Thursday, August 13, 2009

What a waste!
Updated 08/09/2009 08:31:35 AM EDT
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Unanimously and without discussion, the Fayette County Commissioners officially wasted about a half million of your tax dollars on Wednesday.

Thats $500,000 for nothing.


The money was thrown down the drain by commissioners Vincent Zapotosky, Vincent A. Vicites and Angela M. Zimmerlink, who voted during a special meeting to suspend the 2008 base year property reassessment that would have gone into effect on Jan. 1.

The three-year project has already cost approximately $600,000, and while some of the money went to improvements beneficial even without the reassessment, there's no doubt that by junking the project, the commissioners are throwing away as much as $500,000 of taxpayers' money.

The simple truth is that the commissioners would rather blow your tax dollars while creating an unequal distribution of tax burden across the county than risk being challenged next election by a candidate opposed to the reassessment.

It turns out Zimmerlink, the supposed fiscal conservative, is only a good shepherd of your dollars when it isn't politically dangerous. Her reasoning for scuttling the reassessment is to wait for the state legislature to conduct a study on the issue. It's painfully obvious that she is only using the study as a shield, as the legislature could mandate reassessment at any point if they wanted to. The problem is, like our illustrious commissioners, they don't want to take the political heat for it, so they've put it off in order to "study" the issue. The possibility of anything positive coming from the study is remote at best.

We have no doubt Zimmerlink knows the legislative study is a farce and we're even more bemused that the woman who is normally the last person to support a study - which she routinely has called a waste of time and money - will hide behind one when it's politically expedient.

Zapotosky said he agreed with a recent state Supreme Court ruling, which said property tax reassessments should be mandated by the state legislature.

However, he conveniently overlooked the rest of the ruling which said the periodic reassessments should be conducted by counties so that residents are taxed uniformly and equally.

The Supreme Court ruling came about after several homeowners challenged the constitutionality of Allegheny County's assessment process. The court ordered Allegheny County to conduct a reassessment, ruling that not conducting assessments often enough is a violation of the uniformity clause in the state constitution. That clause requires equal taxation.

So by using 2001 as its base year, Fayette County is definitely setting itself up for a legal challenge down the road and will almost certainly be forced to conduct a reassessment at some point.

Zapotosky obviously thinks that being forced to do a reassessment will be far better than the commissioners just doing it on their own, no matter the money wasted now or how much will have to be spent in the future to conduct another reassessment.

Vicities, for his part, said the current reassessment was no good because the market is a "moving target" during the ongoing economic downward spiral. This is, frankly, a patently ridiculous reason to scuttle the project. The fact remains that the market is always a "moving target." Based on Vicities logic, a reassessment, which takes two years to complete, could never be conducted because it's impossible forecast with confidence that the next two years will be a perfectly stable market.

The bottom line remains that the county paid $600,000 for a reassessment and have little or nothing to show for it. On what other issue would we allow our elected officials to blatantly waste so much of our money?

Unfortunately, the reason county residents aren't furious at the commissioners is most of them are blinded by a knee-jerk fear of higher assessments. It's the reasoning that led the county to go from 1957 to 2001 without a reassessment.

By sticking with outdated 2001 values, we'll have a system where those who've actually seen their properties decrease in value these last few years will be subsidizing those who's homes have actually increased in value despite the current market downturn.

In the end, we agree that mistakes were made with the reassessment. But it was unrealistic to expect perfection. The process involved the evaluation of approximately 80,000 parcels and those were humans not machines doing the job so you had to figure there would be some errors.

Even allowing for an error rate of 10 percent, which in our book is still pretty good, that would have resulted in 8,000 mistakes.

Throw in a fluctuating real estate market and there could have been as many as 15,000 properties with incorrect values.

But that all could have been corrected by property owners going through the appeals process. In fact, that's why the process is there. It's specifically designed to correct mistakes.

The commissioners could have let the appeals process take its course and if there were still problems, scuttle the project well before the Nov. 15 deadline.

But instead the commissioners took the easy way out. And now, we'll never know whether or not the reassessment was fair or not.

But we do know that approximately $500,000 was wasted, thrown away for nothing in return. And we know that at least 20 percent or approximately 16,000 property owners, are paying more than they should legally in property taxes.

This decision has to rank as one of the worst in the long history of Fayette County.

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