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Pittsburgh May Lose Informal Review Process for Reassessment

Pittsburgh residents may lose their opportunity to informally appeal their newly reassessed property values, in a legal effort to provide the city with finalized tax bills more quickly.

While Pittsburghers could still formally appeal, the move may make the appeals process more difficult for many residents.

In court on Wednesday, Allegheny County argued for the informal appeals process, which would begin as soon as the evaluations are finished in early December and end on January 31.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick was not moved by the arguments.

"I think we're at the stage where we're not going to have informal reviews for the City of Pittsburgh," said Judge Wettick.

The judge is expected to issue a court order that would ax the informal appeals process for the city, in order to ensure Pittsburgh doesn't fall behind on its tax collections.

Informal review periods aren't required by state law, but county reassessment chief Wesley Graham said that in his career he has never seen a county forego the process.

County Manager Jim Flynn criticized the move as an interference with the "taxpayers' due process."

"I believe that every taxpayer should have the opportunity to informally question the values, and still preserve their formal appeal rights," said Flynn.

During the informal review period of a reassessment, residents are able to quickly appeal their newly assigned property values to a team of appraisers — in person, at a pre-scheduled community meeting. On the other hand, the formal review process requires the scheduling of a hearing through the County Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review.

Judge Wettick said that he's questioning the importance of an informal review when property owners could simply file a formal appeal.

The judge said the informal review would delay the date that Pittsburgh would receive final property values, which would prevent the city from collecting taxes for several weeks.

"If there's no legal assessment until February, the city can't do anything," said Wettick.

The County reassessment team argued that the informal appeals process is important for fixing mathematical errors and other oversights, creating better uniformity in neighborhoods.

But John Vogel, an attorney for several local school districts, spoke out against an informal review. He said that the County's Office of Property Assessments can correct those types of errors without an informal review process.

Vogel said the informal review process also can skew property values.

"The concern with many municipalities is that in an informal system, if subjective factors are brought into play, that inappropriate assessments will result," said Vogel.

At Wednesday's hearing, municipal lawyers renewed their calls for Judge Wettick to issue a timeline of when each local government would receive new property values, but the judge simply reiterated that he doesn't have such a timeline, and that the reassessed values would be mailed out piecemeal.

Allegheny County is under a court order to reassess every property in time for use in the 2012 tax bills. The county is assessing properties in Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver first because the city and the school district send out tax bills months before other municipalities and school districts in the county.