Few public issues stir the emotions in Allegheny County like property assessment. With the state Supreme Court's decision last week calling for a countywide reassessment, the subject is back with a vengeance.
Even so, people don't mind paying their share of taxes in exchange for good public services. But they want fairness. They want accuracy. They don't want to live in fear of a tax bill that will skyrocket every few years. And they don't want to be held to an assessment standard that is tougher than in neighboring counties.
Pennsylvania is the only state that lets counties do their own assessment thing - and that means letting them sit on the shelf for years, becoming out-of-date, inaccurate and inequitable. In Butler County, the last assessment came in 1969. In Westmoreland County, it was 1973. In Washington County, it was 1981. In Beaver County, it was 1982.
Allegheny County, which held its last assessment in 2002, was just told by the high court that its values were out of date and unfair. Imagine how haywire they are in other counties.
That doesn't happen in the 22 states that require annual reassessments, in the 26 states that mandate periodic reassessments (from every second year to every nine years) and in California, where assessment increases may rise by up to 2 percent a year for as long as a person owns a home.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court could have brought order to the state's assessment chaos by ordering reassessments in all counties, not just Allegheny. Because it didn't do that, County Executive Dan Onorato, who gave Allegheny County the 2002 base-year assessment method, says he wants a legislative solution that will bring uniformity to Pennsylvania.
The enemy, however, is not doing property assessment. The enemy is doing property assessment sporadically. That's what happened in 2001, when the county, after a 1996 assessment freeze and court intervention, said the total value of 552,000 properties was $57 billion, up by 48 percent. The following year, after another reassessment, total real estate values were shown to be 11 percent higher. Had another reassessment followed the next year, no doubt the increase would have been even less, as the system approached equilibrium.
The arrival of the Onorato administration brought the 2002 base-year method. Without updating, it became another freeze, and relief for taxpayers who inevitably began paying too much had to be won - again - in court. After the Allegheny County plaintiffs demonstrated that enough inequities had crept into the system, the justices declared that reliance on the 2002 assessments was no longer valid for hundreds of thousands of properties in 2009.
We're not surprised that the high court found for the taxpayers, but we're outraged that the justices did not seize the moment and order a statewide solution. Now property owners in each county will have to bring suit to get their own relief from antique assessments, some of which date to the Nixon administration. You can file this decision under travesty.
While Mr. Onorato had his first meeting yesterday with Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. on scheduling the county's next painful reassessment, he needs local legislative allies to support his call for statewide reform. Without a comprehensive assessment plan for Pennsylvania, Allegheny County will be the loser as it updates its property values while next-door counties get to treat real estate like a neighborhood from "Happy Days."
This gulf in assessment methods, now condoned by the Supreme Court, will harm Pittsburgh's home county on development, population and competitiveness. A fair court would know better than to pick such favorites.
For the sake of the taxpayer, Allegheny County should have regular, professional, cost-effective assessments. But it should join the other 49 states in assessment sensibility alongside its 66 fellow counties.
Instead, the Supreme Court has condemned this county to another assessment conflagration, with reduced taxes for some and rising taxes for others, while the other counties remain free to pursue outmoded, inequitable methods. The court had the power to solve this statewide problem, but in the end it was justice denied.