Washington County Opens Bids

Late last week Washington County opened bids from four contractors interested in undertaking a countywide reassessment, one that is moving ahead after years of delay and court battles as we documented this year (here and here). A newspaper article states that the companies are essentially the same as the ones who expressed interest in 2009, before the matter went to court.

So what are assessors getting ready for? As we noted in the latter Brief, the state passed legislation that moved the State Equalization Board into the Department of Community and Economic Development: the board is now known as the Tax Equalization Division, and its section of DCED’s website has a couple of interesting links to data.

The total assessed value of property in Washington County in 2011 was $1,550 million: that counts value from residential, trailers, seasonal, lots, industrial, commercial, agriculture, oil/gas/minerals, and land (by way of comparison Allegheny County’s 2011 market value measured by TED was $58,906 million). About 68% of the $1.5 billion in Washington County is tied to "residential" (statewide the average was 69%) and one-quarter of the residential value is concentrated in Peters Township. When the municipalities of North Strabane and Cecil are added, just over 45% of all the residential value in Washington County is accounted for.

Of much interest will be the value of the oil/gas/mineral category given the focus of Marcellus Shale activity in the County. There were two municipalities that the TED data shows has more than $5 million in assessed value for this category. East Finley Township had $10.7 million and South Franklin Township had $6.2 million.

Reassessment Reforms Become Law

When we wrote our recent Brief on the pending reassessment in Washington County we noted that legislation had passed both chambers of the General Assembly that would make significant changes to the state-level oversight and guidance of property reassessments carried out by counties. The Governor has signed that legislation and it now becomes known as Act 2 of 2013.

The press release on the Governor’s action does not say much but we did note that the most significant changes would bring some degree of uniformity to the process by creating a manual, training, and outlining best practices, but no changes to how often a reassessment has to be conducted or giving counties a tool to inform them to get ready for a reassessment.

Major Assessment Developments for Washington County


Two big developments regarding property reassessments have occurred in the last three weeks that will have a tremendous impact on Washington County.  As we noted in our inaugural Brief of this year, the County has been in a court battle with two of its school districts since 2008 over conducting a revaluation of property, a task not carried out since 1981.



The first big development occurred this week when the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declined to hear an appeal from the County on the matter.  In December of 2012 Commonwealth Court noted that the parties to the case had agreed in 2008 to a document containing “nine stipulations of fact and a proposed order” that stated if the Legislature or the courts had not made substantial change to the property assessment system in Pennsylvania by September 30, 2009, the County was to move forward with a reassessment.  County officials opposed to a reassessment dispute the nature of the 2008 agreement and were hoping that the Supreme Court would overturn the lower court rulings, but that was effectively ended with the April 9th decision. 


The second development came about three weeks ago when the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed legislation with no opposition (as did the Senate in late January) to move the State Tax Equalization Board (STEB), an independent agency since 1947, into the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).  Prior to this legislation, and following the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision on Allegheny County’s base year plan, the Legislature had attempted a legislative moratorium on court ordered reassessments and created a task force to examine the issue.


The rationale is that by making this move DCED will, according to a fiscal note prepared on the bill, “provide appropriate administrative, legal, and technical support needed by the Board to accomplish its purpose”.  STEB will be charged with determining the market value of real estate in each school district, obtaining lists of properties transferred in each county on a monthly basis, establishing the common level ratio of assessed to market value by July 1 of each year and informing counties if their ratio has increased or decreased by 10 percent or more, among other duties.  Perhaps most important with respect to counties carrying out reassessments, STEB is to:

  1. “Create an operations manual in consultation with the County Commissioners Association of PA and the Assessors’ Association of PA for counties to utilize when completing a countywide reassessment or when valuating property”.
  2. “Create and maintain a centralized and standardized statewide database for counties to utilize and report all property values and data to the Board.”
  3. “Develop and maintain statewide basic and detailed training programs for all persons involved in the valuation of property within all counties. The programs shall be completed and passed by any person that is employed to collect, compile, compute or handle data for purposes of reassessment valuation within the State.”
  4. “Develop standards on contracting for assessment services in consultation with the County Commissioners Association of PA and the International Association of Assessing Officers.”


