Onorato to appeal assessment ruling

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Joined by Allegheny County Council members John Defazio, Jim Burns, Rich Fitzgerald and Bill Robinson, County Executive Dan Onorato said the county would appeal a plan ordered by Common Pleas Judge Stanton R. Wettick Jr. that calls for all properties to be reassessed by 2014.

“Every homeowner in the state is just a lawsuit away from a tax increase,” he said. “This is a statewide issue, and Common Pleas judges shouldn’t be dictating assessment policy.”

On Nov. 10, Wettick issued the reassessment plan after not receiving one from the county. It orders that the county be divided into four “districts” and its 575,000 properties be reassessed in rotation.

The first assessment district, which would include school districts and communities where the difference between market values and assessed property values is the greatest, would have to complete its reassessment by Oct. 1, 2010. It would be based on district real estate sales as of June 30, 2009.

The second district would complete its reassessment Oct. 1, 2011, again using sales date from the end of the previous fiscal year, and so on until the final district reassessment is completed Oct. 1, 2013.  But while each district would use the new values to set school and municipal tax rates in the year following its reassessment, the county rate would still be based on the 2002 base-year values now in place.

Onorato said Wettick’s plan is unconstitutional because having properties assessed at different rates violates the uniformity clause of state constitution. Ironically, it was the uniformity clause that the Supreme Court used to throw out the county’s base-year system in April. The system set assessments—including new construction—based on 2002 property values.

“The court didn’t say using a base-year is unconstitutional, they said the way we did it was,” Onorato said. “The Supreme Court said this in the purview of the state legislature, which is why I’ve been lobbying in Harrisburg for a moratorium on assessments.”

Onorato called on the Republican-controlled state Senate, particularly the appropriations committee, to vote on moratorium legislation that passed the state House 197-0. He said Republican state Sens. Jane Orie and John Pippy have already voiced their support for the legislation, HB 1661, which would allow two years for the legislature to study other state’s tax policies to develop a statewide system.

“We should have a consistent, unified system like 48 other states do. They don’t have this problem,” he said. “Right now, the only thing standing between homeowners and a massive tax increase is the appropriations committee of the state Senate. They are sitting on their hands, they could vote on this tomorrow.”

Onorato said he doesn’t know how quickly Commonwealth Court will hear the county’s appeal, but said it would be filed within the required 30-day period.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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