A report prepared by an assessment expert is the basis for a proposal to Judge Wettick to recalculate the property assessment figures in poorer neighborhoods in Allegheny County.
By Len Barcousky / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As many as two-thirds of Allegheny County homeowners could see their new assessments dip if the judge overseeing property revaluation agrees that the results from the controversial project were unfair to poorer communities.
An independent analysis of Allegheny County’s $11 million reassessment has found that numbers for Pittsburgh, Clairton and Duquesne school districts did not meet international property valuation standards.
Assessment expert Robert C. Denne reached that conclusion in a report he prepared for one of the lawyers who sued the county to force real estate revaluation.
Attorney Don Driscoll on Thursday asked Senior Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. to order the county to correct the problem by recalculating assessment numbers across the county.
Mr. Driscoll filed his motion on behalf of his original clients, two property owners who believed their homes in less-affluent communities had become relatively overvalued over time.
“We have preliminary indications that the results of the reassessment disfavor lower-value communities,” he said. The certified values scheduled to go into effect in 2013 failed to eliminate the “statistically significant regressivity” that would have residents in poorer communities continue to pay a disproportionate share of property taxes.
The problem should be corrected before the Dec. 17 deadline for the county to provide a “final and revised roll” of assessment numbers to municipal governments and school districts, Mr. Driscoll’s motion said.
Those new values are scheduled to replace 2002 base-year numbers in calculating 2013 property taxes.
Reducing assessments for such a large number of homeowners could cause an increase in tax bills for others.
Whether homeowners would pay more or less in property tax next year depends on how the assessment increase for their properties compares to the average increase for their community and school district.
That means adjusting assessments downward for some could change the impact for other owners who thought they would escape reassessment without paying a higher tax bill.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a vocal opponent of reassessment, said he was skeptical that Mr. Driscoll’s proposal could repair a fundamentally flawed process.
“Poorer communities were supposed to be better off [following reassessment],” he said. “Instead things got worse. He doesn’t like the numbers he got, so now Mr. Driscoll is asking the court to give him lower numbers he likes.”
The best option for the county would be to continue to use 2002 numbers and correct problems through the appeals process, Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Among the statistics that Mr. Denne found to be out of compliance with International Association of Assessing Officers standards was the “price related differential.” It compares ratios of assessed values to adjusted sales prices. Mr. Denne’s analysis found the numbers to be too high in the Pittsburgh, Clairton and Duquesne school districts.
Problems with assessments, however, were not limited to those three communities. Mr. Denne wrote in his report that, “Despite the variability of the ratios [across the county], there is also a clear indication that the lower valued properties tend to be assessed at higher levels and the higher valued properties tend to be assessed at lower levels.”
As a result, Rankin — one of the poorest communities in the county — saw an average increase of 75 percent in values before appeals. Trendy Mt. Lebanon had an average increase of 30 percent while neighboring, middle-class Dormont had an average increase of 52 percent. The average across the county was 35 percent.
Those statistical problems can be reduced by throwing out “extreme outliers” among property sales — transactions that for a variety of reasons do not reflect the general market trends in a community or neighborhood — Mr. Driscoll said.
Allegheny County hired an outside consultant, the Cole Layer Trumble division of Tyler Technologies, to do the bulk of its reassessment work. The firm relied largely on mathematical models to do a “computer-assisted mass appraisal” of the county’s 550,000 taxable properties.
The new assessment numbers could be adjusted to reflect the results of Mr. Denne’s research quickly and cheaply, Mr. Driscoll predicted. “We think this can be done without a great deal of time, effort or expense,” he said.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner’s office, which is conducting an audit of Cole Layer’s assessment work, said it recently received the final information it needed to finish the audit but it isn’t finished yet.