That, however, tells only part of the story. The contract was complied with, in large part, because it imposed such a low standard of accountability upon Tyler.

The county did not require the level of accountability in the contract that it did for the 2002 reassessment. Our audit team found that the new assessments failed to comply with industry standards for equity in some municipalities and school districts, although this was not required by the contract. This means that some lower-value properties were assessed too highly, while some more-valuable properties were under-assessed.

The minimal level of accountability found in the contract with Tyler Technologies is comparable to signing an agreement with a home builder that allows you to inspect your finished house only from the outside, not room by room. Such a contract is not in the best interests of the taxpayers.

This lack of accountability and specificity in the contract with Tyler Technologies, along with documented staffing issues and poorly maintained data, allowed for properties to have wildly inaccurate initial assessments -- both above and below fair market value.

Reassessments are not easy. And it certainly is not fair for Allegheny County to have been singled out by the courts to perform a property reassessment that is not required of neighboring counties. Yet, faced with the reality of a reassessment, Allegheny County should have ensured that this very important undertaking was done as accurately and transparently as possible so that the public could have confidence in the process used to value properties. It is imperative that Allegheny County enact measures to improve reassessments.

While I supported statewide reassessment reform in the state Legislature and still do, there are specific ways that Allegheny County can take action now to lessen the harm and sticker-shock in the future.

First, Allegheny County must develop its own standards for assessing properties that provide maximum accountability and promote fairness.

Second, the county should hire a full-time chief assessment officer to ensure compliance with all legally designated duties. Last, the county should review and correct any deficiencies, inequities or unfairness at the local level that remains after the appeals process.

We must face the reality that another reassessment will occur sometime in the future. A reassessment could be forced again by judicial action or if some sort of statewide reform is enacted in Harrisburg.

It would be foolish to simply shut our eyes to the problems revealed by the most recent reassessments. Allegheny County must learn from its mistakes and establish a system that is accountable, innovative, transparent and fair to all taxpayers.

opinion_commentary

Chelsa Wagner is Allegheny County controller and represented parts of Pittsburgh and the South Hills in the state House of Representatives from 2007 through 2011.


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