EDITORIAL - Stable taxes: Every homeowner should have predictability

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Stability and predictability are qualities people deserve to see in their property taxes. Too often, though, tax bills lurch higher because of millage jumps or assessment increases, and homeowners -- including those whose incomes are fixed, stagnant or falling -- still must come up with the extra money for their next bill.An eye-opening report last week by RealSTATs, a local real estate information firm, showed that median home prices in some Allegheny County communities, in this case grouped by school district, are actually swinging up or down -- and some by double-digit percentages. So much for the notion that property values have been flat or slipping,

The snapshot portrays two sets of school districts: the 10 with the highest median prices of homes sold in 2008 and the 10 with the lowest medians. In the first group, the average median price rose from 2005 by 10.8 percent. In specific districts, the jump in the median was higher -- 41.2 percent in Avonworth, 23.4 percent in Quaker Valley, 20 percent in South Fayette and 16.4 percent in Moon.The opposite happened in the districts with the 10 lowest median sale prices for 2008; the average of those medians fell from 2005 by 11.4 percent. In Clairton the median plunged by 43.3 percent and in Sto-Rox by 38.4 percent. Cornell's median price fell by 17 percent.While the price changes represented by the medians reflect only home sales, RealSTATs said they also suggest general shifts in values in properties that were not up for sale -- in other words, the broader real estate market. That means some homeowners are likely to see huge swings, up or down, in the assessed value of their properties when the county performs its court-ordered reassessment in the next year.Since the county, under County Executive Dan Onorato, has used a 2002 base year for property assessments, in essence freezing the on-paper values to levels of seven years ago, property owners have not had the benefit of modest, predictable changes in assessed value that would naturally occur year after year in the market and help them anticipate their tax load.Now there will be a big catch-up, unfortunately, that will be painful for some homeowners. This should have been part of a uniform overhaul of how all counties in the state handle property assessment, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court didn't see it that way.Elected officials in Allegheny County must do what they can to blunt the harsh effects of reassessment on property tax bills. A larger homestead exemption is one way. A tighter lid on windfalls to taxing bodies is another. A creative plan, under state law, to cap or extend the sharply rising, reassessment-driven tax payments of some homeowners is also worth exploring.Allegheny County and Pennsylvania are about to embark another wild chapter in property assessment. If taxpayers are well-served, they'll see some solutions this round, not just problems.

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