Bill of Rights to Correct Past Assessment Wrongs?

If the efforts of one member of County Council is directed toward eliminating "sticker shock" from new assessed values that will go into effect in January of 2012 through a homeowner "bill of rights", it should be known that the window of opportunity for minimizing the impact of new assessments was lost when the County opted to toss out the planned values for 2006 and adopted a base year plan that used 2002 values.

For those who recall the recent history of Allegheny County reassessments, a history that we documented in pieces over the last few years, the County released new assessment numbers in early 2005 so that taxpayers could absorb their value, have a year to appeal, and have values in place for 2006 for taxation purposes. That would then be followed by annual reassessments in 2009 and years thereafter, thus minimizing the shock taxpayers would undergo when they received a mailing from the County’s Office of Property Assessments.

Those 2005 numbers were described as "uniform and accurate" by the County’s chief assessment officer but were tossed out in favor of other schemes before the County settled on the base year plan, a plan that was later overturned by the PA Supreme Court.

Now with the legal matters settled and the coming year revealing the results of the reassessment, the Council member proposes a variety of fixes for the assessments. Some the County could do (raise the homestead exclusion, assign County employees for on-site verification of property value disputes) while others seem questionable and could put the County in a familiar place, namely the courts of law (phasing in the impact of large increases over several years, compelling payments from municipalities and school districts on appeals of properties). Not mentioned in the "bill of rights" is the fact that the County could commit to a revenue neutral windfall after the reassessment, even though it is permitted to take 105%.

With all the machinations the County has attempted to circumvent its duty in assessing real property, isn’t it time to simply follow through with the process? After all, those that have been greatly underassessed have for many years paid far less than their fair share of taxes, forcing those who are correctly assessed or over assessed to pay higher taxes than they should have paid. When does that subsidy end?

Taxpayer Protections Get Up or Down Vote Today—But Not Here

While Election Day is relatively "quiet" in southwestern Pennsylvania and the rest of the state with judicial and municipal offices dominating the ballot, there are questions on the ballots in other states that could determine whether taxpayers gain control of their government’s growth.

In Maine and Washington, voters get to decide on Taxpayer Bill of Rights measures: both states would control revenue or expenditure growth by pegging them to the rate of inflation plus population change annually. The National Taxpayers’ Union Ballot Guide points out that in Maine, should the measure pass, growth above the cap would be returned to the taxpayers and used for a rainy day fund. In Washington voters would get approval of proposed tax increases that exceed the cap.

If Pennsylvania had a similar measure in place there would have been enough money to close the $2-$3 billion shortfall that the state recently wrestled with and will wrestle with again. Just by tying spending growth to the rate of inflation (measured by the change in the Northeast consumer price index) spending since 2002 (when the state budget was $20.4 billion) would have grown 22 percent instead of the actual 36 percent state taxpayers have seen, resulting in $3 billion in savings.

But don’t look for any type of tax control measure soon. Even the highly touted Act 1 school property tax reform measure has received minimal play on ballots across the state, thanks to the loopholes built into the language. Voters have had little opportunity to see a tax increase proposal placed before them, and few districts seem interested in asking their voters to consider a shift to a higher earned income tax or a personal income tax in order to fund property tax relief.