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County Hoping to Take Reassessment Battle to Higher Court

Allegheny County is in "uncharted territory" when it comes to the appeals process for its court-ordered property reassessment, according the county's chief lawyer, and that may be reason enough to take the legal battle to a higher court.

Rather than being able to informally argue against new property values before the numbers are certified, landowners must appeal to the Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review after the reassessed values are certified.

Earlier this year, Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick nixed the informal review period in order to speed up the reassment process so that municipalities could send out tax bills on time. In response to this unprecedented situation, Allegheny County Solicitor Mike Wojcik said that he's trying to elevate the legal battle from the county-level Court of Common Pleas to the state-level Commonwealth Court, or perhaps even to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, though he hasn't heard back yet.

"The informal review is actually a process that's part of the assessment process, and that gives us a chance to correct a lot of errors. We don't have that ability now," said Wojcik. He said that in the county's last property reassessment, the informal reviews substantially cut down on the number of formal appeals.

Instead of an informal review, landowners will have the opportunity to argue against their new property values in what Wojcik termed a "hybrid" process of informal appeals, which will run until January 13. Later, formal appeals will still be possible.

At Monday's reassessment hearing, Judge Wettick granted Pittsburgh Public Schools an extension of its budgeting process to account for a delay in the mailing of new property values in the school district. The School Board now has until January 11 to pass its budget.

To accomodate the relatively early tax collection and budgeting done by Pittsburgh and its school district, the county plans to mail out certified residential values for city properties by December 27, and certified commercial values by December 31. A series of late-December court hearings will ensure that task is done, while the County and Judge Wettick will meet on January 5 to schedule the certification and mailing of property values for the rest of the county.

Two Tax Bills? Not Yet

At Monday's hearing, Judge Wettick said that he'd wait until next week to make a decision on whether municipalities should send out two tax bills in 2012.

The proposal would allow townships and boroughs to start budgeting and spending money before they receive finalized property values from the reassessment. Under the proposed plan, the first bill would account for 50 percent of last year's assessed value, while the second bill would be determined by how much of the property's value increased or decreased due to the reassessment.

Judge Wettick said that he needs more information before giving the go-ahead to that proposal.

"What we're going to do first is to see how many municipalities won't have that problem," said Wettick.