Friday, January 6, 2012

On assessments, won't somebody STOP THE MADNESS? Not until next week

Posted By on Fri, Jan 6, 2012 at 5:16 PM

Were you confused on Thursday, when Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told city property owners to disregard the assessment numbers they received in the mail just last week?

Well, brace yourself. Because things aren't any clearer today.

On Thursday, Fitzgerald defied a court order of Judge Stanton Wettick: He announced he was sending county school districts and municipalities property-tax valuations based on numbers compiled in 2002 -- not the numbers from the ongoing, and highly controversial, reassessment that Wettick has been presiding over. While residents of Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver have already received new values, Fitzgerald told them the numbers were "null and void." Taxing bodies there were supposed to use the old numbers once again, he said.

But at 12:15 p.m. Friday, Wettick issued an order telling them the opposite. The city and the school board were barred from using anything but the 2012 numbers, he wrote. At least for the time being.

"[U]nless and until this court modifies its prior orders of court, the City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh School District are barred from ... calculating taxes for 2012 unless the millage and taxes are based on the 2012 assessed values," Wettick wrote.

Meanwhile, attorney Donald Driscoll-- who represents the plaintiffs in the original 2005 lawsuit against the county that led to the reassessments -- filed a motion asking for the county and Fitzgerald to be held in contempt of court for Thursday's actions. Those actions, the motion argues, are "in direct opposition to the oath taken by the county executive to follow the constitution."

This afternoon, Wettick decided to postpone hearing that motion until 2 p.m. Tuesday, when he is slated to hear a motion from the school board and the city asking that the assessment process using 2012 numbers be delayed one year. On Wedensday -- just hours before Fitzgerald made his announcement -- Wettick seemed inclined to grant the delay.

After today's brief hearing, Driscoll told reporters that Fitzgerald and the county were in "violation of the orders of the court."

But county solicitor Michael Wojcik continued to recite Fitzgerald's mantra from the day before: that Fitzgerald is following state law by issuing certified assessment numbers by a Jan. 15 deadline. Those numbers -- the 2002 versions -- were indeed sent out to local taxing bodies Thursday.

"Rich Fitzgerald is complying with state law as he sees fit," Wojcik told reporters, who repeatedly asked if Fitzgerald was willfully violating the judge's order. "For [Fitzgerald] to be in violation of a court order, he has to be found in violation of a court order."

And that hasn't happened, at least not yet.

But the city and its residents have been left in limbo -- being told by the county executive to ignore the new assessment numbers, and by a judge to follow them. When asked what the city is supposed to do. Wojcik responded "that's for the city to deal with."

For his part, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl issued a statement calling for an end to the "reassessment madness"

"This chaotic reassessment process has caused panic among homeowners, small business owners and all taxpayers, creating a widespread fear that people, especially seniors and those who can least afford it, will be taxed out of their homes," the mayor's statement reads. "I am further disturbed that the process to date has unfairly targeted Pittsburgh home and business owners who have been given an extremely short, and now disrupted, window of time to appeal inaccurate reassessments.

"The court's order today, on the heels of yesterday's announcements from Allegheny County, further spreads panic and uncertainty. Property owners are growing increasingly uncertain of what to do and how and when to do it, creating a sense of helplessness as they plan for their families' futures."



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