Attorney says property reassessments unfair to poorer neighborhoods

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Despite several years of work by Allegheny County and a consultant, about 300,000 property assessments in poorer neighborhoods are still too high, an attorney told a Common Pleas judge on Wednesday.

The new assessed values, which have produced more than 100,000 appeals, show bias against lower-valued properties, attorney Don Driscoll told Common Pleas Court Senior Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. He asked Judge Wettick to order the county to order new, lower values in those areas.

Mr. Driscoll, who filed one of the original lawsuits that led the court to order a reassessment, said properties in wealthier communities like Churchill remain relatively undervalued for tax purposes. Conversely, real estate in places like Braddock is assessed at a much higher rate compared to its market value, Mr. Driscoll said after the court hearing.

Revised lower assessments should be sent out to as many as 300,000 property owners to reduce the "regressivity" in the original numbers, he urged. New numbers could be prepared and sent out within a week, he estimated.

Failure to make systematic corrections in the assessment numbers could lead to another series of lawsuits by property owners who believe they still are paying a disproportionate share of property taxes, Mr. Driscoll said.

County solicitor Andrew Szefi was not convinced of the need for wholesale changes in the results of the $15 million reassessment project.

He told Judge Wettick that the county had done everything the state Supreme Court had asked in carrying out the reassessment. New property values met fairness standards set by International Association of Assessing Officers fairness standards, he said.

"He's saying, 'I don't like those numbers and I'm going to challenge them,' " Mr. Szefi said of Mr. Driscoll's proposal.

Mr. Szefi also argued that it was premature to order major changes in assessment methodology until the results of appeals are known.

Judge Wettick said he would consider Mr. Driscoll's request and rule later. He set no date for announcing his decision. Judge Wettick has been overseeing reassessment since the state Supreme Court in 2009 ordered Allegheny County to revalue all real estate.

The county is facing a Dec. 17 deadline for calculating new aggregate values for real estate in school districts and municipalities. Taxing bodies need to know the new values for their communities to set millage rates for 2013, when the new assessment numbers are to take effect.

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 2002 base-year assessment numbers currently 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 poor communities with dropping values were paying too much in taxes and those in wealthier communities weren't paying enough because their values had increased since the last assessment in 2002.

If the county failed to correct problems with the new assessments, Mr. Driscoll said he could be forced 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.

"We're not going to stop until this thing is done right," he said.

In the case of Penn Hills, owners of the least expensive group of properties in the community would be taxed next year at a rate 56 percent higher than owners of the most expensive real estate, unless the numbers are modified, he said.

Mr. Driscoll was asked why over-assessed property owners have not appealed their unfair assessments. "It's not their obligation," he said. "It is the county's obligation to do it right."


Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159.


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