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Hallam to introduce Allegheny County Council bill requiring property reassessments

Allegheny County Council member Bethany Hallam (D-At Large).
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Council member Bethany Hallam (D-At Large).

In the shadow of a recently filed lawsuit demanding an overhaul of county property values, Allegheny County Council will consider legislation that calls for a countywide property reassessment — and defines the circumstances under which reassessments will take place in the future.

“The system that we have now is inequitable and it's unfair, and it causes surprises for homeowners that they're not expecting,” said Councilor Bethany Hallam, who will introduce the bill at council’s meeting next week. “The appeals process that is happening regularly screws over the small municipalities and school districts. And it's just not working for anybody,”

The proposed ordinance would trigger an immediate reassessment while also establishing criteria for reassessments in the future. It would rely on a measurement called the Coefficient of Dispersion (or COD), which gauges how widely property values vary from the median. Under the COD approach, which is modeled on a system used in Vermont, a reassessment would be required when the COD varies from the median by more than 15. Hallam said that the county currently has a COD of more than 45.

Hallam said the numbers-based approach is meant to take politics out of the decision to reassess, and to ensure assessed values stay in line with actual property values.

The approach “makes sure that we're not unnecessarily spending taxpayer money if we don't have to,” she said. “But it also makes sure that the values never get too far out of whack with the assessed value.”

The move comes weeks after Pittsburgh Public Schools filed a lawsuit against Allegheny County in an attempt to mandate a countywide reassessment. The suit alleges that the current system violates the state constitution’s uniformity clause, which requires local and state taxes to be applied uniformly. Having values that are wildly inconsistent, the suit argues, undermines that principle.

Hallam has long backed a more regular approach to reassessments, but she said the district’s suit sped up the timeline for council action. She is currently the bill’s only sponsor, but says she is “pretty positive” that other councilors will join to support it.

The measure appeared on council’s April 24 agenda early Friday afternoon. A spokesperson for County Executive Sara Innamorato declined to immediately comment.

But in a joint interview with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and WESA, both Gainey and Innamorato looked towards the state for a solution to the problem, suggesting that the legislature in Harrisburg should set rules and a timetable for regular reassessments. Innamorato said that would be the best way to “move reassessments from this political hot topic to one that is mundane, that's revenue-neutral, and just something that happens on a regular basis and we don't really think about it.”

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Pennsylvania is currently the only state that does not impose a schedule for reassessments.

Though state Senator Wayne Fontana has signaled that he might be willing to take on the problem, Hallam noted that Gainey and Innamorato did little to advance the issue when they were state representatives in Harrisburg.

“I would love to see the state legislature pass legislation for regular reassessments. We've just seen over and over again that wasn't going to happen,” she said.

During her bid for office last year, Innamorato initially said she favored a reassessment, though she later backed away from that pledge and said a task force should take a broader look at the county’s tax policy. But for years, county and state officials have found it easier to let the courts take the lead on the contentious issue.

The only two assessments to take place in Allegheny County for the past quarter century, in 2001 and 2012, were ordered by courts. Those who support a more regular reassessment approach say that years of legal fights and political dodges have created an “assessment crisis.”

“When you've dug yourself in the hole, the first thing you have to do is quit digging,” said Dominick Gambino, owner of Diversified Municipal Services, a company that consults for schools, municipalities and counties regarding assessments.

Gambino managed Allegheny County’s Office of Property Assessments from 2001 through 2003, during which time he lead a reassessment of all properties. But for the most part, he said, officials “have tried everything in the world but to reassess.”

A ‘failsafe’ measure

Hallam called her proposal a “failsafe” meant to prevent future administrations from manipulating a calculation known as the Common Level Ratio (CLR), which is meant to establish a level playing field between properties that have been recently revalued and those whose tax burden was determined over a decade ago.

A judge presiding over a 2021 lawsuit found that the county “failed to administer the property tax assessment appeal system in a just and impartial manner” and ordered officials to recalculate it

Evidence showed “there could be no doubt that Allegheny County’s Office of Property Assessment had been ‘cooking the books,’” Judge Alan Hertzberg wrote in his opinion. He ordered a lower CLR, which shifted tax math in favor of property owners. As a result, school districts and local municipalities could be on the line to refund millions of tax dollars.

Experts who spoke with WESA agreed that while some homeowners will see their taxes go up after a reassessment, anti-windfall provisions in state law would limit the ability of local officials to use reassessment to pad their tax revenues. Gambino estimated that after reassessment, one-third of property owners will likely see a lower tax bill, another third’s taxes will stay roughly the same, and the final third’s taxes “will go up and pay what they should have been paying a long time ago.”

“But that's what's fair,” he added.

Council president Pat Catena will also introduce a motion on Wednesday to establish a public hearing on May 22, for residents to voice their concerns and discuss the impact of a countywide reassessment.

Hallam said council also plans to consider protections for long-time owner occupants and people in gentrifying areas who might be vulnerable to a large tax increase. Both ideas have been floated by Innamorato in the past as well.

“This is not legislation that we have any intention on rushing through,” Hallam said. “We want to make sure this is done right, and we want to make sure before any reassessment happens that all of those protections are in place.”

Hallam said she’d like to see the legislation passed before budget season this fall. That would allow officials to allocate money for the reassessment to take place in 2025.

Corrected: April 19, 2024 at 3:07 PM EDT
Updated to clarify that council president Pat Catena will sponsor the public hearings.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at