Washington County eyes reassessment

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Saying they wanted to avoid fines and possibly even jail time, Washington County commissioners Tuesday said they would begin seeking proposals for a countywide reassessment.

"I followed the law my whole life, and we have to follow the law now," said commission Chairman Larry Maggi, who previously worked as a state trooper and county sheriff. "We've been threatened with everything and withstood the pressure by the school districts, inaction by the Legislature and the contempt power of the court, but we have no place left to turn."

Commissioners said they were forced to act by the Washington and McGuffey school districts, which sued the county several years ago to force a reassessment. The last reassessment was completed in 1981 and the current system is unfair and outdated, district officials contend.

"We disagree" with that assertion, Mr. Maggi said. "Let's look at Allegheny County. Those who can least afford it are paying more than their fair share of real estate taxes."

In a status hearing Tuesday before county President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca, the county said it would seek proposals from reassessment vendors. Vendors would have until May 17 to submit bids, but commissioners earlier obtained estimates indicating that a reassessment would cost about $8 million, not including appeals. There are about 118,000 taxable properties in the county.

Susan Mondik Key, a lawyer representing the school districts, asked the judge to order sanctions against commissioners and force them to pay legal fees for the districts "for having us continually have to appear in court."

Though she didn't know the exact total, Ms. Mondik Key estimated the legal fees to be about $20,000.

In 2008, commissioners signed a consent decree agreeing that the current taxing system was insufficient, and in June 2011, the board was ordered by Judge O'Dell Seneca to seek proposals within five weeks.

"They've never done that," Ms. Mondik Key said. "They have delayed and come up with stalling tactics."

Commissioners admit they were trying to stall as long as possible to give the Legislature time to pass meaningful property tax revisions and because a reassessment is politically unpalatable. They have appealed multiple court decisions and are awaiting their latest appeal before the state Supreme Court. If the high court doesn't agree to hear its case, the county has no appeals left.

"The system is broken, and we have asked our legislators to work on a system to fix it," Mr. Maggi said. "It is not our intent to gamble $8 million of taxpayer money on this system and a year later we'd have to do it again."

The Legislature did pass a property tax revisions bill in 2011 that would have placed a moratorium on court-ordered reassessments in Washington County, but it was immediately vetoed by Gov. Tom Corbett, who felt that singling out one county was unconstitutional.

Mr. Maggi said he's hopeful that if the county is forced into a reassessment it can be part of a pilot program with the state Department of Community & Economic Development.

That would depend on the fate of Senate Bill 66, which was wending its way through the Legislature this week. The bill provides a standardized method of reassessing taxpayers and places reassessments under the banner of the DCED, which would also sponsor training programs and a statewide database.

"Criteria and guidance is needed," Mr. Maggi said. "There are no standards."

Commissioners said they were in Harrisburg on Monday and early Tuesday, lobbying legislators and the governor to support the measure. If it passes, it could be on Mr. Corbett's desk by the end of the week.

Judge O'Dell Seneca scheduled another status hearing for June 4, and commissioners said they hoped by then to have bids in hand and to be a part of a DCED pilot program.

neigh_washington - electionsmunicipal

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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