When Blair County finished its last property tax assessment in 1958, Lassie was a TV star enjoying life on a small family farm.
Now that the Blair County is embarking on its first reassessment since 1958, property owners involved in today's agricultural businesses have reason to be concerned, said Penn State Cooperative Extension educator Tom Ford.
"Clean and Green may be the answer," Ford said. "But with it comes some risk and some reward."
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Cattle graze on the Black Farm in Sinking Valley in Tyrone Township. Some farmers in Blair County have expressed concern about reassessment.
Clean and Green is Pennsylvania's land conservation program that lowers property assessments and, in turn, real estate taxes, for owners who devote their land to agricultural use, agricultural reserve or forest reserve.
The state introduced the program in 1974, and it has been popular in other counties. But those who own that kind of property in Blair County never had to consider the program because their assessments were already low.
But once those 1958 assessments are updated, new values will reflect what the land is worth in today's dollars. And that could generate some major increases in real estate taxes for those property owners.
March 2014 - Commissioners vote to pursue reassessment.
April 2014 - Commissioners sign $3.34 million contract with Evaluator Services and Technology Inc. of Greensburg to conduct reassessment.
June 2014 - Field data collectors begin surveying properties.
December 2015 - Field data collectors finish surveying responsibilities.
May 2016 - Reassessment call center set up.
June 2016 - New property assessments are mailed.
July 2016 - Appeal process begins.
October 2016 - Appeal process ends.
January 2017 - New property values ready for use.
To address that fear, county leaders point to the state's Clean and Green program.
The latest survey conducted by the Bureau of Farmland Preservation indicates that a record 9.4 million acres in the state are enrolled in Clean and Green, according to Douglas M. Wolfgang, program director for the state Department of Agriculture.
An informational booklet about Clean and Green, developed by a group of state and county officials, states that the program benefits qualified landowners by providing them with lower assessments reflective of land use. Clean and Green benefits the public, according to the booklet, through preservation of farmlands, woodlands and the future heritage of those lands.
Blair County Conservation District Director Donna Fisher, whose office has a long history of promoting the state's Farmland Preservation Program that has been popular locally, said she is aware of Clean and Green but will need to learn more as the county's reassessment effort moves along.
Local farmers are probably in that same position, Fisher said.
John Burket of Burket Falls Farms in East Freedom said he has heard of the program but is unsure how it works.
"I understand that Clean and Green works better for some than for others ... and that it's a good program for people who want to stay in the farming business," he said.
Ford said he previously worked in Fulton County and urged farmers to look at Clean and Green when facing higher property tax bills.
"It significantly reduced some assessments," he said.
But a farmer who is nearing retirement, who expects to sell his land or a portion of his land for development or wants to pursue a different use with his land, may not want to enroll in Clean and Green.
"If they're enrolled in Clean and Green ... and they change the use of their property, there's a rollback period for the payment of taxes that goes up to seven years, plus 6 percent interest," Ford said.
More informational sessions
Blair County commissioners, who hosted their first informational meeting about reassessment on Tuesday night, have pledged to hold additional informational meetings throughout the county, perhaps in every school district.
They say they would like to schedule the sessions when data collectors are in those areas.
If commissioners want to host a session for farmers or one that focuses on Clean and Green, Fisher said her office could assist with arrangements.
"The biggest reason you didn't see any farmers at Tuesday night's meeting is that we're all scattered and pretty busy at this time of the year," Burket said.
Nevertheless, Burket said farmers are concerned.
"After reassessment in Bedford County, I heard some real horror stories," Burket said.
Blair County commissioners, aware of that reaction, avoided hiring the firm that Bedford County used to conduct its reassessment.
Instead, commissioners chose Evaluator Services and Technology Inc. of Greensburg, whose representatives conducted much of the Tuesday night informational meeting and posted information on Blair County's website about reassessment, including information about the state's Clean and Green. It can be found at www.blairco.org.
Nevertheless, EST Inc. owner Gene Porterfield has acknowledged that reassessment is going to increase about one third of the property assessments in Blair County and that it's going to create some angry taxpayers when the assessment notices are mailed in July 2016.
Those notices, county leaders have promised, will include not only the new assessment but also property tax calculations. The notices will also show the old assessment and tax calculations.
Stan Finnegan, a former school director for the Claysburg-Kimmel School District, said he remembers receiving his new assessment a few years ago on the 93-acre wooded tract he owns in Kimmel Township, Bedford County.
"The tax bill on my land was going up 700 percent," he said.
Finnegan was among the Bedford County residents who challenged the assessed value assigned to his property that he uses primarily for hunting.
"I'll sell it to you for what you're telling me it's worth," Finnegan recalled telling county officials.
"In the end, my assessment still went up, probably double or triple what it was," he said Friday. "So I put my property into Clean and Green because that's the only way I could afford to keep it."
That doesn't mean Finnegan likes the Clean and Green program.
"I'm not crazy about anything that allows the government to tell me what to do," he said. "But Clean and Green will be the only reason that I'm going to be able to keep my land. Otherwise, I couldn't retire and pay my taxes too."
are farms, too
Just like land values have changed since 1958, farming has changed too.
"There are a lot of small farms in the county with less than 5 acres," Ford said.
That would include fruit, vegetable and floral producers and related greenhouse operations.
Under the Clean and Green program's minimum participation rules, land owners must show that they have at least 10 contiguous acres devoted to agriculture or if they have fewer than 10 acres, they must be able to show an annual anticipated gross income from agricultural production of at least $2,000.
Ford said that some of the smaller farms with higher revenue may be able to meet the qualifications because they'll have the records to back up their requests. But other small farms with lesser incomes may not have enough records.
"It might drive some of the smaller ones out of business if their property assessments and taxes go up substantially," Ford said.
In preparation for reassessment, Ford recommends small farmers keep accurate records.
And for small farmers who think they will be excluded from the program because they don't have 10 acres, Ford recommends they approach local legislators who have the power to update the program's rules.
Ford: Benefits to come
While reassessment has long been a controversial issue in Pennsylvania, often because counties like Blair allow years to pass without tackling the task, Ford said it's long overdue.
Research conducted by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that communities and rural counties realized economic benefits by keeping their property assessments updated. Counties that allowed a lot of years to pass since a reassessment had lower property values, lower personal incomes and higher unemployment rates, the research found. That same research also concluded that the state should mandate counties to conduct a reassessment no less than every four years.
Ford said he believes Blair County will realize those kind of benefits from reassessment.
"I think so," Ford said. "Once some time passes and after the appeals settle down."