At­tor­ney wants new coun­ty­wide reval­u­a­tions

An­a­lyst finds re­assess­ments un­fair to poorer com­mu­ni­ties

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - LOCAL NEWS - 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 low­er­value 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 “com­put­eras­sisted 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.

Len Bar­cousky: lbar­cousky@ or 412-263-1159.

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