Allegheny County homeowners look to join assessment lawsuit

Class action against appeals board asserts validity of certified appraisals

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Some Allegheny County property owners dissatisfied with the results of their assessment appeals are seeking to join a class-action lawsuit.

They want to add their names to the list of 11 people who say the county's independent appeals board ignored or modified the results of their certified appraisals, according to lawyers who brought the legal action.

"We're taking their names and phone numbers," attorney Grey D. Pratt said.

His colleague, David M. Huntley, filed the lawsuit last week in the county Court of Common Pleas. It alleges that some of the hearing officers who decided formal property assessment appeals "engaged in arbitrary and capricious conduct" when they disregarded the results of certified real estate appraisals.

It names the county and the separate, quasi-judicial Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review as defendants. The hearing officers, who are employed by the appeals board, are completing the last of more than 100,000 formal challenges to new assessment numbers.

David Montgomery, solicitor for the appeals board, defended the work being done by the hearing officers. In their role as fact-finders who make recommendations to the appeals board, they have discretion in evaluating the quality of all evidence presented to them, Mr. Montgomery said.

"They can accept or reject, in whole or in part, expert testimony, even if it is not rebutted," he said.

Mr. Huntley disagreed. Hearing officers should not reject the results of certified appraisals and substitute their own judgment in the absence of contrary evidence, he said.

The county had encouraged residents filing appeals to pay for and present certified real estate appraisals as the best proof of the value of their properties, he said. Yet when his clients presented their appraisals, some were accepted and others ignored, he said.

"And there was no counter-evidence," Mr. Huntley said.

Taxing bodies, especially school districts, have the right to be heard at assessment appeals, usually arguing that new real estate values are correct or should be increased. "But the school districts either don't show up or the solicitor would just present a couple of comparables from Zillow," he said. Zillow is an online real estate website.

The lawsuit asks the county court to order hearing officers and the appeals board to accept the results of the certified appraisals as the basis for new assessments. A municipality or school district still would have the option of presenting contrary, comparable evidence.

Their clients are hoping for a preliminary ruling as soon as Jan. 23, Mr. Huntley said.

Property owners learn the results of their appeals via a form letter that provides minimal information on how decisions were reached. Property owners also should receive copies of the hearing officer's report, Mr. Huntley said. That document describes both the evidence presented and details on how the assessment number was arrived at, he said.

"The system they've created allows them to disregard highest level of evidence presented and just give property owners a two-word rationale -- like 'market conditions' -- for their decision," Mr. Huntley said.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has been a long-time foe of the reassessment effort, offered qualified support for the latest legal action. "A certified assessment should carry a lot of weight, even if it is not 100 percent determinative of the property value," he said last week.

Hearing officers still have to evaluate the quality of the outside analysis of the properties. "I hope the appeals board is flexible in giving consideration to a good appraisal," he said.

Property values have risen an average of 32 percent for the county as a whole, and they will be used this year for calculating local, school district and county property taxes. The 2013 numbers replace 2002 "base-year" values.

That average increase number is likely to drop as still undecided appeals, especially of large commercial properties, are resolved.

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Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159.


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