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New round of reassessments looms

All values will be adjusted -- by a little or a lot

Thursday, December 27, 2001

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They're baaack.

This report on development is the first of a series looking ahead at local, regional and statewide issues in 2002.

The property reassessments that so vexed many homeowners this year will be returning for an encore early in 2002.

For the second year, Allegheny County officials will be updating the values of all 552,000 properties in the county. For 2002, they are promising a significant improvement in the accuracy of the values, which this year generated more than 90,000 appeals and angered many taxpayers after the county's first complete reassessment in 20 years.

Nearly all taxpayers can expect a new value in 2002. For those some who believe they were unfairly treated this year, that could be good news. For those who caught a break, it could be catch-up time.

How assessments will be calculated

The process worked like this for a ranch house in the North Hills with 1,000 square feet of living space:

The preliminary calculation based on property characteristics equaled $97,413. Adjusted sales prices of five comparables totaled $86,686, $97,320, $88,384, $93,199 and $84,996, respectively. The weighted average totaled $90,685.

Removing the lowest value and two highest values left three -- $88,384, $93,199 and $90,685. The average -- and final value -- was $90,700. In doing the 2001 values, Sabre stopped at the calculation based on property characteristics.


"That's just the nature of the beast," said Alex Botkin, director of industry analysis for the Consad Research Corp., which was appointed by Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. to oversee the county's assessment process for 2002. Wettick ordered the countywide reassessment and has overseen the entire system since 1997.

Representatives of the county, Consad and other parties to the reassessment will be meeting with Wettick today to update him on the 2002 numbers.

The county expects to certify the values by Jan. 8. After that, notices will start arriving in mailboxes.

For 2002, Sabre Systems & Service, the Ohio firm that did the 2001 reassessment, will be out of the picture.

Although top county officials, including Chief Executive Jim Roddey, generally have defended Sabre's performance in the past, they have hired another firm, Cole Layer Trumble, to help in 2002.

In generating property values, the county also has scrapped the Feedback computer software used by Sabre in favor of Cole Layer Trumble's Multiple Regression Analysis.

The new software is designed to combat one of the chief complaints about the 2001 reassessments: that properties used for comparison purposes on the county's Web site were about as comparable as a '54 sedan and a 2002 SUV.

The county is seeking to counter that next year by providing property owners with precise comparisons -- actual houses used in the mathematical calculations to determine the value of a property.

"They're the ones that drive the value on your property," said Norman Mekkelsen, the county's director of administrative services, which oversees property assessments.

The Sabre comparables were examples of similarly assessed homes, but were not used to set the value of the property.

In most cases, five properties will be used for comparison purposes. Each of those properties will have sold between Jan. 1, 1998, and June 30, 2001, the range of sales being used by the county to calculate values.

Only when there aren't enough sales in a particular area will fewer than five comparable properties be used. The county tried to match sales to neighborhood or at least school district in making its calculations.

Assessment officials will divide the county into 76 markets -- 13 in the city alone -- in order to value real estate and get a "more homogenous grouping of properties," Mekkelsen said. Sabre divided the county into eight markets.

"In general we feel it addresses the unique nature of Allegheny County," Assessment Director Dominick Gambino said of the additional markets.

Of particular concern to critics, the county and Consad alike is the potential overvaluing of low-end properties. Four homeowners and the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee sued the county earlier this year, claiming the reassessment systemically inflated their value.

To avoid that in 2002, the county accepted validated sales as low as $1,000. The Sabre cutoff was $10,000. Botkin said the trick will be in identifying the lower-end properties and in assigning proper values.

"The real difficulty there is you can have two identical houses, one in a bad neighborhood and one in a good. To the computer they look identical. You have a tough time convincing the computer one should be valued lower than the other," he said.

In all, the county will revalue 420,000 residential properties and another 120,000 commercial and industrial parcels as part of the latest reassessment. Because of the high number of appeals this year, some taxpayers will be getting their 2002 values before receiving hearings on 2001 number.

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