These steps should go a long way to improving the assessment process, and, according to the fiscal note, would do so for a very inexpensive sum of $35,000.  However, while making these changes, the bill does not say when a reassessment has to happen, how often one has to happen, does not call for a statistical trigger that would inform a county that its values are out of kilter and possibly violating the uniformity clause. On the other hand and to its credit, it does not recommend or dictate a moratorium on court ordered reassessments during the implementation of the STEB-DCED integration. A version of the legislation in last year’s session attempted to do that, but it did not pass the General Assembly. As we have noted on several occasions, a legislative order that contravenes a court order is a constitutional crisis waiting to happen.


Here’s the question. Are state and local officials from Washington County looking at the state’s bureaucratic reorganization and the development of reassessment assistance as a moratorium of another stripe?  One Commissioner was quoted as saying “[the County] will take a wait-and-see attitude. We’re going to see what this means…how this will affect us and what we need to do to become the pilot program” and a state representative stated “I don’t know how a vendor could respond to a (request for proposals) even as state law is changing under their feet…we need to sit down with DCED and estimate a timeline and find out what [the County] need[s] to do.” 


While this might sound like due diligence, it could also be interpreted as an opportunity for foot dragging by officials who have no desire to conduct a reassessment as evidenced by the court battle and public statements made by members of the Board of Commissioners.  It is worth pointing out again that the Commonwealth Court quoted the 2008 stipulations of fact and proposed order that said if there was no state level change by September 2009 the reassessment process would begin.  How can anyone argue with any persuasiveness that a legislative change in April 2013, while substantive, could be grounds to hold off moving forward with a reassessment?  Especially now that the Supreme Court has denied the County’s latest appeal, thereby effectively ending the judicial channel for delaying a reassessment? 


Clearly, the recently enacted legislative reforms are long overdue. We pointed out in a 2007 report that some state level department or agency, perhaps the Department of Revenue or STEB, be involved as an overseer of the assessment process, including bringing some standardization to the process.  And it appears there might be some movement in that direction six years later. We also argued for mandated reassessments every three years, zero revenue windfalls from reassessments, and voter approval of all millage hikes.  Unfortunately, the first of these three recommendations has yet to be adopted. However, legislation was enacted earlier requiring municipalities to take separate votes to roll back millage rates to achieve revenue neutrality after a reassessment and then another vote to take a five percent increase. If desired, municipalities can petition the courts for millage rate hikes above five percent following a reassessment. School districts are limited to a revenue increase determined by their state calculated index.

Could State Guide Washington Reassessment?

Earlier this week the Board of Commissioners in Washington County, a county where a reassessment has not been conducted since 1981 (their base year, but they adjusted their predetermined ratio of assessed to market value in 1985) and enacted a 16% millage hike in 2010, reached back to 2009 to the vendors who said they would be interested in conducting a countywide reassessment should that ever happen. Based on articles (here, here, and here) that may be coming soon, albeit with a state level change.

Under a bill pending in the General Assembly the state’s Equalization Board would be housed inside of the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). The hope is that by making this move there will be more professionalism and sharing of expertise. The powers and duties of a shifted Board would include notifying county assessors when there is a change in a county’s common level ratio of plus or minus 10%, informing school districts of certified market values, etc. The key points that might affect a reassessment in Washington County or other counties conducting assessments after the legislation (should it become law) are these:

  • 1. "Create an operations manual in consultation with the County Commissioners Association of PA and the Assessors’ Association of PA for counties to utilize when completing a countywide reassessment or when valuating property".
  • 2. "Create and maintain a centralized and standardized statewide database for counties to utilize and report all property values and data to the Board."
  • 3. "Develop and maintain statewide basic and detailed training programs for all persons involved in the valuation of property within all counties. The programs shall be completed and passed by any person that is employed to collect, compile, compute or handle data for purposes of reassessment valuation within the State."
  • 4. "Develop standards on contracting for assessment services in consultation with the County Commissioners Association of PA and the International Association of Assessing Officers."

Our 2007 report on improving the property assessment system in PA included a recommendation that the Department of Revenue or STEB be involved as an overseer of the assessment process, including bringing some standardization to the process. We argued for a three year time line on reassessments, zero windfalls, and voter approval of all millage hikes.

Washington County Commissioners, while holding their nose after much delay, hope to be guided by this legislation. Taxpayers should also be aware that the County has to abide by Act 93 of 2010, which prescribes what has to happen to millage rates following a reassessment. Much like Allegheny County’s Act 71, the taxing body (county and municipalities) have to roll millage rates back to be revenue neutral, then, in a separate vote, can get 10% more than the amount the revenue neutral rate would bring in revenue. Taxpayers, knowing that it is possible for their assessment to go up but their taxes could go down with revenue neutral rates, would know that they could gauge their increase against the increase in the community as a whole.

