PA School District Tax Assessment

Recent Commonwealth Court Case Again Supports School District Rights of Tax Assessment Appeal Following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in GM Berkshire Hills LLC v. Berks County Board

The Pennsylvania Constitution Uniformity Clause requires that taxation is to be uniform upon the same class of subjects. In GM Berkshire Hills LLC v. Berks County Board the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania considered whether a local school district’s practice of appealing tax assessments of properties on the basis of sale prices violated the Uniformity Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution by treating properties which have sold differently than non-selling properties.

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PA School District Tax Differential

The School District utilized a formula which set a differential between the assessment and property sale price of $150,000 as a prerequisite to appeal. The Supreme Court rejected the taxpayer argument and found the School District’s practice actually enhanced uniformity by making the assessments of under-assessed property more uniform. The Court found that the Uniformity Clause is only violated when the applicable Common Level Ratio (“CLR”) is not applied or when appeals are commenced only on a certain type of property.

Victor Gurvich v. Allegheny County Board of Assessment Appeals

In the recent case of Victor Gurvich v. Allegheny County Board of Assessment Appeals the Commonwealth Court issued an unreported opinion shortly after the Supreme Court decision in Berkshire which closely followed the prior Supreme Court guidance. In Gurvich, the property owner asserted a decision of the County Board of Assessment Appeals again violated the Uniformity Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution and in addition to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

In 2019, Gurvich purchased property for $245,000 which had been assessed by Allegheny County at $164,300. The Shaler Area School District thereafter appealed the property assessment and the Board of Assessment Appeals raised the assessment to $211,200 reflecting application of the prevailing CLR to the sale price as indicative of market value.

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The Berkshire and Gurvich Cases

As in Berkshire, the school district in Gurvich utilized a formula which set a minimum necessary assessment increase based on the sale of a property at $20,000 in order to determine which properties required the filing of annual appeals. This methodology resulted in the filing of 392 appeals by the school district in 2019. Gurvich asserted the Board’s decision improperly failed to use the Allegheny County 2012 base year assessment for his property and as a result it lacked uniformity as compared to his neighbors.

In rejecting Gurvich’s claims that the school district’s practice of appealing sales violated principles of uniformity and equal protection, the Commonwealth Court clearly affirmed school district assessment appeal rights in saying:

“Section 8855 of the Assessment Law grants a school district or other
taxing body the right to appeal any assessment within its jurisdiction in
the same manner, subject to the same procedure and with like effect as
if the appeal were taken by taxable person with respect to the assessment
53 Pa. C.S. § 8855 (emphasis added). Section 8855 does not restrict the
method by which a school district determines which assessments to appeal.”
Bethlehem Area Sch. Dist. V. Bd. Of Revenue Appeals of Northampton County.
225 A.3d 212, 219 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2020)

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Gurvich’s Appeal

In finding the school district properly exercised it’s legal right to file an assessment appeal regarding the Gurvich’s property the Court went on to further refer to its prior holding in Berkshire where it had said it “specifically explained that assessment appeals based on recent sale prices and use of monetary threshold to determine cost-effectiveness of appeals do not violate constitutional principles of uniformity, provided the selection criteria are not based on distinctions in property type or classification, such as appeals limited to commercial properties.” The Berkshire and Gurvich cases are viewed as strong affirmation by the Pennsylvania appellate courts of school district tax assessment appeal rights.

Accordingly, school districts maintaining assessment appeal programs based on sales, or considering the establishment of the same for revenue purposes, may continue to do so as long as said programs do not discriminate against any particular type of property and allow for the application of county common level ratios.

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Christina L. Lane
Christina L. Lane

Christina Lane is an accomplished school, municipal, labor and employment attorney representing public sector employers. She has extensive knowledge and experience with Title IX and often serves as a third-party investigator.