At this time, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania is under a Court Order to issue new property assessments by January 1, 2012. In preparation for the 2012 Reassessment, Allegheny County assessors have visited over 580,000 properties and the preliminary assessments are scheduled to be released by July 2011.
A key political issue this spring will be the Allegheny County politics of the 2012 Reassessment. Current County Executive Dan Onorato will not be seeking a third term, and the politics of the 2012 Reassessment may be a defining issue in choosing the next Allegheny County Executive.
Onorato’s legacy as County Executive will be remembered in part based upon his success in freezing property assessments since 2002 and blocking reassessments thereafter. The County Executive drew a line in the sand with the reassessments and the popular public opinion still maintains that he prevented substantial property tax increases for most property owners in Allegheny County.
This May is the democratic primary for Allegheny County Executive, and the democratic candidates are being heavily pressured to follow the current administration’s policy on property assessments, even though that policy has been declared unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Setting aside the fact that the property tax system in Pennsylvania is rift with flaws, favoritism, upopular and highly controversial, the sole question remains: What is in the best interest for the residents of Allegheny County?
On February 1, 2010, Allegheny County Council Members, led by Council President and Executive Candidate, Rich Fitzgerald asked his colleagues to back a lawsuit seeking to have the state’s assessment system declared broken and ordering the state Legislature to fix it. In short, the rationale is that since other neighboring counties in Pennsylvania have not reassessed in years, Allegheny County should not have to either.
Fitzgerald’s plan is a politically popular argument. Opposing the reassessment at all costs is seen as synonmyous with opposing property taxes, and it is the same philosophy which guided the success of the current Executive administration.
Keeping the status quo does not appear to be a viable option, however. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has already declared the base year system unconstitutional because it discriminates against lower income properties, the elderly and the poor. Many believe it also discriminates against recent home-buyers, as they are the only properties targeted for appeal by the school districts. Allowing that discrimination to continue should not be a viable option for the leaders of Allegheny County or its residents.
The reality is that Allegheny County may need to take a step forward. Specifically, allow the 2012 reassessments to continue as planned, but place procedural safeguards to limit increases and control enforcement.
One simple idea already suggested would be to change the reassessment ratio from 100% of market value to 80% of market value. This would need to be combined with increasing enforcement on taxing entities to reduce millage rates and prevent financial windfalls. There are options available which can comply with the Court Order without continuing to penalize lower income neighborhoods or recent home-buyers.
The question remains to be answered whether the politicians will fight a lawsuit that they know has little chance of success, or will they will finally face the assessments head on with the appropriate procedural safeguards and the enforcement necessary to prevent windfalls?