Greensburg Salem School District anticipates a $400,000 windfall from a slew of lawsuits that were filed to raise the assessed value of commercial properties within the district.
For the last several years, the district has hired Forest Hills law firm Andrews and Price to look for commercial properties that recently have sold for well above their assessed values.
When they find one, the district files an appeal with the Westmoreland County Board of Assessment Appeals, a process that nearly always results in a lawsuit, officials said.
The district has filed more than 30 such lawsuits since 2007, and 16 of them are now near a settlement.
All the affected parties have agreed to the terms of the settlement, according to district solicitor John Scales. All that remains is to finalize the paperwork and await the approval of Common Pleas Court Judge Anthony Marsili Jr.
Once the agreements are official, the school will receive $400,000 in back taxes from 13 property owners.
“This is money that is owed currently, as a result of the values we have settled on,” Scales said.
Some of the settled cases date to 2007.
Scales said he doesn’t yet know how much the reassessed commercial properties will add to the district’s tax rolls on a yearly basis, once the back taxes are paid.
Any taxing body has the right to file an assessment challenge, but few in Westmoreland County do, according to the county tax assessment office.
Greensburg Salem was one of only four taxing bodies with pending cases at the start of the year, records show. The district had 32 ongoing cases. Burrell School District was the next most litigious, with seven.
According to Scales, Greensburg Salem takes its cues from districts in other counties, looking for properties that are worth vastly more than their assessment to balance the tax roles and boost property tax revenues.
“These are properties where the assessment hasn’t changed for years and years, and they’re sticking out like a sore thumb,” he said.
The district pays Andrews and Price an hourly fee of $125, plus 25 percent of any additional school taxes for one year raised as a result of a successful appeal, according to district business manager James Meyer.
The district paid the law firm $677.50 for its work on tax appeal cases in the 2013-14 school year, Meyer said.
The appeals process begins with a hearing before the Board of Assessment Appeals. The board can adjust the assessed value of a property but nearly always rules in favor of the property owner, not the school board.
“I don’t think there’s a single case where the board has found in favor of the school district,” said county tax assessment solicitor Darrell Arbore.
From there, the school district appeals the decision to the Court of Common Pleas. These cases can take years. Most are settled before reaching trial.
Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].