Two more Westmoreland County school districts have turned to the legal system to bring in more taxes by increasing property assessments.
Hempfield Area and Greater Latrobe have filed dozens of appeals with the county Board of Assessment Appeals during the last year. They are following the lead of Greensburg Salem School District, which has pursued a similar strategy since 2007.
“These are challenging financial times for all school districts. I think all school districts are looking very closely at how to increase revenues and decrease costs,” said Wayne Wismar, business manager for Hempfield Area.
All three districts have hired Forest Hills law firm Andrews and Price to file appeals on their behalf.
Andrews and Price studies recent property sales to find cases in which properties were sold for well above their assessed value, then file an appeal to get the assessment raised.
“We’re not going out and reviewing assessed values. What’s triggering us is if there are any sales, especially if those sales amounts are significantly higher than the assessment,” Wismar said.
The board of appeals almost always declines to raise the assessment, said county tax assessment solicitor Darrell Arbore.
That means the vast majority of appeals go to court.
“Property owners rarely have legal counsel to speak on their behalf at assessment board hearings, so the board usually decides to leave the decision up to a judge,” Arbore said.
“The board doesn’t feel comfortable, just on the basis of the school district (appeal), to make any change,” he said. “It’s hard to tell just by the deed if that’s the most accurate assessment of the fair market value.”
It’s a long process, but one that can pay off for school districts. Last year, Greensburg Salem made more than $400,000 after settling a large batch of cases, some of which had been lingering since 2007.
“It’s worked very well for Greensburg Salem,” said school district attorney John Scales. “In cases where there are large discrepancies (between the sale price of a property and its assessed value), we’ve been very successful.”
Hempfield Area’s earnings have been more modest. It’s making an additional $6,300 annually because of successful assessment challenges against five property owners.
The district has been pursuing challenges for about a year. It’s working through a list of more than 40 recently sold properties that officials think are assessed too low.
When Andrews and Price wins a case, the firm takes a percentage of the extra revenue made by the school district for one year.
Spokesmen for Andrews and Price and Greater Latrobe could not be reached.
Arbore said he’s trying to speed the process so these cases no longer linger for years. Cases get tougher to resolve the longer they stick around, he said, and the recent barrage of appeals from Hempfield Area and Greater Latrobe have greatly added to his office’s workload.
It’s Arbore’s job to defend the assessment board’s rulings in court, which means he’s usually pitted against the school district. To move the process along, he has been asking judges to schedule routine status conferences for multiple cases at a time.
When school districts file an appeal, they focus almost exclusively on commercial properties.
“The school board discussed this quite a bit, and they felt comfortable doing this where businesses were concerned, but they did not want to go after individual people,” said Hempfield Area Superintendent Barbara Marin.
In a year when her district faces a budget deficit of more than $3 million, finding ways to bring in more property tax revenue is a top priority, she said.
“This is one way of getting fair value for what that property’s worth,” she said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].