Bizarro World

Step right up folks, you are about to encounter the topsy-turvy world that has come to southwestern Pennsylvania as a result of property assessments. Allegheny County is hurtling toward completion of a court-ordered reassessment following a state Supreme Court decision in April of 2009. It looks like certified numbers will be ready is approximately two weeks, roughly ten days before the fiscal year starts for Allegheny County, its municipalities, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The County passed its budget for 2013 earlier this week. As a result of the rise in assessments and state law changes in 2005, the County had to adjust its millage rate. Presto chango, the millage rate that rose from 4.69 mills last December to 5.69 mills is now set at 4.73 mills for 2013. The County Executive stated in a press release that "I’m very pleased with the budget that Council passed this evening and am glad that we are able to move into 2013 with no tax increase and a lower millage rate and that we did so without using one-time revenues to balance our budget (emphasis added)".

Is this the same Executive who spent years on Council decrying reassessments, vowed when running for the office of County Executive that he would go to jail rather than send out new assessments, dismissed the state law on windfall adjustments, and stated, most recently at the start of 2012, "reassessments cause tax increases"? If reassessments cause tax increases, and Allegheny County is just finishing its, then how can the Executive claim the budget has no tax increase?

Here is where a good dose of clarity would have been welcome. Sure, a reassessment causes tax increases: even after millage rates are adjusted, if a property’s assessed value rose faster than the relative change in the county, municipality, and school district in which the property is located then taxes will go up. It is also possible that taxes could go down if the opposite holds. That’s what the County’s own assessment department has made available for taxpayers for some time, albeit online: enclosing such information in a mailer at the start of the process would have gone a long way to quelling a lot of fear. If Washington County moves forward with a reassessment (also a court matter), it might take some pointers from what did not happen in Allegheny.

Know what else causes a tax increase? A millage rate hike. That’s what is possibly happening in nearby Butler County, a county that has not reassessed since 1969 and changed its predetermined ratio three years ago. The proposed increase there is 8%, which is smaller than Allegheny’s 20% increase last December. Spending drives the need for tax revenue,especially when assessments are frozen in place.