Belief in the End of Assessments

Four years after the state’s highest court had the issue of base year assessments before them they said that the base year idea in and of itself was not bad, just that the way Allegheny County applied it violated the uniformity clause of the PA Constitution. Problems with a base year would arise across the state, but that would happen at different times for different counties.

Not long after a state senator from Allegheny County was quoted as saying "the impression I got from other colleagues around the state is, ‘If the court’s not going to make us do it, we’re not going to do it,’…It just seems like no one’s going to step up here." One long time assessing official from southwestern PA once quipped that upon starting his job colleagues told him that the state would soon be getting rid of property taxes.

That was in 1969.

So a huge grain of salt has to be taken when officials in Washington County prep for a hearing this month on moving forward with a reassessment note "We don’t want to be the last county to go under this process. We want to fight to get it changed." The County last did a reassessment in 1981, but don’t want to spend money on updating values that "might be outdated in three to five years". One official even jested that imprisonment might be on the table, a possibility that residents of Allegheny County who followed the most recent County Executive race might remember.

Why the argument if the County agreed to go forward in 2008 if the state had not yet reformed the assessment process in the state? Nothing happened, and now the County feels that it will?

Supreme Court in Reassessment Thicket Again

It has been nearly four years since the state Supreme Court struck down Allegheny County’s base year assessments.  It might have to wade back into the issue based on an appeal to be filed by Washington County.



Here are the important highlights of the pending case as summarized by a Commonwealth Court opinion from December 5th.  In January of 2008 the McGuffey and Washington School Districts sued Washington County to force a countywide reassessment, arguing that since it had been a very long time since one had been done the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution had been violated; in November of that year the County and the Districts came to the Common Pleas Court with a document described as “containing nine stipulations of fact” and a proposed order. 


The order-agreed to by all parties-said that if there was no significant legislative or judicial change to assessment law by September 30, 2009 the County was to proceed with the reassessment process. This was delayed by the Legislature’s attempts at a moratorium on reassessments while the issue could be studied. A bill ordering a moratorium for Washington County passed both houses of the General Assembly but was vetoed by the Governor in July of 2011. The County appealed the courts for a “stay” in December of 2011, was denied relief and thereby required under court orders and its own agreement of 2008 to begin a reassessment. True to form, the County felt that would be “a permanent denial of relief because it ‘compelled the appellants to proceed with a countywide reassessment without further delay'”.  Hence the County’s most recent appeal to the Commonwealth Court of the earlier lower court ruling. But in the decision handed down December 5th the Commonwealth Court ruled the previous court order was “not an appealable order”. 


Now Washington County will appeal the Commonwealth Court ruling to the Supreme Court in the hope that it will provide the County permanent relief from ever having to reassess. A member of the County’s Board of Commissioners stated in a newspaper article that “we’re stuck in this legal limbo where we’re being forced to reassess. It is a case that’s of interest throughout the state. We don’t want to be the last county in the state to be forced to reassess under the old system.”


Why would the Commissioner think that the state is ready to replace the old system?  First, all a moratorium would have accomplished is to raise the specter of a constitutional crisis with counties deciding which branch of government to listen to: the courts, who would be saying “do a reassessment”, or the Legislature who would be saying “ignore the courts, wait until we can find a solution”.  Following the requirements of the uniformity clause in the Constitution, the courts are currently-and by default-the only source of relief for property owners when it comes to correcting massive inequities in property assessments resulting from the failure to update assessments on periodic basis.  


But more to the point about the old system being replaced, it is noteworthy that whenever the possibility of significant reform of Pennsylvania’s assessment laws arises, it gets punted away.  We wrote last year (Policy Brief Volume 12, Number 20) about the legislative task force that was charged with giving counties a self-evaluation tool to tell them when they should reassess or to come up with a statewide standard on a time frame for reassessments.  The group failed to reach agreement on either problem-indeed, it did not offer a pathway to reaching needed meaningful long term reform. 


Washington County is in a bind: it stated it would wait for Harrisburg to act by September 2009, but that did not happen nor is the Legislature likely to act on the issue in the foreseeable future. If the Supreme Court hears the latest appeal, it may choose to limit its ruling to whether or not the County can appeal the order, an option already denied by the Commonwealth Court.  If the Court instead decides to deal with the broader issue of whether the County’s assessments are sufficiently inequitable to violate the uniformity clause, it will undoubtedly look at the 2009 Allegheny County decision as a precedent. 


