County Council to investigate possible wrongdoing underlying tax assessment verdict | Pittsburgh City Paper

County Council to investigate possible wrongdoing underlying tax assessment verdict

click to enlarge County Council to investigate possible wrongdoing underlying tax assessment verdict
CP File Photo: Ryan Deto
The Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh

Allegheny County Council President Pat Catena says he’s forming a special committee to investigate possible wrongdoing underpinning a recent legal ruling which some are predicting will cause economic distress for the county, as well as local municipalities and school districts.

The lawsuit in question wrapped up Sept. 2, with a common pleas judge finding the county had improperly calculated property tax assessments by failing to accurately account for housing inflation since 2016.

During Tuesday’s regular weekly council meeting, Catena said he was working “post-haste” to set up a subcommittee to investigate this and other allegations leveled in the suit.

As a result of the miscalculations, the county and the municipalities it encompasses have been forced to limit tax reassessment values using a ratio far below the previous rate. The resultant revenue shortfalls are projected to cause marked disruption. Representatives of the Pittsburgh Public School District, which joined the suit as an interested party, say the consequences could be dire for its already stretched budget.

Ira Weiss, solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools, says he agrees with Catena’s call for an investigation.

“We have a judicial finding that the county did not accurately report information to the state," Weiss tells Pittsburgh City Paper. "The circumstances of that are not clear and will probably be made clear.”

The complaint, brought against the county by homeowners in 2021, charged the real estate assessment office with using a “fraudulently manufactured common level ratio” for assessing real estate values. The common level ratio is supposed to reflect average rises to property value based on inflation, and is used to limit the extent to which assessed values can appreciate if a school district or municipality appeals the current value following a sale.

“I have serious concerns about what took place after reading the legal proceedings,” Catena said Tuesday. “And I do believe we have a responsibility to not only shield the tax payers from any unnecessary tax increases, but also to hold people accountable for what took place in the past and also what took place in this court hearing.”

Catena raised the topic in response to a public comment from Mike Suley, a county resident who was also listed as a witness for the plaintiff.

“For the last six years, people have been overcharged in assessment appeals because of mistakes, and, according to our attorney John Silvestri, there is possible malfeasance in this," Suley said.

Reached after the meeting to elaborate on the scope of the committee, Catena says it would be tasked with finding out what went wrong and implementing solutions to prevent future recurrences.

“Trying to get to the bottom of what exactly transpired and find out exactly who knew what, when, and where,” Catena tells City Paper. “I realize there’s going to be a revenue issue, but we wouldn’t have the revenue problem if there wasn’t the malfeasance.”

Catena says allegations made in the pretrial statements were particularly damning and warranted further examination.

The plaintiff’s statement claims former Chief Assessment Officer Deidre Hennon admitted during depositions she had “neither the experience, nor the licensing to be a real Chief Assessment Officer.”

“Acting Chief Assessment Officer Hennon stated that she was told by her director boss, Jerry Tyskiewicz, and a higher up deputy manager boss, Steve Pilarski, that she was to be the Acting Chief Assessment Officer 'for a short time' to certify the assessment Plaintiffs,” the statement claims.

When questioned, Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs denies this and suggests it, in any case, had no relevance to the outcome of the litigation.

“There has absolutely been no malfeasance,” she tells City Paper. “Nobody directed anybody to do anything other than what their job entails.”

Hennon retired from the county — where she also worked in the I.T. Department — in June and could not immediately be reached for comment.

Weiss says he believes "it’s entirely appropriate for the council to have questions for the executive. I think the county executive owes the citizens of the county and the elected officials … an explanation as to how this happened.”

He adds the district is preparing to appeal the Sept. 2 judgment, but could suffer real losses if the current outcome remains.

“If that stands, then the district is going to face some hard choices,” he says.

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