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Pittsburgh Public Schools Argues for One-Year Hold on Reassessment

A lawyer for Pittsburgh Public Schools asked Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick to put Allegheny County's property reassessment on hold for a year on Tuesday.

Lawyer Paul Lalley said that if the one-year delay isn't put into effect, the school district will have to set its budget and tax rates according to the reassessed values provided by the county in December. The problem is that many landowners will appeal their new property values over the course of the year, and each successful appeal would lower the tax revenue that the school district receives, creating a massive budget shortfall by year's end.

Lalley said that if Judge Wettick agrees to delay the reassessment to allow time for appeals, then the Pittsburgh Public Schools would have a better idea of the actual revenue it will receive under the new property values. The judge will make that decision on Thursday.

When property values were reassessed in 2002, Lalley said that the school district saw overall reassessed values drop 7.4 percent after appeals took effect. Lalley said that he expects a similar decrease this time around, anywhere in the range of a 5-10 percent decline.

"If overall assessed values were reduced by 5 percent, we've estimated that that would cause a $9,400,000 shortfall in tax revenue to the district," said Lalley.

If Judge Wettick decides to adopt Lalley's resolution, then all taxing bodies in the county would have to use 2011 property values. That would please County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who recently ordered local governments to throw out the new property values and use last year's numbers instead.

Contempt of Court?

A petition was filed to rule Fitzgerald in contempt of court for his defiance of the reassessment, but Judge Wettick declined to do so. Instead, the judge ordered that county employees who disobeyed the court's reassessment orders would be found in contempt — including County Manager Jim Flynn and Chief Reassessment Officer Wesley Graham.

The judge ruled that receiving conflicting instructions from the County Executive would not constitute a defense against a contempt charge. Fitzgerald responded by calling Judge Wettick's order a "judicial overreach."

"How far do we go in judicial activism? We have a judge that was unelected, put himself on senior status, and now he's setting tax policy in Allegheny County," said Fitzgerald.

He declined to say whether he'd command his employees to disobey the court order and thus be held in contempt of court. Fitzgerald did say he would try to appeal the order if possible, and that he's continuing his efforts to elevate the legal battle to a state appelate court or federal court.