Honoring a campaign promise he made months ago, new County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is not sending out tax bills with 2012 reassessment numbers.
Flanked by nearly three dozen state, county and local elected officials, Fitzgerald defied a judge's order that new county reassessments be sent out this year. Fitzgerald's announcement came just a few hours after Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick said he would consider staying the reassessments until 2013, allowing time for residents to appeal the new values.
"I fully intend to follow state law when it comes to reassessments," Fitzgerald said Thursday. But state law, he added, requires that certified reassessment numbers be sent to all the county's taxing bodies -- its 130 municipalities and 43 school districts -- by Jan. 15. And since only the city and Mount Oliver have received new property assessments, he argued, it would be impossible for the county to comply with the deadline by using the new numbers.
And so, Fitzgerald said, "Today the certified assessments went out and they are the 2002 base year numbers" -- the same ones the county has been using for the past decade. As for city dwellers with the new values in hand, Fitzgerald said his decision "rescinds and makes null and void the numbers that went out a week ago. "
Despite invoking state deadlines, Fitzgerald's position seemed less about logistics, and more about underlying philosophical differences.
Echoing arguments he made as a candidate all last year, Fitzgerald argued that reassessing Allegheny County alone is "going to drive our residents to areas like Washington, Beaver and Butler counties; those areas haven't reassessed in 40 years. We should not be the only county singled out to do a reassessment and that's been my position all along."
He urged state legislators to quickly pass a moratorium on single-county reassessments until a system for reassessing the whole state can be enacted.
Since city residents began receiving their assessments, Fitzgerald said, he'd heard horror stories about residents whose property values doubled or more in the process. "Working-class neighborhoods," Fitzgerald said, "got absolutely smacked with big, big numbers that were going to lead to big, big tax increases."
Of course the new assessments aren't a burden on everyone: Some working-class neighborhoods would likely be better off with new numbers. For residents whose new assessments were lower, the county's decision to use 2002 numbers would freeze the higher values in place. Fitzgerald said those residents should move forward and file a formal appeal. In fact, state Sen. Jay Costa urged those residents to bring their null-and-void 2012 reassessment numbers to their hearings -- as proof of a lower property value.
"You always have the right to appeal," said Fitzgerald.
Rumors had been circulating that Fitzgerald planned some sort of January surprise, but the move still came suddenly. Just this morning, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had announced that the city would provide "one-on-one" assistance to city residents seeking to appeal their valuation. In the wake of Fitzgerald's announcement, Ravenstahl shelved the plan -- less than five hours after announcing it.
Reporters questioned the timing of Fitzgerald's action, given the judge's willingness to consider delaying the reassessments for one year.
"I was planning on doing this all along," Fitzgerald answered. "I'm delighted that the judge has made statements that he's going to put this off…but I'm not for putting this off for a year. I'm for putting this off until we're treated like every other county in this state."
Fitzgerald was also asked about whether if he was in contempt of Judge Wettick's order -- and if he was worried about being thrown in jail.
In fact, Fitzgerald has openly boasted of his willingness to go to jail over the assessments. But today, he stressed that the Jan. 15 deadline is enshrined in state law, and that using 2002 values was the only way to meet it.
"But you're also under a direct order from a judge, aren't you?" asked WTAE reporter Jim Parsons.
"I'm following state law," replied Fitzgerald, "and I'm going to protect the tax payers."
Chris Potter contributed reporting.