IT IS EASY to see why many Luzerne County officials and property owners cringe at talk of another countywide property value reassessment. The reassessment process that changed taxes for almost everyone in 2009 was long, expensive and contentious.
It was also unequivocally necessary. At the time, the county was still using assessed values from 1965. Between then and 2009 we had gone from orbiting chipmunks to landing men on the moon, from room-sized computers with tape reel data storage to desktops and laptops and thumb drives, from tanks in Vietnam to unmanned drones in Afghanistan.
The point is, things changed … unless you were a property owner in Luzerne County. Here, your assessed value only changed when you bought and sold. Which created staggering inequity in who was paying how much in taxes.
While reassessment brought many howls of new inequity, independent reviews have shown the system here is now among the fairest in the state. To keep it that way, the officials who voted for reassessment last time also proposed the assessments be updated every four years.
That hasn’t happened for a lot of good reasons. Voters approved changing the form of county government from three full-time commissioners to an 11-member part-time council, a move that consumed a great deal of time and attention. The county finally started to face staggering debt, which required large spending cuts and layoffs.
And the great recession hit, not only shrinking the amount coming into county coffers, but depressing property values, thus throwing the 2009 assessments out of whack with sale prices. In fact, as reported in a Times Leader page 1A story Sunday, County Assessment Office Director Tony Alu suspects that, as housing prices rebound, county assessments will start to line up more closely with sale prices.
Fair enough. But as the same story showed, an analysis of 150 properties sold in May proved assessed values are getting out of synch with sale prices. Properties were sold for as little as 48 percent of assessed value to as much as 448 percent of it.
This may not be the best time to sink an estimate $2 million plus into an assessment update. The switch to a new county government is not quite complete, balancing the county budget is still a brutally tough trick, and the economy and housing markets may be on the rebound but remain fragile.
If county council chooses to delay reassessment, that’s understandable. But it cannot be an indefinite delay. Set a timeline, soon. Start setting aside the money and setting up the process.
Because surely the lesson was learned in 2009: The longer the wait, the more inaccurate the assessed values, the more inequitable the tax load, and the more expensive and contentious the fix.