Allegheny County Council aims to trim property reassessment appeals timelines
Allegheny County Council is aiming to address some of the symptoms of the county’s broken property assessment system, with council members introducing three bills related to the matter on Tuesday.
The long-troubled system was thrust into the spotlight after a 2021 lawsuit challenged the methods the county uses to value properties so they can be taxed. The county last conducted a full reassessment of properties in 2012. But a common pleas judge said the county had been failing to properly update values that were appealed, and the appeals process itself has been plagued by delays.
Council offered up a handful of remedies Tuesday. One bill would add new training requirements for Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review (BPAAR) members and county hearing officers, who decide thousands of property assessment appeals each year.
Though members currently must meet some qualifications to join the board – such as having practical experience as a registered real estate broker, appraiser or assessor – once appointed, they receive little guidance about what the job entails.
The ordinance would mandate they take classes about the state’s assessment valuation process and other topics from the Assessors' Association of Pennsylvania. That would bring Allegheny County in line with other Pennsylvania counties, whose assessment appeal boards are required to receive similar training.
The same bill would also grant board members’ power to actually hear appeals — a task they’re not currently doing, according to BPAAR member Michael Suley.
Suley is a former manager of the county’s Office of Property Assessments and a consultant to the plaintiffs in the 2021 lawsuit. He said a shortage of people to hear appeals has created a backlog of 4,000 appeals unresolved appeals last year.
Letting board members hear appeals will make the process more efficient, said Allegheny County Council member Suzanne Filiaggi, one of the bill’s sponsors.
“At this point, it's taking upwards of five months after a ten-minute hearing to get a decision,” she said. “And there are thousands of appeals that don't even have decisions.”.
Filiaggi also sponsored an ordinance to speed up the appeals process, by requiring the board to issue a final decision within 60 days of the appeal hearing.
The expedited timeline would allow homeowners and taxing bodies, like school districts, to more accurately budget their taxes and revenues, respectively.
Filiaggi said that while the ordinances won’t fix the reassessment system on their own, they represent “baby steps” toward a broader solution.
“If — capital ‘I,’ capital ‘F’ — the assessments issue is tackled by the county executive or the courts, the county needs to be prepared. And this is getting us prepared,” she said.
A third ordinance introduced Tuesday would establish a procedure for appointing a chief assessment officer and lay out the position’s responsibilities.
It’s modeled in part on a similar bill council approved last year that would have also given council the ability to remove a chief assessment officer appointed by the county manager. That bill was ultimately vetoed by then-County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The removal provision is not included in the updated ordinance.
All three bills were referred to council’s newly formed committee on assessment practices. But some critics argue that they don’t go far enough.
The ordinances are “just dealing with the symptoms of the problem,” not the “actual sickness,” said Dominick Gambino, owner of Diversified Municipal Services, which consults for schools, municipalities and counties regarding assessments. The problem, he said, is that the ultimate basis for the county’s tax system is a countywide property valuation whose numbers are now more than a decade old.
“Clearly. It causes all the problems we're dealing with now,” he said.
Gambino, who managed Allegheny County’s Office of Property Assessments from 2001 through 2003 and led a reassessment of all properties, pressed for a full, county-wide reassessment.
Controversy over the property tax assessment system was a key issue in last year’s county executive race, in which Democrat Sara Innamorato voiced support for a countywide reassessment of property value as part of a broader effort to create a “modern, transparent and fair” system. She said property tax relief for longtime homeowners could also play a part in the transformation.
But a few weeks into her term, Innamorato has yet to signal what her next step will be on improving the assessment system. A spokesperson for Innamorato said her office has no imminent announcements about county property assessments.