The Honorable R. Stanton Wettick, Jr., Senior Judge of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, spoke at the monthly meeting of the Real Estate Section of the Allegheny County Bar Association held on April 10, 2014. It is not surprising that Judge Wettick’s topic was real estate tax assessments in Allegheny County because Judge Wettick has been handling cases related to real estate tax assessments for many years.
Judge Wettick began by stating that the reason so few other counties in Pennsylvania have experienced constitutional challenges to their assessments is that such a challenge must be brought as a uniformity challenge under the Pennsylvania Constitution, which, unlike claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, does not entitle a successful litigant to recover attorneys’ fees. Judge Wettick’s point was that while well-accepted statistical measurements show that most other Pennsylvania counties’ assessments are far less uniform than Allegheny County’s assessed values, the incentive to commence assessment litigation in other counties is lacking.
Judge Wettick also recognized that one of the reasons there has been so much consternation about real estate taxes in Pennsylvania is that Pennsylvania relies too heavily on real estate taxes for government services. In most other states, real estate taxes are relied upon much less to support government services. In those states, other taxes, such as income and sales taxes, are of greater concern.
The results of a survey of the assessment practices of all 50 states appeared in a 2007 opinion Judge Wettick handed down regarding the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s “base year” assessment scheme. Judge Wettick pointed out that his research reflected that only two states (one of which is Pennsylvania) do not require periodic reassessments. Judge Wettick indicated that his aim in including the state-by-state survey in his opinion was to demonstrate to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that requiring the Commonwealth to develop a procedure in which there are regular assessments would pull it within the mainstream.
When that opinion was handed down in 2007, it appeared to us to be intended as a guide for the Pennsylvania legislature for fixing Pennsylvania’s broken assessment system. We believe that Pennsylvanians would be well served if the General Assembly was to again review that opinion and take action, as it still has not addressed the many problems inherent in Pennsylvania’s system of real estate taxation.
In response to a question regarding the municipal practice of appealing only the assessments of properties that have recently sold, Judge Wettick noted that the law affords taxing jurisdictions the right to file tax assessment appeals. However, he also observed that we cannot expect the appeals process to serve as a mechanism for remedying inequities in uniformity. The only fair way to correct errors in relative assessed values is with a full county-wide reassessment, and if adequate funding for the reassessment is lacking, so might the quality of the final product.