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Are Assessment Negotiations Circumventing Fair and Objective Hearings?

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As the December 17 deadline to calculate new values for residential real estate looms closer municipalities, particularly school districts, are looking for quick and creative ways to resolve remaining reassessment appeals. The solution? Negotiated settlement stipulations that are affirmed at a hearing. The real question is if these negotiations substantively circumvent the hearings that are supposed to provide objectivity and fairness to all property owners.

The Process

Rather than appearing only at the hearings the school districts and appealing property owners, generally commercial owners or those with property of significant value, meet independently prior to the hearing and discuss the reassessment value of the property. If they are able to reach an agreement on the valuation of the property there is still a hearing, as required by county code, but rather than the parties presenting evidence and counter-evidence, the parties present uniform pieces of evidence. This evidence consists almost entirely of the negotiated settlement. While the appeals board has the final determination and retains the discretion to assign a different amount than what the parties agreed upon, in most cases the board affirms the stipulation without independent valuation.

Procedure over Purpose

Alternative dispute resolution methods, such as negotiation, are popular amongst other judicial proceedings and many believe the expedience and party determination of decisions are positive for both parties and lighten the burden on the judicial system. There are those that believe that the same perks of negotiation in other judicial matters are true in the specific instances of reassessment hearings. While this newly adopted procedure is expeditious and follows the county code in form because the board still holds a hearing and issues a decision, some feel that there is a lack of substance in this procedure. The policy is criticized by those that adopt the view that self-determinative settlement circumvents the entire purpose of the reassessment- objectivity and fairness. Negotiations and stipulations are seen to take away from the independent review many believe is necessary to maintain objectivity and fairness.

Concerns

There are two types of situations that raise real concerns with these negotiated settlements. The first concern is that the school district will have more power and pull and may unduly influence the property owner, where the property's value will be agreed upon at a much higher amount than what may have been assigned by the an independent reviewer. The other concern is that time and effort will be more of a consideration to the district and that this will result in less of a value than may have been assigned by an independent reviewer. These two issues contribute to the overriding concern of fairness, both to the parties involved and to other property owners who are not given the opportunity to negotiate individually with their district. Up until the recent implementation of the acceptance of these negotiated settlements almost all decisions were based on the assessments of comparable properties. Deviation from this "objective" standard of comparables has many worried that negotiations will result in decisions based on subjective factors. These subjective factors include the aforementioned situations as well as bias, in favor of or against, individual owners by districts. Without a neutral evaluator to ensure that there is consistency and objectivity many worry that the negotiated settlements will effect not just the parties involved but any future party who may be subject to comparison to the negotiated properties.

What Does This Mean For You

If a district offers to settle outside of the hearing you will want to carefully consider your options and may want to consulat a legal representative before you enter any negotiations. Even if you are not directly involved in a negotitaiton with a district your neighboor or other comparable property owner may be, remember their valuation effects yours.

The Kisner Law Firm

The Kisner Law Firm can step in at any time in the appeals process to provide representation. When the formal hearing date or Board of Viewers court date arrives, you don't even need to attend. For a low flat fee, we will take care of everything for you at the hearing, and we will appeal further to the Board of Viewers if necessary. The Kisner Law Firm can provide you with a free evaluation of your case and the kind of evidence we can put together for your appeal. Our firm uses professional-level real estate tools including a real estate database powered by RealSTATs that allows us to analyze any property in Allegheny County by looking at the statistical information and comparable sales data. Contact the Kisner Law Firm today for an evaluation of your case so you can win the fight to lower your real estate taxes. We request at least one week notice so we can fully prepare.

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