A: By being more prepared and understanding the rules of evidence and law.
The school districts of Allegheny County are now filing 2010 assessment appeals against property owners who recently purchased their properties. The logic is that if the purchase price is higher than the current assessment, that the assessment should be raised. However, under the ‘base year’ system, that argument should fail. The test is still what the property was worth on January 1, 2002? What the property sold for in 2008 or 2009, should matter as much as what the property sold for in 1995 or 1996, (both are 6 and 7 years removed from the base year). Does that mean we are analyzing 12 -14 years of sales (1995-2009) for Allegheny County assessment appeals? Of course not.
The reality is that the school districts hope that the property owners do not appear or appear by themselves. Property owners are at a severe disadvantage when they try to represent themselves. First, they do not the system, the rules of law, or the forum involved. Second they do not have the advantage of negotiating and litigating cases against the taxing entities previously. Third and most importantly, the lawyer for the school can cross-examine the property owner to actually make their case against the property owner.
Often, at the hearing, the school district is only prepared with a copy of the Deed showing the new price. Some school districts are obviously more prepared than others and will bring comparable sales. But a copy of the Deed SHOULD NOT meet the school’s burden of proof. If the homeowner appears, the school may cross-examine the homeowner, and use their testimony as evidence to increase the owner’s assessment. For Example:
School District Lawyer:
Q: Do you have a mortgage on your property? (How much?)
Q: Was there an appraisal performed?
Q: Have there been improvements to the property?
Q: New Kitchen? New appliances?
Depending on the property’s owners responses, the school district or taxing entity may actually have a better case with the property owner present than if the property owner would have simply stayed at home. We are NOT advising anyone to stay at home or miss their hearing. However, understanding ‘burden of proof’ and understanding what the best evidence to submit is, does make a difference. Very rarely will I advise a property owner to attend the hearing, unless I believe it is necessary. There are trial strategies to tax appeals.
For more information, contact attorneys Noah Paul Fardo or Jennifer Jara-Mislanovich at 412.802.6666.