Kicking and screaming, or at least its political equivalent, Washington County commissioners made clear Wednesday that they are moving forward with the court-ordered, countywide reassessment that they fought for years to prevent.
To do it, they plan to use the same company whose tax reassessments last year sent Allegheny County property owners in the thousands to the appeals office, the taxpayer equivalent of kicking and screaming.
Commissioners Chairman Larry Maggi announced Wednesday that Tyler Technologies will be awarded a $6.9 million contract to assess the value of about 115,000 properties in Washington County, a process that is expected to result in new property tax assessments by July 1, 2016.
Mr. Maggi and fellow Commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan and Harlan G. Shober Jr. said they were confident in the abilities of their choice of vendor, the lowest of three bids that came in for the project. But they were not -- and they repeated this over and over at their news conference -- happy that they were doing the reassessment.
"I'm only doing it because I'm forced to do it," said Mr. Maggi in an interview following the board's announcement. "I'm not going to be a cheerleader for it. I'm not going to promote it. I'm doing it because there's a court order."
As Allegheny County learned last year, when a separate court order compelled the county to conduct its own reassessments, resistance is futile. And Washington County, though it has only a fraction of Allegheny County's approximately 550,000 taxable real estate parcels, has gone far longer without a reassessment.
The last reassessment there was in 1981, and since then the county has experienced a wave of development, including the large Southpointe I and II sites and additional growth boosted by the presence of energy companies that make up the Marcellus Shale industry.
"The longer you wait, the more inequitable the values will be," said Dominick Gambino, president of Diversified Municipal Services and the consultant who headed Allegheny County's 2002 reassessment. Properties appreciate at different rates in different neighborhoods, and often property owners in poorer areas end up paying more if a reassessment hasn't been done for some time.
"It's like Robin Hood's evil twin was running the show," Mr. Gambino said.
That's how it felt to the Washington and McGuffey school districts, which five years ago sued their county to force the reassessment. Growth in the county had resulted in disparities, said Roberta DiLorenzo, who is in her 15th year as superintendant of the Washington School District.
"In concert with McGuffey school district, we recognized that there was an incredible amount of time lapse from the last reassessment, and we really believed that it's best for all residences and businesses in the county to have an updated reassessment," she said, adding that she was pleased a contract had been awarded to Tyler Technologies.
For the two districts, Wednesday's announcement was a long time coming. The county commissioners' battle against reassessments came to its legal conclusion in April, when the state Supreme Court declined to hear the commissioners' appeal to stop the reassessments. That decision preserved an order mandating reassessments that was handed down from Washington County Common Pleas Court.
Asked what lessons Washington County has drawn from Allegheny County about how to -- or how not to -- conduct a reassessment, Mr. Maggi was succinct: "Reassessment law is bad here in Pennsylvania."
However, he said, Washington County will try to avoid the problems experienced in Allegheny County, especially the large number of appeals filed by property owners.
Washington County solicitor Mary Lyn Drewitz, who attended discussions about the Allegheny County assessment process to craft her county's approach, said the appeals process is one area that will be different.
In Washington County, property owners will be able to look at raw data as it is collected online, then will receive a tentative assessment a number of months before the final assessment is released.
If an owner disagrees with the number, he or she can meet with Tyler representatives to make their case, and the assessors can change the value then. Once the final assessment has been issued, the owner can make a formal appeal through a county tax appeal board.
In its contract with Tyler, Washington County has also decided to give the company "ultimate responsibility" for its timetable and its product, Ms. Drewitz said. Tyler will collect the data and do the appraisals itself.
"It's not going to be a joint effort," she said.
As for the job Tyler Technologies did in Allegheny County, attorney Janet Burkardt said the best way to measure that is to look at the number of appeals its reassessments prompted. It was more than 100,000. Ms. Burkardt, managing attorney for the law offices of Ira Weiss, who represented Allegheny County residents whose lawsuit prompted the reassessments there, said she sees similarities in the resistance politicians in both counties had toward the reassessments.
"I think that Washington County reassessment is probably going to have that same type of result as Allegheny County," she said, referring to a high number of appeals.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.