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Hempfield schools, homeowners square off over property tax assessments

September 25, 2018
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A duplex style home is seen along Hearthstone Circle on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 as part of the Villas at Fairfield, a development in Hempfield owned by Pellis Construction. Dorothy Novak, a resident concerned about the tax assessment appeal by Hempfield Area School District, said that in her research some residents in the duplex homes could see a tax increase while their neighbors do not.

When Dorothy Novak built a home last year in Hempfield, she was told her annual property taxes would be about $3,500.

That bill could nearly double if the Hempfield Area School District is successful in a tax assessment appeal it filed this month.

“We’re concerned for our residents and for our future sales,” said Jack Pellis, owner of Pellis Construction, the firm that built Novak’s home in Fairfield -- an upscale, planned community near the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg campus.

State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, said the school district’s appeal amounts to a back-door reassessment and a “money grab” to generate more cash.

The issue involves the state law that allows for the value of a property to be challenged by an entity or person that is impacted by the tax assessment. That means that both homeowners and taxing bodies can appeal an assessment.

So far this year, 737 assessment appeals have been filed in Westmoreland County, said Beth Stabile, the county’s deputy chief assessor. Most were filed by property owners, she said. School districts have filed 59 appeals -- 44 of those by Hempfield Area and 15 by the Greater Latrobe Area School District.

Of the appeals filed by Hempfield, 26 involve residential properties. Latrobe school officials filed six appeals against homeowners.

Tammy Wolicki, superintendent of Hempfield Area schools, defended the district’s appeal policy.

“School districts have the same right as taxpayers to file appeals on properties that appear to be incorrectly assessed,” Wolicki said in a statement. “School district initiated appeals are an effort to address significantly under-assessed properties so that all taxpayers pay a fair share of the overall tax burden and lessen the potential to increase taxes for all.”

Hempfield in 2015 hired the Alle­gheny County law firm of Andrews and Price to handle the appeals. At that time, the school board set a policy that enables appeals to be filed against any property believed to be valued $100,000 more than the assessed value set by the county.

Dan Watson, business manager for the Latrobe school district, said only properties believed to have a market value of $684,000 are eligible to be appealed.

“It’s all about equity,” Watson said.

Latrobe uses the same law firm as Hempfield to find properties to appeal. The firm is paid with 30 percent commission of new revenue generated the first year a successful appeal results in tax revenue for the districts.

In Novak’s case, the county originally assessed her home to have a fair market value of $204,000. She bought it for more than $362,000. Her tax bill would increase to more than $7,600 if the school district wins its appeal.

Novak is predictably upset and said she propably would be forced to sell if her property taxes double.

“A big reason I moved to this community is because I was paying extremely high taxes in Unity. I want to know why I am getting screwed,” she said. “It will most likely cost me my house. I can’t afford that increase.”

Stabile said the original value assigned by the school district was determined using cost of construction values from 1973 -- the same criteria used to assess all home values in Westmoreland County, which has one of the oldest assessment systems in Pennsylvania.

“Sometimes the value of new construction is too low because we’re using the old pricing schedule,” Stabile said.

County commissioners have repeatedly said they won’t approve a reassessment, saying it would be too costly. A countywide reassessment is estimated to cost as much as $15 million.

Nelson said school district appeals should be halted or that state legislators might step in to outlaw the process.

“My concern is these districts have a dispute with the county, and they’re taking it out on the residents. The school districts are not treating all residents equally. It’s a one-way cashflow for the districts,” Nelson said.

Pellis said he expects new home sales to slow in communities where governments continue to appeal homeowners assessments.

“It’s going to have a terrible effect,” Pellis said. “You’re going to see that some will no longer develop in Hempfield.”

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