On Jan. 10, two high-profile legal battles were set to take place on the eighth floor of the City-County Building. Members of Occupy Pittsburgh — the grungy foes of corporate privilege who've seized the Mellon Green parklet — were due for a hearing on Bank of New York Mellon's attempt to evict them. Just down the hall, meanwhile, Allegheny County officials were set for yet another court date on the property-tax reassessment debacle.
Can you guess which group went in facing potential contempt-of-court charges? Hint: It wasn't the folks combing the straw from their hair.
This issue went to press before either hearing took place. But to date, Occupy Pittsburgh has shown a healthy respect for law and order; it's been our elected officials, also claiming to speak for the "99 percent," who have defied the courts.
Ever since December 2009, when Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick ordered the county to reassess property values across the board, county leaders have engaged in a campaign of passive resistance that would do credit to a 1960s sit-in. Starting with former county executive Dan Onorato, deadlines have been blown off, rulings fruitlessly appealed. In the courtroom, officials have displayed an insouciance that would have had Abbie Hoffman clapped in irons. ("Is there any reason why you couldn't comply with my court order?" Wettick asked the county's chief assessment officer in 2009. "To be honest," the official replied, "I'm not familiar with it.")
The latest battle flared this month, when 2012 assessments for residents of Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver went out. Howls of anguish went up as some residents discovered their valuations had doubled or tripled. Onorato's newly installed successor, Rich Fitzgerald, tossed out the values, insisting the old values would remain in place. The attorneys who sued to overturn those old numbers, meanwhile, responded by asking Wettick to declare Fitzgerald in contempt of court.
Last year, Fitzgerald proudly told voters he'd sooner go to jail than issue reassessed values. It's hard to imagine that happening to him or any county official. (Which may be just as well: Exposing hapless criminals to hardened politicians can only teach them more bad habits.) Still, this fight may cost taxpayers money, even if we don't end up posting Fitzgerald's bail.
State law requires that after a reassessment, an increase in overall property values must be offset with a cut in tax rates. So if your property's value rises by less than the average, you may end up paying less. In Pittsburgh, the overall tax base increased by 58 percent since the last assessment, in 2002. At that rate, University of Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem estimates, two-thirds of city residents had property increases below that, and thus can hope for a tax break.
Many residents seem unaware of that possibility, and few media accounts of the uproar even mention it. Instead of educating the public, meanwhile, local politicians have spent years spreading resentment. Above all, they've complained that other nearby counties haven't changed their values in decades.
"We cannot continue to allow Allegheny County to be singled out," Fitzgerald declared last week.
Yes, Butler County, for one, hasn't been reassessed since 1969. But before you move there, consider this: It costs just as much to fill a pothole whether property values increase or not. So if a county's property values are artificially low, its tax rates will be artificially high. The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, calculates that Allegheny County, using 2002 values, collects $217 per person in property taxes. Butler County, using 30-year-old values, collects an average of ... $214.
Inevitably, many of the new assessments will be screwed up. But the county's foot-dragging has only made things worse. Wettick sought to have the new values in place for 2012, leaving almost no time to handle the thousands of appeals already filed by Pittsburghers. That's why city and school district officials have asked Wettick to delay implementing the new values.
By the time you read this, Wettick may have agreed. Two-thirds of Pittsburghers may have to wait another year for their tax break, but the county's stall tactics will have worked.
And don't be surprised if, at the next hearing, county attorneys start a drum circle.