Washington Co. looks to Harrisburg on reassessment

March 19, 2013
Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi, center, announces during a news conference that the county reluctantly has begun preparations for a countywide property reassessment. Maggi is flanked by fellow commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan and Harlan Shober. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The Washington County board of commissioners is again looking to Harrisburg to legislate changes in the property reassessment system, this time through a state Senate bill that would move the responsibility to the Department of Community and Economic Development.

They learned of the possible changes from state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who said the Senate bill would direct DCED to create both an operations manual and a statewide database for reporting property values to be used by counties when reassessing; develop and maintain statewide training programs for anyone working with the value of property during a reassessment; and require that methodology and calculations that determine the value of property statewide and in counties to be made public.

“No matter what happens, I will not be a cheerleader for reassessment,” commission Chairman Larry Maggi said at a news conference Tuesday at the Courthouse Square office building, at which the commissioners announced that they are “reluctantly” seeking vendors to carry out the expensive reassessment. “We’re at the edge of a cliff being pushed over.”

Maggi and Commissioner Harlan Shober attended a meeting of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg and lobbied Monday for the passage of Senate Bill 66. Gov. Tom Corbett vetoed a bill in 2011 that singled out Washington County for an assessment moratorium, labeling it unconstitutional. Commission Vice Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan, the panel’s lone Republican, has lobbied Corbett to sign Senate Bill 66 if it reaches his desk.

“The (current) system does not work,” she said. “We’ve had study after study that have come out and said we need a new type of assessment system in Pennsylvania. We don’t believe spending $8 million in taxpayer money is a good idea right now, especially when we have a Legislature that just several years ago finally really started looking at the reassessment formulas and tried to come up with a new plan.

“We have all lobbied the legislators and even the governor to allow Washington County to be the pilot project for a new reassessment system under DCED and we’re hopeful that we will be able to use the new system.”

Both she and Maggi said they’d rather see Washington County be the first county to reassess under a new system rather than the last to reassess the county’s 118,000 parcels under the current system.

Nicholas Gerek, White’s chief of staff, said S.B. 66 passed the state Senate 49-0 and was voted out of committee in the state House this month. Legislation requires three votes to pass the House, and Gerek said the second of those votes could occur as early as this week.

None of the commissioners attended the court proceeding a few hours earlier, where an attorney representing them in the property reassessment sought by the Washington and McGuffey school districts said the board is seeking proposals from firms that would be interested in conducting the countywide project.

Attorney Robert Grimm said the county is contacting vendors who submitted proposals in 2009, requesting proposals through its own website, and advertised Tuesday in the Westmoreland County-based Valley Independent, which circulates throughout the Mon Valley.

President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca asked why the county did not advertise in the Observer-Reporter, which she called “a recognized publication of general circulation in the county.”

Grimm called advertising in the Valley Independent “less expensive than the Observer-Reporter” but did not provide any cost comparisons at the hearing.

Based on both publications’ rate cards, the legal ad in the O-R would have cost $366 for two days, reaching 27,841 Washington County subscribers, while the county paid approximately $500 for three days in the Valley Independent, reaching 5,729 Washington County subscribers, said Tom Northrop, Observer-Reporter publisher.

As late as Friday, county officials said they had not made a decision on placing the ad, a significant step in the reassessment process.

Scott Fergus, county administrator, said the decision to advertise was made Monday. Both newspapers are considered publications of general circulation in Washington County.

“They waited for the very last day to advertise,” said attorney Susan Key, who is representing the school districts. She noted that O’Dell Seneca ordered weeks ago for the commissioners to solicit proposals from reassessment firms.

The court concluded that for the past several years legislation on changing reassessments has been proposed, but nothing has been enacted. “The commissioners have admitted in this lawsuit that taxes are not uniform in Washington County,” she said.

Rick Mancini, Washington School District director of district operations, said there is a shift in the tax burden from commercial properties to residential properties. Homeowners are paying a bigger and bigger share.

The county’s last reassessment, completed in 1979, took effect in 1981.

The county and school districts have been in court since 2008, when O’Dell Seneca ordered that, barring a change in state law, she expected to see the commissioners undertake a property reassessment within their then-current terms of office, which expired Jan. 1, 2012.

The commissioners are also seeking what Maggi called a “lifeline” from the state Supreme Court, which has not yet decided if it will hear the county’s appeal, filed in January.

The next Washington County court status conference, and the school district’s request that the commissioners be held in contempt of court for failing to reassess property, has been scheduled for June 4.

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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