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Gainey, Innamorato say Pa. lawmakers should mandate regular property assessments statewide

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA
  • Julia Zenkevich/WESA
Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato stands with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey on March 26, 2024.

 Jakob Lazzaro / 90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato stands with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey on March 26, 2024.

Property owners across Allegheny County have received millions of dollars in refunds after appealing their property valuation. But that’s cut into the revenues of the county and local school districts, as well as Pittsburgh and other municipal governments. With more pending appeals in the pipeline, and the threat of a proposed Pittsburgh Public Schools lawsuit to compel a countywide reassessment, local leaders say they’re still considering the merits of calling for a reassessment themselves.

Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato said her office has been meeting with county leaders to determine how to fix reassessments in Western Pennsylvania’s most populous county.

“We really need to look at how our economy has changed and how we move forward with the best available data,” she said. Since the coronavirus pandemic emptied out many office spaces, “We have to recognize the world has changed. We’ve seen a rebound in tourism downtown, but we’ve seen … buildings hollowing out.”

In a wide-ranging joint interview with WESA, Innamorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey urged state lawmakers to take on the issue — a move that would take the heat of a politically unpopular topic off of local officials.

“I haven’t met an elected official that comes out and [says] ‘I’m going to enjoy doing reassessments,’” Gainey said. “If that was the case, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Innamorato said Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t set its own schedule for reassessments, noting that if Harrisburg took up the issue, legislators would have plenty of examples just across state lines to model the rules after.

“We won’t be forging a new path forward,” Innamorato said. “We are standing alone as the only state that doesn’t mandate it.”

Allegheny County has not had a countywide property reassessment since 2012. Since then, the system has been shaped by courtroom fights and political dodges: Innamorato’s predecessor Rich Fitzgerald declined to reassess properties during his 12 years in office.

That’s left neighbors paying vastly different property taxes and creating what some have called an “assessment crisis.” And with a precarious financial picture ahead, Pittsburgh is feeling the squeeze of what could be millions of dollars left out of reach for city services.

Thanks to 10 reduced valuations won in appeals this year, the value of the downtown tax base alone has plunged by $448 million. The Tower at PNC Plaza, the U.S. Steel Tower and Three Gateway Center all won appeals earlier this year, reductions that mean about $200 million less in tax revenue for the county, city, and city schools. And Pittsburgh Public Schools officials say those lowered assessments could force the school system to hand back as much as $20 million in the coming months.

School district leaders have threatened to sue the county to compel a reassessment. But at least for now, they don’t have the support of city government.

Gainey told WESA the city has no plans to join the school district’s suit, opting instead to work with Innamorato as she weighs the county’s options. Though the issue is pressing, Gainey noted Innamorato has been in office for just three months

“It would be wrong of us to make any type of move right now without giving her an opportunity to… examine information and make a decision,” he said. “When the time is right, we will make the decision that is best for the city.”

Ideas about when the timing is right may vary. City Council president Dan Lavelle has been a vocal advocate of a county-wide reassessment as the city makes plans for leaner financial years ahead.

When campaigning for county executive last year, Innamorato initially pledged to do a countywide reassessment, which she said would help solve inequities in a system that currently undertaxes some while overtaxing others. She later backed away from that position, saying she would consider a reassessment if it was deemed necessary after a broader evaluation of county tax policy.

Innamorato said her ultimate goal is to “move reassessments from this politically hot topic to one that is mundane, that’s revenue-neutral, and just something that happens on a regular basis and we don’t really think about it.”

She suggested that a state-mandated regular property assessment could benefit communities currently grappling with addressing disparities in Pennsylvania’s public school funding system. Last year, a Commonwealth Court decision declared the state’s current system, which is funded largely by property taxes, unconstitutional.

“This is a great time to have that conversation around property taxes and also property assessments, and how they all kind of work together because there is an interplay there,” she said.

Innamorato also alluded to the possibility of adding some properties to the tax rolls — a move Gainey hopes to make with the next phase of his plan to challenge the tax-exempt status of properties owned by nonprofits. Gainey is challenging tax exemptions on property owned by healthcare giants UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, as well as the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University.

“We need to make sure that people are paying their fair share, and we have a lot of large nonprofits that haven’t historically been paying into the system,” Innamorato said. That responsibility, she said, dovetailed with the need for local officials “to say how are we protecting folks, and making sure that people can stay in their homes?’”

This is the first of a three-part series that asks the region’s top two local leaders about the issues they face. On Thursday: Innamorato and Gainey discuss their efforts to create a new vision for public safety.

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