Judge rejects request on assessment appraisals

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A judge turned down a request Monday from 11 Allegheny County homeowners who asked that their homes' property tax assessments be set by their own hired appraisers.

In an eight-page opinion, senior Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. said lawyers gave him no valid legal precedent that would require hearing officers at assessment appeals to take the homeowner's word on their property's worth if no one contradicted it with another appraisal.

The case law proffered by the plaintiffs, he wrote, "does not support plaintiffs' claim that in a single-expert hearing, the hearing officer cannot assess the property at any fair market value other than the appraiser's recommended fair market value."

The lawsuit is the cherry on the top of a long, arduous property reassessment that has drawn complaints of arbitrary judgment by appeals officers. Homeowners say they've arrived at hearings with paperwork from certified appraisers only to find them virtually ignored by appeals officers.

Filed in January by Pittsburgh attorney David Huntley, the lawsuit contended that the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review rejected homeowners' requests for a lower assessment despite the evidence, even when the taxing bodies failed to show contradicting paperwork.

Mr. Huntley had asked for a preliminary injunction automatically setting his clients' assessments at the amount specified by their appraisers. If the taxing entity doesn't come prepared, the homeowner should win automatically, he argued.

That only works if you can trust the appraisal, the county retorted.

"We can show you a stack of appraisals that would frighten you with what they say," county solicitor Andrew Szefi said last month. "You bring in something that has a number on it, and this is the number? We might as well not have a hearing."

Leaving the question open for further debate as the lawsuit continues, Judge Wettick disagreed with the evidence Mr. Huntley presented. While case law may require hearing officers to accept homeowners' appraisals as evidence, he doesn't agree they have to find them credible.

Assessment appeal hearings might be held to a laxer standard than regular hearings, he wrote, hinting that he may take Allegheny County's haste to complete all hearings by Dec. 31 into account.

Property owners filed more than 100,000 appeals of new assessments they received last year.

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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