The office of the Allegheny County Controller has been examining the recent property reassessment process for the past four months. Controller Chelsa Wagner said the office found Tyler Technologies, which was the firm contracted to do the reassessments, technically complied with the terms of the contract, but Wagner added, the contract imposed a very low standard of accountability on Tyler.
She said unlike the 2002 assessments compliance which were “mandated at industry standards for fairness and accuracy at the neighborhood level,” this year's valuations were mandated across the entire county, which she said is impossible because of neighborhood to neighborhood differences.
She likened the low standard to signing a deal with a contractor to build a house.
“And upon the time that you inspect that house, you’re just going to look at it from the outside as opposed to going room by room and ensuring that the specific characteristics from a bathroom to a kitchen were all done to your specifications,” she said.
Wagner said to address that issue, the county needs to ensure future contracts provide maximum accountability, and added this contract should have been held to same standard as the previous assessment, if not higher.
Earlier this year the controller’s office halted payments to Tyler Technologies. The company took Allegheny County to court and said the county was in breach of contract for withholding roughly $660,000 in payments. There was concern that Tyler’s work was “fraught with errors,” and possibly giving unfair advantages to affluent communities. Wagner said that wasn’t the case, and Tyler has since received payment.
Wagner isn’t blaming Tyler, but said the buck stops at top county officials that were in office until this year.
“We certainly recognize that this administration inherited a broken system, a bad contract, and an under-staffed and over-burdened office of property assessments. My view of this report is really simple – that this should be our first step in working together towards a property assessment system that better serves the taxpayers of Allegheny County,” she said.
But, Wagner said the current County Executive does have a hand in the problem. The audit found the contract terms were altered in February of this year without any public notice, in the midst of the final stages of reassessments.
“This change allowed for a lower standard of equity to market value, meaning that properties could be valued at 90% of market value instead of the original, contractual measure of 95%. So that change meant there was a lower standard for Tyler Technologies,” said Wagner.
The county said the change was made to better reflect court-ordered standards and to meet the court-ordered deadline. In all, the county’s response to the Controller’s audit faults the court and the overall mandated reassessment process.
The third finding of the audit was that the timeline for the reassessment was not met. Wagner said the factor was impacted mostly by external factors including the courts, but added internal issues such as a steady decline of qualified personnel in the Office of Property Assessments over the last decade. To remedy that, she recommends the county hire a Chief Assessment Officer as a full-time employee, as opposed to interim or contract appointments.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has been vocal in his opposition the reassessment process. In a statement responding to Wagner’s audit report, Timothy H. Johnson, director of the Department of Administrative Services, said, “the county executive has indicated numerous times, in numerous ways, it is the system itself that is flawed. Until steps are taken at a state level to address the overall property assessment system, there will not be improvements to it.”
Wagner agreed statewide reassessment reform needs to happen.
“But I think the lesson here is that Allegheny County itself must enact measures to improve reassessments because it may take years and year, or it may never come from Harrisburg.”