Property value changes can still cut both ways

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When Allegheny County Council voted to give property owners until April Fool's Day to appeal this year's assessments, you might have known there was a catch.

That catch gives the county's 173 taxing bodies -- the townships, boroughs, cities and school districts -- more time to make their appeals, too. And when they do, it will be to get assessments to go up, not down.

So if in the past two or three years you bought a house at a price that's, say, 30 percent higher than your assessment, don't celebrate just yet. There may be a surprise waiting for you. A taxing body can go before the assessors and say, looky here, we got ourselves a fish that almost made it through the sluice.

"Come in with a deed and it's pretty much a slam dunk'' for the taxing body, said Michael Suley, who managed the county's Office of Property Assessments until county Executive Rich Fitzgerald axed him in November.

Mr. Suley calls the gift of extended appeal time a "Trojan horse.'' Ira Weiss, whose Downtown law firm has represented taxing bodies across the state, says that's overstating things. But he allows that there could be thousands of appeals coming from local governments and school districts trying to kick individual assessments higher.

Such work has not endeared Mr. Weiss to the homeowners on the losing side of such battles, nor to the politicians who have delayed and politicized the assessment process into the titanic mess it still remains. At least one politician has referred to Mr. Weiss as "public enemy No. 1,'' a slur that hurt his feelings so badly he now has a poster from Jimmy Cagney's movie, "Public Enemy,'' hanging in his office. It was a gift from his employees.

Anyway, Mr. Weiss is hardly shocked that Mr. Fitzgerald and his dutiful council (which Mr. Weiss calls "the only elected body in the world with two ex-professional wrestlers'' in "Jumpin'" Johnny DeFazio and Charles "The Masked Marvel" Martoni) have extended the appeal process. This county always has gone out of its way, Mr. Weiss says, to encourage a "pathological warfare over assessments.''

The politicians who wailed loudest in trying to stop new assessments never spent much time telling people that they would also be blocking tax cuts for hundreds of thousands of homeowners. Those taxpayers had been paying more than their share. These new assessments have been followed by millage rate cuts that brought tax bills down for those who'd been overpaying for most of a decade.

But there's mounting evidence that those millage rate cuts haven't gone far enough. State law says there can be no windfall for a municipality after an assessment. Some property owners' tax bills will go up and some down, but the total revenue received by a municipality or school district isn't supposed to be higher than it was before the assessment.

That's the intent, anyway. Right now the law's looking almost as toothless as the meth heads on "Breaking Bad.'' (Man, I need better metaphors.) Monroeville just raised taxes well above the windfall limit after getting court permission, and I've gotten emails about other municipalities simply ignoring the law.

County Controller Chelsa Wagner has said the county needs to cut its rate by another half-mill. (That would save a taxpayer $50 on a home assessed at 100 grand.) Her office also is launching an online "Windfall Watch" to see that municipalities cut their millage in compliance with the law.

Mr. Fitzgerald has noted that outstanding appeals should bring the county's total property valuation down, and if the millage rate proves too high when those appeals are done, it will be cut. That still leaves at least two questions:

Will these taxing bodies' late appeals that nudge up valuations be subject to the windfall law? If the millage rates come down, will those of us who paid too much be due rebate checks?

Mr. Weiss says he can envision a group forming to get those rebates if millages come down. Assessment season should get even more festive then.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 4122-263-1947.


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