The most recent property reassessment in Washington County came about because two school districts, McGuffey and Washington, took the matter to court 11 years ago.
As the court case dragged to a close in August 2013, the county commissioners, facing the possibility of jail for contempt of court, bit the bullet and entered into a $6.9 million contract with Tyler Technologies of Moraine, Ohio.
The firm conducting the reassessment largely completed its task in advance of 2017, although 1,206 appeals among approximately 120,000 parcels were making their way through the system.
As part of the reassessment process, the county switched to 100 percent of a home’s fair market value as of July 1, 2015, requiring taxing bodies to adjust millage accordingly.
For 35 years, Washington County had based its property assessment system on 25 percent of market value as of Jan. 1, 1981.
While individual property owners can check their records to find out what their tax bill was before the reassessment and after, trying to figure out the bottom line for tax millage districtwide from the two time periods may be like comparing the proverbial apples with oranges.
Now that the new formula has been in place for three years, taxpayers are no longer coming to commissioners meetings to complain about property assessments.
The last spate involving the Trinity School District ended last year when when the state Department of Education determined Trinity, with its $58 million budget, did not appear to violate an anti-windfall provision that limits the amount of revenue a taxing body can raise in the year following a reassessment.
Trinity had a unique mix of properties with Tax-Increment Financing and Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance, plus a mall that lost not one but two anchor department stores.
A compilation shows property owners in six of the 15 districts in Washington County are paying less per $100,000 of their property’s value this year in school district real estate taxes than under the old assessment: Bethlehem-Center, Avella, Bentworth, Burgettstown, McGuffey and Fort Cherry.
And in the Chartiers-Houston School District, the increase has been a modest $8 per $100,000 of assessed value.
The figures in the accompanying chart do not reflect any homestead or farmstead exemptions made available to individual property owners after Pennsylvania legalized casino gambling in 2004.
Taxpayers in Bethlehem-Center School District, where taxes had remained unchanged for two years after the reassessment, experienced a millage increase for the 2019-20 school year, but the district is undergoing a forensic audit after discovering a nearly $1.5 million deficit at the end of the 2018 term, according to published reports.
The audit has not been completed, Superintendent Christopher Sefcheck said last week.
How has Avella achieved its position among school districts in Washington County with the lowest taxes?
“Our board looks to raise taxes only minimally,” said Laura Shola, Avella School District business manager.
“We have such a small tax base and we are heavily dependent on state funding. Under the old system, 1 mill brought in about $20,000 of tax revenue to the district. Under the latest assessment, the district calculates millage to the fourth decimal point: 10.7735.
“We used more of our fund balance than what we had hoped,” Shola said.
In school district lingo, fund balance means surplus, and the state has rules about its size.
Although there are those who advocate for very small surpluses, Shola said, “You have to prepare for something, an unexpected costly occurrence.”
Because it had been decades since Washington County reassessed property, many taxing bodies were in uncharted territory when they needed to recalibrate their levies. The county and municipalities, which operate on a calendar year, took the plunge first so tax bills based on the new formula could be mailed at the beginning of 2017.
School districts operate on a fiscal year from July 1 to June 30, their deadline when adopting a budget. As the taxing body with the highest costs, many property owners were floored when they saw their first school tax bills after the reassessment.
“The board wasn’t comfortable raising taxes in year one of the assessment until they saw the final impact to our tax base of the reassessment and subsequent appeals,” Shola said.
“The data available to us was an estimate. I had to factor in an estimate of the effect of the appeals. I think we’re just a unique circumstance, because we’re so small.”
Avella Area is mostly rural with a few villages and not much industry. Enrollment in the 2018-19 school year was 529.
“There were phone calls I received after the reassessment. We didn’t raise taxes that year, but residents would call because their tax bills increased.”
Even without an enacted rise in millage, individual bills would go up if the value of property increased.
“Total market value decreased from the original Washington County tax assessment office estimate after the appeals process,” Shola said. “Avella has had two tax increases since then.”
At the other end of the spectrum are the Trinity, Peters Township, Ringgold, Washington and Charleroi districts.
Crystal Clark, business manager for the Charleroi School District, said the $25,171,000 budget for the 2019-20 school year is funded 57 percent by state sources, 40 percent by local sources and 3 percent by federal sources.
To come up with a balanced budget, Charleroi has eliminated a number of positions by attrition.
“We haven’t had to furlough,” Clark said. “Everyone’s had to do more with less, but we’ve been able to maintain our programs and our quality teaching staff.”
The district, with an enrollment of approximately 1,500, has the highest millage in the county, but it was recognized recently as a top-ten, over-performing district according to the Pittsburgh Business Times.
Clark said Charleroi is also striving to increase its focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education, along with an overall upgrade of technology.
She recalled an air of uncertainty accompanying the budget process as a result of the reassessment.
“This was new to most of us,” she said. “Having an open forum for the community was very helpful. Of course, there were property owners who were unhappy because they hadn’t been reassessed for a very long time. Being transparent when there are changes being made and having an open dialogue with the community is of utmost importance.”
Peters, meanwhile, is in the midst of constructing a high school for the first time since 1968.
To finance the construction of the new high school, the district is implementing a total increase of 1.57 mills spread out over five years.
Washington School District has the second-highest millage in the county, but millage has remained at 15.16 since the reassessment.
Richard Mancini, director of district operations for Washington School District, could not be reached for comment for this story.
In the past, the City of Washington has cited its unique position of having many tax-exempt properties as the county seat with government buildings, the home of Washington & Jefferson College, hospital property and many churches. The city litigated the issue but lost in the state Commonwealth and Supreme Courts.