Allegheny County Council is on the verge of taking up legislation that would instruct the Council’s solicitor to ask the courts to halt the reassessment ordered by a local court and the Supreme Court until the state reforms assessment laws. The argument is that it is unfair to force Allegheny County to reassess when so many counties across the state are not under court ordered reassessments. According to their reasoning Allegheny County should be off the hook until the Legislature and the Governor rewrite state law to force all counties to bring their assessments up to date.
As previous Policy Briefs have pointed out, the Council’s case for a moratorium faces overwhelming obstacles. After ruling on the County’s assessment system in a lawsuit brought several years ago and having the court’s ruling upheld by the Supreme Court, the Common Pleas Court has every reason to hold the County to the agreement, entered into under the terms of the Supreme Court decision, to reassess by 2012. With the large inequities in the County’s assessments uncovered in the original lawsuit, any further passage of time with no resolution of the problem perpetuates and exacerbates the effects of the inequities.
Once again it must be asked, why are Council members so concerned about and protective of people whose properties are greatly under assessed and so blasé about the folks who are over assessed? Some officials have argued that assessments can never be done accurately and therefore they should be left alone. If those who hold that view were serious they would be working to have property taxes repealed altogether to put an end to the inequities. That is not happening so their argument must be viewed as merely an attempt to avoid responsibility.
Assuming the local court is unwilling to stop the reassessment, the solicitor would be empowered to appeal to the Supreme Court. It is a virtual certainty the high court is likely to be unimpressed with an appeal that wants the Court to put a hold on implementation of its 2009 decision until the Legislature finally gets around to fixing the state’s antiquated and hopelessly out of date assessment laws. That carefully constructed decision held that massive assessment inequities perpetuated by the County’s base year system are a clear violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution and must be fixed.
But just as important, the Court recognizes that the Legislature has little or no appetite for taking on assessment reform and it cannot order the Legislature to do the needed reform. All it can do is rule on the cases brought before the Court. Politically, assessment reform is a close relative to Social Security reform at the national level. It is a so-called third rail not to be touched despite the overwhelming and pressing need to deal with the issues. In view of the long demonstrated reluctance of the Legislature to tackle the assessment issue in a serious manner, the Supreme Court can have no confidence that revisiting their ruling on Allegheny County’s assessment system or staying their order for the County to reassess will produce a positive outcome for anyone but politicians. Certainly, those who sued the County and won relief from the courts would be effectively denied due process if the unconstitutional system and inequities remain in place.
There is little to be gained from this latest attempt by Council to get a moratorium on reassessments. There an was an unsuccessful attempt to get the Legislature to declare a moratorium on court ordered reassessments right after the Supreme Court decision in the spring of 2009—a decision upholding the Wettick ruling of July, 2007. There was even talk of initiating a Federal lawsuit to get the state Supreme Court decision overturned. Happily, that effort was nipped in the bud and before the County embarrassed itself even further.
It is time to bite the bullet and deal with the issue. If Council wants to do something useful, pass an ordinance that says the County will make the reassessment revenue neutral, that is, the County will change the millage rate in such a way to keep tax collections after the reassessment equal to the pre-reassessment level collections. They should also pass a resolution urging all taxing bodies in the County, municipals and school districts, to adopt a revenue neutral stance with regards to the reassessment. Then they should turn their attention to urging the Legislature to repair the seriously flawed state laws.
The lesson to be learned here is that reneging on a Council promise to adopt updated assessments in 2005 and defying a court order to repair the remaining problems with those updated values and adopt the better numbers was not a good plan. Years later and court loss after court loss, the Council should focus on honoring its obligations to all property owners and work assiduously to ensure that assessments are as accurate as possible and updated regularly to maintain their accuracy.
Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
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