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Allegheny County Base Year Assessment System Lacks Uniformity.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | April 30, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in an opinion released on April 29, 2009 that the scheme adopted by Allegheny County for assessment of real estate utilizing a base year system lacks uniformity and is thereby unconstitutional.[James C. Clifton et al v. Allegheny County, No. 20 WAP 2007; Kenneth Pierce et ux v. Allegheny County et al, No. 21 WAP 2007.]

There has already been a great deal of ink spilled, with more in the coming days, analyzing and criticizing this decision. If the past is an indicator, most will be erroneous.

Cut to the essence, the opinion by Chief Justice Castile stated that under every accepted statistical test, the Allegheny County base year system, as implemented, is grossly unjust to some taxpayers while it unfairly rewards others. The court declined to find all base year systems invalid on their face (invalid in in all cases), as the trial court did. So, the decision is limited to Allegheny County’s current system — not to the similar systems in many other Pennsylvania Counties. They will have to stand or fall on their own facts and numbers.

By deciding the case in this fashion, the Court held open the door to the possibility that Allegheny County could devise a variation on its current system that would pass the constitutional test — that is, generate satisfactory statistics. It also contemplated that the real estate values some counties (possibly rural ones) have been changing in a more uniform way.

Allegheny County has long had a surplus of residential real estate, a product in part of population decline. After all of the demand has been satisfied, there are still plenty of properties left. This causes values of the properties in demand to rise over time, while the values of properties that cannot sell fall over time. The base year system could work reasonably well in a locality where properties are similar and rise at roughly the same rate. But as some property values consistently rise and others consistently fall, the gap between the rising and falling properties makes assessments increasingly unequal.

This disparity was amply illustrated by property value trends in the Woodland Hills School District between 2002 (base year) and 2005:

Braddock -16.03%
Braddock Hills +2.84%
Chalfant +13.26%
Churchill +15.7%
East Pittsburgh +14.94%
Edgewood +35.87%
Forest Hills +18.85%
North Braddock -8.99%
Rankin +6.37
Swissvale +16.34%
Turtle Creek +14.69%
Wilkins +14.65%


CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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