Reassessment delay justified, official says

June 9th, 2015 3:57 pm

First Posted: 6/18/2014

Luzerne County Assessment Director Tony Alu said Wednesday his recommendation to hold off on another countywide reassessment was reaffirmed by a recent state analysis.

Each year the state compares property purchase prices to assessments, and assessor’s offices rely heavily on the state’s findings to gauge the accuracy of the tax values placed on property within their borders.

A newly released study by the state Tax Equalization Board shows 2013 purchase prices are landing 6.4 percent below assessments in Luzerne County.

That’s an improvement because sales had strayed 9.9 percent below assessments in 2012 and 9.4 percent in 2011, Alu said.

He has advised county officials to consider another reassessment when the state report indicates sales are falling more than 15 percent above or below assessments.

The county’s values were deemed spot-on by the state in 2009, the effective date of the first countywide revaluation of properties since 1965. The state had ranked the county’s assessments the most accurate of all 67 counties in 2009 and 2010.

Alu has attributed the county’s declining state score on the recession but had accurately predicted the values would become more accurate again when the market bounced back, causing an increase in purchase prices.

“I’m very happy. The new figure says to me that we’re holding our own and don’t really need to spend money on another reassessment right now,” Alu said.

The last reassessment cost $8 million, but county officials project the next revaluation will cost about $2 million because the assessment database has been maintained and much of the work can be completed in-house. The next reassessment would take about two years to complete, Alu has estimated.

But Alu stressed there could be pockets of neighborhoods or municipalities that are out of whack, even though the assessments are still within an acceptable range countywide.

Calls for reassessment

Hazleton City Councilman Jack Mundie urged county officials last year to honor the county’s past pledge to conduct a reassessment every four years. Mundie cited several examples of properties selling far below assessments — a possible indication that many city residents are paying taxes on values that are too high.

The 2009 reassessment included a non-binding commissioner resolution to revalue all properties every four years to keep the assessments fresh, but county officials have rejected the provision, arguing the assessments are still accurate enough.

County Councilman Stephen A. Urban, who voted for the last reassessment and four-year updates when he was a county commissioner, also has called for another reassessment, saying he has observed a number of sales below assessments. Properties in Florida are reassessed annually to capture all market ups and downs, he has said.

Alu said property owners in Hazleton and other areas that might have sustained market declines should pay attention to sales of comparable properties and consider filing assessment challenges if they believe their values are not justified.

Appeals may be filed at any time, though Aug. 1 is the deadline for reductions to take effect in 2015. Challenges filed between Aug. 2 and Dec. 31 would apply to 2016 taxes.

“With the appeals process, there is an avenue for property owners to seek relief if they feel they are aggrieved,” Alu said.

Appeals unlikely

He acknowledged property owners assessed too low probably won’t file appeals, and their values won’t be addressed until the next reassessment unless they make a change to their property — such as putting on an addition — that would give the county the right to increase their values without violating a ban on spot assessing.

Philadelphia, which completed a reassessment last year, was the only county to receive a perfect score in the state report.

Most counties have scores indicating sales are exceeding assessments — an indication of under-assessment, the report shows.

Luzerne was among only five counties where sales prices fell below assessments, including Lehigh County in the Allentown area, where values are off by 2.6 percent.

The county’s 2009 reassessment was painful and led to thousands of informal appeals and assessment challenges, but the resulting values have remained within acceptable ranges for five years, Alu noted.

“The reassessment ended up being accurate. We get more mileage out of what we paid for every year we get away with not doing another reassessment,” Alu said.