What property owners can expect during reassessment
In responding to the routine roll call for each agenda item, Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi speaks last. On Thursday morning he paused noticeably before joining his colleagues in casting what would prove to be the last of three affirmative votes on a $6.96 million contract with Tyler Technologies of Moraine, Ohio, to conduct a countywide reassessment.
Perhaps the order of business was a mere coincidence, but just before handling a matter dealing with portable restrooms in county parks, the chief clerk had typed the momentous item simply labeled “property reassessment.”
Commission Vice Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan, who made the motion to execute the Tyler contract, asked Maggi after he finally weighed in, “Did you hold your nose when you voted?” eliciting a few chuckles from the sparsely attended Courthouse Square meeting room.
“Let the record show it was all three yeses,” Maggi responded.
It has been 35 years since a board of Washington County commissioners took a similar vote, and this board did so under duress, facing a contempt hearing before a Washington County judge for failing to abide by a 2008 court agreement to conduct a reassessment. It will be the first one since 1981.
Once the county commissioners signed a $6,967,950 contract with Tyler, Washington County Purchasing Director Randy Vankirk complied with a Right to Know request filed by the Observer-Reporter and released the amounts of other bidders for the reassessment contract.
Evaluator Services & Technology of Greensburg submitted a proposal for $7,002,000 and Reappraisal Inc. of Harrisburg was willing to do the job for $8,125,000. The 11-member committee appointed by the commissioners to examine the bids interviewed representatives of EST, but not the highest bidder. Vankirk said Reappraisal’s proposal did not meet the county’s specifications and requirements that the firm not subcontract work.
“That’s not what we wanted, Vankirk said. “Obviously, we want to avoid mistakes that were made in Allegheny County.” Tyler is the same company that conducted Allegheny County’s most recent assessment.
David Johnson, president of appraisal services of Tyler Technologies, said after the official signing, “Now that we’ve executed the contract, we’re going to flip light switches on at the facility provided by the county next week,” in Arden, at the former youth detention center.
Unlike the reassessment that took effect in 1981, “technology will play a role this time,” Johnson said in outlining what homeowners can expect.
The property owner’s first encounter with reassessment technology is likely to be photographs, using a technique Johnson called “stop and compose” taken from public rights-of-way, which is scheduled to be finished by January.
“We will then start with physical data collection,” which Johnson said will include interviews with property owners and measurement of buildings and land. “Usually we try to get that information out two to four weeks in advance.”
Residents are typically notified through the media, and if someone misses that news, the word still spreads. “As soon as we get into an area, the buzz starts with the homeowners that data collectors are in the neighborhood,” Johnson said.
Tyler employees, wearing chartreuse vests, will be going door-to-door carrying both identification and letters of introduction.
If a property owner has posted property with “no trespassing” signs, data collectors will record that, and if a homeowner asks the collector to leave, the collector is to respect the request.
“We’re not going into the house,” Johnson emphasized. During the initial period, a data collector may be accompanied by a supervisor, or they may be working across the street from each other. The Tyler worker is more likely to be a single representative.
The typical workday in the field will be 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays with some Saturdays. If a resident is not at home, the Tyler worker will leave a card that can be mailed back, or a the homeowner can phone in data about the number of bedrooms or bathrooms in the home, for example.
The data will eventually appear on the Washington County website that will allow anyone with Internet access to look up any home in the county.
“It’ll take a full year just to collect the data,” Johnson said. “It’ll take another full year to establish the values. When we get done, we’ll have a complete digital set of data that people can use as a tool to compare” with similar properties and base an appeal.
In Tyler’s two-tier system, a homeowner can discuss informally what he or she believes is an erroneous valuation with a Tyler representative before going through the county’s formal appeals process.
Wes Graham, project supervisor, who will be handling Tyler’s public relations here, will have his work cut out for him. The Observer-Reporter’s unscientific website poll of readers responding to the question, “Do you think the Washington County reassessment will be conducted in a fair and equitable manner?” on Thursday afternoon showed they overwhelmingly lacked confidence in the process.
Debbie Bardella clarified some information that came out at Wednesday’s press conference on countywide reassessment. She said property owners will receive notices of their new assessment around July 1, 2016. Tax bills based on the assessment won’t be issued until Jan. 1, 2017.
Johnson said Tyler will be hiring between 30 and 40 people locally to work as data collectors and data entry personnel.
Recent developments with Washington County reassessment seemed to be news Thursday to Gov. Tom Corbett, who visited the Washington County Fair Thursday morning.
“You are, really? Have you talked to Allegheny County to see how that works?” the governor told a reporter.
“Obviously it’s something that across the commonwealth has to be faced. I mean, 1981, is that right? The last time it was done here? I was still an assistant U.S. attorney. That was a long time ago. And (in) one county out west here I think it may be 1956, the last time they had that.
“So it does become an issue of fairness; particularly it becomes an issue of fairness for people who get their properties devalued and are still paying at a much higher level than they should be paid. But I know it’s a difficult issue for county commissioners, it’s a difficult issue for legislators and for township municipal officials.”
He referred a question about property tax reform to state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who was among the officials accompanying him.
Staff Writer Aaron Kendeall contributed to this story.