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Method of assessing Allegheny County property taxes may be changed

Sunday, February 27, 2000

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This is the first in an occasional series of reports on key parts of the proposed administrative code, the operations manual that will guide Allegheny County's new government. The code, proposed by County Executive Jim Roddey, is being considered, and could be amended, by County Council.

Imagine a quality control system in which the same people who help make the widgets are also the ones who hear complaints about them -- and decide whether there should be refunds.

Not exactly the kind of system to instill confidence.

But that, in essence, is the way the property assessment system works in Allegheny County.

The same seven-member board that supervises the work of assessors in setting property values hears appeals from taxpayers who question the accuracy of those assessments.

County Executive Jim Roddey wants to change that. As part of his administrative code, he proposes to replace the bickering seven-member assessment board with a board whose sole function would be to hear appeals.

The business of setting assessments, which are the basis for property taxes, would be handled by a division of county government, the same type of setup that existed before April 1997.

Top officials in Roddey's administration believe that the change would help restore confidence in a system battered by recent disputes, including one over an assessment freeze that was ruled illegal and assessment board members who may have spent as much time attacking each other as handling business.

"There is the appearance of a conflict of interest if you have a single entity both setting the assessments and adjudicating the assessments," county Manager Bob Webb said.

But that's not the only big change Roddey has in mind. He also wants to:

Slash the salaries of board members, which range from $41,000 to $48,000 a year, to a tops of $9,000, the same amount that County Council members earn.

Require all assessors to be certified Pennsylvania evaluators, which would bring Allegheny County into line with the rest of the state. The code also would require that the director of the division be a certified assessment evaluator or its equivalent and have at least five years' experience in property valuation.

Give taxpayers more time to appeal their assessments -- from the current end of February deadline to the end of August.

Mandate that all appeals be heard within 90 days of their filing and that a decision be rendered within 30 days after the hearing.

Those are big changes, all of them. And they come at a time when there appears to be broad consensus that changes are needed in the way the county assesses property. In addition, the county will be implementing a reassessment next year.

If approved by council, the changes to the assessment system would take effect next year.

"People have no confidence in the system," said former county solicitor Ira Weiss. "The board is totally dysfunctional. The only thing you don't have is pie throwing."

But some, including Weiss, wonder just how far Roddey will be able to go with his reforms without running afoul of state law or court rulings.

In fact, Roddey may find that something as simple as extending the appeals deadline may require legislative action. Common Pleas Judge James McLean ruled in 1998 that the deadline was set by the General County Assessment law and could not be changed by the commissioners, the assessment board or even judges.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the path of Roddey's ambitious plan is a 1997 ruling by Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr.

In ending the assessment freeze enacted by former county Commissioners Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer in 1996, Wettick decreed that it was illegal for the commissioners to oversee the assessment department, as they had done for many years.

Wettick said that under the Second Class County Assessment law, which governs Allegheny County, the assessment board was responsible for maintaining, revising and equalizing the assessment system -- county government was not.

Weiss and Harlan Stone, the lawyer who brought the lawsuit resulting in Wettick's ruling, believe Roddey would need a change in that state law in order to enact his plan.

Both like Roddey's plan. But they doubt whether Roddey can make the changes through the administrative code.

"It may take an amendment or a repeal or some type of new legislation to create the institutional changes," Stone said. "He may not have the authority to do it at the county level."

The enabling legislation setting up the county's home rule charter commission could pose a problem as well.

It prevents the charter from giving any power or authority to the county "contrary to, or in limitation or enlargement of, powers" granted by state laws applicable to Allegheny County in a number of areas, including the assessment of real or personal property.

"That's the final nail in the coffin," Weiss said. "That says the charter process cannot be used to address the assessment issue."

Roddey and his legal advisers disagree, citing a section of the charter relating to the assessment board.

It calls for a seven-member assessment board with the same powers and duties as the current board "unless those powers and duties are modified by ordinance or by law." Such an ordinance, Roddey believes, would come in the form of the administrative code passed by County Council.

Solicitor Terry McVerry said the change in government made the new home rule charter "the law of Allegheny County," and that that meant the Second Class County code and the Second Class County assessment law no longer applied.

"We're allowed to legislate for ourselves on these local issues -- matters that affect only Allegheny County," he said.

As for the enabling legislation, McVerry said: "I don't believe we're in violation of that restriction. There's still an assessment process. There's still a right to appeal. There's no changing of that general power or authority."

The legal issues could lead to a court battle.

Even if Roddey could make the changes he wants without the need for new state legislation, some question whether moving the assessment division under the control of county government is the right thing to do.

Such a move is by no means uncommon. Many smaller counties in Pennsylvania now have assessment systems supervised by boards of commissioners.

But such systems could have perils. As Wettick pointed out in his 1997 ruling, an assessment operation run by county government could be subject to the whims of politics.

"For example, over a four-year period, a board of commissioners might create an assessment system managed by a private entity that sets property values for the county and that revises and equalizes these values based on information that is weighed in a particular manner," he wrote.

"Following an election, a new board of commissioners could decide to scrap this system and develop an entirely new system that is then discarded following the next election. Consequently, the consistency and stability that is needed for any assessment system to operate fairly might never be achieved."

County government ran the assessment system for years, contributing to the inequities that resulted in the $24 million reassessment, assessment board member Mike Suley said.

"That's a pretty steep price to pay for having county government run the assessment system into the ground."

Webb said certain elements of Roddey's administrative code, such as the proposed merit-based personnel system and the required professional training for assessors and the director, would deaden the potential for such influence.

Under Roddey's plan for the assessment, three members would have to have real estate experience, one would have to be a lawyer and one would have experience as a building-construction or civil engineer, a general contractor or an assessor. None would be permitted to practice real estate while on the board.

Some current members wonder whether Roddey would be able to attract quality people to the jobs, given the requirements and the low pay.

Roddey doesn't see that as a problem, pointing to the hundreds who have volunteered to serve on task forces reviewing county government.

The board also would be able to hire hearing examiners to help with appeals.

"Something as dramatic as changing the salary will go a long way to showing the public, yes, we're getting control," Roddey said at a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board meeting.

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