The judge overseeing Allegheny County's contentious property reassessment project Monday turned down a request to reduce the new real estate values in poorer communities.
New assessed values are scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1 for calculating property taxes. The order from Common Pleas Senior Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. appears to remove the final legal challenge to their use.
Lawyer Don Driscoll argued that an independent expert's study of the county's reassessment effort showed that bias remained against lower-valued properties following the $15 million revaluation. That review by Robert C. Denne concluded that people in poorer communities would continue to pay a disproportionate share of property taxes, he said.
In an Oct. 31 letter to Judge Wettick, Mr. Driscoll estimated that if proper adjustments were made, 75 percent of residential property owners in poorer communities such as Braddock and Rankin would see their new assessments reduced. In an oral presentation to Judge Wettick last month, he estimated that the value of about 300,000 parcels should be adjusted downward.
Judge Wettick wrote that the Supreme Court and state law had limited his authority to making sure that the county carried out the order to revalue properties. "It does not provide for judicial oversight with respect to issues regarding the fairness of a reassessment," he wrote.
"[The] only issue before this court is whether Allegheny County is completing a reassessment in accordance with the timetables set by this court," Judge Wettick wrote. "As of this date, it appears that Allegheny County is in full compliance with outstanding court orders."
Mr. Driscoll said he was reviewing the judge's decision.
"It is our opinion that the judge does have the authority and duty to ensure that the [state] constitution is complied with," he said. "The thrust of our case is to achieve uniform assessments."
He said he had not decided on any future steps.
County solicitor Andrew Szefi said he was not surprised by the judge's ruling in favor of the county's position that the numbers should not be changed en masse. "The county is not happy with anything connected with reassessment, but we are pleased that the judge did not allow Mr. Driscoll to reverse-engineer the results," Mr. Szefi said.
The new assessed values have produced more than 100,000 formal appeals. The last of those residential appeals are being heard and results are to be mailed out to property owners by early December.
The county is facing a Dec. 17 deadline for providing taxing bodies -- municipalities and school districts -- a final value for all taxable real estate in their communities. Those aggregate values will serve as the basis for calculating property taxes next year.
Mr. Driscoll, an attorney with the Community Justice Project, represented some of the original property owners who sued the county in 2005 to force reassessment. He successfully argued that the county's 2002 base-year assessment numbers now in use discriminated against people living in poorer neighborhoods, where property values were not increasing as fast as in wealthier areas. As a result, owners in less-affluent communities were paying too much in taxes and those in wealthier communities weren't paying enough.
If the county failed to correct problems with the new assessments, Mr. Driscoll warned last month they might have to file new litigation. The uniformity clause of the state Constitution requires that assessments be fair down to the municipal and school district level, he said.
New data on property sales through the first quarter of 2012 showed statistically significant regressive bias in 22 of the county's 45 school districts, he said.
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1159.