Move forward with reassessment

March 24, 2013

I could not disagree more with the position of the Washington County Commissioners on reassessment. Their recent comments sounded like our “generals” had lost the valiant battle of Stalingrad and were about to be thrown into the Volga (if not the county jail) unless they capitulated and permitted reassessment to move forward. In fact, Washington County is in the sweet spot when it comes to reassessment. The commissioners should seize the moment and move forward with confidence and vigor, not anger and defeatism.

No one disputes that base year assessments are patently unfair and discriminate against owners of properties in lower-value neighborhoods. Correcting this inequality is certainly sound governance and in the public good. This leaves only three arguments against reassessment: cost, comfort and convenience. I would argue that waiting for the commonwealth to come up with standardized procedures will be an unnecessary delay and more costly in the long run. As for comfort and convenience, these excuses have never stood up in the face of discrimination or inequality.

The problem is not that there are no standards for reassessment. In fact, there are many standards that have been used successfully in many different jurisdictions, inside and outside of Pennsylvania. Washington County is not Allegheny County. We are in the enviable position to learn from Allegheny County’s reassessment experience and to not repeat its mistakes. Following the guidance from many other successful reassessment efforts, we will be able to tailor a program to our specific needs, demographics and tax base. We can also address how to value properties with gas rights, both in and out of production, which is an issue unique to Marcellus Shale counties.

When Washington County moves forward with reassessment, its request for a proposal will create a most valuable contract opportunity for vendors. Getting our assessment program right will be of upmost importance because, unlike Allegheny County, there are dozens of counties of similar size and situation as Washington. Contractors will bid low and offer premiums in order to gain a foothold in Pennsylvania. They will agree to performance criteria and to penalties for above-average assessment appeals. We will become a de facto pilot county, with all the perks and pampering that accompanies this status.

Given the size, cost and importance of the reassessment project, the commissioners should retain the best consultant available to fashion a proposal and to review the bids for an optimal result. In several years Washington County will be praised for its forward thinking and grateful that it moved ahead without delay.

A few thoughts on the “property reassessment reform,” which has now passed both houses of the state Legislature and is headed to Gov. Tom Corbett for his signature. Upon careful reading, it appears to be a blatant case of further “property assessment delay.” Creating an underfunded State Tax Equalization Board with the tasks of developing operations manuals, databases and training programs will not stop the courts from enforcing the law or aid Washington County in any meaningful way.

Gary Stout



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