CANONSBURG – The general public may not be peppering anyone with questions about Washington County’s property reassessment, but one segment of the community, those contemplating a property purchase here, certainly is, and the people they’re asking are those who sell real estate.
“I’m learning, myself,” said Ruth Ann Cleveland, a Realtor and sales associate for Northwood Realty, Washington, before a session Thursday morning sponsored by the Washington-Greene County Association of Realtors.
“They’re making decisions on their monthly payments, and taxes are part of that,” Cleveland said. “If (taxes) increase, what does that mean to them? We still wonder, will we still be that ‘low Washington County taxes?’” – a phrase often seen in real estate advertisements.
Dorothy Walsko, an agent for Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, asked, “When are you going to put out the millage rates?”
Wesley Graham, project supervisor for Tyler Technologies Inc., which Washington County taxpayers are paying $6.9 million to conduct the property reassessment, replied, “We’re concerned with the value. We don’t deal in taxes.”
The values Tyler places on properties absolutely affects taxation rates set by elected officials at the county, municipal and school board level.
One attendee who declined to give her name commented, “Someone needs to address estimated millage rates, or it’s going to be chaos.”
John Zywan of Century 21 Frontier Realty said, “In Allegheny County, all hell broke lose with challenges. Municipalities didn’t know what their tax base was. Millages – this is what it’s all about.”
Graham called Allegheny County “an animal within itself. They’re used to having this chaos. They’re accustomed to it. (Washington County) is a fourth-class county. You have to be more structured in this county.”
Formal appeals, for example, will take place between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31, 2016. Although a three-person board now hears property assessment appeals, the commissioners have the authority to appoint as many as nine three-person boards to hear cases related to a countrywide reassessment, said Debbie Bardella, Washington County recorder of deeds and director of the county revenue department. The county commissioners will then have a period between Nov. 1 and 15, 2016, to certify property values.
Municipalities and the county are governed by anti-windfall provisions of state law that says they can raise taxes only 5 percent for one year following a reassessment. School districts are limited to a 10 percent increase during the same time frame. Washington County commissioners are required to certify the tax roll by Nov. 15, 2016.
Municipalities and the county must approve budgets for 2017 by Dec. 31, 2016. Tax bills will be going out around Jan. 1, 2017.
“The county is going to say they’re going to be revenue-neutral,” said Bardella.
One real estate agent pointed out that property buyers will be in the dark for another six months or so about their school taxes because school districts operate on a different fiscal year, the July 1 through June 30 calendar that is used by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. School boards are required to approve budgets by the end of their fiscal year on June 30.
It’s been so long since Washington County last reassessed that it was hard to identify anyone present at the White Eagles Lodge Thursday morning who was in the real estate business when Washington County conducted its last reassessment 32 years ago.
Property values, like the price of bread and milk, have increased over this period of time. The Washington and McGuffey school districts took the county commissioners to court to attain a reassessment, and, after a five-year court battle, the commissioners said in August they had run out of options and signed a contract with Tyler Technologies.
Data collectors began their task last week in Washington.
“I’m trying to speak to as many people as I can, and I’m telling them everyone’s assessment is going to go up,” Graham told the real estate agents and mortgage brokers. “Some assessments are going up 10 times or 12 times because these people are not paying enough. We don’t look at what it’s assessed for now. I look at the market.
“We’re going to do the best job we can. Is it going to be perfect? No. There are going to be mistakes.”
Graham said property owners will have chance to correct errors by requesting a review with Tyler before the formal appeals process begins.
One agent asked about the condition of a home in relation to its assessment. Data collectors are to work outside, and conduct a brief interview if the homeowner is present. Otherwise, they’ll leave a card on the door requesting that the homeowner fill in information and mail it back to Tyler Technologies, 50 Old Hickory Ridge Road, Washington, PA 15301.
Graham said he and his staff will be looking at “condition, desirability and utility. In a 40-year-old home, if the windows haven’t been replaced and the shingles are curling up, I can kind of believe there’s not a $50,000 cherry kitchen in that house.”
“People can only afford so much to put toward their mortgages and to put toward their taxes,” said Shirley Cassedy of Keller Williams. “I own some property in Allegheny County, so I’ve been through two of these. It’s just a nightmare.”
Tyler had a contract with Allegheny County for the second of the two reassessments, but Washington County officials maintain that there are substantial differences between the agreement Tyler signed with Allegheny County and its pact with Washington County.
Georgann Koumaros, an agent with Prudential Preferred Realty, McMurray, said after the session, “If the county handles it correctly, it shouldn’t be chaos.”
The real estate agents and lenders had an opportunity to take with them a brochure entitled “Reassessment Information: General Questions and Answers,” that property owners also will be receiving.
She said of the pamphlet, “It’s a start we can give to clients as to what is coming. They need more information as time goes on. The real estate industry is a good avenue for the county to get this information out. They tend to be proactive. The revenue department here, if they don’t, we’re going to see chaos.”