Cure the mess, reassess regularly

Cure the mess, reassess regularly

As if anyone requires yet another reason for Pennsylvania counties to conduct regular property reassessments for tax purposes, an Allegheny County court has provided it.

Common Pleas Judge Robert J. Colville last week dismissed a 2017 lawsuit that claimed school district appeals of the values of newly purchased homes amounted to illegal “de facto spot reassessments” that are forbidden by the county’s administrative code and assessment board rules, not to mention the state Constitution’s uniform taxation clause.

Colville, in a 32-page ruling, said those restrictions themselves violate state law – the General County Assessment law and the Second-Class County Charter law. In fact, Colville said those school district appeals serve to make assessments more uniform, not less.

The plaintiffs filed an immediate appeal to Commonwealth Court.

The root cause of all this, do remember, long has been spelled out by this institute and, indeed, was part and parcel to the plaintiff’s lawsuit. That being Allegheny County’s lack of regular reassessments.

The last ones, in 2001 and 2012, were court-ordered. But Allegheny County’s political leaders steadfastly have proffered red herrings to demure in ordering a new one.

Judge Colville could have struck a real blow for fairness by not merely stopping at the crux of his ruling – that school districts and other taxing bodies have the right to appeal assessments the same as property owners do – but by yet again ordering Allegheny County to conduct not only a reassessment, but reassessments on a regular basis, such as every three years.

Sans such an order, perhaps the state Legislature will find the gumption, finally, to do what it should have done decades ago.

As this scrivener noted shortly after the lawsuit was filed, various and sundry county officials, past and current, argue against regular reassessments, claiming they do everything from unfairly spiking tax bills, to discouraging new investment, to stifling job growth.

But it’s simply not true. As the Allegheny Institute noted nearly a year ago:

“When property assessments are not kept up to date and accurate as possible using regularly scheduled and fairly frequent reassessments as all states but Pennsylvania and Delaware require, all sorts of bad things happen.

“Tremendous inequities arise when some properties are grossly under assessed and others are over assessed. The Constitution of Pennsylvania is clear on this point. That situation should not be allowed to stand.”

Yes, there likely will be tax hikes that might challenge taxpayer sensibilities. But so, too, would regular reassessments keep owners whose properties have lost value from overpaying and subsidizing the under assessed.

But any spiking tax bills could have been mitigated had county government done the responsible thing and reassessed properties every three years.

Some have opined that school districts are acting unfairly in appealing the assessments on newly purchased homes. But, again, what precipitated such appeals? The lack of regular countywide reassessments.

As the Allegheny Institute noted a year ago, the only folks who benefit from a poorly executed property reassessment regimen are “the consultants and attorneys handling the appeals.”

Again, as this columnist noted last year shortly after the lawsuit was filed, “Surely it is a form of insanity for those in Allegheny County government to insist that regular reassessments will result in what their nonfeasance indeed causes.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (