New rule on assessment appeals drawing criticism on Allegheny County Council

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Allegheny County Council members are speaking out against new rules barring brokers or real estate agents from accepting pay for representing property owners at reassessment hearings.

The rules -- passed last month by the Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review -- allow only lawyers to charge a fee to appear at an assessment challenge, arguing they can be held more accountable than the average schmo off the street.

"It's really to protect the public," board solicitor David Montgomery said. "For better or for worse, attorneys have a clear measure of accountability through the attorney disciplinary process."

But county Councilman Jim Ellenbogen worries the new rule will price out some homeowners, making the cost of filing an appeal unaffordable to poorer property owners. He's filed legislation to block the rule, which will be considered at tonight's county council meeting.

Accountability is all well and good, he said, but what's the point if a resident can't get help to begin with? And the law doesn't prevent nonattorneys from helping out clients -- it just keeps them from getting paid for it.

"If your friend's grandmother wants you to represent her, and she wants to pay you a couple bucks for your trouble, she's not allowed to do it," Mr. Ellenbogen said. "She's breaking the law. This whole thing on its face is just wrong."

He's also challenging a rule allowing school districts and other taxing bodies to cut deals with property owners outside the hearing, which he believes gives an unfair advantage to local governments.

The new rules are of particular concern to real estate brokers like Jim Uhler, who said he still has 200 hearings with clients left. He doesn't have a law degree, but he bets he knows more about his clients' properties than any lawyer could.

And he's probably a lot cheaper.

"People can't afford to pay $500 to $2,000 for an attorney to do this," Mr. Uhler said. "If we have a $50,000 property, it's not worth the aggravation for an owner to spend that type of money."

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Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.


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