Thursday, April 13, 2006

Allegheny County Reassessments Rechallenged Reagain

When we last left our heroes, the Allegheny County Assessments that were challenged, thrown out, revised, thrown out again, re-revised, accepted, rejected, reduced, folded, spindled, mutilated, and challenged were upheld. Tune in today where we join our story, already in progress:

An attorney representing four taxpayers who are challenging Allegheny County's assessment system charged today that the county's attempt to use 2002 property values as a base year should be declared unconstitutional and thrown out.

Attorney Ira Weiss said in an amended lawsuit filed today that using 2002 property values illegally freezes values despite substantial changes in neighborhoods from year to year. That means people in poor communities pay more taxes than they should and wealthier people pay less because properties are not valued properly.

This violates the state law that requires taxes to be applied uniformly to all taxpayers, the suit said.

In addition, Allegheny County's attempt to file appeals on behalf of taxpayers who saw their assessments rise since 2002 as a result of previous appeals by school districts or municipalities should be illegal, the suit said. Such appeals would result in illegal "spot assessing," where only some properties in an area are reassessed.
Unfortunately, Mr. Weiss may be correct: despite the "more accurate" assessment of 2002, there will be a inequitable share of the tax burden being paid by those areas that have depreciated in value.

The question, however, is whether the system is fundamentally flawed (i.e. the sum ratios of all assessment values to actual prices is within a reasonable error margin, normally +/- 15%), which would go back to prove Mr. Weiss' contention that assessments are not uniform.

But that's only the intellectual, academic point, albeit one which is well argued are persuasive. For the County (and the subsidiary municipalities) there is a true political and policy crisis at stake:

First, no one wants to be the one to be blamed for raising taxes when revenues fall short. It's much easier to act outraged than to actually do something about it.* You're never going to find a politician who will say, with a straight face, "let's effectively raise everyone's taxes as it'll be better for all of us in the long run, despite what it'll do to me, personally, at the polls."

Second, if potential revenues are constantly in flux, there is no discernible way to allow a municipality to project the actual taxes that are to be collected in a given year. I'm sure the borough manager of Crafton tears his hair out every night trying to guess. I have no doubt that is a contributing factor, small though it may be, to the ongoing financial problems of the city of Pittsburgh.

My point is: the system is currently fundamentally screwy and I doubt that anyone actually has the political will or capital to fix it.

Although, it means that Ira Weiss is guaranteed full employment until 2010.

*Which is, ironically enough, one of the reasons I write these damned posts.

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