Allegheny County's next property reassessment will begin sooner rather than later, now that the state Supreme Court has rejected County Executive Dan Onorato's request to put it off for six months.
While the court's recent two-page order will result in a new timetable for updating the county's real estate valuations, it will do nothing to bring uniformity to the crazy way that assessments are done in Pennsylvania.
The county, for instance, has been using values from 2002, the date of its last reassessment, as the basis for property owners' tax bills. Those assessments are now seven years out of date -- and many values, no doubt, are lower because of the plunge in the real estate market. Regardless, Allegheny County's numbers were the focus of a taxpayers' lawsuit that resulted in a court order in April for the county to undertake a new assessment that will reflect current market values.
Nevertheless, the court allows other counties to continue using other base years for their assessments. In the case of neighboring counties, that means Butler, Westmoreland and Beaver rely on the property valuations from 1969, 1973 and 1982, respectively. Last year Washington County, which uses values from 1981, was ordered by a county judge to begin a reassessment. It makes no sense.
The Legislature, up until now, has not had a reputation for action on this explosive subject, but a proposal passed two weeks ago by the House of Representatives would put a moratorium on all court-ordered reassessments. The goal is to give the General Assembly time to do a wide-ranging study of the state's assessment system and a chance to reform it through legislation.
Normally, we'd be skeptical that lawmakers were just trying to sweep a difficult issue under the rug, but House Bill 1661 would rescind the moratorium no later than June 30, 2011. So the Legislature would have to act fast. This bill is worth Senate consideration and approval, despite critics who contend it will be found unconstitutional.
Regardless of what happens to the moratorium proposal, the House has commissioned a study by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget and Finance Committee on how the experience of other states might help Pennsylvania improve its assessment system. With any luck, the result could be a thorough overhaul, including legal protections for taxpayers against big jumps in assessment and revenue windfalls taken by taxing bodies.
Pennsylvania needs a fair, uniform and affordable approach to assessment. If Allegheny County property owners deserve updated, real-world numbers -- and they do -- then so does everyone else in the state.