Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Allegheny County's Inaccurate Assessments Violate State Constitution, Supreme Court Rules

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania today ruled that the inaccurate and unfair property tax assessments Allegheny County's elected officials have been defending for years are so egregious that they violate the Uniformity Clause of the Commonwealth's Constitution:

Uniformity of Taxation
Section 1.
All taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws.
The Supreme Court had three practical choices:
1) permit Allegheny County's current application of the "base year" system -- a system designed to rely on stale assessments -- to stand;
(2) prohibit the "base year" system and require every county to reassess regularly; or
(3) reject the "base year" system not as a concept but rather "as applied" by Allegheny County.

The justices -- by unanimous smackdown -- selected Curtain No. 3, sending the case back to county Judge R. Stanton "Told You So" Wettick (left), who has signaled his inclination to order a prompt and comprehensive reassessment. The Supreme Court's ruling -- practical, politic and just -- avoids simultaneous infuriation of every county in the Commonwealth while vindicating the rights of Allegheny County's property owners and renters. Justice Baer, in a concurring opinion, outlined a likely roadmap to practical application of the decision announced today.

County Executive Dan Onorato immediately displayed the mixture of defiance, poor judgment and indifference to morality that has marked his handling of the assessment issue for too many years -- and the quality of legal reasoning that produced the torture memos -- by declaring he found "enough room" in the decision to support a conclusion that the decision does not require a reassessment.

"I'm in my sixth year as county executive and we haven't done a reassessment yet," the county executive (and would-be governor) inexplicably boasted. The conclusion to be drawn from such a statement by a litigant is that Mr. Onorato must assume Judge Wettick does not read the Post-Gazette.

This decision is good news for owners of modest properties and those who favor justice, bad news for property owners in affluent communities and those who had been able to arrange remarkably favorable assessments, and perhaps the first hit of a one-two punch (the drink tax decision is pending) unlikely to improve Mr. Onorato's gubernatorial prospects.

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