Commissioners getting blowback on school tax increases

September 7, 2017

In Pennsylvania, county commissioners have no jurisdiction in the running of school districts, which set their own property tax rates.But when school districts crafted their 2017-18 budgets and property tax millage in advance of a June 30 deadline, many Washington Countians figuratively hit the roof over school tax bills that arrived over the summer.And, according to the county commissioners, angry inquiries about the school tax bills have been aimed at them.Why them?“It’s been inferred that it’s (because of) the reassessment,” commission Chairman Larry Maggi said Wednesday at the commissioners’ agenda session, and engaged in a discussion with county solicitor J. Lynn DeHaven.“Obviously, if a person’s assessment was tax-neutral from the assessment’s point of view, they would have gotten an increase in their school tax bills that had nothing to do with their assessment,” DeHaven said. “For a particular taxpayer, their taxes could go up greater because of an increase in their assessment, or they could go down lower because of a decrease in their assessment.“Back in 2008, the Washington and McGuffey school districts took the commissioners to court for not having property reassessed since the late 1970s. The commissioners ran out of appeals in 2013 when the state Supreme Court declined to hear their case, so, reluctantly, they hired Tyler Technologies Inc. of Moraine, Ohio, to conduct the reassessment at a cost of $6.96 million.The county and municipalities operate on a standard calendar year, so their first tax bills under the latest reassessment came due months ago. The school districts’ fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, meaning property owners received their school tax bills most recently of the three taxing bodies.Commission Vice Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan said Wednesday that a property owner in Monongahela, part of the Ringgold School District, has experienced a 55 percent increase in school taxes. She declined to share the name of the nonagenarian homeowner on a fixed income, but she verified that she personally saw the tax bill.Commissioner Harlan Shober asked about a two-step process for raising taxes in the wake of a reassessment. DeHaven said the county or a municipality had to have shown first what a revenue-neutral millage would be, and then, if raising taxes, take a second vote to make the amount of the tax increase clear. They also were bound by state law’s anti-windfall provision to not raise taxes more than 10 percent in a year following a reassessment.,School districts, however, are governed by what’s known as the Act 1 index. School districts seeking tax increases beyond a certain percentage must ask the state for permission or conduct a referendum.DeHaven said, “as best I can determine,” the Burgettstown, Trinity and Washington school districts were granted permission this year.“I don’t believe we’re any better off now than we were four years ago before the reassessment happened,” Maggi said, and he questioned additional costs that grew out of the reassessment, asking county finance director Joshua Hatfield to provide him with information.An Observer-Reporter story published last November noted that extra costs outside of the original contract have tacked on more than $1.6 million to Tyler’s $6.96 million contract.Contracts with lawyers, who were court-appointed masters in reassessment, were expected to cost more than $200,000 this year. The masters began convening reconciliation conferences last winter in attempts to reach settlements before those challenging their new assessments began formal appeals.DeHaven asked the commissioners, at their Thursday meeting, to vote on refunding $367,581 to property owners resulting from appeals of reassessments.“There are still outstanding appeals, so that number will go up a little bit,” DeHaven said.