Saturday, October 08, 2005

Good news journalism -- but the missing gaps are huge

The Trib recently reported:
"Around Baltimore, their properties are going up 50 to 60 percent, so there's going to be a lot of stink raised," said Ron Brown, an assessment supervisor in Maryland, which reassesses every three years. "See, that's why we work for the state. The county uses our information ... then they blame it on the state."

But what is NOT reported is the fact that in MD, they use a measure called, "ASSESSMENT BUFFERING." That is the tool that we need here in PA. That tool isn't talked about, yet, in the mainstream media in Pittsburgh. We need to talk about Assessment Buffering. I talked on and on about it in the campaign for PA Senate.

Assessment buffering has "salvation promise potential" for the region.

The assessments in Baltimore go up 50 to 60 percent. However, what gets paid is only one third of the increase each year for the next three years. So, there is NOT a big hit to the household in one short period. Family budgets can be adjusted.

In PA, we just kick you in the teeth and don't make any measures otherwise.

In PA media circles, they take the bad news elsewhere and report upon it so that those here who have to pay the pain feel not so bad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Property assessments easier in neighboring states
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

By Jerome L. Sherman and Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If Dan Onorato were chief executive of Allegany County, Md., he could wash his hands of assessments altogether.

The largely rural county on the Pennsylvania border, with only 40,000 properties and 75,000 residents, is on a triennial reassessment schedule.

But local officials leave all the work to Maryland's Department of Assessments and Taxation. Its 500 assessors are responsible for finding fair market value in the state's 24 counties.

"There is no politics in it," said Vance Ishler, Allegany County administrator. "There are some disputes over actual assessments, but nobody seems to question the method or who does it."

As shocking as it might seem, counties can do reassessments without the kind of politics that have plagued Allegheny County for at least the last decade.

But in many of those counties, the state plays a direct role either in reassessing property, as in Maryland, or in making sure counties do the job right, as in Ohio.

What's more, in the Buckeye State, Mr. Onorato wouldn't have to worry about the potential for back-door tax increases through reassessments. The state recalculates millages for all taxing bodies within a county to make sure there are no windfalls.

Such is not the case in Pennsylvania, which takes a decidedly hands-off approach to property valuation, leaving the job to the 67 counties.

And it shows. Butler County hasn't reassessed property since 1969. In Westmoreland County, the last reassessment was in 1973. Allegheny County tried annual reassessments for two years and then switched a triennial system without any state involvement.

Now it has competing plans for 2006.

Today, County Council's Special Committee on Property Assessments will consider two proposals. The first, put forward by Mr. Onorato, would set the last reassessment in 2002 as the county's base year, following the lead of surrounding counties. The second plan, proposed by council Republicans, involves using the results of the 2006 reassessment -- which Mr. Onorato discarded -- while rolling back a property's assessed value to 84 percent of its market value to offset increases.

State law lets counties select from those two options, base year versus reassessment. But Harrisburg's involvement beyond that is minimal.

Tom Connolly, executive director of the State Tax Equalization Board, said the difference between Pennsylvania and its neighbors stemmed from a divergence in political philosophy.

"Do people want more big government making decisions? Or do they want it done at the local level?" he asked. "No one seems to want to tackle this at the state level."

In the 1980s, former Gov. Robert Casey's tax reform efforts included a proposal to require counties to reassess when property values fell outside of industry standards. But it was never adopted.

Maryland employs 25 times as many assessors. They are required to reassess one-third of the state's property every year. In Ohio, counties must do a full revaluation every six years.

New York leaves reassessing to municipal governments, but the state's Department of Real Property Services has 300 employees and five regional offices to aid that process.

It also offers local governments up to $5 in aid for every property when they conduct reassessments, according to Joe Hesch, a spokesman for the state's real property services department. The department also helps assess the values of more unusual properties, such as large industrial sites.

In Ohio, in addition to full reassessments every six years, there are optional updates every three years.

Once the revaluation has been done, the state Department of Taxation does statistical studies to make sure the new values are uniform and at market value. If the state finds otherwise, it has the power to order counties to correct the problems.

Ohio also conducts annual studies to determine how values are holding up, and can order an update in the third year of the six-year cycle if assessments begin to fall outside of acceptable standards.

The tax commissioner also calculates a "tax reduction factor" with each reassessment to ensure there will be no revenue windfalls -- i.e., back door tax increases -- resulting from it.

Shelley Wilson, executive administrator over property taxes for the Ohio Department of Taxation, said the system helps county assessors fend off pressure not to increase constituents' property values.

"I think it gives locally elected assessors something they can point to in the law. It's clear in Ohio that it's not their choice. They're elected to do a job. It's arguably not the most popular job, but they don't get to choose," she said.

In Maryland, each county has its own assessment office, but the state runs those offices. That has given local officials the opportunity to pass the blame for rising values, and rising taxes, up the governmental ladder.

"They can and they do," said Joe Wagner, area supervisor for the state's assessments and taxation department. "The state, truly, is an uninterested party."

While strong state oversight may not be critical to a good assessment system, "it certainly provides an inducement to encourage county agencies to keep their values at market value," he said.

Mr. Ryan said one of the most important factors in a good assessment system is revaluing property annually. That not only keeps assessments close to sales prices, it also takes the anguish out of the big shifts that can occur with less frequent cycles, he said.

At the same time, there has to be the political will to get the assessments right and to let the system work as it should, he said.

(Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at or 412-263-1183. Mark Belko can be reached at or 412-263-1262.)