House closes shop without tackling reassessments

October 20, 2012

Possible help for Washington County and other counties dealing with reassessments won’t be addressed by the state Legislature until next year at the earliest.State Reps. Jesse White, D-Cecil, Brandon Neuman, D-Canonsburg, and Peter J. Daley II, D-California, Thursday criticized House Republican leaders for not bringing up legislation that would enact changes in the way property values are reassessed in the state.Senate Bill 1546, which could have gone to Gov. Tom Corbett for signing Wednesday had it won House approval, would incorporate four major changes to create uniform standards for assessing property values, as recommended by the Property Reassessment Reform Task Force’s recent report.The lawmakers said while language in the bill that would have temporarily halted court-ordered countywide property reassessments was stripped by the Senate, the reforms that were included would have helped to prevent “back-door” property tax increases and level the playing field across the state when counties reassess.However, according to the Democratic lawmakers, House and Senate Republican leaders said they would not hold any votes following the Nov. 6 general election, and all legislation not approved by this past Wednesday evening will expire at the end of the legislative session Nov. 30. The proposed reassessment legislation would have to be reintroduced in 2013.“Instead of passing the most sweeping reforms to the property tax process in decades and handing a huge victory to Pennsylvania taxpayers, House Republican leaders abruptly ended the legislative session and told House members to have a nice day and see you next year,” said White. “It’s a massive failure of leadership by the House majority.”White pointed out that the reforms contained in the bill could have helped to restore the reassessment process to its original use and eliminate the ability to use reassessment as a weapon to dramatically increase property taxes.Such is the case in Washington County, said White, as McGuffey and Washington school districts have sued the county to force reassessment.The school districts and the county are still facing off in court over the matter.Arguments before a Commonwealth Court panel in Pittsburgh are scheduled for Nov. 13 in the cases that were filed in 2008.The appellate court will have to decide if the commissioners four years ago agreed to reassess property countywide.The county has not signed a contract with a reassessment firm for a task that is estimated to cost as much as $8 million, but the commissioners maintain they have taken steps toward the effort, such as purchasing aerial images of the county and readying the former juvenile home in Arden as office space.In May, President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca said the commissioners are stalling by appealing her earlier decision for the county to move forward with the reassessment.Washington County’s last property reassessment took effect in 1981.“This bill would have provided a more predictable and equitable process of valuating property,” Daley said. “This commonsense approach of establishing uniform standards was long overdue in the commonwealth, and I am disappointed taxpayers will be forced to go even longer under a system of unfair tax increases.”The representatives said the new legislation would have changed the system of reassessing property values by:n Creating in consultation with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and the Assessors’ Association of Pennsylvania an operations manual to be used by counties when completing a countywide reassessment or when valuating property;n Creating a centralized and standardized statewide database for counties to use and report all property values and data as required;n Developing a statewide training program for everyone involved in the valuation of property in every county. These programs would provide basic and detailed training that must be completed and passed by any person working in the commonwealth who is collecting, compiling, computing or handling data associated with the valuation of any property;n Developing standards on contracting for assessment services in consultation with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and the International Association of Assessing Officers. This would include a provision stating that the methodology used by any person, company or organization to value property in the commonwealth shall be made public and that all data and calculations are the property of county and the commonwealth.“This has been a painstaking, bipartisan effort to fix a flawed reassessment system and protect constituents from huge property tax increases,” Neuman said. “While we may not be back to square one, the failure to get this to the governor will put us back many, many months. But, we are not giving up this fight, and we will come back even louder and stronger in the next legislative session.”

Linda Metz has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2000, covering Washington County courts and politics, as well as the city of Washington. She previously was employed by the Tribune Review. She is a graduate of Point Park College, now a university, in Pittsburgh.

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