Washington County to hire reassessment company

August 14, 2013
From left, Washington County Commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan, Larry Maggi and Harlan Shober talk about the decision to hire Tyler Technologies to do the reassessment of Washington County properties. - Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Saying, “We have run out of options,” Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi announced Wednesday that the county will enter into a $6.96 million contract with Tyler Technologies of Moraine, Ohio, to conduct a reassessment of all 118,000 properties within the county.

“Until the Legislature acts, we have no choice to follow the flawed law that is in existence,” Maggi read from a statement at a news conference at the Courthouse Square office building.

Homeowners could see vans carrying cameras photographing their neighborhoods as early as next month, said David J. Johnson, president of appraisal services for Tyler, the apparent low bidder among three firms competing for a contract to reassess all properties in the county.

The board is finally hiring a company five years after the attorney for the Washington and McGuffey school districts began a push for a countywide reassessment, the last one of which took effect in 1981.

The commissioners are under a court agreement to conduct the assessment, but their unwillingness to proceed because the state law governing reassessments could change led attorney Susan Key to ask Washington County Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca to hold them in contempt of court.

The state Supreme Court declined in April to hear the commissioners’ appeal in the reassessment case, and Maggi said Wednesday, “All avenues of appeal have been exhausted.”

Tyler Technologies is the same company that conducted Allegheny County’s latest reassessment. The company’s bid was the lowest of three submitted, but the amounts of Tyler’s competitors, Evaluator Services & Technology Inc. of Greensburg and Pearson’s Appraisal of Richmond, Va., which shares a website with Reappraisal Inc. of Harrisburg, won’t be revealed until the commissioners meet at 10 a.m. today.

Johnson, who plans to attend the commissioners meeting, said Tyler will be setting up shop within 30 days at the former Washington County youth detention center in Arden, which will be staffed by both Tyler personnel and about 30 new hires from the area. When Tyler employees go about their tasks in residential areas, they will not enter homes, but they will take measurements outside and knock on doors to talk with property owners who are at home, Johnson said. They will leave a form on the door for homeowners who are away.

County solicitor Mary Lyn Drewitz said Tyler plans to use a two-tier system that will enable property owners who deem their assessments to be erroneous to meet informally with company representative to vet the matter before making a formal appeal to members of the commissioner-appointed assessment appeals board.

In Allegheny County, according to Controller Chelsa Wagner, taxpayers filed approximately 64,500 informal appeals and 106,000 formal appeals as of Aug. 23, 2012. Allegheny County has 570,000 parcels of land.

Washington County property owners are unlikely to see new property tax bills until July 1, 2016.

Meanwhile, the commissioners still have a court date looming later this month at which Key earlier said she would ask the court to find the commissioners in contempt of a court order to complete a reassessment by the close of 2011. Both Maggi and Recorder of Deeds Debbie Bardella gave sworn depositions at Key’s law office over the summer in the case.

Key was unable to comment Wednesday, referring that task to her colleague, Frank G. Adams, who said he viewed the awarding of a contract for countywide reassessment as “a positive development that the county commissioners have finally taken a step toward complying with their duties under the Pennsylvania constitution to ensure uniform taxation in the county and to comply with the consent decree from November of 2008 in which they agreed to begin a reassessment by September 2009.

“Unfortunately, the taxpayers of Washington County will have to wait until at least 2016 for their taxes to be fair and uniform. However, due to the delays in this case from the actions of the commissioners leading up to this stage in the proceedings, currently, the plan remains for the school districts to move forward with the hearing on Aug. 28 seeking relief from the court, including attorney fees.”

Nearly a year ago in Allegheny County, the controller blasted Tyler Technologies in an audit that reviewed the most recent reassessment there. She wrote that the company adhered to minimal industry standards and consistently missed completion deadlines prescribed in the contract. That forced most municipalities and school districts in Allegheny County to delay implementing updated tax rates for property owners.

She also blamed county officials for drafting a weak contract that did not have enough safeguards to hold Tyler Technologies responsible for problems with the reassessment in the audit, which is available at http://www.alleghenycounty.us/controll/OPAReportSummary.pdf

Johnson said Washington County sought a full reappraisal including data collection in the field for every property. In Allegheny County, the task was split between Tyler and employees of the county reassessment office. Because Judge Stanton Wettick ordered Allegheny County’s latest reassessment, his supervision of the effort included a series of deadlines that most school districts and municipalities claimed were unworkable.

Other Pennsylvania counties in which Tyler has also conducted property reassessments are Armstrong, Bedford, Erie, Montgomery and York.

Maggi said he refused to be a cheerleader for reassessment, but noted that an 11-member committee has studied proposals from firms in both 2009 and this year.

“Our committee did their due diligence, they gathered all the possible information, empirical numbers, everything they could to come up with the decision,” he said of the choice of vendors.

Diana Irey Vaughan, vice chairman of the board of commissioners, said, “From the bids that we received and the amounts of bids we received, our committee felt Tyler was the best option for an unfortunate situation.”

Solicitor Mary Lyn Drewitz said Tyler’s cost this year is the same price that it offered the county three years ago.

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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