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Group disputes new tax values

Organization seeks to halt use of information to calculate tax bills

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A local citizens group is challenging the legality of the reassessment process used to assign new values to Blair County properties.

Blair County Citizens for Accurate Reassessment, the Hollidaysburg-based organization that formed last year during the county’s reassessment effort, identifies numerous problems with reassessment in a complaint now on file with the prothonotary at the courthouse.

In addition, the group is asking the county court to issue an injunction halting the use of new property values for calculating this year’s real estate tax bills because otherwise, property owners will be obligated to pay artificially-inflated amounts.

“I’ve never seen anything in my life as unjust as this,” Duncansville-area property owner Aaron Ritchey, president of the citizens group, told the Mirror on Tuesday.

Ritchey and Richard Latker of Hollidaysburg, secretary of the citizens group, compiled and signed the 15-page complaint and injunction petition on behalf of 108 property owners listed in court document attachments. Those property owners are ready to offer testimony in support of the complaint, and more names will be added, the organization’s leaders indicate.

Collectively, the group maintains that Blair County’s reassessment process violated state law by failing to generate fair market values for every property.

The group also contends that multiple inconsistencies during the project’s appeals process go against a clause in the state Constitution requiring uniformity in the levy and collection of real estate taxes.

Blair County commissioners said Tuesday that they have not yet seen the lawsuit and deferred comment to solicitor Nathan Karn.

Karn said he expects, upon receipt of the document, to forward it to Pittsburgh attorney Janet Burkardt, who has been acting as the county’s legal counsel on reassessment-related work.

Burkardt, who confirmed that she has not yet received the document, said she’ll be responsible for filing the county’s response that will address the group’s accusations.

“It’s not the county’s duty to make reassessment perfect because that’s impossible,” Burkardt said. “It’s just the county’s duty to follow the law, and I believe they did.”

Ritchey disagrees with that conclusion because Evaluator Services & Technology of Greensburg used the computerized mass appraisal system to generate property values for Blair County residents. That system uses data to calculate new property values, based on property features and valid neighborhood property sales within a three-year time frame. But some property values assigned through that process far exceeded fair market values suggested by local real estate agents and by appraisers.

“The law is clear,” Ritchey said. “You have to tax on fair market value and the mass appraisal process does not do that.”

The complaint also faults the county and EST for failing to set up assistance for elderly and handicapped property owners with limited resources and computer skills necessary to engage in the appeal process. The county and EST repeatedly directed property owners to computer websites for information, documents and for research to challenge the values assigned to their properties.

The complaint also found fault with the commissioners creation of appeal boards, made up of residents with no background or educational training in determining property values.

“The commissioners invested these individuals with responsibilities and decision-making powers, affecting thousands of land owners and millions of dollars in potential liabilities, while keeping no records at all about their qualifications,” the complaint states.

Even if such appointments are permitted by the state’s reassessments law, he said the commissioners could have looked for another way to guarantee the accuracy of the property values.

“They do have some responsibility to guarantee the accuracy and the administration of the process,” Ritchey said, “and to make sure everybody is being treated equally.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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