The digital age was in its infancy when Washington County officials last conducted property reassessment, so nearly 35 years later, Tyler Technologies Inc. is using computer-assisted mass appraisal as part of its $6.96 million contract.
But that doesn’t mean that computer software alone is responsible for assigning value to a particular property, one of 118,000 in the county.
Humans play key roles as data collectors and appraisers.
And when it comes down to determining a property’s value, the three most important words, as any real estate professional will tell you, are location, location, location.
A week or so ahead of schedule, Tyler sent its first data collectors into the field Thursday in Washington’s 5th Ward, which will be followed by the 6th Ward.
The data collection card they will fill out contains 43 data fields, using a slew of labels to describe acreage, topography, utilities, roads, traffic, parking availability, type of structure, construction materials, heating and air conditioning systems, plus condition, desirability and utility.
Under a category called “influence factors,” there’s a designation known as “misimprovement.”
The term wasn’t included in a standard dictionary, but Merriam-Webster Online defined it as an archaic noun that means, “to make worse in an attempt to improve.”
Asked about Tyler’s use of the word, Wesley Graham, Tyler Technologies project supervisor, said, “I told you we were an old company.” In 1999, Tyler purchased Cole Layer Trumble Co., which was founded in 1938.
Graham is a Princeton man. As in Princeton, W.Va., population 6,432, near the boundary with Virginia, which explains his southern drawl. He now lives in Laporte, (pop. 326) the tiniest county seat in Pennsylvania, in Sullivan County, between Scranton and Williamsport, and he’s been assigned to Southwestern Pennsylvania since March 2010, when he began work on the Allegheny County reassessment.
Tyler may have acquired an old entity, but property tax in Pennsylvania is even older, dating back to colonial times, specifically 1683. “Modern” assessment law in the state dates back to 1933, with only minor amendments, but it does require that real estate, for tax purposes, be valued at its actual value, and at a bona fide rate and price for which the property would separately sell, according to the 2007 publication, “Real Estate Assessment Process in Pennsylvania … An Overview.”
There are, Graham explained, three ways to determine the value of property: the cost approach, which takes into account the replacement cost of the structure, minus the depreciation plus the value of the land, also known as the site; the market approach, which uses sales comparisons; and the income approach, which is applied to commercial and industrial properties and relates to building income, expenses and vacancy rates in addition to physical characteristics.
In January 2016, Tyler will send to the property owner its “impact analysis,” which is the new value placed on the property.
A video on the company’s website addresses the potential for sticker shock of new property value. “Ask yourself, is this about the price I would sell my property for?” it advises.
And because Washington Countians haven’t experienced a reassessment for three decades, there is likely to be a lot of sticker shock when they open those letters. Because Washington County hasn’t been reassessed for more than three decades, it’s likely that properties are, in appraisal lingo, “significantly undervalued.” The sticker shock is certain to generate a slew of assessment appeals. Unlike Pennsylvania, there are some states that require uniformity, demanding that a reassessment be conducted in prescribed cycles. A 2010 study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania called for the state Legislature require each county to reassess every four years.
Attorneys for the Washington and McGuffey school districts, in demanding a countywide reassessment, pointed to state law that requires county commissioners to conduct property reassessments, which has not taken place during the term of anyone currently serving on the board
Although Tyler’s contract with Washington County and the proposal it submitted are public record, which were obtained by the Observer-Reporter under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, a disclaimer in the approximately two inches of double-sided paper reads, “Confidential proprietary information & trade secrets have been redacted.”
Tyler’s May 31 proposal “contains trade secret information on Tyler’s methodologies, detailed approach and best practices that are confidential and proprietary to Tyler Technologies, CLT Appraisal Services and has been redacted … The information contained in this subsection is a trade secret as defined in Pennsylvania’s Right-To-Know Law and is therefore exempt for public records requests.”
Excluded from an examination of the contract and proposal was information about what is called the “iasWorld” software package that Tyler will use to determine the value of properties. Although county officials had the information technology department examine this information, it’s not something that’s generally available to an outsider.
A computer-assisted mass appraisal requires reams of data, and the face of the reassessment at this point will be Tyler’s data collectors who are going door to door, asking questions and measuring building exteriors. They will be inquiring about the number of bedrooms and bathrooms; types of heating and cooling systems; the year the house was built; general construction, materials and physical condition of the interior and exterior. Because most people won’t be at home when a data collector arrives, he or she will leave a card for the home owner to fill out and mail in.
Regardless if anyone is at home, Tyler will photograph each dwelling and the pictures will become part of the county’s computer database. Tyler expects, probably as soon as this week, to deploy vans outfitted with cameras. Anyone with questions about data collectors can call Tyler’s office at 724-228-5019 or the Washington County tax revenue department, 724-228-6850.
Collection of data for commercial and industrial properties won’t begin until after the first of the year. Planned for late spring is a second “eye-in-the-sky” photography flyover.
And although the data collection phase began Thursday afternoon in Washington’s 5th Ward, the first wave of homes visited won’t be getting their reassessments any sooner. “They’re not going to see proposed reassessment until everybody sees it,” Graham said.