Tax assessment office spot-checking for new structures

December 7, 2012
David Powell stands Friday outside the barn he built in 2008 at his home on Highland Ridge Road in Buffalo Township. The barn is the center of a dispute with the Washington County Tax Assessment Office. Powell feels he is being unfairly taxed $8 per square foot while neighboring barns are being taxed at rates as low as $1 per square foot. - Robin Richards / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

To identify new structures to place on the tax rolls, a team from the Washington County Tax Assessment Office has been conducting a sweep of 16 communities that have reported little or no construction this year.

Included in the sweep are Buffalo, East Bethlehem, Hanover, Robinson, Somerset and South Franklin townships and Burgettstown, East Washington, Finleyville, Houston, Long Branch, McDonald, New Eagle, Twilight and West Middletown boroughs.

“We have a number of municipalities that do not send us building permits,” said Debbie Bardella, director of the county Revenue Department. “Then again, maybe they’re not sending any because there may not be any. Nonetheless, we’re going to look at those communities.”

Bardella said the sweep, begun about a month ago, has thus far picked up $110,000 in assessed value for school districts, municipalities and the county.

“We get the smallest piece of that pie anyway,” Bardella said of the county’s share of the new revenue.

A pair of tax department workers will be visiting each municipality, looking at every road and parcel of land.

So far, the only municipality completed is Buffalo Township, where they found five new homes, two garages and some additions, all under construction.

“They will be added to tax rolls when they are occupied or completed,” Bardella said.

One Buffalo Township resident, Dave Powell of 354 Highland Ridge Road, felt he was a target of a random field search, saying the tax bill for his four acres and home recently went up by $287 because four years ago he erected a pole barn to store a tractor, garden tools, a Bobcat and a one-ton dump truck.

He said he was told when seeking a building permit that one wasn’t required because the building does not have a foundation.

“If I didn’t need a building permit, I didn’t think it would be taxable,” Powell said. “They seem to be going ahead with this reassessment in Washington County.”

Powell has appealed his property assessment, but he has not yet been notified of a hearing date. He is researching a list of comparable structures, saying that one neighbor is paying $1 per square foot while he is paying $8.

Although a countywide property reassessment will be a topic before Washington County Court Tuesday, the county, which last reassessed real estate in 1979, has not begun another, an undertaking that is estimated to cost about $8 million.

“Seeing what we don’t have on the tax rolls, that is our job,” Bardella said. “Our job is to have a tax roll that is absolutely complete. It has nothing to do with reassessment. These are two entirely different things. It has to do with you built something and you pay taxes on that. That’s the law.”

Brad Boni, Washington County chief assessor, said Powell’s assessment went up in 2011 to reflect new construction, which the county classified as a “garage addition.”

The tax claim bureau also shows that Powell paid his taxes in 2011 and 2012.

If Powell built the structure in 2008 and did not pay taxes on it until 2011, taxing bodies are unable to recoup the years of lost revenue.

It’s incumbent upon the property owner to report improvements to the property, but Boni allowed, “Nobody does that.”

Permanent structures are taxable, so that would exclude swing sets, jungle gyms, play houses and dog houses.

But, for example, a carport with poles placed in concrete blocks would be taxable, Bardella said.

Property owners may be reluctant to tell the county that they have added on or built, but neighbors or others often have no such qualms.

Bardella said her office learned of a man in a bar bragging that he had not paid taxes on his house for nine years, not as a delinquent, but as undetected. Someone who heard him talking reported his statements to the tax office, which sent employees to follow up on the claim.

They found a house, not visible from the road. And Bardella said even though the home was “very obscure, almost through a field,” the couple who owns it is now receiving a tax bill.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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