Will Pittsburghers be taxed out of their homes?

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by Christian Morrow

Just when homeowners thought it was safe to open the mail, the ongoing battle over tax assessments enters a new round.

In an inevitable response to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s Jan. 5 declaration that the county would use 2002 property values to assess this year’s taxes, Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick ordered that 2012 valuations be used—even though reassessments have only been completed for Pittsburgh and Mt. Oliver.

Adding to the confusion, however, Wettick’s order only specifies that “the City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh School District are barred from setting millage and calculating taxes for 2012, unless the millage and taxes are based on the 2012 assessed values.”

After setting up a system to assist homeowners with informal assessment appeals, then halting it on the heels of Fitzgerald’s announcement, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl reacted to Wettick’s order by calling the entire process “madness.”

“This chaotic reassessment process has caused panic among homeowners, small business owners and all taxpayers, creating a widespread fear that people, especially seniors and those who can least afford it, will be taxed out of their homes,” he said. “I am further disturbed that the process to date has unfairly targeted Pittsburgh home and business owners who have been given an extremely short, and now disrupted, window of time to appeal inaccurate reassessments.”

Wettick had indicated he might delay the use of 2012 figures until 2013 after receiving a request to do so from the Pittsburgh School District.

The district argues that it cannot set the proper millage rate using the new numbers because a large number of successful appeals might reduce the overall tax base and leave the district in an even larger financial hole. A delay would allow time for appeals to be completed.

Wettick had scheduled a status conference on the district’s request for 2 p.m. Jan. 10. He had not ruled on the request as of Courier deadline.

Should Wettick agree to the one-year delay, it would also be a relief to Fitzgerald, whose decision to throw out the 2012 numbers directly violated Wettick’s order to conduct a new assessment. The judge could find Fitzgerald in contempt and either jail him or fine him.

The Supreme Court appointed Wettick to oversee reassessments, so any new legal challenge is as likely to fail as those pursued by former Executive Dan Onorato. Unless the state legislature changes the law, the reassessment will go forward. It is just a question of when.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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