Hempfield homeowners, realtors and developers are unhappy about a Hempfield Area School District policy that’s sent property taxes skyrocketing for some residents.
More than 80 people attended the school board’s meeting Monday, most of them there to express their displeasure about the district’s tax assessment appeals.
Dorothy Novak recently moved from Unity into a new Hempfield home. The township’s low property taxes were the deciding factor in her move, she said.
Last month, she got a letter from Forest Hills law firm Andrews and Price, telling her that the school district was challenging the assessed value of her property. If the appeal is successful, her taxes would double.
“I was shocked and, the more investigating I did, the more upset I became,” she said. “They are targeting randomly some homeowners, but not others.”
Novak said the district appealed only a few assessments in her neighborhood, even though she lives in a development with all new homes. The school district says the practice of property assessment appeals is about getting residents to pay their fair share and correcting property values that have been getting more skewed for decades.
Westmoreland County has not had a countywide reassessment since 1973. Hundreds of people, mostly residents, file appeals with the county’s tax assessment office every year, many of them successfully getting lower taxes. School districts have been fighting back over the last few years, appealing assessments of properties they say are undervalued.
Hempfield Township began the policy in 2015. Lawyers from Andrews and Price look for properties that were recently sold for $100,000 or more than their assessed value, then issue appeals.
At first the district only went after commercial properties, but a 2017 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision ruled such practices are unfair, and that taxing bodies must treat commercial and residential properties the same when evaluating assessment appeals.
“The whole purpose is to have a fair tax process for all taxpayers,” said Hempfield Superintendent Tammy Wolicki.
The district appealed about 25 residential property assessments this year, she said. “I think it’s a misconception that the tax assessment appeals will affect all district residents, and that is certainly not the case,” she said.
But that’s part of the problem, according to several people who spoke at Monday’s meeting.
Because the district is only targeting newly-sold properties, a new township resident could be paying double the taxes of their neighbors, even if their homes are worth the same amount, said realtor Lindsay Neary.
“Penalizing new homeowners is simply unjust and unfair.”
Neary was one of several local realtors who spoke at Monday’s meeting. They called the practice a “newcomer tax” that punishes people who buy or build a home in Hempfield.
Developer Jack Pellis of Pellis Construction said builders will be less likely to invest in Hempfield if taxes could skyrocket randomly.
“The taxes have to be consistent,” he said.
Several speakers called for the board to stop the assessment policy.
“Just because you have the legal ability to do this does not make it right,” said resident Bill Bretz.
The meeting got briefly heated after the public comments, when school board president Sonya Brajdic said the board would consider residents’ concerns, but would not take any immediate action.
Several members of the audience called out “Why?” and one called for voters to oust Brajdic the next time she is up for election.
Brajdic said the board needed more time to consider the complaints and talk with other local lawmakers.
“We will be in discussion with other members of the township, because we know this is a hot-button issue,” she said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter @Soolseem.