County preparing for reassessment

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Starting this summer, field data collectors will begin traveling through Blair County municipalities, measuring properties, noting the size of a house and if there’s a front or side porch, garage or other structure on the site. And they’ll take pictures.

As they move from property to property, the data collectors will submit their notes and files for entry into a computer system that compiles and retains information that the Blair County assessment office traditionally kept on manila-folder-sized cards, which filled 15 four-drawer filing cabinets in the courthouse basement.

“Those filing cabinets are gone,” Assistant Chief Tax Assessor Deanna Heichel said last week as she showed off the results of a remodeling project in the assessment office. County highway and maintenance employees handled much of the work that included drywall, carpentry and painting.

The empty filing cabinets are now in the county’s highway yard building, for use by another department or to be included in a future sale. The nearly 65,000 property cards have been set aside temporarily, for donation to a historical society or to be destroyed.

The assessment office no longer has a need for the cards, Heichel said, because each was scanned into the computer system the assessment office uses.

The staff and the public, she said, can now see any property card, via the office’s computers, and if needed, copies can be printed. At some point those cards and related property information will be available for viewing on computers and other Internet devices outside the courthouse.

Until the manila-folder-sized property cards were scanned in March, Blair County’s tax assessment office depended on the paper-record keeping practices used before computers and software programs became available.

The cards, some with typewritten names and addresses, contain handwritten notes entered by those who who traveled throughout the county for the 1958 reassessment. Most cards also contain handwritten and typewritten information about ownership transfers and property changes.

Benefits of putting that information into a computerized database are easier access, easier updates and accuracy, according to Gene Porterfield, an owner of Evaluator Services and Technology Inc. of Greensburg whose company is in charge of the transition.

In early 2010, Porterfield’s company, then known as 21st Century Appraisals, submitted the lowest of three bids, at $120,000, to begin computerizing Blair County’s tax assessment records. While commissioners Terry Tomassetti, Diane Meling and Donna Gority were interested, they backed away from accepting the offer and said they wanted to research more options.

In February, Tomassetti, Meling and Gority’s successor, Ted Beam Jr., agreed that it was time to move forward. By then, they were on the verge of committing to the first reassessment since 1958. And, by then, the project was linked to a proposed merger of property information held by the Blair County 911 Center and a pilot program to generate computerized and aerial maps of 923 properties in Logan Township and Altoona.

What happens next?

Blair County commissioners signed a contract Tuesday that hires EST Inc. to handle the first reassessment since 1958, at a price of $3.34 million. The contract requires the company to have new property assessments in place for the 2017 fiscal year or in the case of school districts, for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

That means new property assessments will be ready for mailing on or before July 1, 2016, so those who disagree have time to appeal before the year ends.

The field data collection that starts this summer will take until December 2015 to visit and measure almost 65,000 parcels.

The field data collectors, in addition to data entry staffers, will work out of an office that EST Inc. plans to set up in or near Hollidaysburg. A location has not been selected. When it is, Blair County will cover the cost of the rent, but EST Inc. will cover all operating costs.

Porterfield said the field data collectors typically work in one municipality at a time, and public announcements will be made about their efforts so county residents are aware of when their areas are being surveyed.

The field data collectors will also carry identification, Commissioner Diane Meling said recently, and they won’t be entering residences. Instead, the data collector will leave a card with the property owner, asking for information about the home’s features such as the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, heat sources and other information.

Pittsburgh attorney Janet Burkardt, who is familiar with the reassessment process and is acting as Blair County’s adviser on the project, said that field data collectors might have entered properties for the 1958 assessment. But that kind of practice presents too much risk and liability for the county, she said.

It would also create a lack of equity, Commissioner Terry Tomassetti said, because if some residents permit the collectors in their residences and others don’t, then the information could vary.

It also means that field data collectors won’t be able to see, for instance, an elaborate kitchen remodeling job in one home and the lack of one in another residence.

Burkardt said that based on the property’s details, along with information about the area or a neighborhood where the property is located, EST Inc. should be able to generate property assessments reflecting fair market values.

EST Inc.’s contract notes that it will be using formulas and evaluation models to come up with fair market values, including local real estate transactions, dating back to 2011.

The contract also spells out that a county committee, known as the Reassessment Management Team, can also consider information from local professionals, such as real estate agents and appraisers.

For buildings or land that is rented or the site of commercial or industrial activities, EST Inc. will consider three approaches for determining value: comparable sales, income and replacement cost.

Coming soon

to Blair County

Porterfield, who addressed commissioners Tuesday during their weekly meeting, told them that a video explaining reassessment and why it’s needed should be ready soon.

The county expects to show the video during a public meeting expected to be scheduled in May, then post the video on the county’s website, along with additional reassessment information.

In a video for Indiana County, which is also undergoing a reassessment, the process is explained, along with some reasons in support of the effort.

At Tuesday’s meeting, it was also suggested that perhaps the county’s website should include an explanation about the assessed values now assigned to county properties. Currently, those 1958 assessments reflect about 16 percent of today’s fair market value.

And that means that county taxpayers, Tomassetti said, are paying taxes based on 16 percent of the value of their property.

Solicitor Nathan Karn questioned if property owners will understand that when they see the new assessment and compare it to the old assessment.

“Those numbers are going to be so far apart,” Karn said.

That’s something that could be explained on the county’s website, Porterfield suggested.

Back in the

assessment office

Blair County leaders say the recent remodeling of the assessment office isn’t part of the reassessment project, but part of an ongoing effort to improve office work areas.

The effort started when the commissioners moved their first floor offices to the fourth floor. Then the controller’s office moved into the remodeled commissioners office and the treasurer’s office moved into the remodeled controller’s office.

The sheriff and his deputies then moved out of their basement office and moved into the treasurer’s office, where they are close to front door and handle the screening of visitors. After the former sheriff’s office was remodeled, the Blair County Planning Commission moved in.

“We were the last office in the courthouse to be remodeled,” Heichel said. “And it’s nice because we will be getting more foot traffic here because of reassessment.”

Because county employees handled the work, the costs have trickled in as occurred, with payment being covered by a 2011 bond issue. This past week, commissioners approved bills of $198 for building materials bought at Lowe’s, $3,100 for office furnishings from Staples and $136 for electrical and lighting supplies at The Hite Co.

The remodeled office now offers two areas for the public to use computers and look up property information.

The assessment office staff says it is pleased with the new furnishings and the improvements.

“I never thought it would happen,” said employee Erin Bouch who has worked 21/2 years for the county. “The way we’re set up now, the office has a nice flow, and we can still interact with each other and help the public.”

“It has been a big improvement,” Heichel said as she looked at the photos taken before the remodeling work started. “And now we’re getting ready for reassessment.”