Pitchforks and torches or fair and equal?

October 8, 2013
Washington County workers installed this sign for reassessment central at the former youth detention center near the fairgrounds and health center in Arden. - Barbara Miller / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Some states require property reassessments every few years, but Pennsylvania isn’t one of them.

“Being that Washington County hasn’t been reassessed in 30 years, I think people are going to have the pitchforks and torches out,” said Brennan Breene, an appraiser who lives in Cecil Township.

Tyler Technologies Inc., which holds a $6.9 million contract to conduct the countywide reassessment of 118,000 properties, sees it a different way. In a handout Tyler prepared for the Observer-Reporter editorial board, a dozen pages bore the footnote, “Washington County Reassessment Project – Fair and Equal.”

Wesley Graham, project supervisor for Tyler, came armed with photographs of homes from Charleroi, Canonsburg and Monongahela, where homes of similar selling prices had drastically different assessments, and therefore, tax bills.

In the Charleroi example, a split-level home and a ranch each sold for $120,000, but the split level’s assessment is $16,563 with taxes of $2,930 while the ranch is assessed at $11,485 with taxes of $1,985.

The residents of the ranch may or may not be aware of this, but the split-level owners have been paying part of the ranch’s share of school, municipal and county taxes, Graham explained, positing that the owners of the split-level “are going to be glad there’s a reassessment.”

Paul M. Flynn, northeast regional manager of Tyler’s appraisal and tax division, said, “Whoever’s not paying their fair share, there’s someone out there who’s been paying more than their fair share.”

Tyler personnel are quick to point out that they are responsible for setting property assessments, not property tax rates.

There have been stabs at property tax reform in the state Legislature, but nothing substantial has occurred.

Last week, a proposal to replace school property taxes in Pennsylvania with higher income and sales taxes was soundly rejected in the House of Representatives, where it was shot down by a vote of 138-59.

“It didn’t come close. I don’t see it coming back anytime soon,” said Rep. Todd Rock, R-Mont Alto,

Taxpayer groups rallied twice in two years at the Capitol in support of the legislation (House Bill 76) which is currently stalled in the House Finance Committee.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover, would give school districts and most townships the option of reducing or eliminating real estate tax with what’s being called an “elimination tax” – a combination of earned income tax, mercantile tax and business privilege tax.

Opponents said it was riddled with legal flaws and amounted to little more than “a concept.” They called the measure ill-conceived and warned that the resulting increases in statewide taxes would unfairly penalize working Pennsylvanians.

Among other things, an amendment would have increased the personal income tax by 41 percent and boosted the state sales tax to 7 percent, an increase of nearly 17 percent. It also would have eliminated many existing sales-tax exemptions.

“Nobody knows what the future holds,” said Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi, who said the three-person board agreed to reassess in August only because it was out of options.

“I think the process to reassess is bad. They have to come up with standard guidelines,” he continued, referring to the Legislature.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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