“This case is clearly over.”
That’s what Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca wrote in a 12-page opinion issued Thursday, saying that Washington County needs to give up its four-year effort to stop a countywide property reassessment. Her ruling follows fast on the heels of a decision by the state’s Commonwealth Court to quash the county’s appeal to put off a reassessment. The state’s lower court said it was filed too late.
Though Commissioner Larry Maggi suggested the county could take the case back to the Commonwealth Court or to the state’s Supreme Court, it might be best for the county to quit putting time, sweat and resources into this battle, wave the white flag and get on with a reassessment, which would be its first in more than 30 years.
Both the Washington and McGuffey school districts have been pushing hard for a reassessment. They contend commercial and industrial properties in the county are undervalued and the school districts would stand to benefit from additional revenue. And Washington County’s commissioners conceded in a November 2008 stipulation that, yes, property values in the county were out of whack. But they have said with some vehemence that this did not constitute consent to a reassessment.
Two arguments commissioners were deploying to put off a reassessment have since evaporated: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2009 that Allegheny County had to reassess its property, stating that not doing so would be unfair to owners with values that were either stagnant or tumbling; and statewide property tax reform has lately been a dead letter in Harrisburg. No lifeline appears to be forthcoming from the state capitol.
The county, it seems, has run out of excuses.
Putting off a property reassessment to another day almost certainly has less to do with dollars and cents – even though the $8 million it would cost to conduct a reassessment is, admittedly, not exactly pocket change – than it does with political calculation. When reassessments have been done elsewhere, property taxes for commercial and residential properties have gone up, sometimes considerably. And it stands to reason that Maggi and fellow commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan and Harlan Shober will bear the brunt of ill-will from voters when they are faced with the prospect of writing a heftier check to pay property taxes.
And since Irey Vaughan lost her bid to become state treasurer last month and Maggi was unsuccessful in his drive to unseat U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, in the 18th Congressional District, both of them will be around when the bills come due.
The battle over whether Washington County should conduct a reassessment makes us wonder if it’s time for Pennsylvania to follow in the footsteps of neighboring states like Maryland and Ohio, where property tax reappraisals are conducted on a regular timetable. It doesn’t mean that everyone walks away happy, of course, but at least it makes the process more orderly and systematic.
But that’s another consideration for another day. In the meantime, Washington County should bow to what is probably inevitable. Susan Mondik Key, an attorney for the school districts, probably had it right: “I kind of think they’re at the end of their rope.”