Reassessing the land of the underassessed

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The Allegheny County property assessment system is a joke, a pinball machine purposely stuck on "TILT." It is far more likely to shaft the poor than the rich.

So it's no wonder the state Supreme Court found the county's base year system illegal.

All that said, County Executive Dan Onorato has been right about this much in his fruitless fight to keep the unjust assessments where they are: They may be a mess, but screwed-up is the norm for Pennsylvania.

The state's own records show that higher-priced homes are chronically underassessed compared to lower-priced homes in all but a handful of the state's 67 counties.

Allegheny County falls somewhere in the middle of the pack statewide, and neighboring counties -- Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland -- are even more out of whack, according to State Tax Equalization Board records. In all those counties, higher-priced homes are even more underassessed in comparison to more modestly housed neighbors.

Butler hasn't had a reassessment in 40 years and Westmoreland hasn't bothered since 1972. They get away with that because most property owners associate reassessments with tax increases, and politicians perpetuate that belief.

The reassessments that Mr. Onorato threw aside in 2005, for instance, included more than 100,000 properties that saw their values go down or didn't move at all. Such people likely would have gotten a tax break had the assessments been implemented.

"Not reassessing does not help to keep taxes down," says Dominick Gambino, manager of the county Office of Property Assessments under Mr. Onorato's predecessor, Jim Roddey. "It only keeps taxes down for the upper-end properties."

Those at the bottom subsidize those at the top, Mr. Gambino said. He lives in McCandless or, as he calls it, "The North Hills -- the Land of the Underassessed. I thank my Aunt Rose in North Braddock, Aunt Mary in Braddock and cousins in Swissvale every day for paying part of my fair share in property taxes.

"This county is not well run, it's just well spun," he said. "Nobody's talking about poor people paying more than they should."

Actually, some are. The state Supreme Court kicked this issue back to county Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. to set the date by which the countywide reassessment must be completed. The county solicitor is scheduled to meet with the judge this morning and the Onorato team hopes to find some common ground.

"We may be allies with him in this," Mr. Onorato's spokesman, Kevin Evanto, said.

Judge Wettick didn't care for the county's "base year" system, which is common throughout the commonwealth. But the Supreme Court ruling is specific to Allegheny County.

So the county will ask the judge to hold off on a reassessment here "to give us time to fix this system statewide," Mr. Evanto said.

Republicans control the state Senate, so the idea that they'd find a way to help out Mr. Onorato, a potential Democratic candidate for governor next year, seems slim. But the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania also would like to see a uniform, statewide assessment system, so Mr. Onorato is not alone.

"Sixty-six other counties are a lawsuit away from being in the same boat as we are," Mr. Evanto said.

He rejected the argument that lower assessments automatically mean lower property taxes, at least at the municipal and school system level. County taxes generally represent the smallest fraction of the property tax bill, and a borough that sees its assessments slashed across the board likely would have to increase its tax rate just to stay even, Mr. Evanto said.

"Dan's standing firm and trying to hold the line on this because there are two other taxing bodies that he doesn't control," Mr. Evanto said.

Fanning fears of the unknown is a good way to get the electorate into an Irish-grandmother mode: "Better the 'divil' you know than the 'divil' you don't -- we don't want a reassessment!" But the system we have is illegal and demonstrably skewed toward the well-to-do. The county may file a federal lawsuit to force a change in state law if the Legislature doesn't get off its 253-seat bottom, but what happens if that doesn't work?

Mr. Gambino figures Mr. Onorato will next ascend Mount Washington to "petition the Lord and come back down the mountain with a stone tablet proclaiming the 11th Commandment, 'Thou Shalt Not Reassess.' "

Such non-action may propel him to the governor's mansion, a mansion Mr. Gambino guesses is underassessed.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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