Assessment

This aerial view of Meadville shows properties of all shapes and sizes. Pennsylvania’s lawmakers are wrestling with how to improve the property tax assessment structure for counties.

It’s been almost 50 years since Crawford County government did a full-scale assessment of property values. It was 1969 — the year man first landed on the moon.

That assessment process included creation of replacement-cost charts still in use today. In 1985, the system was upgraded, adding a multiplier of 2.7 to the calculation.

What it means is a residence costing $13,333 to build in 1969 would have cost $36,000 to build in 1985. With the exception of Titusville, where 100 percent of the 1985 replacement value is used as the assessed value, county assessors then use 75 percent of the amount in this residential example as the property’s assessed value, meaning the $36,000 structure in the example has assessed value of $27,000.

Jump forward from 1985 to 2017, a buyer today probably is going to pay more than $36,000 for that same residence, but the assessed value — the value used to calculate the annual property tax bill — remains $27,000.

A study by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania found an increase in the years since the last countywide reassessment leads to a decrease in the amount of tax revenue generated per mill of tax, and that the decrease was greater for rural counties than for urban counties. Specifically for rural counties, each year since the last countywide reassessment, the amount of revenue generated per mill decreased by 0.9 percent. After five years without a reassessment, the revenue generating capability for these rural counties may decrease by 4.46 percent.

The study found since counties that do not regularly conduct countywide reassessments potentially would lose revenue generating capability each year, the local governments within the county would not only have to contend with increases in operational costs, but also need to make up the difference of the lost potential revenue. The study found property tax rate increases would need to be made to cover increases in costs, and the inefficiency of the property tax system.

That, in turn, all boils down to higher property tax burdens on local residents over time, according to the study.

Crawford County contains more than 57,000 properties of all shapes and sizes. The standard estimate is $35 to $40 per property to hire a firm conduct a countywide assessment in the field, according to Joe Galbo, the county’s chief assessor. That’s an amount in the $2 million to $2.3 million range based on that per property price.

However, Galbo said the county’s per parcel cost could be less as the county assessment office has upgraded its computer software in the past few years and aerial maps of properties across the county were updated in 2014.

Crawford County commissioners say they’re willing to visit the issue of conducting a possible new countywide property assessment.

“It’s been so long since it’s been done,” Commissioner Chairman Francis Weiderspahn Jr. said. “There are (tax) inequities among properties in some areas. But, cost is always the biggest thing.”

Commissioner Chris Soff calls it critical for the future of not only Crawford County government, but for the future of all local governments within the county.

“It’s a fairness issue to level the playing field across the board,” Soff said. “Is it too expensive? I have no idea. We’ve not looked into it that far. We don’t know the cost of if and we don’t know the benefit.”

Commissioner John Amato agrees a new assessment needs to be done.

“From what I’ve read, about one-third (of property owners) taxes go up, about one-third stay the same and one-third go down after a reassessment,” Amato said. “But, the bottom line is how are we going to pay for it?”

Amato is willing to entertain the idea of tapping into the county’s investment funds to pay the cost.

In January 2015, the then-board of commissioners set aside $11 million in surplus county money in investments for future projects.

“I understand the money is a safety net, but it’s taxpayer money to do those kinds of things,” Amato said.

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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