Figure on losers aplenty from reassessment mess
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It's the tax cut nobody believes in.
"Never has good news been so badly received,'' Chris Briem said of Allegheny County's massive reassessment of city real estate.
About six of every 10 property owners would see a tax cut out of these reassessments, Mr. Briem estimated, days before county Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he wasn't going to use them.
Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. didn't waste any time responding with an order that says, in effect, that government by tantrum won't do. The city and school district must base their property tax rates and bills on the new 2012 values, though the judge will consider the school system's request to use the old assessments for one more year.
The idea that Mr. Fitzgerald just snatched a tax break from thousands of homeowners is so far off the prevailing talk show story line that most people don't even want to hear it. But Mr. Briem, a University of Pittsburgh economist, has no horse in this race. The increased assessment on his Bloomfield home was almost smack dab on the citywide average residential uptick of 46 percent.
So if the city, school district and county then readjusted property tax rates downward -- as they are required to do under Pennsylvania's anti-windfall law -- Mr. Briem likely would come out about even.
It's all the property owners whose assessments went up only 10 to 40 percent who have been rooked. They, and those whose assessments went down or stayed still, won't get the break that would have come from a slashing of property tax rates.
Those rates not only aren't moving, they're going up. Last month, Mr. Fitzgerald backed a county council plan to tack another mill on the county property tax rate. That will work out to an additional $100 owed annually on a $100,000 house, but that's been largely forgotten in what may be the biggest snafu in county government since, well, the last reassessment.
Our property tax system has been a carnival game stuck on "tilt'' for almost a decade now. There's no uniformity in the base assessments the county has been using since 2002. That was proven in court by the property owners who have been shafted by the current numbers.
Judge Wettick is now widely reviled because the reassessments that resulted in the city and Mount Oliver from his order -- the first ones under the microscope -- were so badly botched by the county. It's paying an outside consultant $11 million to help collect and analyze reassessment information, which is an awful lot of money for what looks like a dog's breakfast.
Mr. Fitzgerald told KDKA radio Friday that's the nature of the assessment beast: "No matter who we hire, it's going to be disastrous.''
He has a point. It does seem now, as it did in 2002, that too much of the burden for getting the numbers right falls on property owners. Of course, when you do a reassessment only every decade or so, the new numbers are going to be scary even if they're right.
Mr. Fitzgerald also has a point when he says it's unfair that Allegheny County alone is required to make regular assessments. He argues that these reassessments drive homeowners to surrounding counties, but don't be so sure. The evidence suggests that the current system discriminates against new buyers; the longer you've owned your home in Allegheny County, the more likely you'll have an assessment below your neighbor's. That's hardly a welcome mat.
Nobody should hold their breath waiting for America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature to fix this with some kind of statewide assessment plan, so the county has to fix this mess. Delaying implementation for a year seems like a good idea. People want certainty and simplicity in their tax system, and there's no way to get there quickly.
We need -- dare I say it? -- more numbers. So far, the only ones most of us have seen are shooting upward. (The county, in an Orwellian move, removed these new assessment numbers from its website last week, but they're still sitting somewhere.)
Speaking for all those who hate math as much as taxes, we'd like local governments to get busy finding the answer to a question every property owner has: After you're done reassessing and cutting property tax rates, will my bill go up or down?
Until more people get that answer, some of us might be rooting for the wrong team.
First Published January 8, 2012 12:00 am