John T. Vogel, Esq., jvogel@tuckerlaw.com, (412) 594-5622

In the continuing litigation between taxing bodies and taxpayers over how and when taxing bodies may file property tax assessment appeals, Commonwealth Court recently issued a decision clarifying when such appeals may occur, providing more latitude for taxing bodies on these issues.  Under Commonwealth Court’s holding in GM Berkshire Hills v. Berks County Board of Assessment, 2021 W.L. 2835340 (Pa. Cmwlth. Ct. July 8, 2021), sales prices can be used as a basis for appeals.  Further, taxing bodies may consider the costs versus benefits of filing an appeal in determining to proceed.   

Background

In November 2017, interrelated owners purchased multiple properties located in the Wilson School District, Berks County, comprised of almost 50 residential buildings, encompassing hundreds of rental units, for about $55 million.  At the time of purchase, Berks County recorded an assessed value for the properties at a combined $10,448,700.  The following June, the School District passed a resolution authorizing its business office to initiate assessment appeals within the District, and the business office used state-generated monthly sales reports to select properties for appeal. The resolution further instructed the business office to begin with recently- sold properties and apply the County’s applicable common level ratio (“CLR”) of 68.5% to each sale. (The CLR very roughly is a state-published ratio showing the assessed value of properties sold over the sales price of such properties.)  The District then would pursue an appeal on a property if the difference between the sales price (adjusted by the CLR) and the assessment was $150,000.  This $150,000 figure represented a threshold where the revenue from an appeal would justify the legal and appraisal fees necessary for the appeal. 

Using the method outlined in the resolution, the District calculated that the GM Berkshire properties’ combined sales price, when multiplied by the applicable CLR, resulted in a combined assessment of over $37 million.  This obviously exceeded the prior combined assessed value of $10,448,700.  Accordingly, the District appealed the properties’ assessment for the 2018 and 2019 tax years to the Berks County Board of Assessment.  That Board conducted a hearing and by decision increased the assessed value of the properties to over $37 million, reflecting 68.5% of the November 2017 combined sales price as adjusted by the CLR.

The taxpayer appealed the decision to the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County.  The Court, while recognizing the constitutional arguments raised by the taxpayer, found acceptable the School District’s method of filing appeals on recently-sold properties where the assessment differential after applying the CLR was at least $150,000.  Accordingly, the taxpayers further appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

Discussion

Upon appeal, the taxpayer argued that the District’s method of using recently sold properties for determining assessments violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause and the state constitution’s uniformity clause.  Foremost, the taxpayer asserted that the District could not selectively seek reassessment of properties based on recent sales while declining to appeal the assessments of unsold properties that may be similarly under-assessed.  The taxpayer also challenged the District’s use of the $150,000 threshold.  The taxpayer, while acknowledging this practice may be neutral on its face, it still violated the state uniformity clause by resulting in disparate treatment of otherwise similarly situated properties, even if based on a valid cost-benefit analysis. 

In reviewing the case, the Court first analyzed the state’s Consolidated County Assessment Law, 53 Pa. C.S. §§ 8801-8868, which allows school districts to file assessment appeals in the same manner as taxpayers are allowed.  The Court noted the Law does not restrict the methodology school districts may use to determine whether to appeal.  But any methodology had to comply with the uniformity clause, which not only prohibits wrongful conduct in taxation, but precludes disparate treatment of properties.

The Court then analyzed recent assessment cases including Valley Forge Towers N  L.P. v. Upper Merion Area School District, 163 A.3d 962 (Pa. 2017), where the State Supreme Court disallowed differentiation of appeals made based on the property type (e.g., residential versus commercial).  However, Commonwealth Court noted that the Valley Forge Towers Court stressed it did not expressly disapprove of selection of properties for assessment appeals based on recent sales prices, and that the use of a monetary threshold did not violate constitutional principles.  The Court also referenced recent decisions where a school district’s use of sales prices and a cost-benefit formula to determine appeals was proper as long as property types or classifications are ignored. 

Here, though, the argument of GM Berkshire was that the taxpayer was arguing that the district’s use of recent sales itself amounts to an improper classification (as opposed to other cases that were based on property types).  But the Court held that using recent sales prices as part of a selection of properties for appeals is a quantitative method of reasonably ascertaining a property owner’s fair share of the tax burden.  Accordingly, as such method employs a purely economic approach that is practical yet does not improperly differentiate based on property type, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the trial court that the School District’s methodology did not violate either the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution or the uniformity clause of the State Constitution. 

Practical Advice

The GM Berkshires Court acknowledged that other assessment cases before the Pennsylvania   Supreme Court might modify the limits on assessment appeals generally.  However, absent any change the Supreme Court may mandate, it is clear that taxing body appeals based on sales prices, while applying cost-benefit thresholds, is acceptable. 

Contact John Vogel for more information on this or any other assessment issue at jvogel@tuckerlaw.com.

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