Laureen Cummings and Patrick O’Malley are just two of many politicians statewide who fear that conducting property reassessments will cause some property owners to reassess the politicians’ careers.
The two Lackawanna County commissioners chose a particularly feckless way to evade political responsibility when they voted recently to put the question of reassessment on the ballot.
Lackawanna County has not conducted a comprehensive reassessment since 1968, so its assessed property values have no realistic connection to the actual market. Some property owners pay less than they should, some pay more. The state constitution requires uniform taxation, but the only thing uniform about it in Lackawanna County is its unfairness.
In several other counties, school district officials or property owners upset by their commissioners’ refusal to conduct reassessments have sued under the uniform taxation requirement. Courts there have ordered the counties to conduct comprehensive reassessments.
Washington County last had a reassessment in 1981 until two school districts sued in 2008, contending that certain industrial and commercial properties were under-assessed. The court ruled that, under the uniform taxation requirement, the county could not reassess only those properties, and ordered a comprehensive reassessment, which is underway this year.
In Delaware County, a judge ordered a comprehensive reassessment based on complaints of over-assessment by two residential property owners. That fast-growing county last had a comprehensive reassessment in 1998.
Commissioners in those counties opposed the reassessments. But as a practical matter, the court rulings gave them political cover.
This year state Rep. Mike Carroll, an Avoca Democrat, introduced an amendment to a property tax-related bill that would have made courts a more frequent means of forcing reassessment. Rather than relying solely on constitutional interpretation, the bill would have enabled any property owner to challenge antiquated reassessments as a matter of law when the most recent assessment is more than seven years old.
The amendment failed but it makes sense. If holders of political office fear the backlash of ordering an accurate and fair assessment, let apolitical courts consider facts on the ground and, if appropriate, order a reassessment.
Lawmakers should reconsider it as a means to ensure fair taxation in their districts.