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Allegheny Institute


County Officials Avoid Assessment Responsibility

by Policy Brief
 

An Allegheny County Council Committee has voted to instruct the Solicitor to file suit against the state Legislature in an effort to force it to enact a moratorium on reassessments and rewrite Pennsylvania's property assessment laws.

The object of the exercise is to have the Legislature put a hold on the Supreme Court decision requiring the County to carry out a property reassessment. The Committee vote came about after the Council President–who, like the rest of Council, is sworn to obey and defend the Pennsylvania Constitution–opined that the Supreme Court ruling is not necessarily unconstitutional but that Allegheny County is being negatively impacted by the ruling although no evidence that the County is being harmed was presented.

Consider the implications of the General Assembly overturning a decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Such a capricious legislative attack on the authority of the Supreme Court would throw the state into a constitutional crisis. If allowed to stand such a precedent would undermine and possibly destroy the separation and balance of governmental powers with terrible consequences for the Commonwealth.

As far as the negative impact of the Court's ruling on Allegheny County, the Council President needs to provide clear evidence. He claims that reassessments will lead to a less competitive environment in Allegheny County. On what does he base such an argument? That taxes will rise? It was not that long ago (see Policy Brief Volume 9, Number 73) that he said that "the story here is that…this council has not raised property taxes even as all of our neighboring counties continue to raise taxes". A quick examination of the statement at the time found that two neighboring counties had not increased taxes since 2005 and one actually lowered its millage rate. Meanwhile, closer to home, tax rates in many Allegheny County municipalities and school districts had risen notwithstanding the County's base year assessment freeze which locked in 2002 values.

Those tax rate increases simply exacerbated the effect of the locked-in assessment inequities. What's worse, the inequities have widened over time as market forces lead to sales prices and volume that reward under assessed properties and punish accurately and over assessed properties. The Council President seems to have trouble with the reality that government expenditure increases drive tax hikes.

So is Allegheny County being unfairly singled out? The local court has ruled against the County's unfair assessments for years. The Supreme Court eventually heard the case, concurred with the lower court, and ordered a reassessment. The Supreme Court in its ruling left the door open for property owners in all counties to sue their county governments if they believe its base year assessment is creating serious inequities. Allegheny County was not been singled out by the Court. It was the county being sued in the case that was before them. The Court decision has provided a viable remedy for other counties if property owners feel sufficiently aggrieved to take the county to court over the assessment system.

Clearly, it would have been much more useful for the Council to have spent its time and efforts trying to get up-to-date, accurate assessments of properties rather than expending so much effort trying to avoid doing the right thing and making ridiculous claims about the unfairness of being forced to do the right thing.

The Allegheny Institute has written for many years about the need for the Legislature to reform the state laws governing assessments. Such reform would include mandatory assessments at least every three to five years, state verification of sales price data, uniformity of assessment standards and state training for assessors.

Where was the Council when these straightforward and common sense recommendations were being offered on multiple occasions? They were busy concocting and defending assessment schemes that perpetuated well documented inequities. Now that the Supreme Court says do the reassessment and has suggested the state reform assessment legislation to bring it into the 20th century, the Council is urging reform legislation–but it wants even more a hold to be placed on the Supreme Court decision while the reform bill is written and adopted.

By asking the Governor and Legislature to overturn the Supreme Court ruling the Council has proposed yet another action in a long running series of Council actions that flout the Constitution, the laws of the state of Pennsylvania and Common Pleas Court decisions. When will Council own up to their responsibility and put a stop to the gross inequities created by huge assessment errors? Or said another way, why the insistence on continuing to protect property owners whose properties are substantially undervalued?

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JakeHaulk, Ph.D.,PresidentEricMontarti, Senior PolicyAnalyst
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