Despite reassessment, don’t look for immediate changes in county tax bills

December 27, 2013

The battle over Washington County’s property reassessment has been making headlines for more than five years, and the commissioners’ reluctant decision in August to sign a $6.9 million contract with Tyler Technologies of Moraine, Ohio, made the Top 10 list of news stories for 2013, according to balloting by the newsroom staff of the Observer-Reporter to be featured in a story Sunday.

The reassessment process is a long one, however, and although data collection began in September, property owners shouldn’t look for county and municipal tax bills reflecting the new property values until January 2017.

County Treasurer Francis King, however, finds himself fielding questions from the public about the reassessment.

“Anytime I’m out, people want to know how it’s going to work,” King said Friday. His typical reply is that he fully expects assessments to go up, reflecting a 30-year upswing in property values, but that tax millage will have to be adjusted accordingly to keep governments from reaping a windfall.

Because many homeowners are paying off mortgages month by month over periods of many years, their lenders are the entities that will actually be receiving property tax bills and paying them out of designated escrow accounts. So a homeowner may be only vaguely aware of his or her tax bills, for which one receives an early payment discount through March 31. The bills are paid at face value between April 1 and June 30, and, after that, a 10 percent penalty attaches, and, if still unpaid, the property eventually can be sold for back taxes.

Washington County’s last property reassessment took effect in 1981. County millage remains at 24.9 mills for 2014.

“We’re also going through a software change due to the reassessment,” said King, who has been county treasurer since 1996. His office collects more than $35 million in taxes each year.

During King’s entire tenure in office and for quite some time before, RBA Professional Data Systems Inc. of State College, Centre County, has provided the computer software to compile the information that goes into figuring a tax bill for individual properties.

“Tyler will be providing new software,” King said. He envisions both RBA and Tyler generating information for the 2016 tax bills in a side-by-side arrangement.

“I have my fingers crossed,” he said.

Don’t look for the treasurer’s office staff loading trays of thousands of bills for mailing at the local post office. The bills themselves are prepared by Diamond Marketing Solutions of Bloomingdale, Ill., which sends the county 100 randomly chosen samples of bills to make sure each bit of information is correct.

“There’s a lot of back and forth on the Internet,” King said.

Diamond’s database aims to catch mistakes in addresses to minimize the return and re-sending of bills.

There is one community in the county, McDonald Borough, that straddles two counties. What is known as the McDonald Annex is taxed by Allegheny County, said Bradley Boni, Washington County’s chief assessor. Canonsburg, Donora and West Brownsville also have had annexations, and although residents of the West Brownsville annex in the community of Blainesburg pay their taxes to West Brownsville Borough, they are actually part of California Area School District.

School districts follow a different calendar, so they send their property tax bills in July. West Brownsville Borough is part of the Brownsville Area School District in Fayette County.

Boni described the number of land parcels in Washington County as “118,000 and growing.”

Washington County Recorder of Deeds Debbie Bardella, who took her oath of office Monday for a fifth, four-year term, is also director of the county tax revenue department. She has attended information sessions about reassessment with Wesley Graham, Tyler’s project supervisor, at both the Canonsburg and McGuffey senior citizen centers and in a meeting with residents of East and West Finley and Morris townships.

Scheduled early in the new year are additional information sessions for Bentworth, Cross Creek and Cecil Township senior citizens, Monongahela Rotary Club and an appearance on a Peters Township public access cable television interview show.

The McGuffey and Washington school districts took the county to court in 2008 to bring about the reassessment. The commissioners appealed several court orders, taking the case to both Commonwealth Court and the state Supreme Court. At one point during the battle, the state Legislature in 2011 passed a bill exempting “counties of the fourth class,” of which Washington County is one, from a reassessment, but Gov. Tom Corbett refused to sign it, calling it unconstitutional because it violated the uniformity clause.

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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