Thursday, November 12, 2009

Institutional memory

So my first blog post was in June of 2006. I wanted to write about foreign relations and maybe a bit of economics. I didn't really start paying attention to local politics until January of '07, when the story about the Mayor, as a councilman, having been handcuffed at a Steelers game came out (thank you, John McIntire).

So I think I have a fair grasp of the history of the last forty years of foreign relations, a decent grasp of the last forty years of economics, and I have been following Pittsburgh politics for almost four years. Before that, I caught the big stuff but little else (Sophie Masloff! Tom Murphy!). I don’t know much more than the broad outline of the history of County property assessments. I know the values are used for a few different tax types, although I don’t know which little municipalities use which taxes. Well, I know all the school districts use property taxes, and Pittsburgh (and of course the County) for sure also taxes property. Past that, I know what I see when people bring in their tax forms to be prepared (most of the people I prepare taxes for don’t own, or if they do own they are no longer paying a mortgage, so they are not going to itemize … don’t worry if you don’t understand that).

So I don’t fully grasp the historical implications of Judge Wettick’s ruling on County assessments. There was some sort of three part division of the County tried back in the Seventies, which Judge Pappadakis overturned? Nor do I grasp the full tax implications here. There is some sort of different treatments of municipal and school district taxes as opposed to the County property tax? Not knowing, I can’t comment intelligently on other people’s criticism of Wettick’s ruling, except perhaps to ask what else we should do.

I will say I stand by my statements of what I see as the wisdom in Wettick’s ruling. It accomplishes two things, it gives the County a little time to get better at this as it goes, and it allows the County to devise subdivisions that could group the richest properties into one group (and they have to group Pittsburgh in one group). So the County could wait until the third year to assess the richest properties, and the fourth to assess massive Pittsburgh. I still think of Chris Briem’s suggestion that some properties in some City neighborhoods should be negatively valued (you would have to pay people to live there), implying the current residents are largely trapped. I will venture to say there are suburban municipalities which have at least neighborhoods where this is true also (Braddock perhaps, and/or Rankin?).

The County will never assess properties as having negative value, but their assessments may be quite low. With that Homestead exemption thingie (which I also don’t understand terribly well), there is a tax floor (which might be $15,000) for County tax purposes under which people pay no County property tax. So the County has an incentive to assess no property under $16,000, no matter how small, rundown or lousy the neighborhood is. The City would be perfectly happy with that, although the residents in poor neighborhoods might not.

Of course that won’t happen. What is likely to happen is the County will appeal the Judge’s ruling, and possibly some of the homeowners who brought the original suit will too. I don’t see higher courts overturning the Judge’s ruling, though. Whatever the flaws of Wettick’s ruling, historical or in terms of fairness, the County was prepared to put off doing anything about assessments indefinitely. And that is truly unfair.

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