On Thursday the County and Common Pleas Court Judge Wettick are to meet to discuss the progress toward the 2012 reassessment. As we pointed out in a recent Brief, things were on track based on the statements of County officials all the way back to December of 2009 when the reassessment timeline was established. The Manager, Solicitor, and acting head of the Assessment Department indicated as much. Now the timeline indicates that values might not be ready until next spring.
The County was long holding out hope that the state would pass a moratorium on court-ordered reassessments. The Legislature did at the end of June, but the legislative process reduced it down to apply only to Washington County. The Governor vetoed the bill, and as of this writing there is not going to be an override of the veto. That takes away some of belief by County officials that they are being singled out by the specter of property assessments. It gets the focus back on the matter at hand in Allegheny County.
So what happens Thursday? Perhaps the Judge will recall his opinion from May of 2005 (on the County’s cap system plan) when he wrote "it is the responsibility of the County to promptly make available to the office of Property Assessments and the Chief Assessment Officer whatever resources are needed to improve the process".
How’s this for twisted logic. The Council Chair who has disobeyed Common Pleas Court orders and openly decries and maligns the Supreme Court order requiring Allegheny County to re-assess real property now wants the County to bring a lawsuit against state statutes governing property taxation and assessment. The suit would seek to have the state system declared "broken"-whatever that means-and ask the court to order the Legislature to fix it.
One must wonder at the audacity of a person who has been so critical and disrespectful of the court system and their rulings on assessments who now wants the same courts to side with his argument that the state assessment system is "broken" and order new legislation to be passed.
In the first place, the Supreme Court has already addressed the issue. It has decided not to rule against the use of a base year as being unconstitutional per se. The court ruled that each county’s experience must be judged as to whether the base year produces unconstitutional results. Granted most probably will, but that was not viewed by the court as sufficient to declare the base year unconstitutional, only as it applied in Allegheny County. Thus, it is highly improbable the Supreme Court-where a Council suit would eventually land-will rule against itself. Moreover, unless the Court allows a King’s Bench Warrant and agrees to hear the suit quickly, the case would have to work its way through many months or years of lower court proceedings. By that time Allegheny County will have completed the re-assessment currently underway.
Finally, the Supreme Court is unlikely to order the Legislature to rewrite assessment laws. The Court ordered the Legislature to fund local courts years ago and that has not happened. Why go that route again? The Court has issued a ruling that can be used in other suits brought against other counties’ assessment systems. Allegheny County’s precedent can be used by courts in other counties to overturn assessment systems if the evidence proves egregious and biased assessment errors. For now that is the only remedy available.
If the Legislature would take its responsibility seriously, it would reform the state’s out of date assessment laws to require regular re-assessments. But there is little interest in doing that so the Court rulings will have to be the principal route to getting fairness in the assessment systems. For the most part, local elected officials have no more stomach for taking on the issue than the Legislature does making the courts the only option. Fortunately, there is now a precedent that can give plaintiffs hope.
All told, the push by Council Chair to seek changes through the courts is both ironic and sad in light of the disdain for the courts he has repeatedly demonstrated. The claims of unfairness by the Council will fall on deaf ears. What is unfair in all this is the County government’s willingness to leave grossly inequitable property assessments in place for so long.