A man's home is his castle, they say -- at least until the taxman comes.
A complaint from a resident over a property assessment officer's zeal has led to a change in policy for Allegheny County's property assessors. The new policy forbids assessors from walking into enclosed backyards or squeezing past fences unless they have the owner's permission.
According to county officials, the resident complained after supposedly catching an assessment officer heading for the back gate, intent on checking out the house's new deck.
The county isn't sure what actually happened, but officials are now finalizing new regulations barring assessors from entering a "locked, gated, fenced or otherwise restricted area" to get property information. The change is designed to protect assessors from being mistaken for intruders by unsuspecting homeowners.
"This is for the safety of our employees," said Jerry Tyskiewicz, the county's director of administrative services. "These folks are just trying to assess a value. You can make a wrong turn and end up in an awkward position."
According to the policy, assessment officials must have a homeowner's permission before entering a property or surveying its grounds. They're still allowed to take pictures from the street, eye the house from the property line and measure the lot's boundaries.
If the door is answered by a third party, the assessor can enter if given permission, unless they're greeted by a minor. They're also free to use other methods, including pictures from the street, GIS maps, blueprints and even aerial photography.
Mr. Tsykiewicz said this was the first complaint he'd received, which came after the county received a report the homeowner had installed a new deck. That said, everyone in the department knew that assessors sometimes walked past gates and into enclosed areas to get information -- just look at all the photos taken from within gated communities, he said.
"We need something in place so that our people are not going on property without expressed permission," county Solicitor Andrew Szefi said.
At some level, property assessors just can't catch a break. After last year's much-dreaded reassessment finally took flight -- and the appeals began flooding in -- many wondered if the county relied too much on computer modeling instead of on-the-ground legwork.
But when assessors actually show up to look around, something like this happens.
County Councilman Jim Burn, who first received the complaint, empathizes with both sides. No one wants to feel their privacy has been violated, and assessors certainly don't want to offend, he said.
But Mr. Burn, D-Millvale, places the blame on the courts, which ordered Allegheny County to get its property values in line without clear direction on how to do it.
"Our county has been forced to play catch-up," he said. "This is a glaring example of what happens when you have an unfair and inequitable court-ordered system to assess properties."
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497.