Fixing the assessments mess once and for all

Fixing the assessments mess once and for all

Many phrases have been used to describe Allegheny County’s dysfunctional property tax assessment and appeals process — “indecipherable mumbo-jumbo,” “patently illegal and unconstitutional” and a “political racket,” among others.

But even though last week’s Common Pleas Court consent order goes a bit of a ways in rectifying what is a public policy mess, there’s only one phrase that best defines what must happen to fully correct it — “regular state-overseen property reassessments for every county.”

As the Post-Gazette reported on the consent order:

“At issue is what is known as the common level ratio — a state calculation used in assessment appeals to account for widening disparities between assessed values and current sales prices since the last countywide reassessment took place a decade ago.”

We’ll spare you the weeds herein. But the court order calling for the county to re-examine how it coded some 2020 property sales data that are used to calculate assessments during appeal hearings was born out of a lawsuit claiming errors in the process.

The consent agreement could have wide-ranging implications, the first of which is the use of accurate data. But, by extension, that could go a long way in tamping down taxing bodies’ – primarily school districts’ – recent proclivity to “spot assess” newly sold properties in a process that has been dubbed the “newcomers’ tax.”

It’s a process that exacerbated inequities in the property tax assessments among similar properties while giving some new home buyers post-purchase sticker shock – and a budgeting nightmare — when their property taxes suddenly were increased.

Should the common level ratio, commonly referred to as the “CLR,” be adjusted downward as the lawsuit plaintiffs argue it should be, that could end the practice. But it’s not the ultimate solution.

As Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute reminds, “The common level ratio is useless because it gets outdated as fast as the assessments.” 

And as we’ve long argued, the only way to eliminate many if not most of these inequity issues (including more and more spot assessments) is a regular countywide reassessment regimen – preferably every three years — and on a statewide basis.

County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald long has foresworn any new reassessment. He cites not only the political downside but, supposedly, fears of placing Allegheny County at a competitive disadvantage with counties that don’t reassess.

But politics and the competitive disadvantage argument would be eliminated with a statewide mandate for reassessments that would restore accuracy, equal treatment under the law and predictability to the process.

While the consent decree is welcome, it’s past time to stop nibbling around the edges of the overall issue. It’s time to do the right thing. It’s time for the state to mandate regular county real estate reassessments.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).