Court hears from those who say Allegheny County assessment appeals were unfair

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It was tough enough when a landslide buried much of Melaine Kachmar's Reserve property in 2004.

But it was tougher to hear from the county that her property tax assessment was tripling, despite evidence from a professional appraiser that the land is now nearly worthless.

"Why would they think a place that has a landslide on it should have been tripled in value?" asked Ms. Kachmar, whose primary residence is in Morningside.

She was in the audience Wednesday afternoon as Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. heard arguments in a lawsuit filed by county residents who say their assessment appeals were unfairly denied.

The suit's nine plaintiffs say they paid for third-party appraisers to evaluate their homes and brought those findings to the assessment appeals board -- but later found out the hearing officer had discarded the evidence.

Meanwhile, no one from the county, their municipalities or their school districts brought worthwhile evidence to refute their evaluations of their homes, they say. Sometimes they didn't even show up to the hearing, the plaintiffs said.

When they got their rejection notices in the mail, the stated reason was often just one bleak line: "EVIDENCE INSUFFICIENT TO CHANGE VALUE."

"There is no due process," attorney David Huntley said. "You're throwing it out the window."

If the taxing entity doesn't come prepared, the homeowner should win automatically, attorneys argued. They are seeking a court order to require the county to accept a value from a certified appraiser if the local governments don't bring an appraisal to match.

County Solicitor Andrew Szefi disagreed, saying the hearing officer at an assessment appeal has the ability to reject a private appraisal if it looks fishy or is incomplete.

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

Judge Wettick said he would consider the injunction request but made no decision after the hearing.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say they've received calls from potential clients looking to join the suit. Also, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb announced his support for the suit Wednesday, submitting an affidavit in support of the preliminary injunction. Mr. Lamb had operated a program to help city residents challenge their assessments. Property owners filed more than 100,000 appeals of new assessments they received last year.

The suit hasn't yet been approved as a class action, which would open up any award to a much wider base of clients. If it is, Ms. Kachmar will be putting her name on the list. "It's the principle of the thing," she said.

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Andrew McGill:, 412-263-1497.


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