In that ruling, the Court did not deal with the use of a base year in and of itself.  The majority opinion held that “we find no ineluctable constitutional deficiency with the use of a base year system; it is only through the passage of time that a base year assessment will become stale, and thus unconstitutional”.  In effect, this made the issue a case by case situation wherein aggrieved taxpayers could seek relief through court action. Different counties would find their base year plan has become deficient at various points of time.  The Supreme Court did find that Allegheny’s base year plan had kept in place inequities that violated the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Maybe the Court will find that Washington’s assessments have not yet reached that point, but it will be hard for the Court to ignore the 2008 consent order and what lower courts have  ruled.  Note that while Allegheny County had done a reassessment in 2002 Washington County has not done one since 1981.


Officials reluctant to reassess will never have a shortage of reasons not to reassess. However, they should take the time to present a clear explanation of the process to the taxpayers, especially the fact that state law requires counties and municipalities to adjust millage rates so as to be revenue neutral and, in the case of school districts, to be limited to an increase after reassessments not to exceed the Act 1 index. They should further point out that a large number of properties could see their tax bills go down following the reassessment, or for many others remain unchanged. An honest presentation of the “windfall” limitations would go a long way to avoiding a lot of the confusion and anxiety that will otherwise accompany the opening of envelopes containing updated assessment values. 


Such a move by Allegheny County officials could have lowered the level of angst among home owners considerably if it had been employed rather than the non-stop efforts by officials to make taxpayers believe that reassessments are necessarily followed by tax bills going up for everyone.


As we have written on several occasions previously, if opponents of reassessments believe they can never get accurate results, then it is imperative and incumbent on these opponents to end the levying of property taxes in short order and to develop alternative sources of revenue to fund local governments and schools in the Commonwealth.  Perpetuating gross inequities in property taxation is unconstitutional and unethical.

Washington County Assessment Appeal Thrown Out

In a long running drama remarkably similar to the case in Allegheny County, a Commonwealth Court judge denied Washington County’s appeal of a November 2011 lower court order requiring the County to begin a property reassessment immediately.


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Allegheny’s Neighbor Joins Court-Ordered Reassessment Frat

The complaints levied by Allegheny County officials that they have been "singled out" by the state’s courts in having to conduct a reassessment have been long and loud, but the County has company from its neighbor to the south, Washington County. It just received word that the Commonwealth Court tossed its appeal of a Common Pleas decision that it had to reassess. The Governor vetoed a bill in 2011 that would have permitted a moratorium on the Washington County reassessment.

So where does the issue go from here? Obviously there could be a Supreme Court appeal or another motion to the Commonwealth Court, but based on the Allegheny County decision if the issue at hand is the underassessment of commercial properties due to a base year that has become "stale", then it is quite simple to predict what is going to happen. The Supreme Court held that it could take a long time for inequities to arise in some counties; Washington County might be there.

A January article quoted one of the County Commissioners who referred to "the mess in Allegheny County" as reason to hold off. Sounds a lot like the desire of Allegheny County officials to have "predictability and stability", twin goals that the courts did not agree with.

Governor Vetoes Moratorium

In Wednesday’s blog, the subject of which was the legislation that would have enacted a moratorium on the court ordered reassessment in Washington County, we noted "The Governor should ask some of his constitutional experts about the advisability of signing this legislation".

Just this afternoon the Governor announced that the bill was too specific and limited and has vetoed the measure. The original intent of the legislation was to forestall all ongoing assessments until the Legislature came up with a solution for its assessment system. The churn of the legislative process produced a bill that applied only to "counties of the fourth class, with a population between 185,000 and 210,000 as of the 2010 United States Census" the only one being Washington County.

Having the Legislature attempt to circumvent court rulings would undoubtedly lead to a Constitutional crisis. The bill can be overridden, of course, but the best way to fix the assessment system is to enact changes to the laws governing it, not to step over the judiciary.

Backpedaling on Assessment Completion Date

For those who were on the edge of their seats waiting to get assessment notices this month, the excitement will have to wait. Allegheny County won’t be processing reassessment notices until January of 2012.  Certified values for use in calculating tax bills may not be available until May or June of 2012.


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