Changes in property reassessment system on way to governor

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Legislation that will reform the way property reassessments in Pennsylvania are conducted is headed to the governor’s desk, and it likely will play a part in the impending reassessment in Washington County.


The county commissioners Tuesday held a news conference and lobbied for passage of Senate Bill 66, which will put reassessments under the oversight of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, develop uniform statewide standards and provide resources to help with technical aspects. At the same event, they said they would “reluctantly” proceed with seeking proposals from vendors for the reassessment project.


They have fought since two local school districts took them to court in 2008 to force action.


On Wednesday, the state House passed the legislation unanimously. It previously had been approved by the state Senate and is headed to Gov. Tom Corbett, who is expected to sign it into law.


“We are obviously glad that this bill passed,” commission Chairman Larry Maggi said Thursday. The commissioners have said they would like Washington County to be a pilot program under the soon-to-be new law. “(Commissioner) Diana Irey Vaughan knows the governor, and we will work through that relationship. We will also contact DCED and our state legislators to make that happen.”


Largely based on bills authored by area state Reps. Jesse White, Brandon Neuman and Rick Saccone – and on the House Task Force on Property Valuation and Reassessment created under their legislation – the bill would standardize reassessment processes that wildly vary among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, and that often lead to dramatic property tax increases for home and business owners.


Under the bill, the responsibilities of the State Tax Equalization Board are moved under the umbrella of the Department of Community and Economic Development to use more modern resources to carry out the technical aspects of a reassessment.


The bill also makes a number of reforms recommended by the task force, including:


• Creating an operations manual to be used by counties when reassessing;


• Creating and maintaining a statewide database for counties to use and report property values;


• Developing and maintaining a statewide training program for anyone involved in the valuation of property within any county during a reassessment;


• Developing contracting standards for assessment services.


“This was a win for taxpayers, and a big win at that,” said White, D-Cecil.


White said he believed Washington County would “fit perfectly” as a pilot county because of the timing and because of the variety of properties in it.


Neither Maggi nor White knew what the timeline would be for implementing the changes once the legislation is signed.


“We will take a wait-and-see attitude. We’re going to see what this means,” Maggi said. “We will contact White and see how this will affect us and what we need to do to become the pilot program.”


White said the question is whether the attorneys representing McGuffey and Washington school districts will wait to allow the new program to be implemented or force the county to advertise for vendors for a reassessment even as the state law is changing.


“I don’t know how a vendor could respond to a (request for proposals) even as state law is changing under their feet,” he said. “We need to sit down with DCED and estimate a timeline and find out what we need to do.”


He said much of the groundwork has been laid and therefore it should not be a lengthy process to begin a pilot program. While the legislation would shift the cost of reassessment to the state, it could provide some grant money and technical assistance to the county.


Also unknown is what, if any effect, a new law might have on a June 4 hearing in which the McGuffey and Washington school districts are asking that the county commissioners be held in contempt of court for not completing a reassessment as ordered by the court by Jan. 1, 2012.


The commissioners have balked at the prospect of a reassessment, claiming that a change in state law could cause them to needlessly spend up to $8 million footed by Washington County taxpayers.


Both Maggi and Irey Vaughan said they preferred to be the first county to reassess under a new system than be the last to reassess under the current system.


“While we operate under the current tax system, it is essential that county reassessments are accurate for the taxpayers,” said Neuman, D-North Strabane Township. “With the governor’s signature, this bill will create essential databases, manuals and contracting standards that will streamline the reassessment process and make it fairer and accountable to taxpayers.”


“These hard-fought reforms were an absolute necessity to help prevent unfair property tax increases, especially for senior citizens, and the end result of this legislation will be a more equitable system in each county across Pennsylvania,” said Saccone, R-Elizabeth. “Everyone acknowledges the property tax system is fundamentally broken in this state, so we have to take advantage of every opportunity to close loopholes and prevent backdoor tax increases. This day was long overdue, but taxpayers can finally rejoice over the fact that some of this property tax mess has been untangled.”


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