Improve assessment appeals in Allegheny County

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Taxing bodies in Allegheny County will be setting new revenue-neutral millage rates this month based on the recent court-ordered property reassessments. Some 2013 tax bills will have significant increases and decreases from last year, producing winners and losers.

Many of the 100,000 property owners who appealed their reassessments have received the results of their hearings. Thousands hired state-certified appraisers to give them an opinion of value for their appeal hearings.

Over the years, many public officials have encouraged taxpayers to obtain an appraisal, as it is considered the "best evidence" to present at an assessment appeal hearing. But this year, the results of appeals were mixed, and many property owners paid for professional appraisals and still lost.

On Monday a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 11 property owners who lost their appeals after submitting appraisals to hearing officers and the county appeals board. The appraisals were rejected by hearing officers who, in many cases, were not Pennsylvania-certified appraisers. The lawsuit contends that the officers were not qualified and that the court should grant relief to the property owners by forcing the county to use the appraisals. This case will be watched closely as it moves forward.

Under county ordinances, the appeals board can hire hearing officers who are either appraisers or individuals with real estate valuation experience, including licensed real estate sales people. Under state law, however, salespeople are not permitted to perform or review appraisals.

In most cases, a hearing officer weighs the evidence and submits a recommendation to the county appeals board, where board members have the final say on an assessment. Many property owners are questioning why an assessment would not be changed even when a professional appraiser set a lower value.

The real remedy regarding the submission and acceptance of certified appraisals at appeal hearings may not be found in the courts, but with our elected officials. The appeals board and its hearing officers are a creation of the Allegheny County executive and council. If the public is to have confidence in the assessment appeal process, changes must be made in the way appraisals are scrutinized by the appeals board.

Appraisals should not be taken as gospel. But typically, within the industry, appraisals are reviewed by certified appraisers, as they have the expertise to deem whether an appraisal was prepared in compliance with the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice.

In Allegheny County, only a handful of certified appraisers work as hearing officers for the appeals board, and they cannot review all appeals. When they cannot, assessments should be adjusted by less-expert hearing officers to the value set by a professional appraiser hired by a property owner.

If county lawmakers fail to act now, many frustrated and angry taxpayers will be forced to pay for a lengthy second appeal to the Board of Viewers to have their assessments lowered by using the same appraisals rejected by the county appeals board. Now that the post-appeals values have been published, it would be wise to have new laws in place for the next tax-appeal cycle.

The county should look at the same process that is used when someone buys a house and applies for a mortgage loan. The lender requires an appraisal and, under law, any appraisal review must be conducted by a certified appraiser.

In the 2001 court-ordered reassessment conducted by Sabre Systems, the appeals board hired appraisers to conduct appraisal reviews. A county ordinance requiring appraisals to be reviewed by state-certified appraisers would instill confidence in the appeals process moving forward. Only certified appraisers should review appraisals submitted on appeal.

opinion_commentary

Michael J. Suley, a certified property evaluator, was manager of Allegheny County's Office of Property Assessments, 2006-2012, and a member of the county's Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review, 1997-2000.


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