HOLLIDAYSBURG - A study to be submitted this week to Blair County commissioners is expected to detail a serious lack of fairness in property assessments that has developed since 1958, the last year the county conducted a parcel-to-parcel evaluation.
"I was surprised it was as bad as it was," attorney Janet Burkardt of Pittsburgh said last week while wrapping up details for Blair County's study the Pittsburgh law firm was hired to prepare.
Weiss, Burkardt & Kramer also did a study for Indiana County in December 2012 and identified numerous inequities in its property assessments and tax bills. Subsequently, Indiana County began working to update 1968 property assessments.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Commissioners are working on initiating the first reassessment in Blair County since 1958. Through reassessment, the county can update the assessments assigned to properties, such as these homes along Third Avenue, then recalculate its tax level to a level lower than the state’s 30-mill ceiling.
When asked if Blair County's results would be similar to Indiana County's, in light of its last assessments being 10 years apart, Burkardt offered no hesitation with a description.
"They're way worse," she said about Blair County's assessment inequities.
Blair County commissioners expect to have the completed study in hand by Tuesday, and they've promised to release it to the public. In January, commissioners voted unanimously to have the study done, at $7,000, the week after reviewing budget projections indicating that reassessment cannot be avoided.
Based on revenue and expenditure estimates, the county in 2017 will be levying a 30-mill general fund real estate tax that won't generate enough money to pay the bills.
Through reassessment, the county can update the assessments assigned to properties, then recalculate its tax levy to a level lower than the state's 30-mill ceiling.
While reassessment will give commissioners some leeway to establish a real estate tax levy that will generate enough money to pay the bills, Burkardt's study is likely to spell out another reason why some taxpayers should be interested in reassessment.
When the firm did the Indiana County study, Blair County Commissioner Diane Meling pointed out that the firm examined several properties that each sold for $100,000, yet their property tax bills varied greatly.
Burkardt said Blair County's forthcoming study includes that same kind of evaluation. She said it also includes comparisons segregated by municipality and school district. In terms of data gathered and available for review, Burkardt said Blair County's study is superior.
Regardless of those results, taking on a task that hasn't been done since 1958 is probably going to create issues for Blair County's commissioners, former Bedford County Commissioner Steve Howsare said last week.
Howsare went through the reassessment process twice in Bedford County, starting in 2008 and ending in late 2012. In between, reassessment questions and issues generated standing-room only crowds at lengthy commissioner meetings. The process drew complaints from business owners and farmers, attracted a lawsuit from the Bedford Area School District and left two commissioners voted out of office by the end of 2011.
Howsare, who left his commissioners' post in January to take a job as the director of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission, said he is "more comfortable" with the property assessments established by the end of 2012, when the job wrapped up. When starting the effort to update Bedford County's 1957 assessment, Howsare said he believed that about 80 percent of the properties carried inaccurate values.
"No assessment is perfect because it starts to age as soon as it gets done," he said. "But in comparison to 1957, it's a lot fairer than it was before reassessment."
Preparations have started
Blair County commissioners recently visited Indiana County's assessment office, which is in the midst of a reassessment project with Evaluator Services & Technology Inc. of Greensburg.
Meling said that visit was worthwhile as it provided a chance for her and fellow commissioners Terry Tomassetti and Ted Beam Jr. to see and learn how Indiana County prepared for reassessment before initiating the ongoing task.
"We saw their computer system and their data entry," Meling said.
They held educational meetings, Tomassetti said.
Beam mentioned that Indiana County also worked with EST Inc. to make a video about reassessment, which remains available for viewing on the Indiana County website.
Shortly after the visit to Indiana County, Blair County commissioners unanimously voted to spend $97,857 of 2011 bond issue proceeds to have EST Inc. create a Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal system referred to as a CAMA for Blair County. When finished, the CAMA will be a computerized repository of all Blair County property information that's now recorded on paper at the courthouse.
Commissioners said that they've long been interested in this update for the assessment office. But it also will be easier to update this kind of system during a parcel-by-parcel reassessment.
In Bedford County, commissioners tried to explain the need for reassessment, Howsare said.
"We tried to educate people, but like with everything else, they didn't pay attention to it until they got their tax bills," he said. "By then, we'd been talking about it for two years."
Howsare said Bedford County also tried to be upfront with residents by including the estimated change in property taxes within the letters the county sent to notify property owners of their new assessments.
"That's when people started paying attention," Howsare said.
When asked if he'd do that again, the former county commissioner said yes.
"It's still prudent," Howsare said. "I'd rather give people the heads-up, instead of making them wait for their tax bills to come."
Any advice for Blair?
Looking back, Howsare said that Bedford County allowed too many years to pass between property assessments.
"Our bigger issue was that there should have been [property assessments] done every five or six years," Howsare said. "That way, the extremes wouldn't have been so great. Things were so far out of whack"
But in light of how contentious the reassessment process can be, Howsare said he understands why county commissioners will allow years to pass.
"As a commissioner, I always hated mandates, but in this case, I think reassessment should be mandated," Howsare said. "It would take the politics out of it, and it would eliminate the big extremes."
Because Blair County will be working on a reassessment of 1958 values, a year newer than the 1957 assessment that Bedford County worked to update, Howsare predicted that Blair County will encounter issues.
"I hope it goes better for Blair County than it did for us ... but the longer it has gone between assessments, the more contentious it's going to be," Howsare said. "But my hat's off to the them for moving ahead."
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.