Imagine you’re sitting around the kitchen table preparing to make your family budget.
You’ll want to know what kind of expenses you can expect – mortgage, groceries, utilities, little Jimmy’s piano lessons – and if your income will give the family enough money to make it through the end of the year.
But communities across Washington County haven’t been able to adequately plan their budgets with the financial uncertainty created by the recent property tax reassessment. It’s not that the reassessment itself caused the biggest questions – although there are still questions surrounding the equity of the process – but rather the voluminous appeals that have been flooding the county over the past three years.
Each time there’s a successful appeal to lower a property’s assessed value, it chisels a little bit of revenue from municipal and school district coffers. But when there is a big commercial property appeal – such as Washington Crown Center mall in North Franklin Township – a large amount of tax revenue is cut out of the budget.
“That was a big hit they took out there,” Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said. “The mall was going to lose value whether we reassessed or not.”
That is true. But the blow would have been more subdued had the county simply waited an additional year or two before implementing the figures produced by the reassessment, which was finalized before the 2017 tax year.
And North Franklin isn’t the only community struggling to balance its budget after taking a huge whack to the revenue stream.
The City of Washington has raised taxes the past two years, bumping its land tax to a whopping 38.71 mills while the building tax was increased to an unpalatable 4.03 mills. City officials blamed part of it on the slew of successful appeals last year, which blasted a $300,000 hole in expected revenue.
Regardless of the reasons, the result is a squeezing of Washington’s already-shrinking middle class that will only lead to more blight as people flee the city for cheaper property taxes in the neighboring townships.
This all could have been avoided.
County officials should have asked the Washington County Court of Common Pleas to grant a one-year extension before implementing the figures.
That’s exactly what happened when Allegheny County performed its most recent court-ordered reassessment of 2011. It was supposed to implement the figures the following year, but was permitted by the court to wait until 2013 after the Pittsburgh Public School System raised concerns that it would be impossible to set a correct millage rate with so many outstanding appeals waiting to be heard. This after Allegheny County had just performed its second assessment in a decade, unlike Washington County, which hadn’t done it in 30 years.
The warning signs were there more than a year ago as communities struggled to balance their budgets.
The rush to implement the assessment figures in 2017 didn’t make sense at the time, and it’s proving to be a disastrous decision now.