The only real fix for the assessments mess

The only real fix for the assessments mess

We’d be laughing if this wasn’t such serious business.

We refer to the news that a month-plus after Allegheny County halted property assessment appeal hearings because of litigation over the number used to set the value at which real estate will be taxed, the county says it is prepared to resume those hearings on Nov. 13.

This is being heralded wide and far as some kind of great progress in making sure the assessment system is “fair.”

Said the attorney who filed the litigation on behalf of a Marshall couple, “I’m glad that [county assessment and appeals officials are] doing what they’re supposed to do.”

Would that they were.

Further said the attorney, the litigation will not be withdrawn “in order to be able to react quickly against the county if [it] misbehave[s] again.”

Never mind that when it comes to property assessments, Allegheny County officials have been recidivist misbehavers.

In a nutshell, and to spare you the weeds, the immediate issue at hand is, as explained by the Post-Gazette’s Mark Belko:

“[Appeals] hearings had been suspended Sept. 28 because of ongoing litigation over what common level ratio will be used in appeal hearings. The ratio is a state calculation applied to account for widening gaps between assessed values and current sales prices since the last countywide reassessment a decade ago.

“Common Pleas Judge Alan Hertzberg set the ratio at 63.5 percent for 2022, down from the 81.1 percent the board had been using in hearings. A house valued at $100,000 on appeal would be taxed at $81,100 using the 81.1 percent ratio but at $63,500 under the lower number.”

But the real issue remains – and continues to be roundly ignored – the lack of a regular reassessment regimen that has created this mess. It’s an illegal mess, as we’ve repeatedly stressed, considering the state Constitution’s mandate for uniform taxation.

It’s not only a failure of the state Legislature, which has been derelict in its duty to force counties to heed the Constitution, but Allegheny County leaders who could do the right thing on their own. That they steadfastly have refused for so long is one of greatest failures of county government.

As Jake Haulk,  president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute, reminds, the common level ration, or CLR, is a median value. “That means half the assessments to sales price are above and half below. And that is based on sales that actually happen.

“But even if it represents the whole set of properties, it means half are underpaying and half overpaying,” the Ph.D. economist reminds. 

“There is an explicit violation of the [state] Constitution and the use of the CLR points that out clearly,” Haulk says.

“Lawyers who do appeals are not in favor of keeping assessments up to date. They talk a good game but they will not push the notion of regular reassessments.

“A plague on them and politicians who keep them in business,” Haulk says.

It’s long past time for the bickering, dickering, avoiding and litigating hordes to stop nibbling around the edges. It’s time for all to join in common cause and, at long last, do the right thing.

And that’s a regular property reassessment regimen (we prefer every three years) that will restore predictability and fairness to a now badly broken and patently unfair system gamed by too many for too long.

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